Christianity for Dummies (3): Philippians 4:8-9

by Katie N. and Josh S.

Second Conditional Sentence: Excellence and Imitation (4:8-9)

Protasis (4:8-9a)

In v. 8-9, Paul continues and concludes his list of exhortations to the Philippians about living the Christian life. In the Greek, these two verses are actually one sentence, which suggests that they do not stand alone, but relate to the other in some way. It is evident in English translations, and even more so in the Greek, the grammatical and structural parallelism of these verses. V. 8 contains 6 parallel clauses combined with the use of anaphora and asyndeton, and v. 9 contains 4 aorist active indicative verbs listed with the use of polysyndeton. Structurally, both verses give their respective ‘list’ followed by the verb clause, which stands in contrast to the previous exhortations, which all begin with the verb.

1. Dwell on These Things (4:8)

8 Τὸ λοιπόν, ἀδελφοί, ὅσα ἐστὶν ἀληθῆ, ὅσα σεμνά, ὅσα δίκαια, ὅσα ἁγνά, ὅσα προσφιλῆ, ὅσα εὔφημα, εἴ τις ἀρετὴ καὶ εἴ τις ἔπαινος, ταῦτα λογίζεσθε·

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, dwell on these things.

The ‘Finally’ that begins v. 8 signifies not the end of the book but the last in Paul’s list of imperatives. As previously mentioned, v. 8 consists of a list of virtues given in six parallel clauses of two words each, except for the first, which includes the copula or “is”. Read accurately with the asyndeton, it reads: Whatever is true, whatever noble, whatever right, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever admirable… You can hear the obvious beauty and parallelism in this verse that sets it apart from the preceding exhortations. In the Christian culture of today, you would be hard pressed to find a Christian that did not know or had not heard this verse. It has for some become a Christian ‘cliché’ because its memorable and structurally very dense. Paul’s use of anaphora here, as opposed to simply listing the virtues one after the other, emphasizes and gives individual attention to each one. However, the greatest emphasis is given to those things that are ‘excellent’ and ‘praiseworthy’, which are set apart in the principal conditional clause and serve as a sort of summary of the preceding qualities. Those things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable are categories of those things that are excellent and praiseworthy, as these two comprehensive qualities are the object of the verb that follows. Giving this list of virtues, Paul then tells them to ‘think on these things’. The verb Paul uses for ‘think’ (Greek: “logidzomai” λογιζομαι) means not just to think about but to ‘take into account’ or ‘consider’, conveying a sense of deliberate reflection that shapes one’s conduct.

We don’t necessarily see Paul develop these specific virtues throughout the book, nor are many of them used elsewhere by him, so we should assume that the Philippians were familiar with what each of these virtues entailed. Paul’s list is actually a list of virtues that the Philippians would have been familiar with in their Greco-Roman world as things spoken of and written about by the Stoic and moral philosophers in their context. They were not everyday terms in Christian vocabulary, so the question arises why Paul would include such a list here. Some commentators hold that Paul wanted the Philippians to keep in mind the virtues and the good things of pagan ethics and their surrounding world because perhaps they had become blinded to these things in the midst of the persecution they had suffered from those outside the church. Others believe that Paul borrowed these terms as the Philippians would have understood them but used v. 9 as a corrective– basically that these things are the minimum standards that should be conformed to Christianity and Paul’s example. And still others point out where these terms have been developed in a religious sense in the Old Testament and claim that Paul was using them in the same sense here. But based on our study, we believe that the best explanation is that Paul is really exhorting the Philippians to consider and dwell on those things that they have known since their youth to be true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, whatever they may be. They are good things and don’t need to be corrected or ‘Christianized’. O’Brien says, “He wants his Philippian friends to develop those qualities which are good in themselves and beneficial to others, and so he has pressed these terms into service. His appeal is not to some pagan religious ideal, nor to an acceptance of Stoic presuppositions lying behind the ideas, much less to some wholesale acceptance of the norms and values of the world. Paul is saying that any excellent quality is to be the focus of the Philippians’ minds. They are to reflect carefully on these characteristics in order that they may shape their conduct.”[1] Further, the placement of this list in the ‘case study’ of Euodia and Syntyche exhorts the Philippians to consider and take into account the outworking of these virtues that they see in others. Paul’s emphasis on unity throughout the book is not put aside here; rather, it is emphasized. If they choose to deliberately think and reflect on the exhibition of these characteristics in others, and see them as manifestations of God’s grace on their life, what more reason they will have to rejoice in the Lord.

With that understanding, let’s look at what Paul meant by these virtues and what the Philippians would have understood them to be.

True (alethe ἀληθῆ): all that is true in thought, disposition, or deed, or anything that is free of lie or deceit

Noble (semna σεμνά): that which is worthy of respect and of moral worth; contrasted to that which is ignoble, or vulgar

Right/ Just  (dikaia δίκαια): what is just in relation to others and to God; in other words, giving to God and men what is due them, or satisfying obligations

Pure (hagna ἁγνά): Contrasted to the impure motives of those in 1:17, thoughts of the wicked (Prov. 15:26), and the way of the guilty (Prov. 21:8) whatever is not tainted by evil, whether it be motives, actions, ethics, etc.

Lovely (prosphile προσφιλῆ): nowhere else in the NT, but describes that which is love-able, or those things that ‘give pleasure to all and distaste to none, like a welcome fragrance’[2]

Admirable (euphema εὔφημα): also nowhere else in the NT; that which is well spoken of in general, or ‘what is kind and likely to win people; avoiding what is likely to give offense’[3]

Then we come to the comprehensive virtues of ‘excellent’ and ‘praiseworthy’, which encompass the other six:

Excellent (arete ἀρετὴ) can be understood as “virtue, moral excellence, or goodness”. It is only seen elsewhere in the NT in 1 Peter 2:9 and 2 Peter 1:3 and 5. However it is only attributed to human excellence in 2 Peter 1:5, which says, “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness…” The other two references reference the goodness of God. However, given the thrust of this passage as Paul’s desire to see a change in the life of the Philippians and a deep unity and appreciation of others, we found it best to assume that Paul is speaking of human excellence here.

Praiseworthy (epainos ἔπαινος): Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, this term has been used to describe both praise from God (1 Cor. 4:5; Rom. 2:29) and praise from man (2 Cor. 8:18; Rom. 13:3). Because of its connection and parallelism to excellence, and considering the thrust of this passage, most commentators hold that Paul is talking in this verse about that which merits men’s praise. The Philippians are to be looking for and dwelling on those things that are ‘excellent’ and ‘praiseworthy’ in others, rather than those things that are not so appealing.

We have concluded that the best way that these virtues can be interpreted is as evidences of God’s goodness and grace in all of creation, but more specifically for this book and passage, in other human beings. This interpretation most directly applies to the issue at hand in v. 2-3 between Euodia and Syntyche and makes sense in light of Paul’s emphasis on unity in the rest of the book (1:27; 2:1-4; 3:17). Being able to do this, appreciate the beauty and goodness of God in others despite their many weaknesses, would also make the Philippians more gentle or reasonable people, which reflects Paul’s exhortation in 4:5 to let their gentleness be known to all.

Now, these excellent and praiseworthy virtues that the Philippians are supposed to dwell on and spot in others are not just mentioned and left completely to their discretion. Paul probably assumed that the Philippians might still wonder exactly what these virtues look like in themselves and in others, so he reminds them in v.9 that they have been given valuable resources with which to understand these apart from only what they have known since their youth. V. 9 is there to remind the Philippians that they had them exemplified by Paul through his spoken word and living example. He simply has “taken into account their environment in order to obtain every possible support and understanding for what he wants to say in v.9.”[4]

2. Call to Imitation (4:9a)

The amazing truth is that there was such a close connection between the word Paul preached and the life he lived that he could confidently use himself as an example. So in v. 9 Paul ends this section of exhortations with a call to imitation, which is not surprising given his previous urgings towards imitation: explicitly in 3:17 but also as he has depicted his own response to suffering in 1:12-16, the humility of Christ in 2:6-11, the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus in 2:19-30, and again his own story in 3:4-14. [5] More specifically, Paul has already exemplified his urgings in v.8 to spot the virtues and God’s grace in others multiple times throughout the letter:

1:3-4; in his prayer of thanksgiving and joy for their partnership in the gospel, attributing it to God’s grace in v. 7 – ‘all of you share in God’s grace with me

1:14-18a; rather than harping on their impure motives, he chooses to focus on and rejoice in the fact that brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord to share the gospel

2:16-18; Paul talks about boasting and rejoicing in the Philippians’ sacrifice and service coming from their faith, for ‘it is God who works in them’ (2:13)

2:19-30; Paul dotes on Timothy and Epaphroditus and the grace that God has had on their life and how He has cultivated exemplary characteristics in each of them

With these illustrations in mind, Paul is now calling them to DO what they have seen embodied, and so in a way, this final exhortation summarizes much of the letter.

9 ἃ καὶ ἐμάθετε καὶ παρελάβετε καὶ ἠκούσατε καὶ εἴδετε ἐν ἐμοί, ταῦτα πράσσετε·

9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things,

All four of these verbs are aorist active indicative verbs so as to remind the Philippians what exactly has taken place and the resources that have been given to them thus far in their relationship with Paul. To understand what Paul is calling them to practice, it would do us well to look deeper into each one of these verbs.

Learned (emathete ἐμάθετε): ‘To learn through instruction’, so here Paul is referring to those things that the Philippians have learned from his teaching and instruction.

Received (parelabete παρελάβετε): This denotes a receiving of something delivered by tradition for the purpose of passing onto others. Some commentators believe that this refers to the elements of the Christian message that had first been carefully passed on to Paul by others[6], while some think that it refers to ethical and procedural rules that Paul passed down to them[7]. We weren’t able to settle on one, but we believe that the Philippians would have known. Nonetheless, I think Paul is reminding them that they are a link in the chain of tradition and is calling them to be faithful by carefully passing on to others what they have received from him.

Heard (ākousate ἠκούσατε): This may sound like a simple repetition of ‘learned’, but it actually refers to those things that the Philippians have heard about Paul and the impression that has been left on them about his Christian character. They surely would have heard a lot of things when he was with them, but they also would have heard many positive accounts about him during his absence. [8]Since he is obviously not with them at the time of his writing, he is calling them to remember, pay attention, and do the things that they have heard about his character and example.

Seen in me (eidete en emoi εἴδετε ἐν ἐμοί): Finally, Paul reminds them of those things they have ‘seen in him’ and that the things they have learned and received from him are not given without an example of how to live them. Everything they have learned, received, and heard, as well as all the virtues in v. 8, were embodied in Paul’s life.

It is important to note that in the verses immediately following this exhortation, 4:10-20, Paul gives yet another example of what he is calling the Philippians to do as he thanks them for their gift. He says, “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord (going back to 4:4) that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.” (4:10) He takes consideration to note how they “sent [him] aid more than once when [he] was in need”. Paul takes no time to practice what he is preaching. His joy in the Lord is fueled by his deliberate choice to point out and be thankful for how God’s grace has affected the Philippians and how it is flowing into their actions. He has spotted the virtues of v. 8 in the lives of the Philippians and purposefully offers another example for them to imitate.

So you could say that Paul has pretty much covered all his bases here. With these things in mind, Paul calls them to imitation, telling them to ‘put them into practice’ or ‘do’ them. The verb for ‘do’ is present imperative, telling the Philippians that they should keep putting these things into practice and accomplishing them consistently, making them a lifestyle.

Apodosis: The God of Peace (4:9b)

καὶ ὁ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης ἔσται μεθ’ ὑμῶν.

and the God of peace will be with you.

Paul ends this section by giving the result of the Philippians’ obedience to his instruction: “And the God of peace will be with you’. It’s easy to see the reversal of the words in the promise of ‘the peace of God’ in v. 7. This is no mistake or simple thing, but rather serves as an advance in thought from v. 7 and an encouragement to heed the exhortations in v. 8-9. In v. 7 it was said that God’s peace would be with the Philippians if they followed Paul’s instruction. Here, Paul is encouraging them to heed his instructions by saying that God Himself, who is the Giver of all blessings- grace, peace, and final salvation- will be with them. O’Brien notes: “The two promises are similar, with only a slight difference of emphasis: in the former, the focus is upon God’s salvation guarding them; in the latter, it is upon his presence to bless and to save them. Since the gift of His peace cannot be separated from his presence as the Giver, these two assurances are closely related in meaning.”[9] The promise in v. 9 also gives deeper meaning to Paul’s exhortations to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ (3:1; 4:4), and his reminder that ‘the Lord is near’ (4:5). 

[1] O’Brien, 503.

[2] O’Brien, 505.

[3] Ibid, 505.

[4] Hawthorne, 189.

[5] Fee, 419.

[6] Hawthorne, 189.

[7] O’Brien, 510.

[8] Ibid, 510.

[9] O’Brien 512.


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