Some parts of this passage are often misunderstood or misapplied by pop Christianity these days.
One part that is misused is this: "Brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
Sometimes these words are used to condemn almost anything. For instance, it is thought that going to movies must not be noble and good, so we should never go to movies. Or if we do not like modern music because it sounds ugly to our ears (which may be true enough), then it must be bad to listen to it. After all, we are to set our minds upon lovely and pure things.
So this passage gets used to try to get people to follow man-made rules. Thou shalt not dance, because dancing is not pure, they say.
Especially the idea of avoiding things of bad report is used to apply pressure to people. If someone disapproves of a certain kind of behavior, then we are told that we cannot engage in that behavior. Then the slanderers and gossips become the lawmakers for the congregation, and the freedom of the Gospel is lost.
Paul would be the last person to introduce a new kind of law code to burden consciences. No, he is instructing the Philippian congregation to dwell upon and think about the wonderful things of God. Paul says in verse nine, "The things that you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do." In other words, the things that pertain to the Word of God, the commandments and instructions of our Lord, especially the Gospel of forgiveness and salvation in Christ Jesus, these are noble and lovely things. We need encouragement to continue to learn and think about these.
But people need no encouragement to follow man-made rules. We do it all the time because our sinful flesh keeps producing rules to make us seem more righteous to people around us. But this is not true righteousness. On the contrary, by following our own rules, we set aside the pure commandments of God.
In our quest to find beautiful, lovely things of good report apart from the Word, we end up putting our hearts far from God. We end up with a self-made religion that isolates us from the grace of God, all the while that we think that God is in our heart more than ever and we are full of love. But when we separate ourselves from the Word, then love grows cold and faith falters. Eventually, God will be lost.
This tendency to make our own rules and religion is in each one of us. It is a fatal flaw in our spirituality because it leads to spiritual death.
But Christ suffered that death, the same death that you deserve. Your heart and mind and actions have wallowed in sinful ugliness and shame. An evil report of you should have reached God's ears. But Christ allowed all that is ugly and shameful to be heaped upon Him at the Cross. All the muck of the filthiness of your sin He took upon His body. He has nailed it to the Cross, never to accuse you. He has removed all your sinfulness and shame from God's sight. His eyes will never see your sin.
So God hears only a good report about you, so that He will welcome you into eternal joy. As Saint Paul says, your actions are all a sweet-smelling aroma and an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. This is not because you have cleaned up your act and now do everything right. No, it is because in Christ you are covered up by the righteousness of God.
Another passage in our text that is misapplied by pop Christianity is this: "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me." It is used in various ways by people who want reassurance that they are going to make it through whatever challenge they face. For example, a person may say, "I am trying to find a job, and it's really hard, but I know I can do it, because God promised that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Well, no. God is not telling us that we can accomplish absolutely anything. If we jump off a building because we think that we can fly, since God said that we can do all things through Christ, then we will meet a great disappointment. In our lives, He allows us to fail at our challenges. We may not get that job and we may remain unemployed. We may not get a passing grade. We may not see the Church filled to overflowing. It is by His will that He gives blessings and success. We will not achieve whatever we attempt, even though Christ is with us.
Here's another way of using the passage: "I'm having a hard week - I lost my job, I'm getting a divorce, and my dog got run over. But I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Actually, this understanding of the passage is not bad. In the context of Philippians, Paul speaks about holding up and being content under whatever conditions he happens to be living in, whether in need or want or hunger or suffering.
To be content even in adversity is a hard challenge, since our sinful flesh wants to complain and gripe no matter what the circumstances. We may be full and rich and yet still find a way to grumble against God. The Israelites received miraculous gift after miraculous gift in the desert, yet found reasons to find fault with Moses and with God. So also we can be in the midst of the Lord's richest gifts of all in this holy place, yet our minds stray far from God, and our hearts find reason to complain.
But we should be content because Christ has taken the true suffering away from us. He was abased and humiliated on the Cross. He bore the judgment of God for your sins so that you will not have to be put to shame. He suffered the ultimate want and need upon the Cross as His soul labored unto death. He was cut off from all that is good for your sake.
Therefore, you will do the greatest thing of all through Christ who strengthens you. You will avoid hellfire and instead reach heaven and eternal reward. You cannot do that in yourself. Christ and His Blood have done it for you. It is already done. It is already accomplished.
Therefore, compared with what Christ has delivered to you and what He suffered in your place, all your struggles in this life are small. He has made your burdens light and His yoke easy upon your shoulders. Whatever you suffer, He keeps your eyes upon Him in faith so that you remember His overwhelming love in redeeming you, His precious sheep.
In the Name of your Savior and Shepherd, and to His glory, Amen.
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