Philippians 4:8&9 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
This is another of those more well-known sayings in this letter to the Philippians. One occasionally sees these words framed in needlework and hanging on a parlour wall. Paul is magnifying eight great virtues, and thirty years ago Herbert Carson was the main speaker here at the Aberystwyth conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales, and he spoke on this verse for four mornings, expounding two virtues in each address. It was stimulating and unusual to have an ethical theme at the heart of the Conference because of its significant place in the Bible.
Let me say a few words of introduction, firstly by way of pointing out that lists of virtues and vices are sprinkled throughout the Bible. Consider the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gals. 5:19-21). The latter half of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains a comprehensive list of the sins of both men and women. Sometimes you hear people complaining about churches being ‘legalistic’ because they have ‘rules’, or lists of do’s and don’ts (unwritten or some actual written ones). Certainly if those lists condemn what God’s word doesn’t condemn they are confusing and unhelpful, but actual lists themselves obviously have their place because they are an important feature of the Bible. The theology of the New Covenant doesn’t say in some flabby way, “All you need is love.” It also brings in the steel of prohibitions, and what are prohibitions but laws? Then there are lists of graces found throughout the Bible as in our text. There is the famous description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gals. 2:22&23). These different lists of vice and virtue are like pieces of a jigsaw; one picture is called ‘Sin’ and such ugly behaviour, suggested in one specific sin after another, indicates how multifaceted and variegated wickedness is. The other picture is called ‘Virtue’ and our text is one shows many of virtue’s beautiful graces. How wonderful to have them both, to breathe in the oxygen and breathe out the poison!
Again, by way of introduction, one is immediately struck at how different these virtues are from those our world enthuses over: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (v.8). Consider the newspapers – what a contrast; their stock-in-trade is anything that is untrue, unholy, unjust, impure, ugly, of ill repute, vicious, blameworthy. What sort of minds develop from a diet of that day after day throughout a life? Or again, let me ask on what is the mind of our own community set? It thinks about whatever the numbers may be that will win the national lottery this week; whatever good bargains it can get; whatever high interest rates it can find for its savings; whatever divorce settlement will determine the biggest share; whatever legacy it may get from someone’s will; whatever fast buck it can make; whatever pay rise it can demand; whatever income it doesn’t declare on its tax forms; whatever alimony, or compensation, or bonus, or pension it can get – it thinks, and thinks, and thinks again about such things. That is its treasure and so that is where its mind is.
But, let us also consider this, what a difference are these virtues from much of what the professing church admires. The church thinks about whatever will draw a crowd; whatever makes people happy; whatever the latest fad is; whatever satisfies and silences the awkward members; whatever creates a show of unity; whatever promises health and wealth; whatever the consensus of so-called scholars believes; whatever is politically correct – it thinks about such things. How different are the graces Paul sets before the minds of the Philippian church. Spend your moments and your days in contemplating these virtues, he tells them. Let us consider first of all how Paul stresses the primacy of human thought:
1. HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO THINK.
When people become true Christians it is because they have done some real thinking. No one can be a real Christian without serious thought because thought is the well-spring of action. Consider the way Major-General Lew Wallace became a Christian. He had fought in the Mexican war and in the American Civil War, later becoming American ambassador to Turkey and the governor of New Mexico. One day he was travelling on a train with a friend Robert Ingersoll, a man who disdained the Christian faith. Ingersoll said to him that within a few years the little white churches of Wallace’s beloved Indiana countryside would be only a memory buried in the general crash of all religion. Lew Wallace was too ignorant of Christianity to answer the assertion. At that time he had no religious convictions, even, he said, “such elemental themes as God and life hereafter and Jesus Christ and his divinity.” So Wallace determined to study the original sources until he had some firsthand convictions of his own. He went to the Bible and read it thoughtfully. He would trust his lawyer-training in logic to lead him to proper conclusions. But we believe that no man can read the Bible with an open mind desiring to know the truth regarding Jesus Christ without becoming convinced of our Lord’s divinity. After a time he bowed before Jesus Christ and acknowledged him, “My Lord and my God.” He subsequently wrote the famous novel ‘Ben Hur.’ I am saying that the great change began when he started to think about what was true. It seems a modest enough quest, but how rare it is. Of course when we see some things that are true we have to take them on board. They are not there just to be filed away and ignored – not if they are true. They are to be acted upon.
Let me illustrate from a contemporary student’s experience. James Sire has a book with this interesting title: “Discipleship of the Mind” (IVP, Downers Grove, IL., 1990, pp.111&112) where he tells of an experience that Rebecca Pippert had when she was working with students on an American campus . One day a girl called Sue sought her counsel. Sue’s best friend, Larry, had become a Christian but Sue wasn’t a believer. She knew the basics of the Christian gospel, she even thought the Christians she had met were pretty good folk, but she wasn’t convinced it was all true. So she asked for help. Pippert told her to “tell God (or the four walls)” that she wanted to know if Jesus is God and that if she knew, she would follow him. Sue was to use her mind and read the Gospels each day, find something that made special sense, and then do it when the opportunity arose.
So Sue did this, she began to think; she was having what she called her “pagan quiet times.” Later she told Pippert that as she read Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount “hit her between the eyes”: “If someone steals your coat, don’t let him have only that but offer your cloak as well.” They made her think, and so she prayed, “Listen, walls – or God if you’re there – I’m trying to do what this verse says. I’m trying to do things your way in order to find out if you exist and if Jesus really is who he says. Amen.” The day began and Sue says she forgot about the verse until a long and almost violent argument broke out between her and a young man who wanted to take over her thesis study desk at the library. As the argument heated up, the other student blurted out, “Look – I’m stealing it from you whether you like it or not.”
Suddenly it hit her, and she started to think again. “I just looked at him and moaned, ‘OHHHHH, no. No. I can’t believe it.’ And to myself I thought, “Look God, if you’re there, I do want to know if Jesus is God. But isn’t there some way of finding out besides obeying that verse? I mean, couldn’t I tithe or get baptized or give up something else? But DON’T TAKE MY THESIS DESK! I mean with my luck, I’ll give up the desk and then discover you don’t exist.”
But then Sue also realised that here was her opportunity to live by Jesus’ standards. So with some reluctance she “took a deep breath, tried not to swear and said, ‘OK you can have the desk.'” But a librarian had overheard the argument and was outraged about the young man’s demand. So there ensued a long series of dialogues with the university authorities, none of whom wanted to make a decision about who would get the desk. Finally, the last person they talked with asked, “Well, what does Sue think we should do?”
Sue quickly thought on what she was learning about Jesus from the Bible and her friend Larry whose life she had seen changed for the better. She felt drawn to Jesus. And finally she simply said he could have the desk. When the boy asked why she had given in, she simply said, “Hey, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading about Jesus and meeting some real Christians, it’s that Jesus would give you a whole lot more than a thesis desk if you’d let him. I know that Jesus would give it to you. So that thesis desk is yours.”
Her next remarks make my point. She told Pippert, “As I said those words, I just simply knew it was all true. I kinda felt like God was saying, ‘Well done. That’s the way I want my children to behave.'” Sue had begun to read the New Testament and to think. She didn’t know much about Jesus but what she learned she obeyed. She used her mind, and she put into practice what she had learned in a situation which cost her something. To be a disciple requires submission, and it was in the sacrifice of obedience she found what she’d been searching for – an assurance that Jesus was the one sent from God, the one in whom life – her life – finally made sense.
In becoming Christians we use our minds, and we weigh up and think about the claims of Christ, but every time we find something is true then we have to act upon it. It all starts with our thinking. How important our minds are to God. We are told such things as these, “The Lord knows the thoughts of man” (Ps. 94:11); “For I know their works and their thoughts” (Isa. 66:18); David says, “You perceive my thoughts from afar” (Psa. 139:2). God is very concerned about what fills your minds day by day, and the gospel of Jesus Christ works a great change in our thinking. It takes every proud autonomous thought and binds it captive to Christ. Repentance begins with a profound change of mind. You remember that when the prodigal son came to himself on the pig farm he started to think in a different way: “I’ve been a fool, and I’m going back home. I shall live under my father’s jurisdiction. If he makes me as one of his hired servants then that is what I deserve. If he were just he wouldn’t take me back at all, the way I’ve behaved.” Thinking in a different way about yourself and your past and your future is an essential part of becoming a true Christian. On the Damascus Road Saul of Tarsus experienced such an intellectual revolution.
The biblical writers appeal to their readers saying don’t be like a beast – an ox or a horse – that has no understanding. Don’t act as if you just had instincts alone to satisfy. Your power to think is the greatest gift – outside of grace – that God has given you. Please your minds. You can reason, and weigh up, and put a bit in the jaws of your desires and rein them in, and you can challenge your feelings, and deny yourself. Your mind is able to do that. The mind of a sheep or a cow can’t think like that. Please use your minds. Your thoughts express what you really are. How easy it is to deceive people by our actions and our words. What a hypocrite we can be, but in our minds our thoughts are accusing or else excusing us. They say what we are. If we could project on the wall of this building your thoughts so far over this week-end, what sort of person would we be seeing? As a man thinks in his heart, so he is. What is coming out of your inmost being? Christians think upon the name of the Lord, his character, his attributes, his mighty works, his promises, his appearing. They think, “How can I know him better? How can I love him, serve him and work for him? How can I glorify and enjoy him, for that is my chief end in life?” How important it is to think, and this verse tells us what are the best thoughts we can have.
2. WHAT DOES IT MEAN, TO ACTUALLY THINK ABOUT THESE GREAT VIRTUES?
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (v.8). How do we actually do that? First, let us remove some common misunderstandings.
i] There is what Dr Lloyd-Jones calls ‘the sentimentalists’ approach.’ “How beautiful!” people murmur as they read our text, and they admire its high concepts, the aesthetic sense, and the great classical virtues. One can imagine some Victorian Art Gallery somewhere in the western world with this verse in its entrance hall. As Lloyd-Jones says, “I needn’t stay with this. If there is one thing with which the Apostle must never be charged, it is with sentimentality. Sentiment, and passion? Yes. Emotion? Yes, but sentimentality? Never. It is utterly foreign to the essential Christian character” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Peace,” Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1990, p.184). Consider how we shall hear again next week as Easter approaches bishops dripping sentimentality all over Golgotha and the resurrection. They will talk about the necessity of sacrifice for all of us, and the dying seed sown in the springtime being followed by new life in the summer. Sheer sentimentalism! The reality of the one man Jehovah Jesus dying alone for our redemption under the wrath of a sin-hating God, and thereby, killing death, and rising the third day, is all subsumed into a mediocre observation of the natural world!
ii] Then there is the exemplary approach to these words, that is the idea that being surrounded by beautiful influences can redeem people – poetry, and classic literature, and music, and statues, and the old masters. If we can fill children’s minds with uplifting thoughts and ideas, we are told, then that will emancipate them from the drudgery of everything mundane and degrading. “We are told that last thing at night we must make sure that we have beautiful thoughts in our minds; it will not only help us to sleep, it will help our whole life and outlook, and we will wake up feeling fresher and brighter. ‘Surround yourself,’ people say, ‘with beauty in poetry, literature and music, and in various other ways, and as you go on doing this, you will gradually become a better and better person.’ Now there are Christian people who use this verse in that way, fondly imagining that this is what the apostle is advocating . . . It is excellent psychology, but an abuse of the Christian gospel” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones op cit, p. 185).
iii] Then there is something similar to this, what I am calling the supplementary approach that simply advocates the church adding this appreciation of virtues and morality to our gospel beliefs about Jesus Christ as the way to assist and advance their religion. In other words, these people are saying that in order to avoid sin and live a good life it is essential for Christians to absorb beautiful concepts, fill their minds with them and surrender to them, so becoming better people. So fine architecture for church buildings is advocated, and music, and paintings, and dramatic rituals are to be the context of the church’s worship. This verse is appealed to in support of that.
Of course we are not advocating architectural ugliness, and crass music, and hymnbooks with a small typeface and narrow margins, but we have no confidence in the redemptive power of culture. Even the Old Testament with its emphasis on the beauty of the Tabernacle and the Temple never asked men to rest their hopes in such realities. The New Testament never required men to consider ideas and ideals. It always presents the world with a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ; “For to me to live is Christ,” says Paul. He tells the Corinthians that his determination was not to proclaim wisdom to the Greeks, but to preach Christ and him crucified. The Lord Jesus was the Son of God, without any sin at all, and yet was attached to an actual wooden cross by iron nails through his hands and feet. He breathed his last breath, and his heart stopped beating. He was taken down from the cross as dead as dead can be, and he was buried in a stone grave. But the great stone rolled over its entrance was tossed away by divine power on the third day, and Jesus was resurrected. His body rose from death so that he could speak, and walk, and be handled. He actually could eat food with his disciples, staying with them alive from death for forty days before his ascension. Now he lives as our great High Priest at the right hand of God.
This work done by Christ alone is quite sufficient for both our redemption and sanctification, for the Christian Bushman in the Kalahari and for the 5th Avenue Christian sophisticate in New York City. The Christ who has justified them is the Christ who will also make them holy. By trusting in the name of the living Jesus, asking God for forgiveness, eternal life is given to us and glory. “‘But’, says someone, ‘surely if that is all true, doesn’t this other idea help? Isn’t it still a good plan, and won’t it help with my salvation if I seek to fill my mind with beautiful words and thoughts and music?’ No! That is the cloven hoof of the devil; that is where the devil comes in. The gospel of Jesus Christ needs no assistance, it needs no supplement, nothing can save a man but what God has done in Christ. If the whole of Greek culture and the Greek outlook failed to save the world, if it failed in the greater thing, do we need to call in its assistance in the lesser thing? Out with the suggestion! ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption’ (I Cor. 1:30). He is the life, I don’t need your plus. He is the beginning and the end; he is all in all, and in him dwelleth all the fulness of the godhead bodily. I don’t need Greek culture. I don’t need science of thought. I have all in him. I will admit no assistance. No supplement.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, op cit, pp. 186& 187). Macedonia had Greek language, philosophy, poetry, architecture, drama, games, and so on, but one night the apostle Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia beseeching him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” They had all that but they were in the deepest need. How did Paul understand his duty in response to that plea? That he should go to preach the gospel in Greece. So when Paul is exhorting us to be thinking about such virtues he is not talking about any of those attitudes, not the sentimental, nor the exemplary, nor the supplementary approaches to classical virtues.
Then someone complains, ‘But are you advocating that we simply think about Jesus Christ all the time? How can I do that when I have my work to do, which I must do scrupulously, to serve the people who are employing me’ No, we are not advocating that you try to meditate on the Bible and the living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – while you are teaching a mathematics class, or performing brain surgery, or sitting in a geography lecture. God doesn’t expect you to do so. The work you do from Monday to Saturday at home and in your place of employment or study is all to be done to his glory. It is the work that God has given you. When Adam was in the garden, God sent him to till the soil – that was the work God gave him to do. It was in gardening that he pleased God. But what this verse is saying is that in every day and in every way we are to be sure that God is not very far from our thoughts at any time. Our problem is not so much that when we are busy in our employment that there God is being neglected: we do that honourably and to God’s glory. It is in our leisure time, when we have nothing to do, then are we thinking thoughts along these lines? When we get drawn into the vortex of self-pity, or become preoccupied with trivialities – our difficulties, our problems, our feelings, our loneliness, and our pain and so on, it is then that the challenge of this text comes to us to elevate our minds and be thinking on the great graces. This is where we are being tested, as to where our minds gravitate when we have nothing to do. That is the biggest indicator of where our treasure lies and who reigns in our lives.
So what Paul is doing here is simply to tell these Philippians that their entire thinking must be controlled by the gospel. That’s all. That is what this verse says. Put the text in its context. Paul has been telling them not to be anxious, to rejoice always, that their graciousness and gentleness should be recognised by all men, and that they should be people of prayer. There is this comprehensive and holistic Christian way of living for God, and in the Spirit, and with Jesus Christ day by day. Now Paul is extending that same theme even more. “All you think about must be compatible with the gospel,” he says. What you ponder, and what you give proper weight and value to are to be these true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable thoughts.
I was reading the obituary of a man from Brighton named Jim Bentley who died recently aged 82. It appeared in this month’s edition of a little magazine which I enjoy reading. It began by telling something of his early life in a Christian home in Romford, and his conversion, and marriage. Then the writer paused and he inserted these words: “his children wish to record what a good and loving father he was, given much patience and strength as his wife Faith suffered affliction of body regularly throughout his married life. He also held a responsible position at work, working many late nights, but we remember his real concern was the things of God and the state of his never-dying soul; he never deviated from his great desire to know the Lord better” (The Gospel Standard, April 2003, p.127). We are being told of this man’s exemplary domestic piety as a father and as a husband to an ailing wife, and as an employee who was given increasing responsibility in his work, and yet he never lost his grip on God, honouring him at work and at home, putting Christ first and wanting to know the Lord better. In all his life he was, as they say today, a 24/7 Christian – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
That is exactly what Paul is asking from us here, for God to be involved in all our thoughts. The Christian life is an integrated life. It is like a home tastefully and carefully furnished, where the carpets are enhanced by the curtains and the wallpaper, and so on. None of these graces listed here renders another grace ineffective. They are mutually strengthening and inter-dependent. It is possible to be as wise as a serpent and also at the same time as harmless as a dove. It is possible to be holy and also to rejoice; to be repentant and also to be at peace. One of my daughters moved into a new house last year. One of the bedrooms had obviously been that of the teenage boy of the family from whom they’d bought the house. The bedroom walls had been painted largely black. Of course it was quickly transformed by my daughter to match their other rooms. They could not have one black bedroom as a young Christian family. It was utterly discordant and out of style with the rest of the house, and I am saying that all these graces here blend with one another, because they match Jesus Christ, and we need to manifest all of them in our lives. There is no possibility of picking out the one or two we feel at ease with, and discarding the rest. These graces are like the fruit of the Spirit. They are not ‘fruits’, but one delectable ‘fruit’.
This is a very practical list. To live as a Christian man or woman we need these graces. Think of a delicate relationship where there suspicion and uncertainty has developed, where we must be so careful not to allow our judgments to be clouded by half-truths or innuendo about the other person. We mustn’t become preoccupied by this person, and suspicious of him. It is a long term relationship, and we have to say to ourselves, “I must think whatever is true and noble and right and pure and lovely about him.” There can be no recovery of the relationship without that. So, encouraging this mind set is the way to achieve what Paul has just been telling us, in rejoicing always, and not worrying, and being gracious and gentle, and knowing the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds – by always setting our minds on a panorama of graces such as these. Paul is pleading for a serious-mindedness in the Christian’s whole attitude to life. He is not asking for joylessness, obviously, because he has just exhorted us to rejoice always. He is not urging us to become Christian curmudgeons, but he is defining true believers as those who have a serious outlook on life. They must always be straight, and their thoughts are pure, and clean, lovely in the sense that people look at them and love them. They are of good report, well spoken of, and they must be people of moral excellence. This is what the apostle is pleading for.
This is how he himself lived. He could say to them, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (v.9). Notice his repetition: he has been in the spotlight in times of freedom when he was their pastor but now he is pinned down under the scrutiny of guards and visitors in a prison cell. He is always there, never ‘out’ for a moment. He is always under observation. What have they been learning and hearing and seeing from his example? That the God of peace is still with him in jail, as in the pulpit or the Prayer Meeting. Paul lived consistently as a godfearing man. “So you live like this too,” he is saying. In other words, our text is a description of the normative Christian ethic. It is all wonderfully positive. Don’t many preachers think that the only way they can encourage holiness in people is to emphasise sin? Let us examine these marvellous graces:
3. THE GRACES EVERY CHRISTIAN SHOULD CHERISH.
Let us consider them briefly. They are not a comprehensive list of Christian virtues, but there is enough here to inform and challenge us as to what we must admire and covet for ourselves.
i] Whatever is true. You once could buy an HS/2, a voice stress analyser. It could be attached to your telephone and with a system of red and green lights it would tell you whether or not the person talking to you was telling the truth. If you as a Christian are on the phone then such a gadget shouldn’t be needed listening to your words, because everyone knows your yes is yes and your no is no. Paul begins with the crucial importance of loving the truth. He lived in a time just like ours when people didn’t take the truth seriously enough. The stories about the gods on Mount Olympus and the emperors in Rome and all such scandals were talked about endlessly in the way that our newspapers talk about the stars. Today we sit down and give time – that most precious of commodities – to fun, and escapism. We spend hours before the fantasy world of television. We reduce the life of real people to a performance. Lies entertain and divert us. We are playing games with our neighbours. The fantasy world of Hello magazine is bigger and tastier than the real world of the Bible. Everyday life bores us. Gossip is the spice of life. How dull are the lives of people who don’t have God; how they need their drugs and alcohol and nicotine to make life bearable.
How easily men slip into falsehood. No one wants to admit how dishonest the world is. There’s a silent conspiracy in which all Great Britain participates. No one wants to face the abundance of contemporary deception. What cover up incompetent colleagues get all the time, in the business world, and in government, and in the health service. Again, if people are buying a house they have to convince the seller that their upper limit is lower than it actually is. They have to lie about the most they are prepared to pay. Governments are the chief offenders always announcing the costs of their grandiose projects to be ten times less expensive than their ultimate cost. Bargaining is so wearying; both sides end up wishing they had deceived better. The black economy is estimated at around 10 per cent of our total national product. Dishonesty permeates the whole system like a penetrative dye. There was a TV poll last week in which viewers were asked, “If you thought you could get away with a scam to win a million pounds, would you try it?” An astounding 34 per cent of the phone-in poll said that they would. Lying is the nature of the business; it is called ‘talking it up’, or ‘spin’, or ‘creative accounting.’ Many people’s jobs depend on its success. People in business walk through a blizzard of lies every week. In Wales, being well mannered or polite means being able to lie about your thoughts or feelings sufficiently so that no one can detect them.
Paul begins by saying that there is truth. There is a entity that is utterly real and genuine, and our calling is to promote the truth in our dealings with others, for example, in keeping our neighbour’s good name, loving it and rejoicing in it; covering their failures and freely acknowledging their good points; readily receiving a good report about them; discouraging those who carry tales; keeping one’s promises; speaking the truth and only the truth. We don’t conceal the truth; we are not silent when there is a just cause; we don’t hold our peace when there is false teaching; we don’t speak the truth in a malicious way – the little laugh, the raised eyebrow, the obviously delicious mockery, and the beginning of the sneer – those sure-fire mannerisms with which we accompany our comments on another; we are not rash, clever, slick, harsh; we don’t misconstrue people’s intentions and actions; we don’t flatter; we don’t speak too meanly of others . . . nor too highly of them; we don’t deny the grace of God in other Christians; we don’t exaggerate smaller faults; we don’t stop our ears against someone’s defence; we don’t rejoice in another’s disgrace. Whatever is true then our minds are chained to that.
ii] Whatever is noble. It means what is honourable, and dignified, and serious-minded, and elevated. It was seen so wonderfully this week in a father and mother singing the hymns together at the front of a church at the funeral service of their ten year-old daughter. I saw it in Professor John Murray when I had not made clear to him that he was to preach here on the Sunday as well as speaking at the students’ Christian Union meeting on the Saturday night. He learned at that meeting that we expected him to preach on the next day and he confirmed it with Iola when he got home from the meeting. “Are you all right about that?” she asked him. “Yes, it will be fine,” he said, adding, “Now don’t tell Geoff about this. Tell him on Monday after I have gone, and laugh together about it.” There was a nobility of character about him, ready to travel 400 miles from the far north of Scotland to speak at a Saturday night InterVarsity meeting, and then to cover up my mistake so graciously.
You think of the behavior of the martyrs on the platform before they were drawn and quartered or being tied to the stake. Their minds were set on noble ends and they could die in such horrible agonies with dignity. Cranmer had once, under terrible pressure recanted and signed a document denying what he knew to be true Christianity. He later came back to the truth and so was burned alive, and he held the hand that had signed his denial in the flame to burn first. What nobility. When you read the defence of the Iranian pastors before their judges more than a decade ago – how honourable were their words. Little wonder that those Muslims feared such power and had them killed. So this grace should characterise elders as they run their homes, and it must also be a feature of deacons and their wives. In the various lists describing those men and women in the Pastoral epistles Paul invariably refers to this characteristic of nobility. It is also there in the writings of the Church Fathers where it denotes quiet patience. Nothing could be more different from those pop-stars and sports-stars and media people that our superficial and frivolous culture gets so excited about. There is nothing at all garish or chromium-plated about the life of God in the soul of man.
iii] Whatever is right. Whatever is just or righteous then our minds are drawn to that. If it is right then we’ll consider it. That is the benchmark of our dealings with people. We are fair and square with them. There is a famous chain store in the USA called J.C.Penney. It is found at the end of many of their shopping malls. It now has 1,400 outlets. J.C.Penney himself began life as a butcher in Colorado. A hotel did business with him and he was dependent on the meat they bought, but the chef who came to order the meat and pick it up expected Mr. Penney to give him a back-hander, bottle of bourbon, every week for his custom. Penney was a Christian and wouldn’t do it. The hotel took their orders elsewhere and J.C.Penney went out of business. Now I know that subsequently Penney became a multi-millionaire. That is not the point. I am not saying if we are right in all our dealings we will end up millionaires. Many a Christian in business has lost his job and any hope of promotion because of doing what is right. We serve the Lord for nothing at all. We do right and we may end up being burned alive. We do right and speak right and think right because it is non-negotiable. Whatever is right we are to do. Stephen did what was right. Judas didn’t. This isn’t a phone-in to decide which one we are going to choose. We do what is right at the cost of pain to ourselves, our families and our children.
Men have lost their pulpits and manses and salaries because they would not compromise concerning the gospel, and it is very easy to think smugly that they had brought it on themselves, and that they ought to have been more loving and patient and so on, as we imagine we would have been. But would we have done what was right? My friend Gordon spoke to a nominal Roman Catholic brother-in-law for many years about the gospel of Jesus Christ. He witnessed faithfully to him about the finished work of Christ, and that this man ought to flee from his ceremonies and hide in Jesus only, but he never did. So my friend could not go into the funeral mass for his brother-in-law. After all he had said to him it would have been a denial of all he knew to be right, and the widow understood perfectly her brother Gordon’s conviction on this matter. It did not lead to a breakdown between them nor to further possibilities of helping her at this time of her need. We do what is right. It might mean the loss of a prestigious seminary like Princeton, but we do what is right. Whenever I have gone back there to that little campus I have felt overwhelmingly sad. What beliefs were those that had built those fine old buildings? The money from what kind of Christians erected those seminary halls 150 years and more ago? Spurgeon once famously said that modernism couldn’t even build a mousetrap. Doing what is right might mean the loss of our churches and homes as it did at the time of the Disruption in Scotland, but we have no alternative; we must do whatever is right.
iv] Whatever is pure. Men appreciate pure medicines, and pure gold, and pure air, and pure water. So we esteem purity in the relations of men and women. There is a photograph of the elders and deacons hanging up downstairs in our little room. It was taken at the wedding of one of our deacons. I stand in awe at that scene, not because that man since his marriage has done so much for the kingdom of God for over 27 years, and promises much more. Not for that reason: he met his wife in this congregation and they went out together for almost four years, and why that photograph takes my breath away is that they had not kissed one other until I pronounced them man and wife. Now that was something that they decided between themselves. They do not insist that other Christians must act like that; they made that choice, and they have had a very loving and relaxed marriage.
We don’t live in an age that encourages purity. It is rather a culture that mocks such behaviour and quickly calls it ‘repressive’, but our civilisation is marked by an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and Africa especially because of promiscuity is experiencing a plague of monstrous proportions that is killing millions of people. Give me self-control – any day – a million times – before that! We have seen in the past weeks one way in which the threat of chemical warfare was going to be dealt with in Iraq. Soldiers were having to clad themselves totally in an enclosing protective suit. Morally, I say, that is how we must live in this world; we have to keep our distance from what Bunyan called ‘Madam Bubble.’ Remember how he describes her, “She was one who was dressed in a very pleasant attire but old, who presented herself to me, and offered me three things, to wit, her body, her purse and her bed.” The pilgrim Honest looks at her and he says to Christian, “Does she not speak very smoothly, and give you a smile at the end of every sentence?” Whatever is pure we must think of those things.
v] Whatever is lovely. We Welsh people would not appear to have any difficulty in thinking about what is lovely because we use the word all the time. This particular Greek word is only found here in the entire Bible, and even in other lists of virtues in classical Greek it is absent. We know that it means pleasing and attractive. Paul was writing from Rome and there was the Coliseum where people were entertained in their thousands by watching men killing other men, or wild animals which were mad with hunger being let loose on men and women to tear them to pieces. Paul says, don’t even think about such things, but rather on whatever is lovely. We are the strangest of societies. We are banning the killing of predators like foxes with hounds, but it is open season 365 days a year on the unborn human baby. We are entertaining ourselves by watching all kinds of violence and sexual aberrations. Whatever is beautiful (for that is what the word means), fix your mind on that.
vi] Whatever is admirable. Speaking well of something – that is the underlying meaning – ‘auspicious,’ ‘appealing,’ or ‘attractive.’ On December 15 last Doris May Simmonds died aged 82. She had been connected with the European Missionary Fellowship for many years, as a missionary in France and then since 1966 as the main secretary in the mission’s offices. She was a member of Westminster Chapel under Dr Lloyd-Jones for a little while. To describe her you would have to select this word of Paul’s and say that Doris was ‘admirable’. She was devoted to the work of the gospel. She had a filing cabinet in her head of people and places and dates. She spent long hours of dedicated activity (in those days before computers made some things much easier) hammering away on a typewriter in triplicate. As a young Christian she had had a yearning in her life for a closer walk with God, for a deeper knowledge of him, for more of the fulness of the Spirit, in order to be a more courageous witness to him. This resulted in 34 years of selfless service. She longed to be more like Christ in experience and life. When she moved to Welwyn and joined the Evangelical Church there her pastor Bob Sheehan said of her, “She’s such an encouragement. She is worth twelve ordinary members.” Certainly we all know people like that, but she was already in her seventies at that time. Loyalty to Christ meant loyalty to his body the church. Whatever is admirable, think about such things.
vii] Whatever is excellent. That is, whatever has moral excellence. Two Americans, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, wrote a best-selling book twenty years ago called “In Search of Excellence.” They examined the best-run companies in America and selected the principles that had made them successful. For example, they discovered that there was rigid control, but there was also the encouragement of innovation and creativity amongst the workers. That gave people room to perform, but there were always known rules about discipline. There was also a ‘faith’, a value system, that a company had, that is, there were a few shared core values which provided its framework. There was also painstaking attention to detail, getting the ‘itty-bitty, teeny-tiny things’ right. There were honed skills and there was a hard-working staff. Peters and Waterman searched for things of excellence and wrote about them in their interesting book.
The apostle Paul does the same; in virtually every letter he writes to the churches he describes much of what is excellent in that congregation – their work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ; how generous they are, and how their faith is known about in all the province, and so on. He mentions their leaders and thanks God for them. Everything he can find of excellence in a congregation he draws their attention to by his appreciation, so that we learn from that what is excellent in a church and think about those things and seek to strengthen them in our own congregation and pray for more of these excellent things. The Lord Jesus Christ does the same in his seven letters to the churches. There are excellent qualities in each church and he praises them.
viii] Whatever is praiseworthy. Can’t you see that all these qualities lived out in ordinary men and women in their millions all over the world today and through the centuries are worth getting excited about? Here are teenagers and students and young couples and middle aged people and retired men and women and they are true, and noble, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable, and excellent. Most of them never think of themselves in that way. Doris May Simmonds is one of hundreds of such women whom we know, and they are conscious most of their own sinful hearts and how far they fall short. The long to be closer to God, but those of us who see them give them such praise and thank God for the grace of God in their lives. We want to live around them all our days. We never want to be far from their company. We are their fans.
Well, what do you young people have to praise? I mean among people whom you know and live with day by day? Whom do you praise? So many people remind me of that character in Pilgrim’s Progress who could look no way but downwards. He had a muck-rake in his hand, and was scrabbling about on the floor, and raking to himself the straws and the small sticks and the dust on the floor. Yet all the time there stood over his head One with a glorious crown in his hand, proffering him that crown in exchange for his muck-rake, but he wouldn’t let go. He clung to his muck-rake and rejected a crown of righteousness. That’s a bad bargain. We are saying to you, don’t spend your life praising muck-rakes!
On the first occasion that Eric Alexander heard Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching in Westminster Chapel he went around to his room at the end of the service and waited to talk to him. Dr Lloyd-Jones would speak to people in his room and then escort them to the door and invariably as he said good-bye to them he would say these words, “Keep on going on!” As Eric Alexander waited in line and then the door would open and another person would come out Dr Lloyd Jones would bid them farewell saying, “Keep on going on!” So when it was time for Eric to see the Doctor they talked together of a number of things and then at the close Eric said to him, “By the way, why do you use those words, ‘Keep on going on'”? The Doctor paused for a moment and then said, “Because there is no alternative.” I am saying to you to keep on thinking about whatever is true, and noble, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable, and excellent, and praiseworthy because there is no alternative. Keep on going on!
13th April 2003 GEOFF THOMAS