Using the stylistic convention of the paraenesis — a traditional Greco-Roman form of moral exhortation and instruction that deals with practical living — Paul in Philippians 4:4–7 has conveyed the importance of Christian piety, particularly in rejoicing and the pursuit of the peace of God in prayer. In today’s passage, the Apostle discusses moral and aesthetic concerns, which were the main subjects usually covered in a secular Greco-Roman paraenesis.
The true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy things to which Paul refers in Philippians 4:8–9 are not only those things revealed in sacred Scripture. After all, the Apostle tells us to think on something if it is excellent. By definition, all of Scripture is excellent because it is without error (Pss. 18:30; 19:7–11; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Instead, Paul is telling Christians to think on the excellent things they find in the surrounding culture. We have an explicit teaching here that believers are free to enjoy the good things around us even if they do not come from an explicitly Christian source. We are to appreciate the truth and beauty we see even in the art, literature, science, politics, music, technology, and so forth produced by unbelievers. All human beings are made in the image of the true and beautiful God, and though this image was marred in the fall, it was not totally eradicated (Gen. 1:26– 27; 9:6). Thus, although God-haters try to suppress the truth, they are never totally successful. Despite their best efforts, they do arrive at knowledge of at least some truth from God’s revelation in nature (Rom. 1:18–32). The hearts of unconverted people may be ugly in sin, but they can and do often see and create beauty.
What is true, good, excellent, and so forth, however, is not merely in the eyes of the beholder. That which we are to approve and think on must measure up to the gospel of God and His work to make all things new. That which is true and beautiful does not contradict the image of Christ, which is why Paul again exhorts his readers to practice what they have received from him and have seen in his lifestyle (Phil. 4:9). The implication is that we are to look to Paul, see how he reflects Jesus, and then use that as our standard for excellence, truth, and beauty.
Paul’s exhortation to think on what is good, excellent, and beautiful in the culture around us suggests that withdrawal into a Christian ghetto is not the way to witness to Jesus in this world. We are to live in a manner that is distinct from the world, but we are not to be separatistic in that we are allowed to enjoy only self-consciously Christian authors, musicians, artists, and so forth. If it is true and beautiful, it is worth thinking on, no matter its source.