[Note: In discussing this passage I must make it plain that my own conduct could stand to meet the biblical standard of biblical conversation in Philippians 4:8-9. It is a difficult thing to speak authoritatively on matters where one clearly and obviously lacks moral perfection. Nonetheless, despite my admitted failings in this regard, I consider it vitally important to speak about the standard I strive to attain, even if my own speech falls far short of that noble standard on a regular basis, at the very least to help encourage others (and myself) and provide the standard by which others may hold me and themselves accountable.]
In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul gives a very difficult standard of speech for Christians to follow. Given that Paul was comfortable giving rebuke (even very harsh rebuke) where it was deserved suggests that Paul’s standards are often difficult than our own, but even given these matters, we must consider Paul’s standards for Christian communication as immensely challenging. Philippians 4:8-9 reads: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–mediate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”
These verses have serious implications. For one, the standard that Paul sets for communications is incredibly high–our conduct and conversation and the subjects that fill our mind must be true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, with virtue and worthy of praise. Even meeting any of those standards with our thoughts and communications can be a challenge–being true, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, giving praise and good report to our enemies and rivals is not an easy task to meet, and not one we often do well in the present day and age. But, to make this even more incredible is that Paul himself pointed the brethren at Philippi to his own conduct as a model. This means that the same behavior Christians ought to emulate in their conversation and conduct (and thoughts) is the behavior that Paul himself showed to the world and to the brethren.
This is obviously a matter of considerable seriousness. Starting in about the Second Century AD, Christian apologists started treating their opponents in a very rough and harsh way, seeing only what was bad and decadent in the pagan culture and mindset around them, even misrepresenting the case to write polemics against archaic forms of paganism rather than the sophisticated paganism that the rapidly corrupted Roman and Eastern Churches were themselves also falling victim to through their fascination with Greek philosophy and their desires to be seen as the latest and greatest models of universal truth. We find the loss of graciousness in discussing God’s ways with others running parallel to the doctrinal heresies and loss of biblical truth (participation of ordinary members in congregational business, Sabbath and Holy Day observance).
This is not coincidental. The two great commandments on which the whole law and prophets of God hang are to love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And who is your neighbor? Everyone. And by what sign are we to be recognized as God’s children? By our love. Graciousness and love are missing in our behavior as a general rule. When we reflect that we are judged by how we treat the least of those around us, we all could stand to improve a lot (and I speak of myself as well). Do we love our enemies? Do we love those who hate us, who spitefully use us? Do we love those who have false understandings, mistaken belief systems, but whose longings are noble and proper, just devoted to improper ends and mistaken ways of worship and practice?
And how did Paul meet that biblical standard? The best way to examine this is through Paul’s own dealings with unbelievers. An example of this comes in Acts 17:22-31: “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you; God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of man to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art or man’s devising. Truly these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”
Given the religious and moral corruption of the Greeks, which are well known to us, this is a very gracious and mild speech. Paul deals bluntly with the Greek tendency toward superstition and idolatry, but does so in a gentle fashion, drawing godly truths from the literature of the Greeks themselves and praising their longings to have an intimate knowledge of and relationship with God and pointing them in the proper direction. Was God not gentle with our misunderstandings and partial understanding of His ways? Why should we not be as gracious and as kind to others who are seeking after Him? A call to repentance need not be made with an arrogant and presumptuous air of someone who knows everything, but it ought to be made with a loving and kindhearted manner of someone who is merely a little bit further along the path to virtue and who remembers what it was like to be fallen and frustrated and cut off with God because of our wicked ways.
In this matter, as in so many others, self-knowledge helps us be more just and merciful to others. If we assume ourselves to be entirely righteous in our behavior and motivations, and we are self-deceived about our true moral state, we are likely to be very harsh and judgmental to others, thinking ourselves pure. By rigorous self-examination, and openly facing our struggles, we recognize that the great extent of God’s mercy and patience and longsuffering and grace toward us requires that we return the favor to be as forgiving and gracious with others. It does not mean that we abdicate our responsibility to judge good and evil, but rather that we seek to model God’s example, to take seriously the need to be a good example, and to recognize where we fall short and work to overcome, and be loving and gentle and gracious to others who are earlier in their understanding and practice of God’s ways, not discouraging or mocking their efforts.
It is all too easy in this world of 24 hour news cycles, of our culture of tabloid media and pseudonymous slander, amoral debauchery, and self-absorbed personal focus for us to neglect the need to be true, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy in our conversation and treatment of others (and in our view of others even within ourselves). Doing so would resolve a great many of our difficulties with other people, and even better it would prevent a lot of unnecessary conflicts from developing in the first place. If we are treating others with love and concern and respect, and if they are responding in kind, there is little for us to fight about so long as we are all going down the same path in seeking to develop the character of God within us, so that it may be obvious that we are all his offspring, of whatever tribe or class or division within humanity from which we may spring.