Quoting Scripture from memory can be a wonderful thing. But, as with most things, there are also dangers. How often have you heard someone recite a verse in an effort to offer biblical wisdom to a situation only to realize that the verse has been taken completely out of context? Below is an example of such a text, which is often quoted (and mostly misquoted):
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
This verse is often quoted as if Paul wrote it as a general command for what Christians should have on their minds at all times. I have seen this verse on the back of many youth group T-shirts. This sounds good. It sounds like the holy thing to do. But it is not what the verse is really about if we look at the rest of the verses around it.
The context begins all the way back in Philippians 4:2 where Paul mentions that there are two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who are having a disagreement. He encourages them to get past their disagreement and get along. Paul then goes on to urge others in the church to help these women get along. He tells them in verse 5 that they (the church in Philippi) should be known for their reasonableness. What better way to be known for reasonableness than being able to work through disagreements and get along? In verse 6, Paul instructs them to not be anxious, but instead seek God’s leading in prayer as they work through the problem with these women. As a result, Paul says that the peace of God will guard their hearts (v. 7).
Here is where we get to our verse. So far we have been reading Paul’s words to the church in Philippi about how they should handle this disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche. When we get to verse 8, the context has not changed! Paul says in verse 8 that when two people are at odds, they should not do what comes natural to us, which is to think about how worthless and terrible the other person is. Instead, we should think about all of their best characteristics: what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. By doing this, it promotes peace rather than division. In fact, Paul says that by doing these things, the God of peace will be with you.
So, Philippians 4:8 is not a general statement about what Christians should be thinking about all of the time. It is the Bible’s instruction to us concerning how we should think about the person we have a disagreement with. It is instruction concerning how to promote peace within the church rather than division. Let us memorize it and recall it when we need it most.