Our cultural hopefulness at Cities Church has two parts: 1) we’re hopeful about gospel advance in our increasingly post-Christian society and 2) we embrace the goodness of God’s creation and are hopeful about the cultural products and subcreations of humanity as well, like art and cuisine and technology and recreation and more.
Jesus promises that he will build his church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). He promises that even though the love of many will grow cold, his gospel will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come (Matthew 24:13–14).
When the church was the underdog, marginalized to periphery in the first century, the gospel spread like wildfire, by God’s Spirit, against all odds. And so we are hopeful as well in the twenty-first century, as the church increasingly finds herself at the margins of society. The love of many has grown cold, and will continue to grow cold, but Jesus’s gospel will not stall, but God’s Spirit will continue to warm hearts and advance the gospel and build the church, we hope even more so in such conditions.
We do not despair. We hope.
We are not of this world, but we sent into it with a mission that cannot be stopped. That’s one part of cultural hopefulness.
And we are not of this world, but citizens of heaven and of the next world, where the untarnished goodness of God’s creation will shine in full, and all the best cultural products of the nations will stream in (Revelation 21:24; Isaiah 60:5, 16).
And we believe the Christian life is not one long fast, or one long feast, but a rhythm of fasting and feasting in everyday life.
“The fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9). All truth is God’s truth. All goodness is God’s goodness. All righteousness is God’s righteousness.
And so, instead of hiding from culture, we lean in, on gospel mission, as Paul says in Philippians 4:8:
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.
Rather than a call to circle-the-wagons, batten down the hatches, build the church walls thicker, keep your mind sealed off from the foul air of sinful society, this verse is actually “designed to place [us] back into [our] world, even as [we] remain ‘over against’ that world in so many ways” (Gordon Fee, Philippians, 414). Philippians 4:8, rightly understood, actually sends us out into society for the frontlines work of making, maturing, and multiplying disciples, rather than retreating to the bunker. Mission and culture go together.
Here are three important things to point out in the verse.
1) “Consider” the Verb
First, the verb translated “think about” in verse 8 is not the one we would expect. The word here (Greek logizomai) typically conveys the notion of counting or computing. As one commentator observes, it is “unusual for Paul to use the verb logizomai with reference to a list of virtues” (Moises Silva, Philippians, 197).
It would make more sense to us, perhaps, if Paul used another verb (phroneo) — “to set one’s mind” — as he does in Romans 8:5 and Colossians 3:2. That would mean, as we typically have understood this verse, that we should give ourselves to pondering good, godly thoughts. But Paul doesn’t actually say that here, though he could (as he does in those other places). And we know Paul has that verb (phroneo) is at his disposal because he’s just used it in Philippians 3:19 (“set their minds on earthly things”) and elsewhere in the letter.
Instead, Paul goes with the verb (logizomai) that means to “count,” “compute,” or “consider.” For instance, Romans 6:11: “. . . consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Gordon Fee writes,
What Paul says here is much less clear than the English translations would lead one to believe. The impression given is that he is calling on them one final time to ‘give their minds’ to nobler things. That may be true in one sense, but the language and grammar suggest something slightly different. The verb ordinarily means to ‘reckon’ in the sense of ‘take into account,’ rather than simply to ‘think about.’ This suggests that Paul is telling them not so much to ‘think high thoughts’ as to ‘take into account’ the good they have long known from their own past, as long as it is conformable to Christ. (Fee, 415–416)
2) Paul’s Odd Language
Second, Paul chooses some strange words as he rattles off six adjectives (in our English: true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable) and two nouns (excellence, worthy of praise). At least these are strange for Paul. They are not the typical words he coopts to characterize the Christian life in his other letters. Rather, they are words much more common to the unbelieving society in the first century than to the church. “The six adjectives and two nouns that make up the sentence are as uncommon in Paul as most of them are common stock to the world of Greco-Roman moralism” (Fee, 415).
3) The “If Anything” Clauses
Finally, says Fee, this culturally hopeful reading “seems confirmed by the double proviso, ‘if anything,’ that interrupts the sentence.” He continues,
The six words themselves, at least the first four, already point to what is virtuous and praiseworthy; so why not add the proviso unless he intends them to select out what is morally excellent around them, and to do so on the basis of Christ himself? Thus, he appears to be dipping into the language of hellenistic moralism, in his case tempered by Jewish wisdom, to encourage the Philippians that even though they are presently ‘citizens of heaven,’ living out the life of the future as they await its consummation, they do not altogether abandon the world in which they used to, and still do, live. As believers in Christ they will embrace the best of what of that world as well, as long as it is understood in light of the cross. (Fee, 416)
Why It Matters
The implications of reading Philippians 4:8 this way then become a helpful guide for us, especially related to be culturally hopeful in our increasingly post-Christian context.
First, Paul is calling us to embrace God’s common grace at work in our surrounding society; regardless of what the doomsayers have told you, it’s there to be identified and enjoyed — lots of it. And Pastor Joe’s book The Things of Earth is an outstanding guide.
But secondly, we must do so with discernment and Christian common sense in community — with the key being the very gospel that is the core and heart of all our evangelism and disciplemaking.
It is hard to imagine a more relevant word in our postmodern, media-saturated world, where ‘truth’ is relative and morality is up for grabs.
The most common response to such a culture is not discrimination, but rejection. This text suggests a better way, that one approach the marketplace, the arts, the media, the university, looking for what is ‘true’ and ‘uplifting’ and ‘admirable’; but that one do so with a discriminating eye and heart, for which the Crucified One serves as the template. Indeed, if one does not ‘consider carefully,’ and then discriminate on the basis of the gospel, what is rejected very often are the mere trappings, the more visible expressions, of the ‘world,’ while its anti-gospel values (relativism, materialism, hedonism, nationalism, individualism, to name but a few) are absorbed into the believer through cultural osmosis. This text reminds us that the head counts for something, after all; but it must be a sanctified head, ready to ‘practice’ the gospel it knows through what has ‘been learned and received.’ (Fee, 421)
There’s more to say about our being “culturally hopeful,” but for now, let this summary lead us into our prayer of confession: Paul’s charge in Philippians 4:8 (and Colossians 3:2 and Romans 8:5, for that matter) should not lead us to isolate ourselves from our society and our Christ-given mission to go into it and make, mature, and multiply disciples. Rather, this verse is a summons to make all of life, and all the world, our context for enjoying Jesus and making disciples of him.
Prayer of Confession
Father, forgive us when we have fallen in love with your good gifts and forgotten you, the giver. And forgive us when we have listened to the “teaching of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1–3) and rejected the goodness of your creation.
And forgive us the times we have limited our vision to the walls of the church and the comfortable categories, rather than doing the uncomfortable thing to get the gospel to those without it. Forgive us our fear, when we have bemoaned the decay of society and thought little of your power to shine the greatest light in increasingly dark days.
Make us to be a church that is culturally hopeful, in every biblical sense. May we face the days to come with the laughter of faith and the deep joy of the gospel. Give us gratefulness in our hearts for the enjoyment of your gifts, to the glory of Your Son.
And impress upon our hearts now the other ways in which we need to confess our sin this morning.