2. A Call to “Wisdom”—and the Imitation of Paul (4:8–9)

Finally, [brothers and sisters], 1  whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy 2  —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.

In most of Paul’s letters the preceding set of imperatives would have functioned as the “concluding exhortations,” to be followed only by the wish of peace and the closing greetings. But this is a letter of friendship, so Paul adds a final set of exhortations, both sides of which are the “stuff” of friendship. 3  Here is material with which the Philippians would have felt very much at home before they had ever become followers of Christ and friends of Paul. 4 

The imperatives are twofold, expressed with striking rhetoric. 5  The first seems designed to place them back into their own world, even as they remain “over against” that world in so many ways. Expressed in the language of hellenistic moralism, 6  in effect it tells them to take into account the best of their Greco-Roman heritage, as long as it has moral excellence and is praiseworthy. The second puts that into perspective, by repeating the motif of “imitation.” 7  They obey the first set of exhortations by putting into practice what they have learned from him as teacher and have seen modeled in his life. The whole concludes with the promise of God’s abiding presence, as none other than “the God of peace.”

Paul was a man of two worlds, which had become uniquely blended through his encounter with the Risen Christ. Christ’s death and resurrection, marking the end of the old era and the beginning of the new, radically transformed Paul’s (Jewish) theology, which he in turn radically applied to the Greco-Roman world with which as a Diaspora Jew he was so familiar. Thus people whom Christ had rescued from being without God and hope in the world are now encouraged in the language of that world to consider what is noble and praiseworthy, as long as it conforms to what they have learned and seen in Paul about Christ.

That Paul is not embracing Stoicism or pagan moralism as such 8  is made clear not only by his own theology everywhere but in particular by what he does with the Stoic concept of “contentment” in vv. 11–13 that follow. There he uses their language and intends the same general perspective toward circumstances as the Stoics. But he breaks the back of the Stoic concept by transforming their “self-sufficiency” into “Christ-sufficiency.” So here, using language the Philippians would have known from their youth, he singles out values held in common with the best of Hellenism. But as v. 9 implies, these must now be understood in light of the cruciform existence that Paul has urged throughout the letter.

8 With this “finally,” and its accompanying (final) vocative, 9  “brothers and sisters,” Paul concludes the “hortatory” dimension of this “hortatory letter of friendship.” There is one further item to add, his grateful recognition of their renewed material support (vv. 10–20); but that belongs to the dimension of friendship altogether (without being “hortatory”), and has basically to do with their relationship with him. This “finally” concludes his concerns about them (and is thus also “hortatory”).

What is striking about this sentence is its uniqueness in the Pauline corpus. Take away the “finally, brothers and sisters,” and this sentence would fit more readily in Epictetus’s Discourses or Seneca’s Moral Essays than it would into any of the Pauline letters—except this one. 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. However, they are also the language of Jewish wisdom; 10  indeed, the closest parallel to this sentence in the NT is not in the Pauline letters but in Jas 3:13–18, 11  where some of this same language (as well as that of vv. 4–7) occurs in speaking of “the wisdom that is from above.”

But 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 12  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. This seems confirmed by the double proviso, “if anything,” that interrupts the sentence. 13  The six words themselves, at least the first four, already point to what is virtuous and praiseworthy; so why add the proviso unless he intends them to select out what is morally excellent and praiseworthy from these “whatever things” that belong to the world 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 that world as well, as long as it is understood in light of the cross.

Despite its several correspondences to hellenistic moralism and Jewish wisdom, however, this is Paul’s own enumeration. 14  It neither reflects the four cardinal virtues of Hellenism, 15  nor is there anything else quite like it as a list in the ancient world, either in form or content. As with all such “virtue” lists in Paul, it is intended to be representative, not definitive. The six adjectives cover a broad range—truth, honor, uprightness, purity, what is pleasing or admirable. 16  Since they also reflect what the teachers of Wisdom considered to be the best path for the young to adopt, very likely this language in part came to Paul by way of this tradition. In any case, in Paul they must be understood in light of the cross, since that is surely the point of the final proviso in v. 9 that whatever else they do, they are to follow Paul’s teaching and thus imitate his cruciform lifestyle. 17  Thus:

(1) Whatever is true. 18  For Paul truth is narrowly circumscribed, finding its measure in God (Rom 1:18, 25) and the gospel (Gal 2:5; 5:7). As a virtue, especially in Jewish wisdom, it has to do with true speech (Prov 22:21) over against the lie and deceit (cf. 1:18 above) or is associated with righteousness and equity. 19  Just as suppression of the truth about God, which leads to believing the lie about him, is the first mark of idolatry (the worship of false deities), so the first word in this virtue list calls them to give consideration to whatever conforms to the gospel.

(2) Whatever is noble. 20  Although this word most often has a “sacred” sense (“revered” or “majestic”), here it probably denotes “honorable,” “noble,” or “worthy of respect.” It occurs in Prov 8:6 also in conjunction with “truth” and “righteousness,” as characteristic of what Wisdom has to say. Thus, whatever is “worthy of respect,” wherever it may come from, is also worth giving consideration to.

(3) Whatever is right. 21  As with “truth,” what is “right” is always defined by God and his character. Thus, even though this is one of the cardinal virtues of Greek antiquity, in Paul it carries the further sense of “righteousness,” so that it is not defined by merely human understanding of what is “right” or “just,” but by God and his relationship with his people. 22 

(4) Whatever is pure. 23  This word originated in the cultus, where what had been sanctified for the temple was considered “pure”; along with the related word “holy,” it soon took on moral implications. In Proverbs it stands over against “the thoughts of the wicked” (15:26) or “the way of the guilty” (21:8, in conjunction with being “upright”). Thus, “whatever things are pure” has to do with whatever is not “besmirched” or “tainted” in some way by evil. As with “truth” it occurs earlier in this letter (1:17) to contrast those whose motives are “impure” in preaching the gospel so as to “afflict” Paul.

(5) Whatever is lovely. 24  With this word and the next we step off NT turf altogether onto the more unfamiliar ground of Hellenism—but not hellenistic moralism (see n. 15  ). This word has to do primarily with what people consider “lovable,” in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward. The NJB catches the sense well by translating, “everything that we love.” Here is the word that throws the net broadly, so as to include conduct that has little to do with morality in itself, but is recognized as admirable by the world at large. In common parlance, this word could refer to a Beethoven symphony, as well as to the work of Mother Teresa among the poor of Calcutta; the former is lovely and enjoyable, the latter is admirable as well as moral.

(6) Whatever is admirable. 25  Although not quite a synonym of the preceding word, it belongs to the same general category of “virtues.” Not a virtue in the moral sense, it represents the kind of conduct that is worth considering because it is well spoken of by people in general.

It is probably the lack of inherent morality in the last two words that called forth the interrupting double proviso 26  that follows, “if anything is excellent, if anything is praiseworthy.” The word “excellent” 27  is the primary Greek word for “virtue” or “moral excellence.” It is generally avoided, at least in this sense, by the LXX translators. 28  Although not found elsewhere in Paul, the present usage, along with “contentment” in v. 11, is clear evidence that he felt no need to shy away from the language of the Greek moralists. What he intends, of course, is that “virtue” be filled with Christian content, exemplified by his own life and teaching (v. 9). Likewise with “praiseworthy.” 29  Although this word probably refers to the approval of others, the basis has been changed from “general ethical judgment” 30  to conduct that is in keeping with God’s own righteousness. While not inherent in v. 8 itself, such an understanding of these words comes from the immediately following exhortation to “imitate” Paul, which in turn must be understood in light of what has been said to this point.

9 With this sentence Paul brings the exhortations to conclusion. 31  It is not surprising that they end on the note of “imitation.” Not only is such imitation urged on them explicitly in 3:17, but this motif belongs to “friendship” and is probably in view from the beginning of the letter (1:12). 32  In effect this sentence summarizes, as well as concludes, the letter. Paul’s concern throughout has been the gospel, not its content (“doctrinal error” is not at issue), but its lived out expression in the world. To get there he has informed them of his response to his own present suffering (1:12–26), reminded them of the “way of Christ” (2:6–11), and told his own story (3:4–14), all of which were intended to appeal, warn, and encourage them to steadfastness and unity in the face of opposition. Now he puts it to them plainly, as the final proviso to the preceding list of “virtues” that they should take into account. Read that list, he now tells them, 33  in light of what “you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” and above all else “put these things (you have learned, etc.) into practice.” 34 

What he calls them to “practice” is “what things” 35  they have “learned” and “received” from him by way of instruction and what they have heard about him (from this letter? Epaphroditus? Timothy?) and seen in him by way of example. The first two verbs reflect his Jewish tradition, where what is “learned” is thus “received” by students. 36  For the combination “heard and seen in me” see on 1:30. In that context in particular it had to do with their common struggle of suffering for Christ’s sake. Given the overall context of this letter, one may rightly assume that, whatever the specifics, Paul is once again calling them to the kind of cruciform existence he has been commending and urging on them throughout. Only as they are “conformed to Christ’s death,” as Paul himself seeks continually to be, even as they eagerly await the final consummation at his coming, will they truly live what is “virtuous” and “praiseworthy” from Paul’s distinctively “in Christ” perspective.

The exhortations are thus finished; so Paul rightly concludes with a “wish of peace,” which here takes the form of ultimate benediction, that “the God of peace will be with you.” They will get “peace” because the God of peace, by his Spirit, is in their midst. The ascription “God of peace,” derived from the OT, is frequent in Paul. 37  What is striking is that in every instance it occurs in contexts where there is strife or unrest close at hand. Thus the antidote to unruly charismata in the community is the theological note that God himself is a “God of peace” (1 Cor 14:33); or in a community where the unruly/idle live off the largess of others, Paul prays that the God of peace will give them peace at all times (2 Thes 3:16); or in a context where believers are warned against those who “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way,” he assures them that the God of peace will bruise Satan under their feet shortly (Rom 16:20). Although “strife” is hardly the word to describe the Philippian scene, he nonetheless signs off with this affirmation, perhaps significantly so in light of the repeated exhortation to “have the same mindset.”

The desire for “God’s presence” determines much in Jewish piety and theology, both in the OT and in the intertestamental period. For Paul, and the rest of the NT, the way God is now present is by his Spirit, who is the fulfillment of the eschatological promises that God will put his Spirit into his people’s hearts, so that “they will obey me.” Thus, even though the Spirit is not mentioned, in Paul’s understanding this is how the “God of peace will be—and already is—with you.” 38  After all, the fruit of the Spirit is … peace.

If our interpretation is correct, three things happen simultaneously in these concluding and summarizing exhortations: (a) that they embrace what is good wherever they find it, including the culture with which they are most intimately familiar; (b) but that they do so in a discriminating way, (c) the key to which is the gospel Paul had long ago shared with them and lived before them—about a crucified Messiah, whose death on a cross served both to redeem them and to reveal the character of God into which they are continually being transformed. It is hard to imagine a more relevant word in our post-modern, 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.”



 1 See n. 9 on 1:12.

 2 Some key “Western” witnesses (D* F G a vgcl; Ambrosiaster) add ἐπιστήμης following ἔπαινος (= “if anything is in praise of understanding”); this reflects either a failure on the part of scribes to recognize the passive sense of ἔπαινος (as Silva suggests) or an attempt to put the whole totally within the framework of the “mind.”

 3 The “friendship” dimension of the first part (v. 8) lies in Paul’s adopting the language of their culture as a way of encompassing them; in v. 9 it rests with the repeated “imitatio” motif.

 4 Some have suggested that these two verses are the insertion of the “final redactor” of the Philippian correspondence (e.g., Gnilka, 219; P. Fielder, EDNT, 3.238), which looks very much like an attempt to square what the text says with one’s prior reconstruction of the “genuine” Paul.

 5 Both sentences have a three-part structure. They begin (a) with a series of “whatever things,” emphasized rhetorically by the repeated ὅσα in v. 8 and repeated καί in v. 9; (b) both lists are then “qualified,” in the first instance by compounded “if” clauses, in the second by the prepositional phrase “in me”; and (c) both conclude with an appositional ταῦτα, followed by the imperative. Thus: The first is as strikingly asyndetic (without connectives) as the second is polysyndetic (the same connective in each case). Each is thus a sentence unto itself (pace O’Brien, 508, who strangely argues that the ἅ in v. 9 has the preceding ταῦτα as its antecedent, whereas the structure of both sentences together makes it certain that the ταῦτα in both cases is in apposition to the preceding relative pronoun in their respective sentences). The difference between ὅσα and ἅ is that of “indefinite” and “definite” (i.e., “whatever things in general” and “what things in particular”).


ὅσα ἐστιν ἀληθῆ


καὶ ἐμάθετε


ὅσα σέμνα

καὶ παρελάβετε



ὅσα δίκαια

καὶ ἠκούσατε



ὅσα ἁγνά

καὶ εἴδετε



ὅσα προσφιλῆ




ὅσα εὔφημα,





εἴ τις ἀρετὴ

ἐν ἐμοί







εἴ τις ἔπαινος



ταῦτα λογίζεσθε

ταῦτα πράσσετε


 6 But in Paul’s own case almost certainly mediated by way of Jewish wisdom as well. See the discussion below.

 7 Expressed explicitly in 3:17, but hinted at in the various moments of reciprocity and mutuality that recur throughout the letter (e.g., 1:29–30; 2:17–18; 3:15).

 8 Pace, e.g., Beare, who says that “Paul sanctifies, as it were, the generally accepted virtues of pagan morality … These are nothing else than the virtues of the copybook maxims” (148). The language, yes; but their morality, no—even if outwardly they may correspond at various points. The “in Christ” formula which has just preceded (v. 7) and which dominates this letter disallows such a view.

 9 For this vocative in the letter see on 1:12 (nn. 9 and 12).

 10 Lohmeyer (173–76) and Michaelis (68–69) make too much of this correspondence, as though Paul were dependent on the LXX for the language itself. O’Brien (502–3) and others have rightly critiqued them at this point. But the critique has been stated too “either-or,” as though the usage in Jewish wisdom had no bearing on how Paul would have understood these words. That this is unlikely is evidenced by O’Brien’s own discussions of the individual words, where he regularly appeals to LXX usage.

 11 Of all places (!), given that James is the one of the least hellenized documents in the NT.

 12 Gk. λογίζεσθε, used also in 3:13. This is the verb that is well known to English Bible readers through its frequent use in Romans (18x), where it has been traditionally translated “reckon,” where much of that usage is the result of his citing Gen 15:6 from the LXX (cf. Gal 3:6). It appears frequently also in 2 Cor 10–12 (6x), carrying basically the sense that it does here (= focused consideration of something).

 13 Contra the majority of interpreters, who repeatedly speak of these clauses as “summarizing” the former six words. Paul’s actual language and grammar seem quite opposed to such an idea. The indefinite τις (whether subject = “if anything has”; or adjective = “if there is any”) rules out the meaning “since” for the εἰ, as many would have it (e.g., Hawthorne, O’Brien, whose grammatical explanations and translations quite ignore the τις; to say “if, as is the case, there is any excellence” [O’Brien, 506, but without the “any”] as a way of summarizing the preceding clauses makes very little sense). The twin clauses are thus the protases of simple first class conditions (see Burton, Moods, 102–3), which in this sentence (in simplified form) say, “If there is anything morally excellent [to them], consider whatever things are …” Finally, had Paul intended these two words to be of a kind with the former six, the shift from ὅσα to εἴ τις is inexplicable, even on rhetorical grounds. In Paul’s grammar, the two words “moral excellence” and “praiseworthy” do not “summarize” the preceding virtues, they qualify them. Otherwise grammar would seem to be for naught (the appeal to BDF §372.1 counts for little because of the τις).

 14 The closest thing to it is found in Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, 5.23.67: “But what is there in man better than a mind (mente) that is sagacious and good (bona)?… The good of the mind is virtue (virtus); therefore happy life is necessarily bound up with virtue. Consequently all that is lovely (pulchra), honourable (honesta), of good report (praeclara) … . is full of joys” (LCL, 493). But Paul is obviously not “dependent” on this or any other such “list.” For a succinct summary of the contrast between Paul and Hellenism on the matter of “virtue,” see Link and Ringwald, NIDNTT, 3.927–28.

 15 That is, “self-control” (σωφροσύνη); “prudence” (φρόνησις); “justice” (δικαιοσύνη); and “courage” (ἀνδρεία), which together are classified as “virtues” (ἀρεταί), first articulated by Plato, but generally taken over by the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition. They are baldly taken over by the author of Wisdom and made the virtues of the Jewish wisdom tradition (8:7)! It should also be pointed out here that the words προσφιλῆ and εὔφημα (nos. 5 and 6) do not appear in any of the pagan virtue lists.

 16 Lightfoot (161) sees the words as “roughly … arranged in a descending scale,” the first two being “absolute,” the next two “relative,” and the final two “point to the moral approbation which they conciliate.” This may be “neater” than Paul intended.

 17 This sentence offers clear evidence that the distinctions between “secular” and “sacred” are most often of our making, based on our embracing an OT point of view regarding “holy things,” even though it was brought to an end with the coming of Christ and the Spirit. Paul takes a different view, that being “in Christ” sanctifies whatever else one is and does, so that what is honorable, lovely, and pleasing, as long as it also worthy of praise, is also embraced by life in Christ. Although the articulation of a later time, this passage seems to embrace the notion of “common grace.” Here is where Mozart and Beethoven (not only Bach!) come under Christian embrace.

 18 Gk. ἀληθῆ, for which the English translations consistently render “true.” For a useful discussion of “truth” in Paul, see L. Morris, DPL, 954–55.

 19 In fact Bultmann (TDNT, 1.248) considers it to mean “upright” here.

 20 Gk. σεμνά, found elsewhere in the NT only in the Pastoral Epistles, where it is used to describe the character of leaders (and others): 1 Tim 3:8, 11; Tit 2:2 (cf. the noun σεμνοτήτος in 1 Tim 2:2; 3:4; Tit 2:7). See the discussion by Foerster, TDNT, 7.191–96. The English translations offer “honest” (KJV), “honorable” (ASV, NASB, NRSV), “all that deserves respect” (NAB), as well as “noble” (NIV, GNB, REB).

 21 Gk. δίκαιος, the adj. of the significant theological words δικαιοσύνη (“righteousness”) and δικαιόω (“justify”). When used substantivally it often carries the sense of its cognate noun (ὁ δίκαιος = “the righteous person”); otherwise it means “the right” or “just” thing (cf. on 1:7 above).

 22 For this usage in Jewish wisdom see especially Sir 10:23 (“It is not right to despise one who is intelligent but poor,” NRSV) and 27:8 (“If you pursue justice, you will attain it, and wear it like a glorious robe,” NRSV).

 23 Gk. ἅγνα; cf. 2 Cor 7:11; 11:2; 1 Tim 5:22; Tit 2:5; and Jas 3:17. The English translations consistently render it “pure.”

 24 Gk. προσφιλῆ, only here in the NT, and only in Sir 4:7; 20:13; and Esth 5:1b in the LXX. Translated variously as “lovely” (KJV, NIV, NASB, RSV, GNB), “lovable” (REB, TCNT), “pleasing” (NRSV), “admirable” (NAB, NEB).

 25 Gk. εὔφημα, as with the preceding word, a NT hapax legomenon (although Paul uses the cognate noun in 2 Cor 6:8). It is also the only word in the list that is not found in the LXX, and the word for which there is the greatest variety among the English translations: “good report” (KJV), “gracious” (RSV, NEB), “admirable” (NIV; cf. NJB “everything we admire”), “high-toned” (Moffatt), “commendable” (NRSV), “honorable” (GNB), “decent” (NAB), “of good repute” (NASB, NEBmg), “attractive” (REB).

 26 For the grammar of these qualifying protases, see n. 13 above.

 27 Gk. ἀρετή; elsewhere in the NT only in 1 Pet 2:9 and 2 Pet 1:3, 5 (2x), in the latter passage under the influence of Hellenism. For background and a discussion of NT usage see Bauernfeind, TDNT, 1.457–61; and Link and Ringwald, NIDNTT, 3.925–28.

 28 Although it appears in the later, Greek works of the Septuagint (Wisdom and the Maccabees) as “virtue.”

 29 Gk. ἔπαινος; cf. 1:11 and n. 3 on 1:9–11. Apart from the three occurrences in Ephesians (1:6, 12, 14), where, as in Phil 1:11, it is God-directed, the word occurs twice to refer to “praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5; Rom 2:29), which in both cases is made clear by the qualifier “from God,” and twice to refer to human praise (2 Cor 8:18; Rom 13:3).

 30 So Hofius, EDNT, 2.16.

 31 As with v. 1, Beare omits comment on this verse altogether (see n. 7 on 4:1–3). That he does so can scarcely be due to oversight, but is probably related to his view of Philippians as a collection of letters. This verse does not fit well with his having placed it in his “letter 1,” since 3:17 (the earlier express mention of “imitating” Paul) belongs to his “letter 2.”

 32 See the introduction to 1:12–26 (p. 106) and n. 37 on 1:18.

 33 O’Brien (508) rightly rejects the view of Sevenster (Paul) that would drive a wedge between vv. 8 and 9. But neither should one think of reading v. 8 without understanding it as finally qualified by v. 9. After all, v. 9 summarizes much of the letter; thus the indefinite “whatsoever things” mentioned in v. 8 are to be understood within the framework of the specific “what things,” having to do with the gospel, they have learned from him. Cf. n. 5 above.

 34 Gk. πράσσετε, a synonym for the word “do,” and used interchangeably by Paul (see 1 Thess 4:11; 2 Cor 5:10; Eph 6:21; but more often negatively of “wrong practices”: 1 Cor 5:2; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:21; Rom 1:32; 7:15, 19, etc.).

 35 On this relative, see n. 5

 36 Gk. καὶ ἐμάθετε καὶ παρελάβετε; the combination only here in Paul. More often he uses the technical vocabulary of his rabbinic training (“received and handed down”; cf. 2 Thess 3:6; 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1–3). For the use of “learned” in Paul see Col 1:7; Eph 4:20; for “received” in the sense of “what has been taught” see 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; Gal 1:9, 12; Col 2:6.

 37 See 1 Thes 5:23; 2 Thes 3:16; 1 Cor 14:33; 2 Cor 13:11; Rom 15:33; 16:20; and here.

 38 So also Meyer, 209, who sees the predicate “of peace” as unmistakably pointing to the special agency of the Spirit.