In 1992, Sara Faye and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to England. We still chuckle about a recording on the London “Tube” or “Underground” (subway) that admonished at each stop, “Mind the gap!” The voice was telling us to pay attention to the short empty space between the train and the platform, across which we had to step as we exited. “Mind”–a word of many uses. You have a mind that reminds you to mind authorities, to mind your business, and sometime not to mind irritations and slights real or imagined. The proper use of the mind (as well as the body) involves what have long been called the virtues. But it all begins with the mind, for the mind controls the body.
In New Testament times, philosophers, students and tradesmen alike discussed the virtues, defined by moderation and the absence of either excess or deficiency. This was part of the common conversation on the streets of Philippi. Little wonder that when Paul writes Philippian believers a letter, he says much about mindsets and outlooks, thought patterns, attitudes and frames of mind. Read through that short, four-chapter epistle sometime and mark every use of the words “mind,” “-minded,” “think,” “attitude, and “purpose.” In nearly every case, the original noun, verb, or adjective those words translate stems from a single Greek root, “phron.” Summing it up, Paul encourages his friends to fill their minds with whatever is true, honorable, just and pure, reputable, excellent and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). Several of those words name standard Greco-Roman virtues.
Paul’s language of Koine Greek was a legacy of Alexander the Great, a populist descendant of the classicists, put to good use every day by first-century philosophers. But Paul’s message was not the same as the philosophers’, any more than it was the message of the Jewish rabbis, although Paul’s writings contain clear signs of influence by both. The goal is not the Golden Mean of a balanced life, but life lived well to the praise of God and of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:14-16). For Paul the virtues became incarnate in Jesus (Phil. 2:5). But Jesus redefines the virtues, which still include such traits as truth, justice and beauty, but for the believer also include traits previously viewed with embarrassment or contempt, such as lowliness and humility. Now modeled by Jesus, these traits are commended in other believers and are to be imitated by all (Phil. 2:6-8; 2:19-22; 2:1-5).
Philippi was an imperial outpost–a showcase city designed to model the superior civilization of Rome. Paul borrows and applies that thought also for gospel purposes. Believers are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), he says, who model that lifestyle before fellow-residents in this dark and twisted world (Phil. 2:15). Spiritually speaking, Paul reminds us to “mind the gap”–this time, the gap between our present level of development and the goal to which God has called us in Christ (Phil. 3:12-16).