Children of the 1980s and 1990s may need deliverance from what pops into our minds when we hear the word “excellent.” I know I do.
It’s nearly impossible for me not to think of the insidious, maniacal, and self-centered Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Whenever situations, people, and finances tipped in Mr. Burns’s favor, he would tent his fingers together and say, in his sinister way: “Excellent.”
Perhaps another reflex of “excellent” we need to eliminate comes courtesy of Wayne and Garth in their Wayne’s World theme song: “Party time! Excellent!” Their little riff and perpetual mundane usage of “excellent” may not be too far off for how most of us use it.
We may hear a stirring song, watch a compelling performance, or see an athletic feat that prompts us to say, “That was excellent.” Or when we finish the perfect meal at a restaurant, and the server asks how everything was, we say, “Oh, it was excellent.” This is excellence as entertainment and enjoyment. Or maybe you think of wanting to do your job with excellence—doing the work the best it can be done. This is excellence as execution.
None of this is what the apostle Paul has in mind. In Philippians 4:8, we must avoid the watered-down usage of Wayne’s World, the self-centered use of Mr. Burns, and the simple entertainment and efficiency angles of excellence.
The excellence Paul has in mind, and wants us to have in our minds, is one of “moral excellence” (CSB). He doesn’t use this word anywhere else in his writings. In the Greco-Roman social imagination, the word carries the idea of someone with an exceptional character worthy of acknowledgment and imitation, a notable virtue, even civic virtue. The angle of civic virtue is compelling for the Christians in Philippi. Philippi was classified as an official Roman colony, filled with veterans and patriots of the Roman Empire. Civic pride ran high in Philippi, as did many vices.
The excellence Paul has in mind, and wants us to have in our minds, is one of ‘moral excellence.’
Paul doesn’t want these Philippian Christians to be overwhelmed and spiritually formed by the underbelly of Philippi. Instead, Paul tells them to think about the moral excellence and virtue they see around them—wherever they can find it. Since all truth is God’s truth, all excellence is God’s excellence too—the imago Dei is not lost. Excellence echoes.
Echoes of Excellence
The Philippians could consider a veteran of the Roman army who put the lives of his fellow citizens above his own. They could think about Lydia, the seller of purple goods who undoubtedly used her wealth and station in society to help advance the gospel of the kingdom of God.
These Philippian believers could think of the humility, servanthood, and love they saw in Paul—and they are to imitate it in their lives. “Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9, CSB). Echo the excellence.
What moral excellence, noticeable character, and acknowledgeable virtue do you see around you? Look for it. Think on it. I think about my parents, who continue sacrificing, giving, and loving me, and now my family. I think about my wife, who does her job honestly, even if it costs some relational capital in the office.
There are numerous professors, pastors, and mentors who share their lives with me, open their calendars, homes, and hearts to help me. Maybe you can think of a supervisor you had who refused to join in the lewd jokes and comments about coworkers or customers. Think about that friend you can always count on.
Who can’t help but be impressed by the brother who teaches his younger brother how to handle his anger? The apostle Paul is putting his arm around us and saying, “Look around. That’s worth expressing thanks for and worth imitating.”
The Excellence of Excellencies
Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus: “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12, CSB). Whatever is commendable in others, consider how you may imitate it in the excellent power of the risen Christ.
Jesus is always the excellent, virtuous, distinguished light of the world. We are always to consider him, look to him, be formed by him (Heb. 12:1–3). The living Jesus is forming his biblical excellence in us—virtue, the fruit of the Spirit, notable character in a land of chaos. He is the Excellence of excellencies.
Jesus is always the excellent, virtuous, distinguished light of the world.
Let’s think about a greater “excellent” than Wayne’s World or a wonderful meal. Let’s think about the character of men and women who are Christians—“little Christs”—being made into the excellent character of the Lord. He has promised he will do it. “He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6, CSB). And that makes me tent my hands in prayer and proclaim, “Excellent!”