And this I pray that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11—NKJV)

There are certain words that deserve to be reserved for the upper margins of human emotion, experience, and value or they lose their true meaning as the uniqueness of the authentic article is diminished. When my children were small, I used to admonish them not to use the word hate, not because there is not an appropriate use for the word, but that it deserves to be reserved for those things that stand out in stark distinction from the run-of-the-mill, humdrum dislikes. The same should be said about the hackneyed use of words like awesome, amazing, and, most certainly, excellent.

The root of excellent is excel, meaning to raise, to raise oneself, surpass, literally—to rise out of, project. Excellent, therefore, is reserved for a thing unusually good for its kind, of exceptional merit and virtue. There are several Greek words which are translated by the word excellence in the New Testament. One word is huperecho, meaning to have over, surpassing or be better than others, found in 1 Peter 2:13 and Romans 13:1 referring to those who are in political authority and so stand out over their people. This is the word most often translated as excellence in the book of Philippians (2:3, 3:8, and 4:7).

The word translated excellence in our passage above is diaphero, meaning to differ, things that are different than the rest. The idea of the word reminds me of the preschool game that requires a child to pick out of four items the one that is different. Our text brings this challenge to the adult level where a believer is to approve things that are surpassingly different. The need is to discern the vital, delicate, and fine points that distinguish, and then to embrace the things that are superior. Believers need to rightly assess those things that are of real importance and thus establish right priorities and pursue them. Paul demonstrates what this quality looks like using the other word that is found in the other three texts sited in the paragraph above. It is a quality that stands out above the rest.

In my thirty-seven years of ministry, I find that believers tend to downplay their worth and “settle” rather than pursue perfection and excellence. I am not sure what this behavior stems from but I am certain that it belittles and underestimates the purposes of Christ in saving and sanctifying them. Ephesians  1:4–6 states, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love having predestined us to adoption of sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.” 2 Thessalonians 1:12 reads, “That the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We are implored to think of ourselves, not with a haughty spirit, but to think soberly (utilizing sound, balanced, biblically-informed judgment; Romans 12:3) assessing ourselves as God does with a view to the purpose to which God has called us. This is a call to strive for excellence and not to settle for fourth, third, or even second best. God calls His children to strive to be the best (Philippians 3:7–14) “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” His method of striving for excellence was serious, decisive, and ambitious as you will see upon a quick perusal of 1 Corinthians 9:24–27. The author of Hebrews 12:1 reminds us to lay aside every weight and sin which easily ensnares, and to run with endurance the race that is set before us. Strive for excellence in all things and, along the way, choose those things which excel.

How, you may ask? There is a hint found in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure [Jesus Christ] in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Chose and instill in your heart the taste for godly excellence and out of your mouth and life will flow praise worthy of the most High God (Romans 10:9–10, Luke 6:45). Never settle—excellence in heart will lead to excellence in life. Trust and obey.