Misusing Scripture: Philippians 4:13

Today, we return to our series on “Misusing Scripture” with what is probably the first verse to pop into most people’s minds when they think about verses yanked out of context: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." 

It makes sense why it's so popular. It’s a punchy little verse that appears to be applicable to just about anything. After all, it says “I can do all things.” It's sort of a patron saint of verses for Christian athletes, a good luck charm to be painted on locker room walls or emblazoned on eye black. But it's got even broader appeal than that. Why not include academics and finances in there? 

In essence, the popular interpretation goes something like this: With Christ empowering me, there’s nothing I can’t achieve. Whether it’s financial, physical, relational, or academic, so long as I’m trusting Christ and pleasing Him, He’ll enable me to meet my goals. 

So what’s wrong with the way this verse is often understood? 

For one thing, it presents Jesus simply as a means to my ends. “All things” means “all the things I want to achieve.” Jesus is just there to help me get where I want to go. He's just the Toyota Camry to get me to Orlando. But here’s a problem: the Jesus of the Bible is presented as the Sovereign Lord before whom we must bow. He's not the vehicle for getting me where I want to go; He's the driver and the destination. He demands that we forsake our sin and embrace a cross in order to be His followers. His great passion is not the achievement of my dreams, but the furtherance of His glory. He's to be our aim in all things. 

But there’s another problem with this common interpretation: it gives an unrealistic expectation of the Christian life. I was the most Christian kid on the Little League team. I witnessed to my teammates. I prayed while I was batting. I never missed church to play games. And yet, my hitting was so bad the coach sent me to get my eyes checked. It turns out, my eyes were just fine. So was the promise of Philippians 4:13 a lie? Was my faith defective? Or was I just bad at baseball? 

If Philippians 4:13 promises success, what happens when your new business venture goes belly-up in the toxic waters of a global pandemic or a national recession? What happens when you get an F on your accounting test, or crumple under the pressure of public speaking for the first time? Either you blame Jesus, since He promised to make you successful, or you blame yourself, because you probably just didn’t have enough faith. Such unrealistic expectations create fertile soil for disillusionment.  

So what does it mean? 

I’m glad you asked. The key to understanding any verse of Scripture is, of course, context. Context is king. So let’s take a quick look at the context. 

The letter to the Philippians is written by the apostle Paul during his first Roman imprisonment. It is, in one sense, an extended “thank you” note to the church at Philippi because of their generous love gift to Paul. In fact, Philippians 4:10-19 expresses Paul’s joy at receiving the love gift from the church. Although he does not say the words “thank you,” Paul declares his joy in receiving the gift from the church and praises God for using the Philippians church to be blessing to him. 

Throughout the letter, Paul has expressed his joy in Christ, but now it seems almost as if his joy is actually in money. So, in 4:11-14, he goes off on an aside to explain that, as grateful as he is for the church’s generosity, his joy and contentment is found in Christ, not his circumstances.  

“Contentment” was a term often used by the Stoics of Paul’s day. By it, they meant that a man should be able to resist the power of circumstances and be entirely self-sufficient. Unlike the Stoics, Paul did not find contentment through human reason but in a divine relationship. He does not mean “self-reliant” but “Christ-reliant.” Thus, Paul makes it clear that his love and joy is not a mercenary love. He doesn't delight in the Philippians simply because they send him money from time to time. 

Verse 12 now reveals the extent of this contentment: in both poverty and prosperity, in both feast and famine. It's a contentment that's as constant Christ Himself. This verse unpacks the “whatever circumstance” of the previous verse. Paul has “learned the secret” of contentment; he’s got insider knowledge that enables him to have this amazing contentment in all circumstances. 

So what’s the secret? Verse 13 answers that question: “I can do all things through Christ.” The “all things” of verse 13 are the same “all things” verse 12. That is the key to avoiding the common misunderstandings of this verse. We are not free to load up the “all things” of verse 13 with whatever we feel like. It’s already been defined for us as “contentment in all kinds of crazy circumstances,” not "success at whatever goal I have for myself."  

This amazing contentment is found “in the One strengthening me” (πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με). Paul’s contentment is not that of detached reason, but dependent relationship. He wasn’t a stone-hearted, stiff upper-lip kind of guy. If you think that, just read the rest of Philippians. Contentment, Paul declares, is found "in Christ." It is the result of the ongoing strengthening work of Jesus in our souls (present participle). 

It’s worth noting that the preposition here is ἐν. While it could convey a dative of means (“by/through”), it could also convey the idea of being “in Christ.” In short, “in Him” summarizes all the benefits of the gospel. When I am saved, I am united to Christ by faith. His righteousness is imputed to my account; His glory is guaranteed to me; His wealth and worth cover my sin. In fact, Philippians 3:9 defines being “in Him” as having Christ’s imputed righteousness. Being in Christ, means being declared righteous in God’s sight and being fully accepted by Him. It means that I am both justified and adopted, being placed into God’s family as a son. 

As a result, those who have been justified can enjoy an intimate relationship with Christ, the kind of relationship unpacked in Philippians 3:10: “That I may know Him.” This is the kind of relationship that is so overjoyed by Jesus that it can happily let go of anything and everything else “for the surpassing worth of knowing Him” (3:8). Christ Himself is the greatest Treasure, not just a means to some other treasure. 

As I pursue Jesus, He continually strengthens me internally. He doesn't just zap us with imputed righteousness and then leave us, but He continually strengthens us by His presence to walk with Him through life's ups and downs. 

His presence is the basis of our joy and contentment in life. You may lose your freedom, but you won’t lose Jesus. You may lose your house, but you won’t lose Jesus. You may lose your spouse, but you won’t lose Jesus. You may lose your retirement, but you won’t lose Jesus. Philippians 4:13 says to us, “Jesus is better. Jesus is enough. Jesus is here.” So while Philippians 4:13 doesn’t promise success in life’s ventures, it promises something so much better: a soul-enriching relationship with Jesus Christ. Indeed, God reserves His best gifts for those who make Him their Greatest Treasure. This is the key to contentment. 



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