I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: A Completely Misunderstood Verse
Baptist pastor and evangelist F.B. Meyer once said these words:
"If we would find content[ment], let us go to homes where women are crippled with rheumatism, or dying of cancer, where comforts are few, where long hours of loneliness are not broken by the intrusion of friendly faces, where the pittance of public charity hardly suffices for necessary need, to say nothing of comfort, it is there that contentment reveals itself like a shy flower. How often in the homes of the wealthy one has missed it, to find it in the homes of the poor! How often it is wanting where health is buoyant, to be discovered where disease is wearing out the strength! So it was with the Apostle, who was in the saddest part of his career. Bound to the Roman soldier, enclosed in some narrow apartment, in touch with only a few friends who made an effort to discover him, away from the happy scenes of earlier years, and anticipating Nero’s bar, he breaks out into these glorious expressions of equanimity. He had learned how to be abased in the valley of the shadow; he wore the flower heartsease in his buttonhole.”
It was under these circumstances that the Apostle Paul wrote the words that have become famous throughout the Christian world when he said:
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!"
Or as the New American Standard Bible and some others read:
"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me!"
Unfortunately, this is probably among the most misquoted verses in Scripture. Sadly, it isn't used in the context from which it was taken but is totally removed from it and is used to make this verse into some kind motivational mantra to tell yourself that if you want to accomplish anything in life from getting your PhD in college to winning in track and field you certainly can do it with Christ empowering you. It is invoked by the student who is trusting God to help him pass a test in school, and by an entrepreneur who wants to expand and have his first million-dollar profit from his business in a year. Indeed, many think that they can do anything they set their minds to as long as God, their own personal genie in a bottle, gives them the ability to accomplish it.
But is that what this verse is saying? Is Paul giving us all cart blanche, that is complete freedom to act as we wish or think best, and God will give us the ability to accomplish it? My answer to that, and more importantly, Paul's answer to that is a definite: "No way!"
So, what is Paul actually saying in this verse? In order to know this, we will have to put it back into the context from which it came and find out why the great apostle even said these words in the first place.
Let us begin with seeing where Paul was and why he was writing to these Philippian believers at this point in history.
I. Setting of the Philippian Letter
First of all, we must point out that at the time of the writing of this epistle to the Philippians the great Apostle Paul was in prison for his faith and for preaching the gospel of the grace of God. Most scholars believe that the letter was written around 62 A.D. when Paul was imprisoned and chained to a guard in the city of Rome. This would make this during Paul's first Roman imprisonment where he was under house arrest from which he was subsequently released.
It was during this imprisonment that he wrote all of the letters known as the prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. He was later re-imprisoned and thrown into the Mamertine prison. It is from this prison that he wrote the pastoral letter of II Timothy just before being executed by beheading, according to tradition, around 67 A.D.
Paul wrote to these believers in Philippi with whom he shared a close partnership and special affection. He also addressed the letter to the church elders and deacons there.
The apostle had established the church himself some 10 years earlier. He had done it during his second missionary journey that was recorded in Acts 16. You can tell that Paul really loves these fellow-believers by how personal he is with them in his writing.
And just why was he writing this letter to Philippi? There were actually several reasons for this inspired epistle. In the first place, he wrote to thank the believers in Philippi for a financial gift which they had sent through a man named Epaphroditus.
But sadly, at some point in his service to Paul, Epaphroditus got deathly sick and so, when he recovered Paul wanted to send this servant back to Philippi to let them know that he was now well. He mentions this fact in the letter in Philippians 2:27.
The website learnreligions.com gives us a short but sweet summary of the rest of the reasons Paul was writing. It states:
"Besides expressing thanks to the believers in Philippi for their gifts and support, Paul took the opportunity to encourage the church concerning practical matters such as humility and unity. The apostle warned them about "Judaizers" (Jewish legalists) and gave instructions on how to live a joyous Christian life."
It should be noted that the joy of the Christian experience is the dominant theme running through the entire book of Philippians. The words "joy'' or "rejoice" are used 16 times throughout this short epistle.
Now let's take some time to expand upon the themes of joy and contentment because these are also the keys to understanding what Paul meant by Philippians 4:13.
II. Paul's Themes of Joy and Contentment
In order to understand the Apostle's perspective and why he was joyous and content, we have to realize that he believed that joy and contentment aren't derived from any circumstances, whether good or bad. They can only be found, in any lasting way, by having a true and close relationship with Jesus Christ.
In Philippians 2 Paul shows the Christians that Jesus Christ is the example for all believers to follow. Through following His humility and sacrifice we can find the way to have joy in all circumstances. We can see this clearly in Philippians 2:5-11 where the apostle tells us this:
"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Through suffering and sacrifice for others, like Christ suffered and sacrificed, a Christian can find joy in their lives as well.
Paul says that joy is found in service to others as Christ served. Philippians 2:17,18 gives us this insight from the apostle's own life. He says this of Himself regarding his possible death:
"But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So, you too should be glad and rejoice with me."
We see from Philippians 3:7-9 that joy is found through true faith in Christ. After talking about his credentials and accomplishments, Paul says this to the believers:
"But whatever was gain to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith."
Finally, Paul implies that joy is found in giving to others on behalf of Christ. It is in this same context that Paul talks about the giving of finances by the Philippians for his needs while he was in prison and he utters the famous verse we are talking about, Philippians 4:13. In Philippians 4:10-13 he tells them:
"But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I know how-to live-in prosperity, in any and every circumstance. I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."
Do you see what the apostle is doing here? He is saying that he does appreciate what they have done for him, and he thanks them for it. However, he was not desperate for it. Indeed, he had learned to be content no matter what his physical circumstances happened to be at the moment. In fact, he had discovered the secret to contentment whether in physical want or in plenty. And what was the secret? The secret was Christ's strength within him to endure any situation. The apostle Paul had found his total sufficiency in Jesus Christ and not in his circumstances of life. He was able to gain strength from Jesus to endure any life events that God brought his way.
So, Paul is not saying that the Lord will help you do anything that you put your mind to be doing. He is not, as we said earlier, a genie in a bottle that gives you wishes and makes you anything you want to be. He is rather your God and Sovereign who loves you and who gives you the strength to endure any difficult circumstance you are going through, or physical need that you may have at the moment. Further, He does all of this by the strengthening power of Jesus Christ.
The truth is that God is not obligated in the least to fulfill or empower any of our selfish or self-centered plans for our lives. He does indeed have His own plans for us that will bring Him glory and will give us His joy and contentment. He will empower us to get through and endure every desperate need in our lives. And His presence will be with us every step of the way.
As I think about the real meaning of Philippians 4:13 and the fact that Jesus is with us in every situation, empowering us to endure and become all that He designed us to be, I am reminded of a poem, written by Flora Haines Loughead in 1892 for the Evening Star. It is entitled 'Footprints in the Sand.' She writes:
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
"Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You'd walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."
He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."
What about you? Have you discovered the secret of joy and contentment? Or are you seeking these blessings the way the world does by hopelessly trying to acquire possessions, visiting places or meeting some people whom you think will help you?
Instead of forever seeking joy in places where you will never find it, rather I implore you to, by faith, receive a relationship with the one who can empower you to get through every desperate need in your life? It starts by knowing Jesus as your Savior and Lord. Accept His death, burial and resurrection as your substitute for sin and give Him your life today.
After you've done that, then daily place every situation of your life, whether good or bad, into His hands and ask Jesus Christ to give you His power to handle whatever may come your way. Then with these things, rest confidently and assured, knowing that He is already working things out for your good and His glory. He is God. He is handling your problems. Because of that, you don't have to worry about a thing. That, my friends, is true joy and pure contentment. And it will bring to you a peace that surpasses all understanding!
© 2022 Jeff Shirley