Philippians 4:13: What Did Paul Really Mean?

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Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is one exuding with great joy, praise and adoration. In this epistle, you encounter words like “rejoice in the Lord” (3:1); “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (4:4). What is most fascinating is that Paul wrote these words while in prison. The epistle to the Philippians, therefore, is one of Paul’s prison epistles. Now it is fascinating because, in our normal human reasoning, a man in prison shouldn’t be exuding with such admonishments to be joyful. John MacArthur notes that “In spite of Paul’s imprisonment, the dominant tone of the letter is joyful (1: 4, 18, 25, 26; 2: 2, 16– 18, 28; 3: 1, 3; 4: 1, 4, 10)”¹. Philippians without doubts contains great themes not only of joy, but also of the humiliation of Christ and the great exchange that took place:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him a name that is above every name, so 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.

Here is a Christological statement telling us of the humility, humiliation, and exaltation of Christ. Albeit, despite these great themes, there is one text in Philippians which is often widely quoted, and often widely misinterpreted. That text is Chapter 4:13. It reads,

I can do all things through him[Christ] who strengthens me.

Paul’s words here have been interpreted to basically mean the ability to achieve great feats in whatever endeavour a believer sets their minds to. A believer has exams to write, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me“. A believer is attending a job interview, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me“. A Christian businessman is chasing a contract, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” A believer competes in a sports event, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me“. An online article aptly describes how this text has been used in the sports arena by some athletes.

Tim Tebow put Phil 4:13 under his eye before football games. Jon Jones, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, has it tattooed on his chest.

What we must not do is pluck biblical texts out of context to say what we want them to say. Unfortunately, that is what many believers have done with Philippians 4:13. In hermeneutics, that is, the science of biblical interpretation, this is called eisegesis—reading into a text a meaning that is not there. On the contrary, we must be doing exegesis—reading meaning out of the text. Now, it doesn’t matter how sincere we may be with a text; once it is taken out of context we are being unfaithful to God’s word.

So, you may ask, how must we view Philippians 4:13? In dealing with any biblical text, the immediate context and the larger context of the bible is to be taken into consideration. We shouldn’t, for example, interpret a text in such a way that other passages of Scripture are contradicted. Thus, in the immediate context of Philippians 3, what do we learn?

Not A Booster for Great Achievements

Firstly, Paul’s words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” should not be taken to mean the believer can do any great thing they set their minds to. In fact, with a correct understanding of the text, I dare say “you cannot do all things through Christ who strengthens you.” Eyebrows raised? Of course, the text says exactly that so why am I saying otherwise?
Please hear me out. The fact is, Christ doesn’t empower you to be able to do ‘everything’ you want to do. If you are not a trained surgeon, for example, you cannot perform a surgery simply because you believe “you can do all things through Christ”. This may sound an extreme example but that is a perfect picture you paint if you believe you can do all things. You cannot pilot a plane if you have not been trained to do so, simply because you can do all things. In fact, you cannot fly because you believe you can fly. You are not a bird.

It has been noted earlier that Philippians is a prison epistle. Think of this: what greater feats is a man in prison attempting to achieve when he writes “I can do all things…?” No, Paul cannot do all things in the sense of achieving whatever great feat he can set his mind to. This is someone in prison, who is probably bound in shackles and couldn’t even move about freely. Achieving arbitrary great feats will not be his focus at that time. A man in prison will perhaps be making good use of the limited time he has. He wouldn’t be having “conquering the world in great achievements” on his plate at all.

Contentment

In Philippians 4:13, what Paul is speaking about condenses simply into contentment. You see, Paul is in prison and the Philippian church have finally had an opportunity to show their concern for his upkeep: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity” (v.10). It could be that perhaps hitherto, they had not had the opportunity to show their concern to Paul in prison, yet, through divine providence, it had become possible and Paul shows gratitude for their concern. However, perhaps for them not to feel compelled under duress to further provide for him, Paul quickly explains he is not appreciating them out of need. He tells them: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be a content” (v.11).

Paul here makes it clear he has learnt contentment in whatever situation he finds himself. And this is the crux of the whole text: contentment. Building up to v.13 Paul will again speak of how he has learnt contentment in every situation: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (v.12). This is very instructive to us today in a world that constantly calls us to crave for more. A consumerist spirit has gripped many and they are never content with what they have. But not so with Paul. He tells us he has learnt to endure both plenty and lack. Where did he learn this from? He learnt it by emulating Christ. Remember, earlier he had advised the Philippians to “have this mind among [themselves], which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Learn from Christ, he is saying. Set your mind upon him. Let his humiliation be an example to endure whatever situation you find yourself. Be content with whatever you have and learn to trust in God in the bad and good situations.

Logically, if you have read v.12, the meaning in v.13 must now begin to stand out when Paul says “I can do all things through him[Christ] who strengthens me.” The ‘all things’ refers in the first place to coping with need or plenty. The apostle’s words are better translated ‘I can do all things in him…’. It is ‘in Christ’ that he has learned to do this.² If you have never seen contentment in Philippians 4:13; begin looking at the text in its context. I will conclude with the words of Sinclair B. Ferguson in his book ‘Let’s Study Philippians’:

Christians today live in a society which is permeated by a spirit of discontentment. Greed has destroyed gratitude, getting has replaced giving. But in the pursuit of self-sufficiency, we have lost our way. We have developed spirits driven forwards to gain more, incapable of slowing, stopping and remembering that those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind…It is time to pause and to ask: ‘Am I content, in Christ?’ If not, it is the first thing I need to begin to relearn³.

Notes:

1. Note on Philippians 4:13 from The MacArthur Study Bible, 2006, Thomas Nelson.

2. Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Philippians (Edinburgh:Banner of Truth, 2005), 108

3. Ferguson, Let’s Study Philippians, 109

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