“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
This week’s Scripture Sabbath challenge was inspired by an article on the Christian satire website, The Babylon Bee, declaring that the context of Philippians 4:13 has been officially abandoned. Context (a biblical verse or passage’s relationship to surrounding Scripture and the rest of the Bible) matters, and it is spiritual laziness to read and apply a passage without considering how it fits into its own paragraph. Many Christians claim “promises” that God never offered simply by making their own desires the context of a passage, instead of looking at the context where God spoke something.
Philippians 4:13 is one of those verses. A few other victims of context elimination include Jeremiah 29:11 and Matthew 7:1 (probably the worst case of all). Some of these will demand upcoming posts.
Without considering a verse’s context, we make the individual reader the final authority about what the Bible means, and thus the reader becomes the final authority about truth. Essentially, the reader creates a god in his or her own image.
Take those words in Philippians 4:13 exactly as written and ignore the context. See how absurd it can become. “I can do all things!” Just think of some of the things I have wished I could do in my life:
- I want to be a professional hockey player and break all of Wayne Gretzky’s records. Guess what? I can! I can do all things!
- I want to become a successful musician, have more number-one hits than the Beatles and Elvis Presley—COMBINED—win a few dozen Grammy Awards, and play every instrument on my album. Guess what? I can! I can do all things!
- I can become the Supreme Emperor of our planet and clean up our political mess, because I can do all things!
- I can fly like Superman! Because I can do all things!
Obviously, those were all pretty absurd, but that is my point. Take Philippians 4:13 out of context, and people can claim ridiculous things. In my younger days, I would rely on it to justify my attempts at making a living in sales. The only problem was that I simply do not have the personality to be a high-pressure salesman. That is not what God molded me to become. Other people may try to apply that verse to claim success in other endeavors where they do not belong. Besides that, even if every person declares that they can do all things through Christ, only one act will win the Grammy for Song of the Year, only one person will win the 2016 Presidential election, and I doubt any of us will ever fly like Superman.
So, let us look at that verse again, in context. Note that I usually remove italics and other emphasis when posting verses from the New American Standard Bible on my blog, but I will leave them in this time. In the NASB and KJV, which both attempt to translate the original Greek and Hebrew as literally as possible, italic words indicate that the translators added the words for clarity. With all of this in mind, let us look at Philippians 4:10–14:
“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 circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also 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. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.”
As we read it now, it does not offer a promise to do the impossible or to be the world’s greatest at anything. The Greek phrase translated “I can do all things” is only two words: παντα ισχυω. Word-for-word, that is “Everything I am strong.” Paul is thanking the Philippians for sending him material resources (food, money, probably other necessities) while he was imprisoned. Paul has had money, and he has been broke in jail. He has travelled freely, and he has survived in chains. He has learned to be content in all circumstances. Whatever problems he may face, he knew he could get through it. He was strong enough for everything through Christ who strengthened him.
So, there is a great promise in Philippians 4:13, but it is not the one that many people claim. It is not a promise that you can achieve any wild fantasy that enters your mind, or accomplish some great goal that will make you rich, powerful, and popular. It is the promise that, whatever difficulties you face in life, Christ can give you the power to get through it. He will give you the strength you need to get through all of your trials.
Upcoming Scripture Sabbath challenge posts will probably address some of those other context-often-ignored passages of the Bible. I am sure I can handle those through Christ who strengthens me.
This post was written as part of the Scripture Sabbath Challenge.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.