Twisted Scripture - Philippians 4:13
Philippians 4:13 – I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (NASB)
As we dive into our series on some of the most commonly misused Scriptures, this post will also introduce you a bit to the format these posts are going to utilize. As a result, I want to warn you up front, this post is a quite a bit longer than what you are used to here at BEYOND. I promise, they wont’ all be this long so I hope you will stick with me this week and join in for the rest of the series!
I’ll start off with the verse and ask you to ponder for just a moment the context in which you have most commonly heard the verse be used or have used it yourself. Is it posted someplace in your home or work? Highlighted in your Bible? What has the verse meant to you?
The goal in looking at how these verses have been misused is not to take away any power or personal significance they have had in your personal faith journey. Rather, the goal of this series to encourage you discover the deeper meaning and power behind these verses when their original intent is more clearly understood. Imagine, for a moment, the most powerful piece of construction equipment you have seen. Perhaps it is a giant bulldozer or an insanely tall crane or super heavy duty dump truck. Now imagine showing up at a work site and seeing that giant piece of equipment only being used to move an empty child’s wagon around from one place to another. That’s it. And when you asked the supervisor why this is happening, he tells you that is all the machine is capable of doing. In fact, he is insistent and certain that this giant, powerful piece of equipment will break down if it is expected to do anything more. Furthermore, his certainty has now convinced most of his crew that the machine can only more this one small object from place to place and so they now only use the machine to do that one task.
You would wonder how that supervisor ever got his job and how he continues to hold onto his job. Clearly any piece of construction equipment is capable of so much more than moving a child’s wagon. To limit it to such a task would be considered pure insanity by most of us. When we limit Scripture to only meaning something which makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, or to only meaning something which proves the point we want to make, we are doing to the Bible what the supervisor is doing to his construction equipment. We are limiting it to only a fraction of the power to change lives it is designed to contain.
So let’s start with pondering for a moment our verse for this week: Philippians 4:13. Do you have it posted someplace? When have you offered it as a word of encouragement to someone else? When have this verse been quoted to you to encourage you? What does it, at first glance, mean to you?
After a moment to ponder, we are going to jump into how the verse is most commonly misused. When it comes to Philippians 4:13, one of its most common misuses is as a sort of mystical incantation recited when one feels they need to draw on God’s power to defeat an enemy or complete a difficult task. The “all things” of this verse for many Christians has come to refer to fulfilling their dreams and embracing their destinies. Do you want that promotion at your job? Looking for that perfect man or woman of your dreams? Need to get a good grade on that next exam? No problem. You can, after all, accomplish “all things through Christ.”
Even more sadly is when this verse is misused to push those agendas which it seems would, without question, be God’s plan for one’s life or ministry. Too often there is a desire to do something big for the kingdom of God. It might be start a particular ministry or pursue work with a specific population. One of the misuses I personally see which angers me is when, towards the end of what is known to be a mountaintop or emotional faith experience, teens and young adults in particular are pressured to take what they are feeling as a sign that they are meant to go into full time ministry with that particular organization.
These organizations often require their staff to raise 100% of their salary and other expenses. I’m not saying that is right or wrong here, I’m saying that’s a big task for most young adults. I’m saying it is a commitment no one should undertake in the midst of an emotional and spiritual high. Too often, instead of sending these young adults home for a few weeks or months with a requirement to meet and praying with several people who speak truth into their lives before making any decisions, any hesitancy to commit is meant with, “Don’t worry about it, you can do all things through Christ! He will make sure the money comes in if you are just willing to trust him.”
We have to remember that Philippians 4:13 is NOT meant as a promise that God will give us the strength to follow our dreams and desires or even to carry out His purposes. It isn’t saying that any challenge you face you will be able to overcome because of your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. It is not meant to be used as something you offer up as a quick prayer before running headfirst into the battlefield of life.
So what is this verse actually saying? What is it actually teaching? This is the question we will be asking next of all of our Scripture passages. And the best place to start in answering that question is to drop it back into context by taking a look at a few things. First, take a look at the verses surround the verse in question. Read the paragraph or even the entire chapter. What is happening just before and after the verse? Next, consider the type of writing you are reading. Are you reading from the books of the Law or are you reading the words of the prophets? Are you reading a letter written to the Early Church or are you reading from the Gospels? This is important because it leads into the next question: Who was the original audience?
While the Bible certainly is relevant for us today, it was originally written for a specific audience during a certain time in history and who lived in a culture very different from our own today. These realities shaped how Scriptures were not only written but also put together to become what we know as the Christian Bible today. We have to remember, for example, that women were seen as little more than property of their fathers and husbands whose value was found in cooking, cleaning, and producing male heirs so why teach them to read or write? We have to remember that, in reading the Old Testament, Jesus had not yet arrived and paid the price for humanities sin so their connection to God was through worship at the local Jewish temple.
Finally, it is often helpful to compare how the verse is translated into English by looking at three or more different Bible translations. As anyone who speaks multiple languages can tell you, translation work isn’t always an exact science. It is rarely a word for word match up. Some of that is due to differing rules of grammar. For example, many languages have feminine and masculine nouns which influence how verbs interact with them. Some of the challenges in translation work come from the reality that one language will have a word for a feeling, emotion, or experience the other language doesn’t and so a description has to be substituted, or a less precise word used.
This is also where regional dialects and slang terms come into play making translation work more difficult. Next up, you’ll likely have to navigate, to some extent, differing alphabets and symbols used in the various languages. And finally, once you have navigated all of those challenges, keep in mind that Biblical languages are ancient languages which have undergone thousands of years of slowing shifting changes in how they are both written and spoken. Just as it is hard for today’s teen to read and understand Shakespeare because of the “old English” used, so it is hard for today’s speaker of Greek or Hebrew to go back to and read and understand those languages as were written more than 2000 years ago.
With these guidelines in mind, let’s get back to Philippians 4:13 by first looking at it with the larger context of Philippians 4:
10 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. 11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. 14 Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
15 You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; 16 for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. 17 Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. 18 But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Verses 12-14 stand out to me as a particularly relevant group. “In EVERY CICUMSTANCE I have learned the secret….I can do all things through Him…..share with me in my AFFLICTION.” Paul isn’t talking about getting a raise at work, he is talking about having faced some challenges in his ministry. What are those challenges? Thankfully, with so much available electronically, you don’t have to have a wall full of Biblical commentaries to learn more about what is happening behind the scenes as the letter to the Philippians was being written. The Bible Project is a particularly good resource when it comes to giving clear, concise, and yet incredibly informative overviews of any book in the Bible. If you are still with me, and can spare 9 minutes and 13 seconds, check out their video on the book of Philippians by clicking HERE.
To sum up our context, Paul is a key figure in planting the church in Philippi and so, despite not having email or social media, they stay in touch with him through his missionary journeys. As a result, they know that Paul is currently in prison and send one of their members to bring him food and care for him while he is in prison. Paul is writing back to his friends to thank them and encourage them. Specifically in chapter 4, Paul is reflecting on some of what he has learned including that in BOTH times of struggle (such as being in prison) and in times of plenty (such as being hosted in one of their homes when he visited), the secret to being content with what you have in life is to rely on God. This is an important message for the church in Philippi as they were located on a major trade highway which linked Aegean and Adriatic Seas. Because of this strategic location, the Roman government kept a close eye on what was happening and the spread of Jesus’ message was not something they were super excited about.
Additionally, Philippi was a city where people were able to make money. If we look back to the book of Acts, in chapter 16 we meet the first member of the church Paul establishes there, a woman named Lydia. She is introduced to us a dealer in purple cloth, a cloth only the most wealthy of the world could afford due to the challenges in being able to dye fabric into deep purple colors at the time. This meant she could not only name her price, but that she also was connected to very rich, powerful, influential people. Knowing this wealthy woman, and her family, were the first to be baptized into the Christian faith and were key in establishing the church in Philippi, helps us begin to understand why Paul, writing from prison, is pointing to Jesus as his source of contentment and strength rather than early pleasures or possessions.
So how do we more correctly use this verse? This will be the final wrap up question for each verse in the series. When it comes to Philippians 4:13, the main consideration is to remember that it isn’t about a single moment in time, a single challenge or obstacle. Rather, it is about a lifestyle. It is about the big picture of your life. Additionally, it is a reminder that it can be just as hard to live the life God has called us to when things are going well as it is when things are hard. In fact, I’ve known lots of people in full time ministry who have argued that the hardest people to talk to about Jesus as those who seem to have everything they could ever want or need because they don’t have an obvious need for a Savior. Consider this verse a challenge to trust in God regardless of your circumstances. Turn to it not only when things are hard, but when things are going great. Let it remind you to ask yourself, every day, “Am I trusting God or myself today?”
- Treat yourself! You made it the end of a long post!
- Take some time this week to read the entire book of Philippians (it isn’t long, I promise!). What else stands out to you in the book? How does reminding yourself of what else in the Philippians help you put Philippians 4:13 into a better context?
- If you haven’t before, explore some of the great resources available from The Bible Project.
“Philippians 4:13: How many Christians Misuse the Iconic Verse” by Jonathan Merritt, posted on ReligionNews.com
“Do You Misuse Philippians 4:13?” by Kathy Howard, posted on KathyHoward.org
“The Meaning of Philippians 4:13” by Dr. Lynn H Cohick, posted on ZondervanAcademic.com
“Introduction, Background, and Outline to Philippians” by Greg Herrick, posted on Bible.org