Friday, December 4, 2020

Philippians 4:13: Can I Really Do All Things Through Christ?


            The difficulty with understanding and applying Scripture is often due to the distance in time and culture from that of the original writers and readers. The tendency to isolate memorable verses from their context provides a kind of “sound-bite” theology. The risk of this approach is a misapplication of biblical truth. At times, a verse taken out of context could be used to infer the opposite of its original meaning. An example of this inclination is found in the statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13 NKJV).[1] This passage has been interpreted to mean, “Any achievement I have had belongs not to me but to the One who gave me strength.”[2] Gordon Fee cautions that when removed from its context, this verse becomes “a kind of eternal ‘gnomic’ promise of Christ’s help for any and everything, sometimes in a triumphalistic way that stands in total contradiction to its intent.”[3]

            The Christian experience in 21st century North American culture is far from the experience of persecution and hardship faced by the first-century church. Even in our world today, the persecution of believers is a reality that can be difficult to comprehend. In a prosperous culture that is success-driven, this verse not only loses the intended impact, but the application can become distorted and even abused to suggest a means to achieve personal ambitions. This contemporary appropriation of Philippians 4:13 has even become commercialized and sold on athletic apparel, motivational posters, and jewelry. Is this biblical statement an inspirational slogan for those desiring achievement? Or is it an acknowledgment that I can overcome any great adversity only with Christ’s help? Digging deeper into the historical-cultural context, and the textual context of Philippians reveals a more profound truth. 


A Culture of Friendship

            The significance of Philippians 4:13 is rooted in the occasion for writing the letter which becomes clear in Philippians 4:10-20. In concluding his letter Paul expresses joy and gratitude for the Philippian’s generosity in sending a gift of support while he is imprisoned in Rome: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it”  (Phil. 4:10 NRSV). This gift was sent with Epaphroditus (Phil. 4:18), who also cared for Paul’s needs while he was a prisoner (Phil. 2:25). Paul then expresses his primary interest in the relationship by saying that it is, “not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account” and that the Philippian’s financial gift is “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:18-19).

It is interesting to look at the cultural expectations within the Greco-Roman understanding of friendship as it related to the reciprocal practices of giving and receiving gifts.[4] These cultural concepts of friendship are implicit in the word koinonia or fellowship. This kind of friendship involved unity and equality, sharing materially and spiritually, and mutual obligation.[5] This understanding is seen in Paul’s words, “it was kind of you to share (koinonia) my distress . . . when I left Macedonia, no church shared (koinonia) with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone” (Phil. 4:14-15). This friendship sharing was expressed by the Philippians in sending a gift and Paul reciprocates by sending his trusted helpers, Timothy and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:19-30). Stephen Fowl concludes that Paul has “re-narrated the context” that governs the Greco-Roman conventions of giving and receiving of gifts as Paul sets the view of the financial gift into theological terms.[6] Their gifts are an offering to God, and the reciprocation of the gift will also come from God (Phil. 4:18-19). It is in the middle of this expression of thanks that we find the familiar words of Philippians 4:13 as Paul discloses a personal assessment of his life.


The Context of All Things

            The first Greek word of Philippians 4:13 is the adjective πάντα (panta), translated “all things,” There is a temptation to imply that “all things” means “everything I do” or “anything I want to do.”[7] However, when viewed in the immediate textual context of Philippians 4:10-20, a narrower reference to “all things” emerges.[8] Wanting his Philippian friends to know that the reason for his joy is not simply because the gifts met his current physical need, Paul reveals that his life experiences have brought him to a place of contentment:

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. (Phil. 4:11-14).


It must be noted that “all things” is part of the concluding phrase of Paul’s linguistically creative explanation for his joy and contentment as he says, “I know both what it is to have little (to be humble)[9], and I know what it is to have plenty.” For Paul, his entire life experience involved various times of plenty and need. Paul is not suggesting that either poverty or wealth are a virtue. Contentment, regardless of one’s financial condition, is the true virtue that Paul has in mind.

Paul further expands his thought with the phrase, ἐν παντὶ καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν μεμύημαι, (lit. in everything and in all things I have learned the secret).[10] The rhythmic phrasing continues as Paul more specifically qualifies the spectrum of his life experience in which he has learned to be content: having been both well-fed and hungry, having plenty and being in need. The contextual fact that “all things” is not referring to personal achievement or goals is supported by how Paul reflects on his life achievements. Earlier he says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). Paul theologically reframes the view of material need and abundance to be that of contentment regardless of circumstances. 


Having a Can-Do Attitude

Homer Kent emphasizes that it is significant that Paul had to learn this secret because “contentment is not natural” for most people.[11] Once learned, a special inner-strength is needed to live every day with such a perspective. The second word in verse 13 is ἰσχύω (ischyō), which is translated in most English versions as “I can do.” The verb σχύω means “I have strength”[12] If this were the end of the sentence, Paul’s words may sound much like the Stoic philosophers for whom strength for contentment came from one’s self-sufficiency.[13] But Paul barrows the Stoic philosophy and changes the focus from one’s self as the source of inner strength, to Christ by saying, ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντι, (in the one who strengthens me).[14] Fee further suggests that the translation of ἐν τῷ be “in the one” rather than “through the one,” to avoid suggesting agency and “a kind of triumphalism that ‘when … empowered by Christ, nothing was beyond [Paul’s] capabilities.’”[15]

A more contextually literal translation of Philippians 4:13 emerges: “In all things (humble poverty or abounding wealth) I have strength in (Christ) the one strengthening me.” Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians is not about accomplishment, but contentment in any materially quantifiable circumstance. The context is not that of achieving personal goals but in the joy of giving to others. Paul appropriates the Stoic philosophy of contentment but changes the secret power source of inner strength to dependency in Christ. Cultural measures of wealth and want are not the standard of significance in the life of the Christian. It is a trust in Christ regardless of our circumstance. 


Implications for Today

There are a few considerations that derive from Paul’s statement that, “in all things, I am strong in the one strengthening me.” First, is the proper perspective of achievement and success for the Christian today. God’s definition of success is not like that of the culture. As Paul’s entire life testifies, contentment with the circumstances of life is a far greater Christian virtue. This is not simply a detachment from reality, but a perspective and world view that acknowledges that the spiritual relationship with Christ holds precedence. In this release from achievement as a measure of self-worth and value, we are free to seek what Christ calls us to do without the shame of failing by the world’s standards. 

            The second consideration is the understanding of the koinonia relationship of believers within the church both locally and globally. For Paul, true Christian friendship was a partnership in the Gospel (Phil. 1:5). It included the mutual responsibility to care for one another, not just in the local church, but for those in other places. This practice of bonded friendship most certainly was necessary for both the spread of the gospel and the mutual survival of the early church. Today for the North-American church, survival usually means remaining in existence, while in many other countries it means overcoming eminent persecution. A greater outward focus and understanding of what Christians in other countries must face can help bring perspective. Finding ways to partner with persecuted churches can bring a renewed sense of mission and purpose.

            There is also a more personal note for leaders in ministry and the church. If we take Paul’s teaching to heart, we conclude as James Howell does that, “Leadership is letting go: a refusal of possession, control or manipulation, an offering to God. Letting go must be the secret to leadership, since it is the secret of all of life; the results are those immeasurables like contentment, gratitude, and the flourishing of others.”[16] We must ask ourselves if we can be content with what we have. How willing are we to trust God and his provision for our livelihood and ministry success? How willing are we, both as individuals and churches, to give not just from our abundance, but sacrificially with a joyful and humble heart for the mission of Christ? Can I really say, “in all things, I am strong in the one who strengthens me?”

[1]. The use the NKJV of the Philippians 4:13 here is due to its familiarity and use in popular Christian culture.


[2]. M. J. Edwards, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, vol. 8, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2005), 271. Edwards is quoting John Chrysostom, Interpretatio Omnium Epistularum Paulinarum. Edited by F. Field. Oxford: Clarendon, 1849-1862, 5:161.


[3]. Gordon D. Fee author, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan ; Cambridge, England: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 654. 

[4]. Stephen Fowl, “Know Your Context: Giving and Receiving Money in Philippians,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology; Richmond 56, no. 1 (January 2002): 45. 


[5]. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Making Connections: The Material Expression of Friendship in the New Testament,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology; Richmond 58, no. 2 (April 2004), 159. Johnsons presents a comprehensive look at the Greco-Roman practices of friendship as played out in the first-century church. His thesis is that the entire understanding of koinonia friendship was a culturally prevalent practice of the church.  


[6]. Fowl, 45.


[7]. The temptation to give the verse a broader application is not a contemporary practice. Marvin Vincent in his exegetical commentary from the mid-1800’s is suggestive to a broader meaning of πάντα ἰσχύω in saying, “’I can do all things’ Not only the things just mentioned, but everything.” Marvin Richardson Vincent, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of the Philippians and to Philemon (T&T Clark, 1897), 145.


[9]. The verb ταπεινόω (tapeinoó) meaning “to humble” has the metaphorical sense of “to be of humble means” or “to have little.” It is used on Phil. 4:11 in the passive to mean “one who submits to want.” Paul uses the verb in Phil. 2:8 in the verb earlier in the active to refer to Christ “humbling himself.” Thayer’s, “ταπεινόω,”, Kent points out that the double use of οἶδα καὶ. . .  οἶδα καὶ is the “both . . . and” construction. Kent, Homer Jr., “Philippians,” In Ephesians – Philemon, Vol. 11, The Expositors Bible Commentary: With New International Version, ed. Frank E. Gæbelein, (Grand Rapides: Zondervan, 1978), 155.


[10]. The original variations of the adjective, πᾶς, πᾶσα, πᾶν is found in verses 12 and 13 in both a singular form (παντὶ) and plural (πᾶσιν). The phrase in verse 12 has the sense of “in every [particular] situation and in all situations as a whole.” Kent, 154. The word μεμύημαι (learned the secret) only appears here in Philippians but has cultural usage that indicates the learning of a mystery. It is used universally as, "to teach fully, instruct; to accustom one to a thing; to give one an intimate acquaintance with a thing.” Thayer’s, “μυέω,”

[11]. Kent, 154.


[12]. Thayer’s, “ἰσχύω,”


[13]. Kent 154. Fee, 353. For a perspective of how Paul may have had a closer affinity toward Stoic thought see Robert Murry 2007 PhilippiansThe Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Muddiman and John Barton. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 1180.


[14]. While the name “Christ” does not have reliable manuscript evidence for its inclusion, Christ is the one Paul has in mind. A connection can be made to this indication in 1 Timothy 1:12. Paul uses the verb ἐνδυναμόω in saying, Χάριν ἔχω τῷ ἐνδυναμώσαντί με Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ τῷ κυρίῳ ἡμῶν, (I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord). Kent, 155.


[15]. Fee, 654.


[16]James C. Howell, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells us About Powerful Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017) Kindle Edition, 13.