Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers
(NOTE: This is the third in a series of blog posts I am doing on some of the most commonly twisted and misinterpreted verses in the Bible.)
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13, NKJV
Philippians 4:13 is one of the most beloved verses in the Bible. Sports teams emblazon it on their uniforms to inspire them to win games, and business people quote it to inspire their sales force. So what is the problem with that? A closer look at the verse shows that such interpretations violate the cardinal rule of Bible interpretation: context. So let’s put the verse back into its context and unpack it.
The apostle Paul was in jail when he wrote the letter to the Philippians. He stated in the letter that he could die there for the gospel (Philippians 1:12-13, 20-21). In the last chapter of the letter, Paul talked about his suffering in prison, and said, “…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content–whether well-fed or hungry whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13, HCSB). From the context, it is obvious that Paul was not talking about winning games or setting sales records. In fact, he didn’t even ask to change his circumstances, to break out of jail. Instead, he was talking about contentment in the midst of his circumstances.
Taken out of context, people often stress the phrase “I am able to do all things,” as if this is a guarantee that we can climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest sea. But taken in the context of Paul’s contentment, despite his imprisonment, the whole verse makes sense. The stress is not on being able to do anything, but on being able to do all things (including handling bad things) through Christ. That is, whatever I face in the physical world, I can face it with with the spiritual strength that Christ gives me.
Understanding the context does not mean Philippians 4:13 should no longer inspire you, or that it cannot be a theme for sports teams or business people. It can. It can inspire the team that has lost to get up and go again. It can inspire the business that has failed not to quit. Just remember that this verse is more about Christ than self, more about hope than hype, and more about rising from the bottom than about climbing to the top.