I recently had an article published by the awesome people at “A Game for Good Christians.” If you love the Bible, and realize that there are weird things in it, this game is for you. I highly recommend it for anyone who is serious about studying the Word.
That being said, here is the link for the post I wrote, and I will include the full text below for your reading pleasure.
WE ALL MAKE STUPID LIFE CHOICES.
Whether those choices are big or small, Philippians 4:13 offers an example of being empowered in anything and everything that we do.
However, just like the Deuteronomic law requires you to cut off a woman’s hand for grabbing the genitals of her husband’s assailant, understanding a passage requires context.
Context matters when reading Philippians 4:13 because it changes the entire meaning of the passage. Just like other exhortations from Paul, we have to read Philippians 4:13 in the larger context of Paul’s letter. But first, let’s look at the danger of reading passages out of context.
Whenever you study history, you have to consider the context of whatever is happening. The American Revolution can’t fully be understood unless you look at the wars in Europe that drove up the national debt and resulted in the taxation of the colonies. Similarly, it is difficult to understand why the United States poured so much money into the space program in the 60s unless you consider the competition between the US and USSR during the Cold War.
Context is key to understanding not only historical forces, but Biblical passages as well.
If we read the Bible out of context, then we reduce it to mere nonsense, because it is a story that has a beginning, middle and end.
If we chop it up into tiny pieces, the story no longer makes sense. This is true for each book of the Biblical canon individually and corporately.
Bringing this notion back to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it is difficult to cherry pick verses out of the context without doing extreme harm to the meaning and intent of the passage.
What Paul is Really Saying
Reading the letters of Paul takes a careful attention to the context. For instance, what Paul writes to the church in Rome is different then the church in Thessalonica, and so on. Paul composes this particular letter for a few different reasons. This is what Paul covers in his letter to the church in Philippi.
- He updates them on his imprisonment and thanks them for their prayers (Philippians 1).
- He transitions to a call for unity among the Philippians. (Philippians 2)
- Paul takes on the issue of false teaching of the Judaizers. (Philippians 3)
- Paul thanks the Philippians for their gifts that have helped fund his missionary endeavors. (Philippians 4)
Which brings us to Philippians 4:13. The context of verse 13 starts back in verse 4. This section starts off by Paul saying “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (v.4) This sets up the entire section that includes v. 13 by grounding it in Paul’s encouragement to rejoice in the Lord always.
Paul then goes on to vv.5-6 where he encourages the Philippians to let their gentleness be evident to all and to present their requests to God with thanksgiving. Even when they present their requests, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to do so with a posture of thanksgiving for what God has already been doing. Notice the phrasing of v. 6, Paul says “do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your request to God.” In every situation specifically points to Paul’s urging that the Philippians approach their prayer with a sense of thanksgiving for what God has provided.
WHAT PAUL IS TRYING TO GET THE PHILIPPIANS TO THINK ABOUT IS HOW REJOICING IN THE LORD ALWAYS LEADS TO A SENSE OF CONTENTMENT.
This contentment is not a superficial accumulation of material comforts, or wealth, but a sense of peace that transcends understanding in every situation and circumstance (v. 7). Whether they experience poverty or plenty, hunger or satisfaction, if the Philippians are able to approach God with thanksgiving, the peace of contentment will be evident. This is not an empty instruction either, Paul encourages the Philippians to consider the example he has set for them.
Paul has been able to approach his work and ministry with a sense of contentment, even though he has faced persecution, poverty and imprisonment. This adds such a profound layer to what Paul is encouraging the Philippians to do because it shows that even through suffering, Paul was able to live into a sense of contentment. His own life was filled with trials and tribulations, and yet he is able to rejoice in the Lord in all circumstances.
Paul exhorts the Philippians by saying:
“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (vv. 9-12, emphasis added)
What is the source of Paul’s profound contentment? If we read ch. 4 of Philippians with Paul’s own suffering in mind, we begin to see that his contentment arises from seeing the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit among the believers. V. 12, we see Paul learned to be content in all circumstances. It didn’t come naturally, but was a gradual recognition of God’s goodness to spite his own suffering. Paul has been able to learn how to be content in any circumstance, and he is urging the Philippians to follow his example.
Context Still Matters
With this context in mind, then comes verse 13. “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” Remember, that Paul dedicated his life to Jesus and the gospel message, meaning that the things he can do through God’s strength is all things required to spread the gospel.
“What? I can’t make stupid life choices and blame Philippians 4:13?!”
If you do, then you have more issues than bad hermeneutics.
The strength that Paul speaks to is the ability to do Kingdom work amidst the pain of hunger, the worry of poverty and longing for comfort. The Greek word used for “strength” is the word ἰσχύω (pronounced is-khoo’-o), which is defined as “I have strength, am strong, am in full health and vigor, am able; I prevail.” (Strong’s Concordance) What we can draw from the context of this passage is that Paul is strengthened by God to do the work of the Kingdom by being content in all circumstances. It is out of this contentment that he is able to go about spreading the gospel, free from worry and stress associated with wealth, food and material comfort.
PHILIPPIANS 4:13, IN OTHER WORDS, IS NOT AN EXCUSE TO MAKE STUPID LIFE CHOICES IN THE NAME AND POWER OF GOD, BUT THE ABILITY TO BE STRENGTHENED AND CONTENT IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES, SO THAT WE MAY GO ABOUT GOD’S KINGDOM WORK.
When we are able to bask in the wonder of God’s provision, it frees us to do all things in the name of the One who gives us strength for the sake of the Kingdom. This strength is not for our own stupid, selfish gain, but for the glory of God’s name.
Contentment in Action
Paul realizes that what is happening around and through him are larger than his own story. He is part of spreading the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus, meaning that what he is teaching and encouraging the believers with the truth that Jesus has conquered sin and death. Paul’s message is one of hope that if you believe in the name of Jesus, you can be in personal relationship with the God of the universe, who is eagerly waiting with open arms to embrace you. When you consider the suffering and persecution that Paul endured throughout his life, is there really anything that can compare to the joy and contentment of spreading this type of saving news?
This is where Paul’s message speaks to us just as much as the Philippians. When we consider our own lives, is there any want or desire we have that can compare to the joy of sharing the good news of Jesus’ love for humanity? Does anything even come close to that?
We live in a society that tells us if we just accumulate more, then we’ll be happy. But this is a false gospel that never leads to contentment, satisfaction, or joy. It is only through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we learn to be content in all circumstances.
WE HAVE A GOD WHO LOVES US BEYOND IMAGINATION AND COMPREHENSION, IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE WE COULD EVER WANT?