Recently, I’ve had the privilege of preaching through the book of Philippians at my local church. It has been a real rich blessing since Philippians is a rather well known epistle in evangelical circles. The short epistle has so many often-quoted passages in evangelicalism (Phil 1:6, 21; 2:3-4, 6-11, 12-13; 3:7-11; 4:4, 8-9). Yesterday, we covered the paragraph (4:10-14) which contains another famously quoted passage, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (4:13).
This verse receives a lot of attention because of its devotional value, yet it is often misunderstood. For many, this passage may seem to advocate a form of Christian triumphalism. On its surface, isolated from its context, readers may think Paul is teaching that everything is within the grasp of a Christian’s capabilities. Some use the passage to claim success over any obstacle. For example, may a Christian who aims at a promotion at work be confident they will be promoted because Christ strengthened him or her to do so? Can a Christian who so desperately need finances be confident they will win the lottery because they bought the ticket in Jesus’ name?
This position creates a lot of problems when circumstances do not lead to “success.” Christians who whole-heartedly believe they would succeed in the name of Christ but end up failing feel discouraged. Perhaps their faith was not enough? Perhaps Christ was too weak for the task? Perhaps God Word was wrong?
These reasons should force us to look more closely at the passage in its proper context and setting. We must go back to the passage and really ask, “what did Paul intend when writing this passage?” By answering that question, readers can avoid this often devastating misinterpretation and misapplication of God’s sufficient word.
Readers should draw their attention to two interpretive tools to help give us a clearer picture of what Paul intends. First, readers should accurately read the passage in its context. Second, readers should accurately understand the meaning of “all things.”
- Context. Sound Bible interpretation always requires attention to context. Here, Philippians 4:13 falls under a broader section (4:10-20) where Paul largely speaks of the Philippian church’s care for him (4:10, 18) while he sits in Roman imprisonment. In the immediate context, Paul speaks of his contentment in the varying economic circumstances of poverty and riches (vv. 11-12).
- Word-Study. What does Paul mean when he says, “all things”? On the surface it may seem simple, “all things” should mean everything. Yet, a closer look at Paul’s use of the term may paint a different picture. In this section (vv. 10-14) Paul uses the idea of “all” three times. Paul’s two previous uses of “all” occur in verse 12 where he speaks of contentment “in any [all] and every [all] circumstances.” Therefore, Paul’s use of “all things” causes the readers to recall these previous uses which come in the context of his varying economic experiences of poverty and riches.
These two simple arguments should create a clearer picture of what Paul is teaching: Christians are empowered by Christ to be content in every economic circumstance that God has ordained for them to experience.
The above interpretation is given in its strict context, but could the scope of the text have wider implications or applications? Paul could have communicated this narrow interpretation in a much clearer way; after all, Paul could have said, “I can live in poverty and riches in Christ who strengthens me.” With this in mind, there is room for a broader application of this passage, but not to the point of teaching triumphalism.
The proper balance is rooted in Christ’s empowerment of the believer to live in obedience under the sovereign hand of God. The believer is strengthened by Christ to endure every trial and obey every command given in Scripture. Perhaps the following passages help communicate the same idea Paul is giving here:
Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
First Timothy 1:12, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service.”
Second Peter 1:3, “seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness through the true knowledge of Hi who called us by His own glory and excellence.”
Theologically, Philippians 4:13 fits in with these passage that indicate the believer’s Christ-empowered life to live a God honoring life in the middle of any form of opposition. Believers should look to Philippians 4:13 when struggling with issues of contentment. On a broader note, believers can look to Philippians 4:13 for strength in times when living an obedient Christian life is specifically challenging.
Do not let the misinterpretation of this passage get in the way of your growth in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ! Learn to be content by rooting your strength in Him!
 In the Greek, “all things” is placed at the front of the sentence for emphasis [Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT, 434.].
 Mark Keown, Philippians, EEC, 4:13.