This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. —Philippians 4:13
Enabled to Do Anything?
Philippians 4:13 is one of the best-known verses in all of Scripture: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is well-loved and often quoted, but frequently misunderstood and thus misapplied. This verse is not a promise that God will enable believers to do whatever they want whenever they want it. God is not a genie in a bottle waiting to help believers achieve their goals. He is not a cosmic vending machine ready to dispense a desired outcome (I choose “E9,” so now God will give me the strength to be an Olympic gold medalist). Taking a verse out of context runs the risk of eisegesis (reading our thoughts or desires into Scripture) rather than faithful exegesis (drawing out of Scripture what is really there).
This verse fits into a context in which Paul thanks the Philippians for their partnership in the gospel. He has received the gifts that the Philippians sent through Epaphroditus. He is now well-supplied (Phil. 4:18). In fact, he thanks them three distinct times. These three moments of thanksgiving can be outlined as follows:
A. Thanksgiving for Gospel Partnership (Phil. 4:10–20)
1. First Thank You (Phil. 4:10–13)
a. Acknowledgement (Phil. 4:10a)
b. Explanation (Phil. 4:10b)
c. Qualifier (Phil. 4:11–13)
2. Second Thank You (Phil. 4:14–17)
a. Acknowledgment (Phil. 4:14)
b. Explanation (Phil. 4:15–16)
c. Qualifier (Phil. 4:17)
3. Third Thank You (Phil. 4:18–20)
a. Acknowledgment (Phil. 4:18)
b. Explanation (Phil. 4:19)
c. Doxology (Phil. 4:20)
With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.
What Does It Mean?
Notice that verse 13 belongs to the first thank you in which Paul has an acknowledgement, an explanation, and a qualifier. He acknowledges that their gift means that they have revived their concern for him and he rejoices in it (Phil. 4:10a). But this statement could be taken in a way that wrongly represents them. He does not want it to sound like they were not concerned for him before they sent the gifts. Therefore, he quickly explains that he knows they were concerned for him, but they lacked the opportunity to express that concern in concrete ways (Phil. 4:10b).
But now he has to offer a quick qualifier to what he just said in order to respond to a potential misunderstanding with respect to himself (Phil. 4:11–13). It could sound like Paul is so fixated on his needs that he has lost sight of his contentment in Christ. Paul does not want to give the wrong impression, so he lays out for the Philippians a key lesson he has learned about contentment.
Verses 12–13 now unpack this lesson in detail. The heart of this teaching is that contentment does not depend upon our circumstances. Circumstances are always changing, but contentment can remain constant. Therefore, Paul constructs a spectrum that can account for the whole range of human experience with respect to material provisions (like food, clothing, and resources). The spectrum has two opposing poles: bountiful surplus or extreme deficit. The amount of provision will vary (Paul is always somewhere on that spectrum), but his contentment in Christ remains the same. This contentment can remain constant “in any and every circumstance” because of a “secret” Paul has learned. Verse 12 gave the context in which this secret plays out, and verse 13 finally reveals the content of the secret: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Circumstances do not determine our contentment. Our contentment comes because Christ is with us in any set of circumstances.
Circumstances do not determine our contentment. Our contentment comes because Christ is with us in any set of circumstances.
Now we can see why the context is so important for interpreting this verse. When Paul says he can do “all things,” he means something very specific. He is referring back to both the hardships and the prosperity he mentioned in verse 12. This verse should not be interpreted as a promise that believers can do anything they desire to do. Too many people wrongly take Christ out of the equation in this verse. This verse is supremely Christological. Jesus has given us all a Great Commission to make disciples of all the peoples. Paul is living in obedience to that commission. As Paul carries out the Great Commission he knows that he can face any circumstance that comes to him. He can endure any lack and he can enjoy any surplus. Why? Paul has access to both the power of Christ (all authority in heaven and earth) and the presence of Christ (with us always—even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20)).
This verse applies to us as well in the same way. As we live out our faith in obedience to Christ, we can be confident that we have access to the power and presence of Christ so that we can remain content in Christ. Many people think of needing to fight for contentment in Christ when they face hardship, but not many see their need to fight for contentment in Christ when they are living in prosperity. Perhaps Proverbs 30 will help us see the problem. Scripture says give me “neither poverty nor riches.” Rather, we ask for only the food we need (Prov. 30:8). Why? If we do not have enough, we are in danger of stealing, which will profane the name of God (Prov. 30:9). But if we have more than enough, we are in danger of being full and forgetting the Lord as we deny him and say, “Who is the LORD?” (Prov. 30:9). Believers can remain content in Christ because we are confident in the power of Christ. He can keep us from having so much that we lose sight of our need for him, and he can keep us from having so little that we profane his name by stealing and disobeying him. Christ’s power and presence encompass the whole range of human existence such that there is nowhere we could ever go and there is nothing we could experience that could ever take us away from the tender and empowering embrace of Christ.
Jason C. Meyer is a contributing author to ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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