Scripture in Context: Philippians 4:13
Words by Lindsay Cournia // Image by Dianne Jago
We love the way our favorite Bible passages and verses sound. But do we understand what they mean? When reading any scripture, we should look at its context—from the chapter, to the book, to the grand and overarching story of the Bible, which is the story of God and his people. Considering the historical time period and setting, we ask questions like, “To whom was this written, and why?” We are then able to better understand what the passage means, what it tells us about God, and how we can apply that truth to our lives. If you missed previous posts in the Scripture in Context series, find them here: Part One: Jeremiah 29:11 and Part Two: 1 Corinthians 13.
It’s the anthem of the Christian athlete and the desperate plea of the under-prepared student. It’s emblazoned on journals, t-shirts, pens, memes, posters, mugs, and tattoos. Just this week I saw Philippians 4:13 on someone’s purple water bottle while I waited interminably at the post office: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Most Christians commit this verse to memory, and rightly so—it is an amazing bit of Scripture. But when I memorized this verse as a youth and recited it before each big test or big game or big life event, I was really saying, Jesus will help me do the things I can’t do on my own. Philippians 4:13 was the magic remedy I applied to my occasional insufficiencies—like a spiritual jetpack.
But what was the Apostle Paul’s intent when he penned those words in his letter to the church in Philippi? He wrote this epistle circa 62 A.D. while imprisoned, facing an uncertain outcome. Release was possible; death was likely. Yet two main themes of Philippians are joy and contentment in Christ. Paul wrote a letter bursting with encouragement and thanksgiving while in chains.
Tucked into the heart of the letter, Paul offered a powerful tribute to the source all this remarkable joy—Jesus Christ:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11)
In this triumphant summary of the person and work of Jesus, commonly known as the “Hymn of Christ,” Paul revealed the secret of the contentment and joy to which he called the church throughout the letter—and to which he referred more than 160 times throughout his New Testament writings—union with Christ. The secret is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
Paul held Christ up as the ultimate example and the central treasure of the believer. Jesus Christ, who perfectly embodied sacrifice, joy, and contentment. It is only by him, though him, and for him that we “can do all things.”
In him we can act without grumbling and disputing (2:14).
In him we can shine as lights in the world (2:15).
In him we can suffer the loss of all things and count them as trash (3:8).
In him we can be anxious for nothing (4:6).
In him we can think on what is true, honorable, just, pure, and lovely (4:8).
In him we can be brought low (4:12).
In him we can abound (4:12).
In him we can face plenty and abundance (4:12).
In him we can face hunger and need (4:12).
These are some of the “all things” Paul had mentioned by the time he reached the end of his letter—and the list includes some hard things. It also includes some things that we are apt to think we can handle ourselves. I admit, I have never awakened on a beautiful day feeling healthy, with money in my bank account, a full refrigerator, and a running vehicle, and immediately thought, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
But we need Christ no less in abundance than in want, as Paul made plain in the immediate context of Philippians 4:13 at the conclusion of this epistle. He thanked the Philippian church for their generous financial support, but still pointed to Christ as his sufficiency—not to his circumstances, comfort, or security. May we, like Paul, find our sufficiency in Jesus Christ, and find the strength to do all things in him—and him alone.