Bible Reading Plan – November 12-18

Bible Project Reading Plan (Week 46):
Galatians 3-6; Ephesians 1-6; Philippians 1-4; Psalms 6-12

There are many abused passages of Scripture. Each of us has probably heard Matthew 7:1 (Judge not, that you be not judged) abused. Name-it-and-claim-it folks love to wreck havoc on passages like John 14:14 (If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it). Or perhaps certain OT passages come to mind, especially ones that seem contextually limited such as Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope). But, perhaps above any other passage of Scripture, Philippians 4:13 has suffered the most abuse from believers throughout the centuries:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13; ESV

People misquote this particular passage on the regular, believing that it offers power to them to overcome difficulties in life. Now, most of us reading this realize the problem with this understanding in light of the rest of Scripture. If this particular verse is taken in such a way to affirm our ability to do anything that we want to do, we lack any support from elsewhere in Scripture to actually reinforce such an understanding. God’s word just doesn’t talk this way. Basically, this particular interpretation doesn’t pass the sniff test. Something smells off. This is a good sign that we are right to reject this particular interpretation.

But there are other more particular reasons. The context of Philippians actually seems to argue against this interpretation. Lest we forget, Paul is writing this from prison! One might wonder why this is so if Paul meant to say that he can do whatever he pleases. Not to mention that this is the same Paul that wrote 2 Corinthians 11:22-33; a list of such pains, difficulties, distresses, and overall unfortunate experiences that it sounds fictitious. Why did he not get out of these situations if he was able to do whatever he wanted? Did he want the beatings? Well, thinking Paul a masochist is one way to find some semblance of consistency, but it doesn’t quite feel right.

The problem, however, with rejecting this interpretation is that it makes the best sense of the passage as it is often translated:

  • CSB17: I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.
  • ESV: I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
  • KJV: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
  • NAU: I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
  • NIV: I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
  • RSV: I can do all things in him who strengthens me.

The problem is the addition of “things” – I can do all things through him who strengthens me. What are these things? How do we define these things? Can they be any “thing” we want them to be? The Greek just has the basic word for “all” here (pas), which sometimes carries with it the implication of an unstated indefinite noun; this is why most translations drop “things” in here. But, if we look at the rest of the surrounding context, we get a better idea of what these “things” must be. Let’s look back at verse 12:

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any (pas) and every (pas) circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

Philippians 4:12; ESV

The idea of “circumstance” is also imported for aid in translation. We might as well put “things” in there instead, just for consistency. But, even disregarding the way we fill in the idea in English, and even disregarding the terseness of Greek, Paul doesn’t let us guess, but gives us examples. What are the “things” or “circumstances”? Plenty and hunger, abundance and need. They are the circumstances of life. Paul can be low or abounding – but he has gained the ability to be content in all (pas) of these things. This, by the way, also helps us to understand what Paul actually means when he says that he is strengthened: the word basically means “made strong to do something”; here in context it is clearly made strong enough to be content. We can make our translation a wee bit clearer then, building off of the ESV:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In all things I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can be content in all things through him who strengthens me.

Now, that is not quite a “translation” but more of an interpretation. But, nevertheless, gets us a bit closer to the heart of Paul’s thought.

The wrong interpretation is common. Not just common in that it is a well known and wrong way of reading this particular passage but it is a common response to our everyday problems. What we think we need is power – power to change ourselves, power to change our circumstances. Power to do whatever we want, like God. And this verse seems to give us that. This is why so many cling to it, and wrongly. It feeds our vanity for god-ness and power; a vanity that is sinful and idolatrous.

But what Paul means to say is something much more biblical and helpful: we need to understand that we are not strong, but we can be made to be content in the situations that Christ has put us in. And such ability comes from Christ himself. Our faith in him, our trust in him, allows us to be content, for we know that Christ is good and powerful and able, so if he has given us difficult circumstances, they must be good for us. Trust in Christ, in his goodness and kindness over you, my fellow believer. And face every and any circumstance with this in mind: my Jesus has given me this, and my Jesus will see me through. He will, for he is faithful and good!