I can rob banks without getting caught, jump off cliffs without getting hurt, and run through traffic without getting hit by a truck because I can do all things through him who strengthens me!
Right!? It says so right there in Philippians 4:13, just plain as day.
Of course, only the mentally unstable and the most virulent atheists would insist that Paul meant we could literally do anything at all. Yet people still quote that verse in all kinds of situations as if they did. If you are in this group, you are likely already a serious Bible student, and you know what Paul really meant. It probably seems silly to you that Paul meant we can do stupid, harmful things. But how do we know he didn’t?
Because Scripture interprets Scripture.
We know that Paul didn’t mean that we can commit sin through the power of Christ without penalty, because in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he also wrote, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
But what about soccer games? Can we win every game through Christ who strengthens us? Apart from the logical conundrum of both teams claiming that God is going to help them win, we have to use the same principle of Bible study here too. Does Scripture say that Philippians 4:13 means we can win every soccer game through the power of Jesus?
Understand the Greater Context
In order to understand what any particular passage means, we have to understand what it meant to the person who wrote it and to the people to whom he wrote.
Paul was the penultimate Bible scholar. He probably had the first five books of the Bible (aka Torah) memorized in Hebrew and much of the rest of the Bible too. He spent decades studying with the greatest Jewish scholars of the first century. So in order to be confident that we understand what Paul meant by anything he wrote, we also have to be very familiar with the rest of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
Next, we have to understand the world and circumstances in which Paul wrote the Epistle to the Philippians. From chapter 1, we know that Paul was writing to fellow believers who lived in Philippi (v1), that he knew the intended recipients well and considered himself to be their spiritual mentor (v3-11), and that he wrote from a Roman prison (v12-14).
Understand the Immediate Context
In chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 Paul discussed the purpose of suffering for the sake of the Gospel and what a great witness it is to suffer without resentment and to keep working for the Kingdom of God despite persecution. He then praised Timothy and Epaphroditus for their hard work and perseverance despite their own hardships. In chapter 3, he continued the theme of rejoicing through suffering, adding a few words of condemnation for those who had turned away from the faith.
In chapter 4, Paul first told the Philippians to set aside their personal differences and join with their fellows who have worked to further the gospel. He thanked them for their concern over his plight and for the financial assistance they had provided for his ministry. This is where we find the verse in question, but no verse exists in isolation. Every line is written as part of a greater whole.
Understand the Genre and Structure of the Passage
Here is the structure of the passage, Philippians 4:10-20:
- v10 – Gratitude for concern
- v11 – Contentment in whatever situation
- v12 – Low and high, any and every, plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
- v13 – I can do all things through him who strengthens me
- v14 – Gratitude for concern
- vs15-20 – Gratitude for financial assistance
If you are familiar with the concept of chiasms, you might have noticed something interesting in this outline. A theme in verse 10 (gratitude) is repeated in verse 14, a theme in verse 11 (whatever situtation) is repeated in verse 13 (all things), and verse 12 contains what almost reads like a poetic Hebrew parallelism.
To make it more plain:
If verse 14 reflects verse 10 and the four clauses of verse 12 all echo each other, it follows that verse 13 reflects verse 11. In other words, Paul meant “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” to mean essentially the same thing as “I have learned to be content any situation.”
Put It All Together, Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture
The overarching theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is perseverance through suffering, a theme which is carried through the trials of Abraham, the slavery of the Hebrews, the testing of Job, and all the other writings of the Old Testament, not to mention the sufferings of Christ himself.
The context of the letter, the structure of the passage, and the testimony of the rest of Scripture all tell us that Philippians 4:13 means “I know that I can persevere in the faith through good times and bad because God is with me.”
Does that mean God won’t help you win your soccer game or survive jumping from a cliff on a dare? Nope. Maybe he will. It only means that this verse doesn’t apply to those situations.
I chose this passage because it was relatively easy to parse, so it served as a good example to demonstrate Scripture interpreting Scripture. In general, you will want to follow this plan:
- Be familiar with the whole Bible before being too confident in your ability to interpret any particular difficult passage.Know the historical context and the genre (letter, history, poetry, etc.) of the book or passage you are studying.
- Know the contents and purpose of the book (or passage for long books with distinct divisions).
- Dissect the passage to be sure you know the theme and structure.
- If there are uncertain words, check to see how the same Hebrew and Greek words are used elsewhere in Scripture.
- This should work for most passages, but be flexible. Be prepared for ambiguity, hyperbole, and even sarcasm. Although every book in the Bible was inspired by God, the authors were still humans communicating with humans, and they wrote like it.
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