It’s a favourite verse for many people. It’s a verse that gets claimed when we are in difficult situations. When we are trying new things. A verse for those times when we are attempting the difficult, the improbable, and the impossible.
But for too many people, it is more a motivational statement or a mantra then it is a promise of God, and because of that, they were claiming the wrong promise.
The verse of course is Philippians 4:13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.
Or perhaps you’re more familiar with it in the NKJ versionPhilippians NKJV 4:13 I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Now, I can almost feel some of you tensing up. Easy, it’s not like I’m denying the trinity or the deity of Christ.
The problem with the way we claim Philippians 4:13, and notice that I say the way we because I’m guilty of it as well, Is that we cherry-pick it out of context. And it’s great to claim that verse, to tell ourselves that we can indeed do everything and anything through Christ.
We can lose the weight that we need to. That we can stay committed to the gym and to a difficult marriage. That we can quit smoking and stay sober. That we can do everything, the difficult, the improbable and the impossible.
But the reality is that we can’t do everything through Christ, who gives us strength. You know that you’ve tried, and then you either beat yourself up for not having enough faith, or you begin to doubt the promises of God.
When someone tells me that nothing is impossible, I ask them if they’ve ever tried to dribble a football.
It’s a brand-new year. Usually, this signifies a sense of anticipation and hope for what lies ahead. I’m not sure that’s been the case for the past two years. There has been a decidedly different feel about the beginning of 2021 and 2022, then there was about 2020.
What will the next twelve months hold? Will there be more lockdowns and restrictions? More cases of COVID and more variants? I don’t even like making predictions about tomorrow, let alone the upcoming year.
I do know that this really isn’t how I wanted to learn the Greek Alphabet.
Just a confession, Greek was the course I disliked the most while I was studying in university, and this past year hasn’t really improved how I feel about it.
The other day, someone asked me about an event that was planned for later in the month, and my response was, in two weeks things will either be better than they are now, or they will be worse than they are now, but I’m pretty sure they won’t be the same as they are now.
So, let’s go back to where we started. Too often we claim Philippians 4:13 as a promise that whatever we try we will be successful at. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that verse. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
You see, the reality is that no verse can simply be plucked out of the bible without seeing what was being said before the verse and after the verse.
Because to quote Donald Carson, who was quoting his preacher father, Tom Carson, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”
So, to set the stage a little bit. The book of Philippians was a letter written to the church in Philippi by Paul while he was in prison in Rome for preaching the Gospel. The Philippian church was situated in what was known then as Macedonia and now is Greece. It was the first European church and was started by Paul on what we call his second missionary journey, around 49 AD. You can find the entire story in Acts chapter 16.
This letter is different from the other letters that Paul wrote to the early churches. That difference is spelled out in the very first verse. Philippians 1:1 This letter is from Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus. I am writing to all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the church leaders and deacons.
What is different here is what is missing. In most of Paul’s other letters, he begins by establishing his authority.
Romans 1:1 This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News.
1 Corinthians 1:1 This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. . .
Galatians 1:1 This letter is from Paul, an apostle. I was not appointed by any group of people or any human authority, but by Jesus Christ himself and by God the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead.
This letter, though doesn’t start with Paul’s credentials, it begins as a letter from a friend writing to his friends.
So, in order to put verse 13 into context, let’s go back to the verses immediately preceding it.
Philippians 4:10–12 How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.
So, let’s start with Paul’s Circumstances
If you read through the letter, it becomes apparent that Paul was writing this while he was in prison, awaiting his trial in front of Caesar. This makes Philippians one of four letters he wrote while he was in prison, the other three being Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.
From what we can tell, this was the second from the last time Paul was in prison. This period is chronicled in the last chapter of the book of Acts.
It begins with these words in Acts 28:16 When we arrived in Rome, Paul was permitted to have his own private lodging, though he was guarded by a soldier.
So, it would appear that Paul was under some type of house arrest. He wasn’t in a prison cell, but his movement would have been restricted by the fact that he was assigned a guard. Historians tell us that Paul would have been guarded around the clock by soldiers of the elite Praetorian Guard. Repeatedly he says that he was in chains, so even though it was a house arrest, it would appear that he was shackled.
And then the book of Acts ends with these words, Acts 28:30–31 For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him.
And that’s how the book ends. Because Paul is under house arrest and has to pay his own expenses, he depended on the various churches to help with that, and this letter was partly a thank you note.
Early church tradition fills in the blanks. We are told that after two years, Paul was released because his accusers didn’t come to Rome for his trial.
Tradition then tells us that after he was released that he continued to preach and teach in Rome until they arrested again him when Nero came into power.
That was a very different scenario. This time, he wasn’t under house arrest; he was in a prison cell, and instead of ending with Paul being released, it ended with Paul being beheaded.
It was when Paul was under house arrest that he wrote this letter and spoke about his contentment. And he wasn’t sure how things would turn out after his trial.
Earlier in the book, he had written these words, Philippians 1:20–21 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honour to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.
So that brings us to where we are in the story. Paul is confined to his home under house arrest; his future is in doubt and he’s relying on the generosity of others for his most basic needs. That kind of sounds like being in isolation with COVID.
I’m not sure what your circumstances are today. The prison you are in probably isn’t an actual prison cell. But it may the prison of poor health or an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s a financial or emotional prison.
I don’t know, but I do know that there are those hearing these words today, either in this room or who are watching online who are dealing with difficulties in their lives. And in the same way, as there is no such thing as minor surgery when it’s your surgery, there are no minor life difficulties when they are up close and staring you in the face.
And there are times that we feel that nobody has ever felt what we are feeling and that nobody has ever had it this bad. The reality is that if we are all a part of the human race and while others may not have experienced exactly what you are going through; they have gone through their own challenges.
It was Tolstoy how wrote the words, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And it’s here, in the midst of his troubles and circumstances, that Paul writes these words, Philippians 4:11–12 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.
In his circumstances, we see Paul’s Contentment
This wasn’t the first time Paul spent incarcerated. Throughout the book of Acts, we see Paul running afoul of the local religious authorities for preaching the gospel and ending up arrested several times.
And if you read his letters, then you discover that arrest was the least of his worries.
Listen to these words that Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:23–2 . . .I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have travelled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.
And Paul responds to life’s circumstances by saying, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have.”
But it goes beyond simple contentment. Because you know as well as I do that, we can resign ourselves to life circumstances and call it contentment, but in reality, we’ve simply given up.
And that happens when we come to the place where we say, “If you expect disappointment, then you can never really be disappointed.” Thanks, MJ.
But the theme of the book of Philippians isn’t a quiet resignation to life’s circumstances. The theme of the book is: Rejoicing in the Lord despite those circumstances.
The word joy is used five times and the verb rejoice is used eleven times in this short letter.
Paul reminds his readers in Philippians 4:4 Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! That doesn’t sound like “expect disappointment, then you can never really be disappointed.”
Paul doesn’t tell us to rejoice when things are going our way when we are healthy, and our marriage is strong. This isn’t a suggestion for when our kids are doing well and we just got a promotion at work. No, listen to Paul’s words again, Philippians 4:4 Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! He is telling us to rejoice in all things.
We need to understand that the contentment that Paul was talking about wasn’t about complacency. It wasn’t about giving up. Throughout his letters, Paul writes about striving, pushing on, running the race, being the victor.
Historians tell us that the stoic philosophers of the day taught a very different contentment.
The Stoics taught that the secret to being content was to eliminate all desire. So, if you are able to train yourself to not desire something, then you can be content without it. Or maybe it’s easy to talk about being content without something when the reality is that you just don’t want it or you don’t like it.
I am content with the fact that I don’t have any Brussel sprouts to eat. Or because I’m not a big lobster fan, I can be content never buying another lobster. Easy. It’s not like I’m denying the trinity or the deity of Christ.
The Stoic believed that contentment didn’t consist of possessing much, but instead, in wanting little. Their philosophy was “If you want to make a man happy, don’t add to his what he has, instead take away from his desires.” And while that might be true, it isn’t reflective of the joyful contentment that Paul was talking about.
It was the Greek Stoic Philosopher Epictetus who instructed his students with these words, “Begin with a cup or a household utensil; if it breaks, say, ‘I don’t care.’ Go on to a horse or pet dog; if anything happens to it, say, ‘I don’t care.’ Go on to yourself, and if you are hurt or injured in any way, say, ‘I don’t care.’ If you go on long enough, and if you try hard enough, you will come to a stage when you can watch your nearest and dearest suffer and die, and say, ‘I don’t care.’”
The Stoic aim was to abolish every feeling of the human heart. And they felt that was something that you needed to train yourself to do. That each one of us has within us what we need to get to that place. But getting to that place wouldn’t be easy.
For them, the secret was simply coming to the place that they didn’t care what happened. For them, that was the contentment they sought.
And maybe you know people like that, they just don’t care.
Paul’s philosophy was that there was a bigger plan and that he was a part of that plan. And his contentment was rooted in that plan.
Philippians 1:12–14 And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear.
Paul was saying that his contentment rose out of his trust in God, that ultimately God had everything under control.
Even when it didn’t look like everything was under control.
And Paul didn’t tell us that we could achieve that on our own, by giving up on love and hope, and expecting only disappointment. Instead, he was offering a different and better sense of contentment.
Barclay tells us “For the Stoic contentment was a human achievement; for Paul, it was a divine gift. The Stoic was self-sufficient; but Paul was God-sufficient.”
This leads us to the verse everybody loves, Philippians 4:13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.
And that brings us to Paul’s Secret
Paul isn’t saying it’s easy, he’s not saying it’s something we can do on our own. He acknowledges he needs help, but then he points to the help. He doesn’t just say he can do it by himself, what he says is he can do it through Christ, who empowers him to be able to do what needs to be done.
Philippians 4:13 isn’t about being able to do anything we can imagine, from the improbable to the impossible. It’s about being able to be content in where God has called us, while not becoming complacent. It’s about trusting that God is in control.
You don’t have to read very far through the story of Paul to find out that while he may have been content at this point in his life; he wasn’t content to be complacent. He didn’t resign himself to whatever happened; he did what he could do, and then he left it with God.
Paul wasn’t content for the church to stay small; Paul wasn’t content for the world to remain unreached. Paul wasn’t content to not preach the gospel, simply because there was a safer alternative. When he was arrested time and time again, he wasn’t content to surrender his calling.
But Paul didn’t find his contentment in simply ticking off his goals. Sometimes we think we will be content when we get that job we’ve been after or once we start making X amount of money, or when we’ve been accepted into this school or that school.
But we all know that isn’t a reality. Harvard Psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar calls that the arrival fallacy, and he defines it this way, “Put simply, the arrival fallacy is the illusion that once we reach our goals, we reach happiness.”
Maybe you can remember as a kid on a long trip asking your parents, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I don’t know what your parents told you, my dad used to say, “Sit back relax and listen to Bing sing”, which didn’t make a lot of sense to me as a kid, but I understood what he was trying to say, “enjoy the trip.”
Paul’s contentment came in knowing that he was right where God wanted him to be. Whether that was in prison or preaching in his favourite church.
And that is the dichotomy of Paul’s life. Paul may have been content to be in the centre of God’s will, regardless of what that meant. But his entire life was driven by his lack of contentment in being outside of God’s will.
Paul comes back to this theme time and time again in his letters, the assurance that God has everything under control. Even when it’s not how we would do it.
That contentment is found in the ability to agree with Paul when he wrote Romans 8:28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.
Did God want Paul in prison? No! Could he use Paul being in prison? Yes.
I’ve told the story before about the woman who told her friend whose child was very ill, “Perhaps God will be good, and he will heal your son.” To which her friend replied, “God will be good whether He heals my son or not.”
Can you be content in the goodness of God, no matter what prison you find yourself in?
And just a word of caution, your contentment can’t be stolen, but you can give it away.
Sometimes we are content until we see someone that we perceive has more than we do or has an easier life when we do, and then we give our contentment away and replace it with another c-word, and that is covetousness. Don’t make that choice.
But let’s not forget how Paul ends this thought. He tells his readers in Philippians 4:14 Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty.
We end this morning by acknowledging Paul’s Partners
While Jesus may have provided all that Paul needed to be content, he provided it through his people. We are all part of the family, and as a part of the family, we take care of one another.