We see the verse on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and wall decor. It’s probably the most well-known and oft-quoted verse from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13, NKJV
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the verses most often misunderstood and misused. We love that one verse so much we pull it out of its home in the surrounding verses. We hold it out on its own and say, “Jesus gives me strength to do all things.” But is that what it means?
Unfortunately, when we take it out of context we lose the original meaning. We even begin to assign meanings to it God never intended. (See “How Literary Context Helps Us Understand the Bible” and “What is the Metanarrative of the Bible?”)
Let’s say, for instance, I desire to do something big for the Kingdom of God. I have an idea, a vision, of what I’d like to do. But it’s big, really big! Well, if “Jesus gives me strength to do all things,” then doesn’t that mean He will give me the power and opportunities to not only pursue this dream, but also to succeed?
Is that what Philippians 4:13 means? Does it mean that Jesus will give me the power and strength to do whatever I desire to do for Him? Or maybe it means Jesus will give me the power and strength to do what He calls me to do?
We know from other Scriptures that God does gift and guide, equip and empower His children to carry out His purposes for our lives (2 Thessalonians 1:11; Ephesians 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:11-13). But Philippians 4:13 does not promise us that God will give us strength to follow our desires or even to carry out His purposes.
So what does Philippians 4:13 mean?
Let’s drop Philippians 4:13 back into the verses immediately surrounding it and see what it means in light of its context. (For more on the “context” of a biblical passage, check out this post: “4 Things to Consider for Biblical Context.“) In Philippians 4:10-14, Paul thanked the Christians in Philippi for the financial gift they sent him. He appreciated their gift, but he was not in desperate need at the moment. In fact, he had learned to be content no matter his physical circumstances. Paul had discovered the secret of contentment whether he was in physical want or plenty.
And what was his secret of contentment, whether he was well fed or hungry? Paul had experienced Christ’s strength within him to endure any and every situation. He found total sufficiency in trusting Christ. Paul gained strength from Jesus to be content with whatever God provided for him.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” never meant Paul could do anything because Jesus would give him the power to do it. It meant Paul could endure any difficult circumstance or physical need through the strengthening power of Christ.
Great, incredible truth. Philippians 4:13 does not obligate God to empower our plans. Oh no, it’s far better than that! Jesus will give us the strength we need to endure desperate need. His empowering presence will be with us through every difficult circumstance.
Have you gained a better understanding of Philippians 4:13? Does it encourage you today?
Want to learn more about the proper approach to Bible study? See “4 R Bible Study Method.“
Other posts you might find helpful:
- “What do I do with Philippians 3:14?”
- “The Real Promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13”
- “The Delight and Desire of Psalm 37:4”
- “Why Philippians 4:13 doesn’t Mean What You Think”