My Favorite Verse
Someone once asked me to name my favorite Bible verse. It’s a difficult question because I’m not really big on “favorites.” I don’t have a favorite color or food. In fact, if I wasn’t married, I probably wouldn’t even have a favorite person. So choosing my “favorite” Bible verse is challenging, but I’d probably have to say Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJV).
This verse served me well throughout my adolescence. I grew up poor and had limited opportunities, but after accepting Christ at a young age, I learned to rely on God when I faced these limitations. This verse became one of my “go to” passages of scripture because I believed I could literally accomplish impossible things because of Christ. I would find myself in some impossible situation and stand firm on Philippians 4:13 while God brought me through it.
I applied this verse in my academic pursuits, auditions, athletics, and other areas of my life. I also stood on it during some difficult seasons. I understood it to mean that I could not only accomplish impossible things, but that I could withstand things that would decimate others because Jesus would give me the strength to endure them. When my house flooded and left my family without a home, Philippians 4:13. When it burned down three years later, Philippians 4:13. When I left for Marine Corps recruit training immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Philippians 4:13.
Not long after that I met my wife and learned that she also liked Philippians 4:13. In fact, she liked it so much that she would use it to encourage our young daughter to do difficult things. Every “I can’t” in our home was met with an immediate “Yes you can, Philippians 4:13.” This verse became so common in our home that our daughter began to quote it back to us. Once, she asked my wife, “Mommy, can you clean my room for me?”. My wife told her no, and was about to explain why when she heard the familiar refrain: “Yes you can, Mommy. Philippians 4:13 says you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. That means you can clean my room.”
While it made for a cute moment, hindsight has made it clear that neither my wife, my daughter, countless others, nor I have fully understood the meaning of this verse in its biblical context. To be clear, the principle we accepted is true, but it is found in different verses. Luke 1:37 says that “with God, nothing can be impossible,” and Mark 9:23 says “all things are possible to him who believes.” So the misunderstanding is not one that requires us to shift our thinking about what is possible, but rather one that leads us to reconsider the true meaning of Philippians 4:13.
Knowing the audience to which Paul wrote helps the reader to better understand the verse. Philippi was a city named for its founder, Philip of Macedonia. The Romans took over it later, but the name remained. It was the site of the final confrontation between the leaders of the Roman civil war, where the combined forces of Octavian (Caesar Augustus) and Mark Antony defeated those of Brutus and Cassius. Following this decisive battle, many older veterans were discharged on the spot and turned Philippi into a military retirement community. Since it remained under Roman control, other veterans retired there as well and the city grew.
Church at Philippi
As a veterans’ community, the Philippians understood authority quite well. Remember the story of the centurion in Luke 7:8-9? Jesus marveled at his faith which came from his understanding of authority. Thus, Philippi was well-prepared for matters of faith. The city was also very wealthy due to the presence of gold in nearby mountains. So when we read Paul’s letter, it is to a group of Christians in a wealthy city filled with retired Roman soldiers in modern Greece.
How did a group of Christians end up in a military retirement community? Acts 16:12-15 describes the conversion of a wealthy Philippians businesswoman named Lydia. After her conversion, the Philippians observed Paul operating in Christian authority and performing several highly-visible miracles during his visit. He cast a demon out from a slave girl in Acts 16:16-18, was supernaturally released from prison in Acts 16:19-26, led the jailer to salvation in Acts 16:27-34, and was officially released from prison in Acts 16:35-40. The church at Philippi grew from these two households--Lydia’s and the jailer’s--into a church filled with mature believers.
How do we know they were mature believers? In addition to their understanding of authority, Philippians 1:5 says these believers were supporting ministry both financially and in their prayers. The word “fellowship” here is from the Greek word koinonia and literally means partnership. It refers to contributory help, participation, sharing in work, communion, or spiritual fellowship.” Paul mentions more evidence of this support in Philippians 4:15-16. He adds that these believers consistently obeyed God, regardless of who was watching (Philippians 2:12-13).
The maturity of the Philippians believers offers a good example against which modern believers can evaluate their own maturity. Consider these questions. Are you tithing, giving, and otherwise financially supporting the work of ministries with which the Lord has called you to partner? Are you actively in communion with God through praying and reading His word? Do you consistently obey God, even when nobody else is watching? Does every area of your life display the fruit of a mature Christian? Are you allowing God to strengthen your areas of weakness?
Maturity is relative. A teenager may be immature compared to a grandparent, but is mature compared to a toddler. Christian maturity is similarly relative. Paul wrote in Philippians 3:12 that he was not already fully mature. You and I are also not fully mature in our faith, but we are mature compared to non-Christians and new believers. Philippians was written for a community of mature Christians, so we must read it from that perspective to fully understand what it means.
Purpose of Letter
This letter was written for three main purposes--encouragement, gratitude, and instruction. Paul encouraged the Philippian church throughout this letter. He expressed his gratitude because they had just resumed their financial support of his ministry (Philippians 4:10). He also offered instruction, both directly and through his example.
Example is a powerful teacher. Albert Einstein said that “setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” Since Paul could not be physically present due to his journeys, the Philippians learned from his example through his letters. That is where this famous verse comes into play. Paul is offering his experiences as an example to this body of mature believers. He says in Philippians 4:12-13: “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
When we first read this verse in context, it seems as if we just need to learn how to suffer, but that isn’t what Paul is saying. He didn’t learn how to suffer; he learned to be content through Christ in all situations. Moreover, he learned how to do all things through Christ. Translated literally from the Greek, Philippians 4:13 reads, “All things I am strong for in the One strengthening me.”
What does that mean? Let’s break it down. The first phrase, “all things,” includes all of the things God has called you to do. These are not the desires of your flesh, but rather the desires of your Father. If God didn’t call you to swim across the ocean, then you probably cannot do it. However, if He tells you to do something that seems impossible, then He will give you the strength for that mission. Like all aspects of faith, “all things” begins with a word from God. We see this in Paul’s life. He was able to overcome everything he encountered in service to the Lord.
The subject here is “I.” Paul is speaking, but he is sharing his example for others to follow, so “I” really means “you.” Thus, read it in first person and apply Paul’s experience to your own life.
The next phrase, “am strong for,” comes from the Greek word isxyo (pronounced “ish-koo-oh”), which means embodied strength that takes action. It is directly connected with faith and refers to God strengthening us with the necessary power to achieve or overcome whatever He has given us faith to accomplish. This is God’s strength, not ours. He is strong enough, but we must act.
The phrase “the One” refers to Jesus. I could write about who Jesus is for days, but in short, you need to know that He is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). He is not only the Son of God, but also God the Son. Jesus is the Word that became flesh in John 1:14, the Alpha and Omega in Revelation 1:8, and was part of “Us” and “Our” way back in Genesis 1:26. While other religions worship dead men, demons, or imagined deities, we worship Jesus who is alive and well. All religions have impossible requirements for man to enter paradise, but Jesus is the only Person who ever fulfilled them. He did this through His own strength, and not for Himself, but for us.
The final phrase, “strengthening me,” contains another important Greek word, endynamounti (similar to dynamic and dynamite). This word describes some outside force infusing the subject (in this case, you) with extra strength, power, or ability. Think of Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde where there is suddenly supernatural strength coursing through his veins. That is what you and I look like spiritually when Jesus infuses us with His power!
There is one word we didn’t talk about. That word is “in,” which is sometimes translated as “through.” The isxyo strength is infused into the believer through Jesus. We cannot infuse ourselves with this strength and Christ cannot infuse it into nothing. He has the strength and is ready to infuse it into you. So what must you do?
You must abide in Christ. John 15:4 says: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” We abide in Jesus by worshipping Him in spirit and truth, by fellowshipping with Him through prayer and reading His word, by obeying Him, and by walking in faith. When we abide in Christ, He will infuse us with strength. Just like water goes from the tree’s root to its branches and ultimately to the fruit, so the strength comes from Jesus to us the branches and ultimately helps produce the fruit God desires in our lives. Jesus wants to infuse mature believers abiding in Him with the strength to accomplish great things for His kingdom. His power makes it all possible. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!