If the modern prosperity gospel has a “life verse”, it’s Philippians 4:13. Taken on its own, it is a very powerful verse. It might give you the power to lift a car over your head, or survive a jump off a very tall building. Prosperity preachers won’t need but the faintest excuse for invoking it, and just about everyone that has ever claimed to be a Christian has wondered what they could accomplish through it.
I heard a story, second or third hand (I can’t be sure), of a young man who used to run on the track team for his high school. And before every meet, he would write out this entire verse on the sides of the soles of his sneakers. Others have it on T-shirts or their coffee mugs,.. and I must confess that I too have a small green refrigerator magnet with this very verse printed on it in bold blue letters.
I could go on all day, as I’m sure you know; but what is the apostle Paul trying to convey to his readers with this verse? Is he trying to convince us that we have the power to do all things that we desire? Is he showing us that Christ will use us to do amazing things, bordering on even the miraculous? Well, let us see.
Paul had written this epistle while he was imprisoned in Rome sometime around A.D. 62. It was meant as a letter of gratitude to the church of Philippi. In Acts 16, we see where Paul established the church of Philippi while in Macedonia on his second mission that led him into Europe. And as we see later in this epistle to the Philippians, after Paul left to continue his mission, he was receiving aid from the Philippians as he went on witnessing, especially in Thessalonica.
Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.
So the Philippians were supporting Paul’s mission and the church through their offerings. But for some reason or another (it’s hard to be entirely sure), be it Paul’s imprisonment or some other reason, the Philippians lost touch with Paul or at least were unable to send him the gifts that they had in the past. Now however, they at last are able to send a gift to Paul through their messenger, Epaphroditus. And Paul, being overwhelmed with joy, writes this epistle to the Philippians, thanking them for all that they sent, but more than the “what” it was the true compassion and generosity that they showed for their fellow Christian brother that Paul commends. We read in verse 10:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity.
I read that the phrase Paul uses there “your care for me has flourished again” in the original language, was a common expression used back in the first century. Its literal meaning was described as that of a tree that, after a long winter, finally starts to bud and show again signs of life. I don’t know about you, but that is one of the most wonderful moments of the year. When you realize that the winter is finally coming to an end. You always knew it would end. You know there is still life in the trees, but that moment of seeing these dead looking trees revitalize, and then the next few weeks as you start to notice that red and green hue start to appear within the limbs. That’s the joy, Paul is talking about here. Not some fickle satisfaction over receiving some bag of money that may have been gone in the span of a week or so. It was knowing that those whom he called brothers and friends were still out there remaining faithful to the gospel through the love of Christ.
But just to be sure that the Philippians don’t mistake his joy for greed, he goes on in the next few verses to make perfectly clear both the motive for his joy, and the source of his joy. Continuing with verses 11 & 12:
Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: 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.
We see in these verses, Paul begin to bring this entire epistle to its climax. He starts by reassuring the Philippians that he has no desire for their money. He writes in verse 11 “Not that I speak in regard to need,” (Philippians 4:11). Sort of a taste of what he’s about to write them in verse 17, which we already read, “Not that I seek the gift,” (Philippians 4:17). He then goes on to tell them why, again in verse 11 “for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11):
Two very important things that we need to see in this verse. First, the word ‘content’. It doesn’t mean content as in happy or without adversity as we might think of that word in our own day. It means literally ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘independent’. Paul isn’t saying that he has joy in his circumstances, let’s not forget he’s in prison. He’s been there for a while at this point, and there’s a chance that he could be executed which we see at the end of Philippians 1. So Paul isn’t trying to tell the Philippians, ‘Hey guys, this being chained up in a cell thing, with the bars and the pending death sentence is a real hoot, you guys should try it!’. No, he’s merely saying that his happiness is independent from his circumstances. It stands apart from his situation, from his imprisonment, from the chains, from the guards, even from his own health and ultimate wellbeing.
That may seem odd or a little hard to grasp for some of you, but the second thing that I want us to see in this verse in the word ‘learned’. This ability to take himself out of the world and not focus on the trials he was facing was something that Paul learned! Paul didn’t pick himself up off the road to Damascus and shake the dust off his robe and say, ‘Well, that happened, I’m off to do the Lord’s work now.’. He was blind for three days after that, and he was never told that he would regain his sight, or much of anything for that matter. Jesus simply tells him, “...’Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’” (Acts 9:6). Every trial, and every circumstance that Paul was faced with from that point forward was, potentially, a learning experience. And Paul isn’t just speaking of the hard times either, is he? No, because he goes even further with his statements in verse 12:
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.
Paul is reminding us here of who, or what the real enemy is. It’s sin. It’s ourselves, our own wickedness. Our own depraved human nature is what we always have to be cautious of. Paul says, “I know how to be abased” (Philippians 4:12), ‘abased’ being humbled, or brought low. It’s that point you’re brought to where you start to get angry about everything. ‘Why me?’ ‘Why now?’ ‘This couldn’t have happened at a worse time!’ You might start to lose faith in God as your provider and start looking to your own resources, where we usually get ourselves into a lot of trouble. Paul is saying, ‘Hey, I’ve learned how to keep the faith when I’m at that point’. ‘Abound’ is the complete opposite. It means abundant or excessive, having enough to spare. That’s the point where you say things like (probably to yourself or at least under your breath), ‘I deserve this.’ ‘It’s about time.’ Or perhaps worst of all, ‘I want more.’. But Paul is saying, ‘I know how to do that too’. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself tomorrow, or next year, or in the next ten years. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, or poor, or if your middle class with three months of emergency savings in the bank and you’re paying all your bills on time. There are pitfalls for all of us in every situation. If you’re poor and desperate, you may get to a point where you want to blame God for putting you in that situation. If you’re rich; greed, pride, idolatry all await you just as soon as you take your eyes off Jesus!
We often pray that phrase from the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel “Your will be done” (Luke 11:3), but do we pray those words truly willing to submit ourselves to God if He decides we should live in a state of poverty for a time, or for the rest of our lives. Whatever state you find yourselves in right now is exactly where God has put you. Do our prayers reflect a desire to know God more, and to submit to His will, or do we find ourselves praying merely to change our circumstances. Paul says ‘it doesn’t matter where I am’, “Everywhere and in all things I have learned to both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Philippians 4:12). Everywhere! In all things! Our circumstances are nothing but the setting for God’s sovereign will for us. We need to learn how to focus on what’s really important. And that’s Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Lord!
The word ‘learned’ that Paul uses in verse 12 is different from the one in verse 11. Your bible might have translated it ‘instructed’ or something like that. Its literal meaning is ‘to learn a secret’. Paul is telling us that he hasn’t just come to learn these things of his own accord, but it’s something that’s been revealed to him. And how are things revealed to us in this day? Through God’s Word! We have the scriptures to reveal God’s will for how we should deal with any and all trials we might happen to face.
This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
We shouldn’t take these words as a promise of success in the world. Why would we want that in the first place? What we should desire is to conform our hearts to that of Christ, and the Word of God is the means by which we discover how. Do you want to learn how to abound, go to the scriptures. Do you want to know how to suffer need, go to the scriptures. Always being mindful to keep ourselves in prayer which is often something we overlook, and yet is so important. But you’re going to need one more thing. Paul concludes this passage in verse 13:
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
So we come to “the verse”. The verse that can move mountains and vanquish enemies. The verse that I boldly proclaim on my refrigerator. I hope that by now you’ve already started to see that what Paul is saying has nothing to do with us, or our accomplishments when he says “I can do all things” (Philippians 4:13). Read again where he says things like “I have learned in whatever state I am” (Philippians 4:11), “in all things I have learned” (Philippians 4:12), “I can do all things” (Philippians 4:13), “I have all and abound.” (Philippians 4:18). Does this sound like a man worried about a tomorrow? Paul was completely satisfied with where God saw fit to place him, which was prison, awaiting word on his possible execution. Paul says even here and now, ‘I know how to do this, I know how to keep the faith, because I know Christ.’. Jesus is the source of my strength and my resolve. And this was just the latest in a long line of persecutions for Paul. If you turn to 2 Corinthians 11:22-29, Paul gives us a whole list of things he suffered for the sake of Christ:
2 Corinthians 11:22-29
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? – I speak as a fool – I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received my forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?
After going through all of that, Paul says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13). The word ‘strengthens’ we get from the Greek word “endynamoō”. It means to be given ability. Not strength, as in power or some other superhuman ability. This word is used seven more times in scripture, and I think it will be really beneficial for us to look at how it’s used elsewhere:
Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
2 Timothy 4:17-18
But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen!
He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God,
Finally my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
2 Timothy 2:1-3
You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to fight the armies of the aliens.
1 Timothy 1:12
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry,
Did anyone else notice a pattern in those passages? What do we see time and time again? Strengthened to preach, strengthened to preach, strengthened in faith, be strong in the Lord, be strong in grace, made strong through faith, enabled to preach the gospel. Wow, for a verse that proclaims that “I can do all things” (Philippians 4:13), this list almost seems a bit limited, doesn’t it? But what we aren’t seeing yet is that we have no purpose outside of Christ and the will of God. It’s what God wants done that we are to accomplish, and for those things we have an inexhaustible resource through Jesus Christ. One commentator put it this way: “We are the body of Christ, He is our Head. We have the power to carry out all a body should. My arms can do all things that arms should do, but they get their strength through me.”
There is a truth in that God can accomplish all things. And if He decided to do all things through a man, then there is no reason to doubt that He could. But what we need to remember is that He already did! God accomplished all things through His Son, Jesus Christ, who came down as a man, to carry out the will of His Father! We see that all throughout the scriptures:
All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.
And what did Jesus say on the cross before He died? “It is finished” (John 19:30). All that God had prepared for His Son, He accomplished. And all that God has prepared for us, and all that God would have us do, all things, He will accomplish! Just try and stop Him. Another commentator wrote: “We must not allow ourselves to be cast down; we must struggle on, looking always unto Jesus. Our moods and feelings are changeful. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8).
Remember what we read in 2 Timothy 4:18, “And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom.” (2 Timothy 4:18). God will preserve us through faith. If He brings us low, He will preserve our faith in Christ. If He causes us to abound, He will preserve us as Christians. And just like every other aspect of our Christian lives, that doesn’t mean that we won’t stumble, or that we won’t ever make a mistake. Maybe you’re low, and you lose heart. Sooner or later, the Holy Spirit is going to point your eyes to Jesus. Likewise, if you find yourself in some lofty position, and you confuse your priorities, and become prideful, or greedy, or start to look down on others as if they are meant to serve you. Sooner or later, you will turn to Jesus, and repent. No matter how we fail, or how we stumble,.. or how far. Jesus has redeemed us. Our sins are nailed to a cross, and now, we can seek shelter in Christ, who tells us in the gospel of Matthew, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). And we rejoice, because we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” (Philippians 4:13).