This week we look at another very well known and popular verse that I’m sure all of you know very well. Now this is a verse that you will often see printed on posters, especially posters of athletes or people doing some kind of sporting activity. You will also see it printed on T-shirts, coffee cups, journals, diaries, Bible covers, on pens and of course, on those motivational images and videos that circulate on social media.


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And that verse is: Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

When this verse is quoted and used in all these places, it is intended as a motivational message. You will see a poster with an athlete ready to start a race, for example, and Philippians 4:13 will be quoted there to say that you can compete and win because you can do all things through him who strengthens you.

You might have also used this or heard it used in conversation to motivate others. You’re going to a job interview – you can do all things through him who strengthens you. You’re looking to start a new business – you can do all things through him who strengthens you. You’ve got a sudden bee in your bonnet to compete in the Comrades marathon – you can do all things through him who strengthens you.

A lot of the time that this verse is quoted, it is applied in a context of achievement – you can achieve your goals, because you can do all things through him who strengthens you. Even if you haven’t got the necessary training, qualifications, resources or abilities… this verse is applied in a way that makes you believe you can achieve absolutely anything you set your mind to, because you can do all things through him who strengthens you.

So is that the context of Philippians chapter 4? Is Paul applying for a job vacancy here in chapter 4? Is Paul preparing to take part in the long jump at the Olympics? Is he getting ready to run a race? Is he interested in starting a business? Is Paul writing this in a context of achievement and motivation to strive towards your goals and success, and promising us we can achieve any goal we set our mind to?

Let’s take a look at the context surrounding this verse and see if this is the correct interpretation.


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THE CONTEXT OF THE LETTER

Philippians is written by Paul to the Christians in a city called Philippi. Paul mentions his imprisonment in chapter 1:7, and that is because Paul is writing this letter from his prison cell in Rome. That’s an important bit of contextual information for us to keep in mind – Paul is not writing this letter from his holiday home in Hermanus, he’s actually writing it while under 24 hour guard in a prison cell in Rome, because he was arrested for his Christian work of evangelism. His circumstances are anything but good; he is not in good health, he is imprisoned, he is awaiting trial and he doesn’t yet know his fate.

One of the first things Paul says to the Philippians is a message of gratitude for their partnership with him in the gospel and for their support and prayers. In chapter 4:18 Paul mentions Epaphroditus and the gifts he had brought to Paul in prison from the Philippian Christians, and he is writing this letter in response to express his gratitude to them for their gifts of love.

Paul also sends news of what is happening on his end, and how what has happened to him had actually served to spread the gospel – even prison guards were being converted and becoming Christians. Paul had to be chained to a prison guard 24 hours a day, but Paul saw it as the prison guard being forced to be chained to him so that he could tell the prison guard the gospel – isn’t that amazing? And guess what… some of them were being saved. If you look at chapter 4:22, Paul sends greetings to the church from Caesar’s household, so even people who were in Caesar’s house were being saved as a result of Paul’s ministry there.

We unfortunately don’t have time in this short podcast to go through each chapter of the book, but suffice to say for today’s purposes that the themes covered in the letter by Paul include gratitude, humility, and having an eternal perspective on life. In chapter 1:21 Paul says “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” – though he was eager to serve the church with his life, he was also satisfied if his circumstances led to his death, because he knew where he was headed. And in chapter 3, he says he counts all of his worldly and religious achievements as nothing.

[7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. [8] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7–8, ESV)

So the overall context, theme and perspective of the letter to the Philippians is that Paul is writing from a place of hardship in prison, and amazingly, while he is in prison, he is writing to thank and to encourage those who are outside of prison to be humble and to have a perspective of gratitude to God no matter their circumstances, and as he says in chapter 4:4, to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)

THE CONTEXT OF THE PASSAGE

Now we come to the end of chapter 4 and our passage that contains verse 13, and the context hasn’t changed. Here Paul is talking about contentment. Let’s read verses 10-13

[10] I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. [11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10–13, ESV)

Now one of the strong themes of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is joy – joy in spite of hardship. Here again, Paul, writing from prison, speaks of his joy and rejoicing, and here in particular, his joy and contentment.

The natural question to ask is, how could Paul stay so full of joy and gratitude in his situation? What was his secret to having joy in such bad circumstances? Well, he tells us in this passage in verse 11 that he has “learned in whatever situation he is in, to be content.

Contentment is the key that allows you to “rejoice always”, as Paul says in verse 4, and to have joy in spite of bad circumstances. If you find it hard to imagine how you could possibly have joy in your own circumstances, then this passage is for you.

The Necessity of Contentment

Because I am a Baptist, most of my Bible lessons have 3 points, so I am going to highlight 3 things we can learn about contentment and joy in this passage. The first one is the necessity of contentment.

Let’s look at verse 10:

[10] I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. (Philippians 4:10, ESV)

At first, it might seem to us that Paul is being a little bit sarcastic and rude. “I rejoice greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me”. As if to say “Wow, finally you remember me. Where have you been?”

But it isn’t Paul’s intention to be rude or sarcastic at all, and we see that by what he says next – “You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.” So Paul is recognizing that the Philippian Christians wanted to send him aid and gifts, but weren’t able to because of some or other difficulty.

The second reason Paul might come across as being a bit rude here is that it might appear to some at first that he is only happy to have at last received some stuff. As if the only reason he is now happy is that he has received some gifts and his needs have finally been met.

But that also isn’t what Paul is saying or implying, and we see that in what he says in verse 11:

[11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Philippians 4:11, ESV)

In other words, Paul’s joy and contentment has nothing to do with his needs, or whether his needs are being met or not. Rather, he says he has learned to be content in whatever situation.

Paul’s example to us here is that contentment is a key to joy. You cannot really experience true joy or be able to rejoice always as Paul says in verse 4, unless we are able to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in -whether they be good or bad. God wants His children to be content with a lot, and He wants us to be content with a little. He wants us to be content in good times and in bad times.

This isn’t the only time Paul talks about being content in bad circumstances – he also says in 2 Corinthians 12:10

[10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10, ESV)

So clearly this is a common theme in Paul’s life, and an example to all of us. God wants us to be content, regardless of whether our circumstances are good or bad.

The Nature of Contentment

The second lesson we can pick up on is the nature of contentment. Let’s define contentment, because contentment can look different to different people. Is Paul saying that we should just suck it up and stop complaining when things are bad? Or pretend that things aren’t bad? How can we be content the way Paul was content?

Notice that in verse 11, Paul says “… for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Contentment can be learned.

You might be feeling guilty or inadequate right now because you’re in bad circumstances right now, and you’re not feeling content at all. You’re just not feeling it, and you can’t bring yourself to just pretend everything is OK when you know it’s not. You can’t just make yourself feel content. So what then can you do?

Well first of all, be encouraged that even Paul had to learn to be content. Contentment in bad circumstances didn’t come naturally to Paul either. He had to learn it. And so can you.

The key to Paul’s contentment was his perspective. I already mentioned the eternal perspective that Paul has when I talked about what he writes in chapter 3, saying that he counts all his worldly and religious achievements as nothing for the sake of knowing Jesus.

You see, there is a worldly contentment that we all have when we have the world’s comforts and everything is going well, and there is a gospel contentment that comes from knowing Jesus and knowing that we are saved.

If everything is going well for you now and your circumstances are pretty good, then there’s a good chance you are feeling quite content already with life. The problem of course, is that worldly contentment gets very quickly ripped out from under your feet when circumstances change from good to bad, and you go from content to miserable pretty fast. That is because your contentment is tied to the world and having the world’s comforts.

But if you have a gospel contentment that is tied to the gospel and knowing that Jesus has saved you, what he has saved you from and what he has saved you to, which can never be taken away from you, then nothing in the world can shake your contentment and joy. Worldly comforts come and go, but the gospel promise is certain and forever.

Now the bad news is that if your sense of contentment is based on everything going right for you in this world, then you are never going to know what true contentment really is because things are messed up in this world – and what’s worse is that if you are content with the world’s goods, then you are less likely to look for joy in Jesus.

The good news is that if you are looking at life from a gospel perspective, then even if you have nothing in this world, you can and will still have joy in spite of every bad thing in your life because you know that nothing can take Jesus’ promise of salvation away from you if you are a believer – and, when things are bad, you are more likely to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and find peace and contentment in his presence and promises.

In fact, and I know this sounds weird in a world where prosperity, health, wealth and happiness are such a central focus and even so in the church, but one of the kindest things that Lord does is to take the world’s comforts away from His children, so that we won’t have our contentment tied to those temporary things that rot away, but rather that our contentment stays firmly fixed on Jesus instead.

So how can we have the same kind of contentment that Paul had while writing from a prison cell to those who were free? Well it doesn’t always come naturally or automatically, nor can it be forced or faked. But we can learn to be content in every situation by always remembering the gospel and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.

The Freedom of Contentment

Now the result of doing that and learning to be content in Christ and not in the world is going to be freedom, peace and real joy. And that is the third lesson that I want to bring out in this short passage – the freedom of contentment.

When Paul says that he has learned in every situation to be content, what was the result for him?

He says in verse 12: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”

He has learned to be content in the highs and the lows, in the good times and the bad. He can experience contentment and joy whether he has plenty or whether he has nothing. In other words, his contentment is not tied to or restricted by his circumstances. In fact, circumstances don’t even affect his contentment and joy. Actually, he is completely free from being held captive to his circumstances.

Now there are some Christians who think like Buddhists do, which is to think that you can be content if you just lower your expectations. If your expectations are low, you are less likely to be disappointed. But that’s the wrong kind of thinking, because it still means that your contentment is chained to your circumstances, however low your expectations may be.

But true contentment isn’t even linked loosely to circumstances at all. True contentment is found only in Christ, in believing and trusting in Him and holding firmly to the promise of the gospel, which is eternal life to all who believe. None of that is in any way affected by worldly circumstances – good or bad.

And THAT, my friends, is when Paul now says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Do what things? Win a race? Get a job promotion? Win the lotto? Achieve your goals? No – success and achievement has nothing to do with the context here. But being content and having joy in spite of circumstances, being joyful and content in Jesus whether you have much or little, whether in good time or in bad times, because you can be content through Christ who strengthens you.

You can face hunger or plenty, a bad marriage and a good marriage, exciting times or terrifying times, through Christ who strengthens you.

Look to Christ and be content.

Remember what Paul said in chapter 3:7-8

[7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. [8] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7–8, ESV)

 


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