By Bob Wilkin
Philippians 4:13 is a favorite verse for many people: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Tim Tebow put Phil 4:13 under his eye before football games. Jon Jones, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, has it tattooed on his chest.
While many people love this verse, most love it for the wrong reason.
When understood in context, the actual meaning and application is far different than most think.
Thanks for Their Generous Support (Phil 4:10)
Philippians 4:13 is part of Paul’s thank you note at the end of his letter to the Philippians. As we shall see, recognizing that is important.
Here Paul thanks the church at Philippi for their financial support of his ministry: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but lacked the opportunity.”
We tend to think of Christian ministry as prayer and Bible teaching and evangelism and spiritual stuff. It is all that. But it is also financial support. In the first century it took money to do ministry for the Lord. The same is true today as well.
Contentment in Fullness or in Want (Phil 4:11-13)
The Bible does not work if we take words out of context and make them say things they were not intended to say.
Philippians 4:13 does not mean that all Christians can be rocket scientists. It doesn’t mean that all Christians can play in the NFL. It does not mean that if you are a Christian and you try hard enough, you can become anything you want to be.
The meaning of Phil 4:13 is clear if we read it in its context, which means reading the verses before and after it.
Verses 11-12 show that in Phil 4:13 the “all things” which Paul could do concerned coping with poverty (and with material needs) and also with handling riches (and prosperity).
The Apostle Paul “learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil 4:11). Whether he had a lot (abounding, full) or very little (abased, hungry, in need), Paul was content. With good health or bad, Paul was content. Whether he was free, or whether he was in prison (which he was at this time), he was content.
Gordon Fee makes this terrific point:
But Paul is neither reveling in the one [prosperity] nor complaining of the other [lack]…In contrast to some of the Cynics, he did not choose “want” as a way of life, so as to demonstrate himself to be content; rather he had learned to accept whatever came his way, knowing that his life was not conditioned by either. His relationship to Christ made them both essentially irrelevant (Philippians, p. 186).
Thus when Paul says, “I can do all things…,” he means, “I can handle bad circumstances and good circumstances through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul’s point is actually antithetical to the prosperity gospel message.
Remember, Paul is still in prison in Rome as he writes. His basic needs are being met. He even says in v 18 that he is doing well due to their support. But he is not living in a four star hotel and he is not living in luxury. He is under house arrest until he goes before Caesar to be judged. At that judgment he might be freed or sentenced to execution.
Philippians 4:13 doesn’t mean that you or I can become President of the United States. It doesn’t mean that at age 64 I can play in the NBA. It doesn’t mean that Shawn Lazar can run a mile in under 4 minutes.1 It doesn’t mean that Mark Gray can be a successful singer and have multiple gold records. It doesn’t mean that Bethany Taylor can be a champion UFC fighter. What it means is better than that. Far better. It means whether you ever reach your dreams or not, you can handle it. You can handle the good and the bad because Christ strengthens you. It means you can handle prosperity and you can handle being in need. Whatever your circumstances, the Lord Jesus gives you the strength to handle them in a way that honors God.
Their Gifts as Partnership in the Gospel (Phil 2:14-17)
Note how v 14 supports that. While Paul can handle either want or abundance, “Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress.”
The point is that we should not think, “Well, brother so and so who is really in financial need right now will do well whether I help him or not, so I won’t give anything even though I could. No, we do well if we help brothers and sisters in need. Whether what they need is a tire or a meal or a coat or support for clear-gospel ministry, we do well if we share in the distress of other believers. Compare Jas 2:15-16.
Verse 14 speaks of sharing in Paul’s gospel ministry: “you have done well that you shared [sunkoinoneō] in my distress.”
Verse 15 continues the theme of his thankfulness for the support of the Philippian church. In the beginning of Paul’s gospel ministry, no other church “shared [koinoneō] in the matter [lit. in the account] of giving and receiving except you only.”
Marvin Vincent in his commentary says,
“[No other church]…entered into partnership with [Paul] as to an account of giving and receiving.” This matter is expressed in a mercantile metaphor…The Philippians, by their contributions, had “opened an account” with [Paul] (Philippians, p. 148).
The word sharing in vv 14-15 is a fellowship word. Compare Phil 1:5, “I thank my God…for your fellowship [koinonia] in the gospel from the first day until now.”
There is a country called Macedonia today. Ancient Macedonia is now part of six Balkan countries: Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia (my people), and Kosovo. Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia.
Paul first preached in Europe when he went to Philippi after the Macedonian vision of Acts 16:9. In v 15 he speaks of the time when he left Macedonia. Only their church financially helped him.
Acts tells us that he next went to Thessalonica (which still exists). In v 16 Paul says, “For even in Thessalonica you send aid once and again for my necessities.”
In v 17 Paul makes his philosophy of seeking support. He does not say that he doesn’t seek support. Instead, he says that while he appreciates support, what he really wants for those who give is “the fruit that abounds to your account.”
The word translated “account” is logos. While it often means word, here it refers to some sort of heavenly account. It reminds us of Matt 6:19-21. If we lay up treasure in heaven, it is going into this “account” of which Paul speaks. In other words, their support of his ministry would result in eternal rewards for the believers in Philippi.
The same word was used in v 15: “they shared in the account [logos], in the matter, of giving and receiving.” In other words, when they gave money to help him in his ministry, they were sharing in his rewards too.
Gordon Fee comments:
They themselves will be Paul’s eschatological “reward” (2:16; 4:1); their gift to him has the effect of accumulating “interest” toward their eschatological reward. Their gift, which serves his physical health, serves more significantly as evidence of their spiritual health (Philippians, p. 190, emphasis his).
If you have ever invested money, you know that nearly any investment can go down as well as up. Stocks generally go up. But they sometimes go down 33% or more in one year (e.g., 2008). Land and houses generally go up in value. But sometimes they drop. Gold and silver did well for years. But last year they were down a lot. Some investments are wiser than others.
The same is true in spiritual investments. Some are wiser than others.
If we pick well, we are guaranteed to do well at the Judgment Seat of Christ for our support of churches and ministries that accurately proclaim God’s Word. That’s the key. Paul was a faithful preacher. Hence to support him is a great investment.
Vincent says, “Every act of Christian ministry develops and enriches him who performs it” (Philippians, p. 149).
Ralph Martin says, “At the last day such generous and unstinted service which expressed itself in practical monetary support would not go unrecognized or unrewarded (cf. 1:11)” (Philippians, p. 183).
Be warned, however. We can choose to invest poorly. Giving to a ministry that does not accurately proclaim God’s Word is not a good investment. For example, a famous TV preacher recently got in some hot water for seeking to raise $70 million so he could have his own Gulfstream jet. And years ago the PTL club got in trouble for using donor money for extravagant and even sinful living, including an air conditioned dog house and a mistress. Giving to ministries like that will not give you praise at the Bema, thereby reducing the praise you could have had, if you had invested wisely.2
God Supplies the Needs of the Givers Too (Phil 4:18-20)
In v 17 Paul had spoken of future rewards at the Bema that believers will receive for the generosity in supporting clear gospel ministry. In v 18 Paul linked those future rewards with the fact that their actions were well pleasing to God.
In v 18 Paul goes back to a point he started in v 12. Right now he is full since he received the gift they sent with Epaphroditus. Note that he doesn’t just say it pleased him. He says that gift was “well pleasing to God.”
This leads Paul to focus on God in the rest of the passage.
Now in v 19 Paul reminds them of present rewards, “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches and glory in Christ Jesus.”
That did not mean that they, or we, would be rich. It doesn’t talk about houses or horses, or in today’s language, cars. What it meant is that God would meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter.
Verse 20 is a doxology. Glory be to God.
Gordon Fee comments,
True theology is expressed in doxology, and doxology is always the proper response to God, even—and especially?—in response to God’s prompting friends to minister to friends (Philippians, p. 193).
Paul’s Grace Greetings (Phil 4:21-23)
First, Paul greets all the believers there.
Second, he sends the greetings of all the believers with him in Rome in prison.
Third, Paul extends greetings even from “those [saints] who are of Caesar’s household.” Evidently Paul had led some of his guards and maybe others in Caesar’s household to faith in Christ! And they greet the Philippians too.
Vincent says that the word household “does not signify members of the imperial family, but the whole ménage of the imperial residence—slaves, freedmen, household servants, and other dependents, possibly some of high rank” (p. 153).
Gordon Fee comments on the impact this greeting would have on the Philippians,
The “word of life” to which the Philippians hold firm (Phil 2:15-16) has already penetrated the heart of the Empire. They have brothers and sisters in Caesar’s own household, who are on their side and now send them greetings; and therefore the Savior whom they await (3:20) will gather some from Caesar’s household as well as from Caesar’s Philippi when he comes (Philippians, p. 196, emphasis added).
The final verse (v 23) is Paul’s extension of God’s favor to them.
Five legitimate applications of Phil 4:13 and its context are as follows:
1. Be content with what you have, whether it is a lot or a little, whether it is what you had hoped for or not.
2. Thank God for those who aid you in your life and ministry.
3. Realize that you are not guaranteed to be prosperous, healthy, and “successful” in this life.
4. Don’t make your priority in life either poverty or riches, but to please God in every circumstance.
5. Always remember to invest in your eternal account, but remember, you must do so wisely.
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society. He lives in Highland Village, TX with his wife of 40 years, Sharon. His latest book is What Is the Outer Darkness? (co-authored with Zane Hodges).
1. Ed. note: Who says I can’t?
2. You might even lose some rewards for sharing in evil deeds (cf. 2 John 10-11).