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INTRODUCTION

An article by Jared C. Wilson entitled “The Bible Is a Big Book with Lots of Words” (OCTOBER 22, 2020) at the Gospel Coalition website (link: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/jared-c-wilson/the-bible-is-a-big-book-with-lots-of-words/ ) reads:

We are staring back along the wake of an entire generation of church teaching that treats the Bible likes Bartlett’s Book of Quotations. We swoop down toward the Scriptures quickly and snatch something, anything, that will do for a pick-me-up, a soundbite, a prooftexted inspiration. Jeremiah 29:11. Philippians 4:13. Romans 8:28. These verses and more we have decontextualized into a devastating discipleship deficiency. And then we act shocked when professing Christians who otherwise know some Bible verses do not portray the wisdom of the Word.

He is correct.  Proof-texting is like the sound of chalk screeching on a chalkboard.  It just sounds really awful!  Plain and simple, proof-texting is NOT Bible study.

PHILIPPIANS 4:13

Jared Wilson listed three verses often used in proof-texting.  I thought I would take a look at each verse and try to determine what the author intended to convey to his original audience.  In this post, I looked at Philippians 4:13, which reads (ESV):

13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The article (July 31, 2019) by Cameron Beuttel entitled “Can We Really Do All Things Through Christ? “  (link: https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B160219/can-we-really-do-all-things-through-christ ) at the Grace to You website (gty.org) explains one common proof-texting error for Philippians 4:13:

And in this era of unbridled self-esteem, who wouldn’t want the power of God enabling and animating the fulfilment of his hopes and dreams? Celebrity pastor, Joel Osteen, does nothing to quench such optimism and enthusiasm.

It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can . . . you can! Today, why don’t you begin to open yourself up to possibilities in your future by simply declaring this verse, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength?” [2]

Osteen’s interpretation begs an important question about Philippians 4:13. When Paul wrote that he—and by extension, we—can “do all things” through Christ’s strength, was he promising victory and success in all our personal endeavors? Does “all things” essentially mean anything we want? And if so, why does any Christian ever fail at anything?

In Bible study, CONTEXT RULES!  You may want to say it again, “CONTEXT RULES!”

Here, the relevant literary context is Philippians 4:11–13 (ESV), which reads:

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.

Paul pointed out that no matter the situation in which he found himself, he took comfort in the truth that Christ strengthened him to carry out ministry whatever the circumstances.  This is very apparent when one appreciates that verses 12-13 comprise one sentence in the Greek text (NA28) so that verse 13 is strongly linked to all of verse 12.   It reveals a wrong interpretation to characterize Philippians 4:13 to be a magic incantation per Joel Osteen when he says, “Today, why don’t you begin to open yourself up to possibilities in your future by simply declaring this verse.” 

To make certain I am not out in left field, I consulted commentaries. 

 One commentator (Melick, R. R. (1991). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 32, pp. 154–155). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers) writes:

4:13 Paul depended on Christ for strength. The expression “through him who gives me strength” clearly refers to the indwelling Christ, and Paul could accomplish all that God wanted through the strength he provided. Some people abuse this verse by taking it out of context. They assume Paul was making a comprehensive statement about the spiritual abilities of a Christian. Some even act as if there were nothing they could not do. Paul did not mean that. Two factors in the text reveal why. First, the passage discussed material and physical needs. In the day to day economic fluctuations, Paul knew a stability that enabled him to rise above them. The rule of context means that this must be applied to economic matters. Second, Paul expressed his dependence on the power of the Lord. In this, he knew that where the Lord led him, he had power. The will of God limited the application of the strength he knew. Many who misapply this verse step out of God’s will for their lives. They hope to cover their actions by a blanket promise of power, but power comes in the will of God. Thus, Paul expressed a crucial paradox. He was strong when he was weak! He was independent (self-sufficient) only when he was dependent! Although Paul realized the necessity of living in a Christian community, he also knew what it meant to face life’s problems alone and still triumph through them.

Another commentator (Constable, T. (2003). Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Php 4:13). Galaxie Software) writes:

4:13 How could he do it? His contentment did not come through will power or the power of positive thinking. Paul was not a member of the Stoic philosophic school. It was Jesus Christ who enabled him to be content.

CONCLUSION

The next time you hear someone quote Philippians 4:13 to say he or she will be successful at whatever they attempt, you may want to pull them aside and refer them to the surrounding literary context.  Help them not to espouse bumper-sticker theology.

By the way, Wilson ends with these good words:

Be careful with how you use your Bible, then, to make sure it is actually using you. Consult its whole counsel. Don’t be an adherent of pick-n-choose-ianity. Reject sloganeering and cliche-peddling. Through the deep Word, become a deeper person. The Bible is bigger than your bumper sticker.

If you are reading this post and are not a Christian, unless God intervenes, your eternal destination is hell.  But, your destiny can change. 

Today can be the day of your salvation!  Please see my blog (https://stevebelsheim.com/2020/04/20/for-god-so-loves-you-2/) for a description of how you can be saved.  You can also go to another article at my blog (https://stevebelsheim.com/2020/10/20/there-is-hope-even-when-there-seems-to-be-no-hope-2/ ). 

Please send me any comments to steve@stevebelsheim.com or use the comments feature of the blog.

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