As a followup to my tutorial on how to take a verse out of context, I thought it would be beneficial to show and not just tell. I wanted to take a look at some of the most commonly taken out of context verses and place them back into their proper place. You’ll be able to see the implications of taking a verse out of its context and how it really does change the meaning.
Unfortunately for Christians, many of the favorite verses we quote are actually taken out of context. It’s usually not heresy, that takes some real skill, but what happens is we often take a belief that is consistent with American culture and force it into a verse (tip of the day: American doesn’t always equal Christian). I want to look at such an example today.
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, ESV).
This is a verse I’ve quoted to myself many times over the years. On the surface, the meaning seems pretty straightforward: “When insurmountable situations occur, I can rely on Christ’s strength to help me accomplish it.” Whenever I hit a hard test in school, I remember quoting this to myself (because I didn’t study) and it always gave me that extra boost of confidence for the test. In college, Tim Tebow used to wear this verse on his eye black during football games, carrying him to a national championship and Heisman trophy. I’ve heard of other believers using this verse to encourage themselves to ask that girl out, apply for that job, audition for American Idol, and countless other random things.
It’s the American dream with Jesus steroids.
The logic flows like this. Can Jesus do all things? Why, of course He can. He is God after all. If I’m saved, doesn’t Jesus live in me? Yes, right again. Then by the transitive property, I can do all things.
It sounds nice and I understand why people believe it, including myself years ago, but—and I hate being a wet blanket—this understanding of the verse is incorrect. It takes Philippians 4:13 out of its context.
Here’s the immediate context of the verse:
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.
Alright, let’s unpack this to discover the correct meaning.
To give you some background, Paul is writing from prison to the Philippians. Paul had a good relationship with the Christians in Philippi, so naturally they were concerned for their imprisoned pastor (4:10). The problem was that although the Philippians were worried for Paul, they had no opportunity to express that concern through more gifts (they had previously given Paul a gift, 4:18, but wished to do more). Paul, sensing their concern, sought to reassure the Philippians that he did not need another gift. He writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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” (4:11-12).
What Paul? Aren’t you in prison? How can you be content with that? It’s because he knows the secret to being content—and he reveals that secret in the next verse.
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Paul says, the secret to being content is Christ. In any situation, even if you are alone in a dark Roman prison, you can be content through Christ’s strength. That’s what Philippians means by doing “all things through Him.” It’s about finding complete satisfaction in Jesus Christ, even in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death.
So Philippians 4:13 is not talking about accomplishing anything through Christ. Can we do great things with Christ, things only possible with His strength? Of course. But Jesus is not Siri, waiting for us to give Him requests to fulfill.
I think such a belief can be subtly dangerous. It gives a whiff of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that Jesus’ work on the cross accomplished for me not only spiritual victory over sin but physical victory over sickness, poverty, and hardship. It says, if I believe hard enough and take hold of that victory, Jesus will make me healthy, wealthy, accomplish my dreams, give me a hot spouse and kids that behave, and I’ll die at an old age peacefully in my sleep.
It’s about using Jesus as a genie to get more stuff.
This idea is profoundly unhelpful. What happens if you don’t accomplish that goal you were pining for? You fail the test. You don’t get the job. You lose the game. Your mortgage goes belly-up. What went wrong? By the old logic of Philippians 4:13, either you didn’t believe Jesus could do it or Jesus can’t do it. Tell that to someone who just found out that their cancer came back and you’ll quickly see how this interpretation falls apart.
Paul couldn’t get the thorn out of his flesh. Timothy couldn’t heal his stomach ailment. What was wrong with their faith? Nothing. In fact their faith was strengthened because of their trials.
Knowing what this verse means in its context should actually give us more encouragement than less.
We are not promised that hardship will avoid us. We live in a broken world and it takes its toll. But we are promised that in the middle of the hardest things life can throw at you Christ will still be sufficient for you, His power is made perfect in weakness, and you can make it through His strength.
Now that is something far more valuable than getting an “A” on the test.