Most of you will recall the prayers that were offered up over the past two years for EPC pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned by the Turkish government and finally released last October. We have received word that Andrew will be one of the keynote speakers at this year’s General Assembly in June, addressing the theme of the power of prayer. I know that I and many others are looking forward to hearing Andrew speak of his experience in prison. We know that he went through extended periods of deep distress and discouragement as well as times of spiritual strengthening. So, it will be a gift to the church to hear how he is processing all that he has been through and how the Lord has been at work through this ordeal.
As we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we can see in a similar way the emotional and spiritual ups and downs that the Apostle went through in prison. As he comes to the close of the letter, though, he bears witness to how God has formed his faith through it all. Philippians 4:13 is surely one of the most memorable expressions of faith in the letter: “I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.” How many of us have not found this to be a treasure from the Word of God! It is one of those verses that we put on our refrigerators with a magnet, or display in some other way, as a constant reminder of where inner strength comes from for living as a Christian.
In its context, the meaning of the words is abundantly clear. He speaks of getting along with little as well as making good use of abundance, of “being well-fed and going hungry.” We understand him to be referring to the highs and lows of our experience in this world. He writes from prison, which is certainly for him a time of doing without most of life’s comforts, both physically and emotionally. He wants to assure his church family in Philippi that he has learned how to handle this. “I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.”
Taken in its context, then, it is a word of testimony that we can take to heart in the faithful “imitation” which the Apostle encouraged in 4:9: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” Of course, this is not a simple matter of imitating an attitude or technique. After all, Paul says in 4:11 that this contentment—perhaps “self-sufficiency” would be the better translation—is something that he has learned. Moreover, it is something that he has learned by going through these highs and lows. He could not have learned it as a purely abstract principle. He learned it by living by faith. He learned that, in union with Christ, he was strong enough to deal with the challenges that threaten to turn us from the path that pleases God. So, the point of imitation here is that we be open to the possibility of learning through experience what might seem beyond us in our own strength.
This is important to stress since, once a verse becomes a “refrigerator verse” it can be set adrift from its context and distorted. “I can do all things through the One who strengthens me” can be distorted into a kind of triumphant, “can do” positive thinking, rather than a humble, hopeful stance in the face of the threats that the highs and lows of life pose to faith. Our NRSV translation of 4:13 follows a translation “tradition” that dates back at least to the Geneva Bible. However, a comparison of a few other translations can hold us closer to the intent of Paul’s words in context. For example, Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates it, “I can make it through anything,” which is a very different thought than “I can do all things. “ Or, likewise, the American Bible Society’s Good News translation: “I have the strength to face all conditions...” These translations conform more closely to Paul’s original words, “I am strong for all things...”
Those who take the “I can do all things...” out of context would do well to carefully ask, “What is it that I want to do?” There are, of course, many Bible texts that speak of accomplishing great things through the power of faith. This text, though, speaks specifically to those circumstances which pose threats to our faith and assures us that, in our union with Christ, we can meet these threats and come through with our faith intact and stronger. This, of course, does not sound as positive as doing all things and successfully accomplishing all things. We live in an achievement oriented society where we like to list our accomplishments. However, Paul’s ”strength to face all things” is more in the spirit of the Heidelberg Catechism 1 where union with Christ is presented as “belonging to our faithful Savior” and the benefit is “comfort.” An achievement or success oriented society sets it heart on more than “comfort.” Comfort is probably for losers. But, if we were to translate Paul’s “all things” into our setting, he would undoubtedly expand it to include “I know how to win, and I know how to deal with losing.”
It is also important to appreciate that this is, in fact, another “in Christ” text. We’ve been looking over the past several weeks at Paul’s use of the phrase “in Christ” (or, “in the Lord”). Almost all of our English translations translate the verse as “I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.” However, St. Paul’s original words were, literally, “in the One who strengthens me.” This is a small point, I suppose, except that when we want to appreciate the fullness of Paul’s perspective on “in Christ,” leaving this one out would be a major loss. The word “through” in English is instrumental. Translating Paul’s words here as “through” Christ can create the danger that we see Christ as a means to an end—namely, doing whatever worthy goal I might set my mind to. What Paul has in mind, though, is the blessing of life in union with Christ. In the “all things” that I have to face as a Christian, I face them in fellowship with Jesus. Jesus is never a means to an end. He is the one in whom and with whom I live. Whatever I do, I do it in fellowship with him and by the power of his indwelling Spirit.
Finally, it is important to guard against reading Paul’s “I can do all things” as an individualistic manifesto that diminishes the importance of the body of Christ. Instead, he is speaking out of the experience of times when he was effectively left on his own. There were crucial times in his ministry when--like Jesus himself—the people who should have stood by him abandoned him. (cp. 2 Timothy 4:16-17 "At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength...”) The fact that the body of Christ let him down did not lead Paul to dismiss the importance of the support of the church such that from now on, it would just be “Paul and Jesus.” Instead, he is simply bearing witness to what he had learned: In his union with Christ, he was able to find within himself the Christ-given power to stand firm in the faith.
May the Lord reveal to us the power at work in us by virtue of our union with him, and, facing all the challenges that come to us in the Father’s providence, make us steadfast in our faith.