The meaning of Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength”

ZA Blog on February 1st, 2019. Tagged under .

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Philippians

Philippians 4:13 is one of the most well-known New Testament verses, but it’s also notoriously misused. After telling his audience that he’s experienced both poverty and affluence, the Apostle Paul writes these well-known words: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Many of us have seen some variation of these words in encouraging notes and cards, in art, on t-shirts, tattooed on people’s bodies, and even scrawled on the shoes of famous athletes or printed on their eye black.

The verse is often shortened to, “I can do all things . . .”

But is that what Paul is really saying here? Is he telling us to believe in ourselves? Or to believe that Christ empowers us to do whatever we set our minds to?

No.

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What Paul really means

If we truly want to know what a Bible verse or passage means, we have to read it in context. We can’t strip away all the surrounding verses, remove it from its original intent, and still expect to understand it.

Just before Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength,” he recounts some of the different circumstances he’s found himself in: he’s been hungry and well-fed, he’s been in need and he’s been well off, and he’s learned to be content, no matter what his circumstances are.

Paul isn’t juxtaposing these circumstances to suggest that one is better than the other. He’s using these extremes to highlight that he understands the range of human experience, and that he understands the challenges that come with each position. He isn’t a rich person telling a poor person to be happy with what they have (or vise versa), and he’s not sitting there on a full stomach telling hungry people to get over it.

He’s saying that no matter what your circumstances are, you can learn to be content. How does he know? Because he’s tested it, and he’s proved it. How does he do it? That’s where verse 13 comes in.

If you read the NIV translation of verse 13, you’ll notice an important distinction from most other translations:

“I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (emphasis added).

When we read “this” instead of “things,” it’s a lot more clear that the passage is referring to specific things—all the things Paul has been talking about—not “all things” in the sense that we can do anything.

In context, “I can do all things” is the ministry that God has sent Paul to do. He can persevere, share the gospel, and be content in any situation. Not on his own, but through Christ who strengthens him.

What Paul doesn’t mean

This verse is so misused because many Christians interpret “all things” as “anything,” not “all the things Paul has talked about.” It’s not a blanket endorsement that God will support anything we set out to do and empower us to do whatever impossible things we can imagine. It’s an assurance that we can do whatever God calls us to do, not whatever we decide to do.

This isn’t a biblical exhortation you can stamp on whatever goals you have professionally, personally, or physically. It’s an encouragement that God can give you the strength to be content, no matter what.

Learn more in Lynn H. Cohick’s Philippians online course.

  • David Allen 1 week ago

    So this is a very stoic view of Phil 4:13. The interpretation that we can be content no matter what reminds me of the quote from Seneca, “The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

  • Katherine Janes 1 week ago

    Thank you for reminding me that is God who will enable and to empower us. Not that we will do it in our own strength that of ourselves.

  • A. C. Polach 4 days ago

    The point about learning to be content is absolutely true–but definitely not what this passage teaches. The strengthening that comes by Christ is an entirely different matter. Your translation/interpretation suggests that panta is limited to only the specific examples Paul references. That’s an unnecessary conclusion and restraint on the theological point. The posters, t-shirts etc. just offer an encouraging reminder that we are not alone in life no matter what we encounter. I’ve never found anyone who thinks they can do anything because of the strength of Christ. These polemics driven by ‘my translation is better than your translations’ are not really helpful.