By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Philippians 4:13 is one of the most famous quotations from St. Paul’s writings gathered together in the New Testament. In the Authorised King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, Philippians 4:13 is translated as ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’.
But what did St. Paul mean by ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’, and what was the context of these words? Let’s take a closer look at this oft-discussed quotation in the context of his epistle to the Philippians, which is thought to have been written while Paul was languishing in a Roman prison.
About Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians
Philippi was a Roman colony in part of what was then known as Macedonia; indeed, this port-city was named after the father of the most famous Macedonian of them all, Alexander the Great. Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC) had rebuilt the city and fortified it, and this city – once known as Crenides (from the ancient Greek for ‘fountains’) – was renamed in his honour.
St. Paul visited Philippi on his second missionary journey, having supposedly received a vision commanding him to visit Macedonia. It was at Philippi that Paul founded his first Church in Europe.
Paul is believed to have written his epistle to the Philippians while he was in prison in Rome: he refers to being in ‘bonds’ in the ‘palace’ at 1:13, with ‘palace’ sometimes rendered (such as in the Revised Standard Version) as ‘praetorian guard’.
Philippians 1:25 suggests that Paul had some confidence that he would soon be released from prison and allowed to continue spreading the gospel, although as the verses of Philippians 1:19-30 also reveal, the threat of martyrdom was also present (1:20 sees Paul state that Christ will be ‘magnified’ in his body, whether by life or by death: whichever was necessary).
We can date the composition of Philippians to some time between 62 and 64 AD, when Nero was emperor of Rome (the ‘Caesar’ referred to at Philippians 4:22): Nero would later persecute Christians following the fire of Rome in 64 AD (during which he didn’t ‘fiddle while Rome burned’), so Paul’s reference to ‘saints’ within ‘Caesar’s household’ indicates that he was writing before Nero would have banished any Christian converts.
Paul appears to have had a good relationship with the Philippian church, and his epistle to the Philippians is friendly, without evincing any obvious signs of conflict with the elders of the Church – save for some quarrel between two women of the Church, Euodias and Syntyche, whom he beseeches in Philippians 4:2 to mend their differences.
The meaning of Philippians 4:13
It is worth remembering, then, that Paul was not a free man when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. He is in prison and there is a possibility – albeit a remote one – of his being martyred for his faith.
And ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’ is a summary of Paul’s message to the Philippian church as he is personally undergoing hardship and deprivation while in prison. He does not despair, and does not let his adversity get the better of him.
This is because Christ gives him the strength to do anything, even though he may physically be confined to jail at the present moment. Note that it is Jesus Christ whom Paul credits with giving him this strength: it is not some habit he has acquired himself, but something that is made possible through the grace given to him by Christ.
But ‘Christ’ here is a word that appears in the Authorised Version of the Bible, though not in many other translations. The New International Version, for example, renders Philippians 4:13 as ‘I can do all this through him who gives me strength’, while the fourteenth-century Lollard, John Wyclif, who undertook one of the first English translations of the Bible, wrote ‘I may all things in him that comforteth me.’
This is because the Greek word for ‘Christ’ does not appear in the earliest manuscripts documenting Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. However, it’s clear who ‘him’ (or ‘Him’) refers to.
The preceding verses of Philippians 4, namely 4:10-12, also provide useful context for Paul’s declaration that ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’:
10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity.
11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
Paul has learned through his adversity and tribulations to be content, in whatever situation he should find himself in. The word ‘instructed’ (‘I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry’) carries the meaning of ‘initiated into a secret’. He has been initiated into the secret of finding contentment in both prosperity and poverty. His material situation does not change, and cannot affect, his inner peace.