For an Informed Love of God
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I Can Do All things (Phil 4:13)
One of the joys of knowing Greek is to be able to follow all the internal links that an inflected language gives us. Because of attributes such as case, number, and gender, Greek often gives clues to meaning that cannot be brought into English, unless your translation philosophy is very dynamic.
Philippians 4:13 is a good example. Paul has been encouraging the Philippians towards joy, reasonableness, lack of anxiety and God’s peace, to focus on that which is true. He thanks them for their financial gift — prisoners in Rome were responsible for their own expenses. Because Paul’s culture was so quid pro quo — I give you a gift so that at the right time I can require one back from you — he quickly follows with a disclaimer that he was okay without the gift; he has learned to be content in all situations.
Within that context Paul says, “I can do all things (panta) through him who strengthens me.” “All things”? Run faster than a speeding bullet? Leap over tall buildings? Sounds ridiculous, but then again some people take it that way in a Christian sense. The fact of the matter is that there are many things beyond our ability to do even with the help of the Spirit (like never again sin), and so common sense exegesis shows that the verse needs some interpretation.
The immediate context suggests that Paul is thinking at least of his God-given ability to be content in all circumstances. This is why the TNIV properly limits the scope of the statement when it says, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” But does the scope of “all this” perhaps go back further to the other items he has been discussing such as focusing on only what is true (v 8), replacing anxiety with prayer (v 6), etc?
“All things” is actually the adjective “all” There is no noun for it to modify, so we say it is functioning substantivally (i.e., as if it were a noun). We do the same thing in English, Clint Eastwood’s old movie title, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, illustrates the use of adjectives as if they were nouns. But all what?
The clue is that the adjective is neuter, when Greek wants to refer back not to a specific word but to a group of ideas or to a general concept, the adjective (or pronoun) is put in the neuter. In other words, the Greek shows that the “all” is referring back to not any one specific word but opens the door to referring back to an idea or group of ideas.
There is also a bit of a word play going on. In the previous verse Paul said that “In any and every circumstance” (en panti… kai… en pasin), and the suggestion is that the “all things” goes at least back to v 12.
As is often the case, Greek gives us the range of possibilities but ultimately it is context that helps us make a decision. The question is, does Paul’s ability to be content in all situations exhaust the meaning of being able to “all this” through Christ. To me, “All this” sounds to be a larger concept and I suspect it goes back to all he has been saying in chapter 4.
But whatever your conclusion, contextually I think there must be some limitation on the “all things,” and the TNIV’s “all this” correctly points the reader in the direction of the context of the immediate discussion.
Paul was not a stoic. Be did not stand with a stiff upper lip, facing the challenges of his life. Paul was not self-sufficient; nothing could be further from the truth. Paul was Christ-sufficient. The strength by which Paul lived and ministered came from God. His dogged determination to be content, rest in God’s peace, set his mind on what is pure and lovely, and rejoice in all things is because the God of all power and strength enabled him to do so.
It is one thing to say this; it is another to do it, isn’t it? How does someone live by God’s strength rather than by his or her own strength? Difficult question to answer, but I suspect its starting point is the realization that I in and of myself cannot do it. This is the point where the Spirit brought Paul through his thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). When we admit our inadequacies to truly behave a certain way, to love a person as Christ would have us love him, to rejoice in the midst of deep pain, it is in our admission of inability, in our weakness, that his power is seen to be strong. And by his strength we are able to all things that God has called us to do.