“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (ESV). Philippians 4:13 is one of the most frequently quoted verses in the Bible. It is also one of the most commonly misunderstood. People love this verse becomes it seems to say that we can do anything we set as a goal through the strength Jesus Christ provides. Through God we have unlimited potential!
However, this is certainly not what the apostle Paul is saying. The misunderstanding arises for two reasons. The first is a translation issue. In trying to give a smooth English translation for the somewhat awkward phrase πάντα ἰσχύω we have, “I can do all things.” It sounds like Paul says he can do anything. However, the verb ἰσχύω means “have power, be competent, be able” (BDAG 484.2a), and when it is used to indicate the ability to do something this is expressed by adding another verb in the infinitive to express the action (see Mt 26:40; Lk 16:3; BDAG 484.2b). Literally Phil 4:13 means, “I am able with respect to all things.” It doesn’t really mean “I can do.” The apostle is not saying he can do anything he chooses – anything he sets as a goal. He is saying that has the sufficiency to handle things.
The second reason is the context of Phil 4:13. The “things” to which Paul refers are not anything that a person may have in mind. Instead it refers specifically those things that he has just mentioned in 4:11-12:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for 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.
These are not self chosen goals. They are the circumstances that God allows in life. Paul is saying that he has the sufficiency to handle these various experiences.
Why does Paul have this ability? It is because of the One who strengthens him (ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με). It is because of God in Christ. As Paul says a few verses earlier, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). The source of this ability is the love God has revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The source is our baptism into Christ by which the Spirit has given us regeneration and renewal – a reality that Paul describes as being “in Christ.” The source is the Spirit’s work who gives us confidence in God’s continuing love and care. The source is the hope for the future we have because of the resurrection of our Lord.