Good morning friends. We’re finishing up our series on Philippians—this small little ancient letter in what we call the New Testament, because we’re finishing up the letter. We just read the end of it.
Paul spends some time thanking the Philippians for their generosity and their relationship with him—and specifically for the support they’ve sent him through Epaphroditus (v18). Remember, he’s writing in chains in prison, and the Romans don’t feed their prisoners. So it really is with a full heart—and now a full stomach—that Paul is thanking them.
And then he starts signing off: Greet everyone—everyone here sends their love (v21)—and there’s even people in government (in Caesar’s household, v22) who have given their ultimate allegiance to Jesus—and they send greetings. Grace be with your spirit—with your deep inner life (v23). Amen. So let it be.
The letter is over.
And as he wraps up this letter, Paul scratches out words on papyrus from the darkness of his prison cell that will echo across the centuries—encouraging and inspiring untold millions—and eventually find their way onto baseball caps and bumperstickers.
“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με
I am empowered, equipped, strengthened.
EN: (in, through, by) — TOI — the One, Him —
who is empowering—present tense—right now!—
this One is strengthening me.
“I’m equipped—I am able—I am empowered—by the one empowering me—for all things”
Today, we’re just going to make a brief reflection about this verse before we come to the table. And I thought a good doorway—a good path in—to this reflection, might be to explicitly state the tension beneath this statement: Paul can do “all things” through Jesus, AND Paul can’t get out of his chains.
If you walk into almost any Christian high school, and wander over to the gym or the locker room, what verse are you likely to find stenciled on a wall or stitched into jersey? This one. And what’s the general thrust of how Paul’s statement is being used? I can do “all things.” And that means “I can make the free-throw. We can outplay the opposition. Eat my dust, because I’m gonna break a world-record because I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (I’m not wrong, am I?)
Somewhere in our minds, Paul’s statement has become about some kind super-battery that we can tap into when we need a boost. I think about that train in Back to the Future Part III, and those colored super-logs that they were throwing into the engine furnace. Throw the log in—boom—huge burst of energy. The train pushes a little harder. The train pushes a little faster. The train keeps going. That’s what this verse has become in our minds, isn’t it?
It’s the verse you pull out of the Bible when you need a shot in the arm, a log in the furnace—when you need to Hulk-out and get your game on. But—and maybe this is obvious but we need to say it—Paul can’t Hulk-out and break his chains. Paul is not breaking any world-records from his cell. By all appearances—whatever game Paul is playing, he’s losing at it.
In some of Paul’s letters—especially a letter like 2 Corinthians—Paul is having to address this with people… he knows that there are more “successful” looking apostles out there—he knows it looks like he’s losing the game—but he says: “I am empowered. There is Someone empowering me—for all things.”
Paul can do “all things” through Jesus, AND Paul can’t get out of his chains. What exactly does Paul means by “all things”? Because now it seems like a confusing sentence. But it’s not terribly tricky. Like any sentence—be it in an ancient letter, a conversation, a movie, whatever—if we want clarity about what a sentence means, we should probably look at the paragraph. If we just get into the flow of thought—the stream of what’s being said—the meaning of sentence becomes clear.
Case-in-point: “Wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid is NOT ultimately about cleaning a car—despite what the sentence sounds like by itself. Growing up, I heard my friends quoting that line at school, but had never seen the movie, so I had a general misunderstanding it. But put it in the context of the movie, and its meaning is about something more than just waxing a car.
Here’s the flow of thought Paul is in before he writes “all things.”
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.Philippians 4v10
So he’s grateful that the Philippians have shown love for him.
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.Philippians 4v11
In other words, no part of Paul is trying to guilt them or manipulate them or trying to get them to give him more.
Even when things are impossibly hard—even when he’s in chains in prison—he has learned to rest content wherever he finds himself. No matter his circumstances:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.Philippians 4v12
He knows what it’s like to live with be well-fed, living in happy circumstances, in the homes of wealthy patrons and friends. AND he knows what it’s like to be hungry—living in desperate, dire circumstances. He knows what it’s like to live in plenty or to live in squalor. To rest satisfied through the best of times and through the worst of times. He has found a secret—a secret to being content—and he’s leaning into it with all of his being:
I can do all this through him who gives me strength.Philippians 4v13
That’s the flow of thought the sentence fits into. Paul’s not point is not “I can do all things” meaning “I can break these chains.” Paul’s point is “I can do all things” meaning “I do these chains.” I can handle them too. “There’s One who giving me strength, and I’m being strengthened for this too.”
“I can do all things through Christ” is strength to carry a cross, not strategy to avoid one. It’s a source of peace in chains, not always power to break them. It’s strength to keep going when there’s no angelic jailbreak.
Many of us carry a deep sense of shame as we follow Jesus: the belief that things aren’t working out right and it’s our fault. Many of us quietly believe that if we could just muster enough faith—pray with enough fervor, flip the right switches, throw the right log on the fire—we could finally get things done. The good and holy things that we think should be happening—would finally happen. What we want—our will—would finally be done, on earth and in heaven. After all, “I can do all things thought Christ.” But the shame creeps in because we go out there and play hard with this sentence stitched into our jersey… and we lose our game.
We pray hard… and health hasn’t returned.
We ask and ask… and revival doesn’t come in the way we want.
We believe as hard as we can… and we’re still in prison.
“But I’m supposed to be able to do all things…?”
So we carry around a sense that not only are things out of whack, but it’s our fault. Because we just haven’t flipped the right switch—we haven’t thrown the right super-log into the furnace—otherwise things wouldn’t be this way. So we flipflop between desperately trying get “all things” done and a place of despair when things don’t work out how we want. Between our valiant faith-filled efforts do “all things” and our inability to get “all things” done. We’re jazzed about the verse on our jersey, but we lost the game.
Here’s the secret Paul has learned:
Prison is part of “all things.”
That’s what Paul says. I can do well-fed. I can do satisfied. And I can do hunger. I can do squalor. I can do chains. I can lose. Prison is part of “all things.”
And so is cancer.
And so is loneliness.
And so is wilderness.
The secret that Paul has discovered is that there is a God empowering him—strengthening him—carrying him—loving him—in the midst of “all things.” Paul’s point is NOT that Paul is powerful. It’s not Paul who’s powerful. His point is that God—the God revealed as Jesus—is powerful.
God is powerful, even though this God presented in Philippians 2 doesn’t always look powerful. God often seems apparently weak. God often seems painfully absent. This is the God who empties himself and enters into our darkness and death on the cross. This God often seems powerless.
And yet Jesus walked out of the tomb.
Everything had looked impossible. (It actually HAD BEEN impossible.) Jesus’s mangled, splintered, punctured corpse had been tucked in cave. His disciples—their futures gone, their hopes dashed—had hidden in shadows terrified of corrupt religious and government leaders toasting their ability to win every game. And then an unbearable Sabbath passed. (The disciples couldn’t even distract themselves with their work.) All they could do through the day and into the night was think about… their tortured friend… mourning… lamenting… confusion… tear stained pillows.
And then… slowly… imperceptibly… something changed in the darkness before dawn. Easter had arrived. And the sun began rising on a new world. God is powerful—and life won. Those strange events in the year 30AD are why Paul has confidence. If the God revealed in Jesus could endure “all things” and come out the other side more alive than ever, then Paul can do all things. If God can transform the horror of a Roman execution stake into a universal symbol of peace and hope and love—then God can transform the prisons and chains of my life.
There will be life on the other side; more and better life than I can imagine. Life is going to win—so I can practice gratitude—I can practice leaning into contentment—regardless of where I find myself.
God is not waiting on us to flip the right switch, or pray the right prayer, or just believe hard enough, in order to save the world. God’s always already at work. God is saving. (That’s who he is; that’s what he does.) He’s just working on things we can’t immediately see—moving in ways we can’t always perceive—healing more deeply than we want. That’s the center of our faith—that’s the mystery of the cross.
We’re invited to trust that Jesus’s past is our future. One scholar, Ben Witherington, said: “Christ’s history is our destiny.” God—in Jesus—has already been through the entire human experience and come out the other side. You will too. Prison won’t keep. The chains won’t last. The grave doesn’t win. Easter is coming. God is saving the world.
Cling to that. Cling to Jesus. That’s what Paul has been saying throughout this entire letter. Jesus is where contentment is found because even a cross can save. Jesus is where joy is found because resurrection wins in the end. Jesus’s life is our life. His past is our future. Trust that. Trust him.
You can do “all things”—not because you’re strong, but because the Crucified One is alive and working. And he will meet all your needs.