Although general familiarity with Scripture is evaporating before our eyes, there are still some verses that show up in positive thinking and on refrigerator magnets and Christian cards. Philippians 4:13 has just the right sentiment many are looking for: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It resonates with verses like, “No weapon formed against me will stand” and “I know the plans I have for you…” These are memorable lines that speak of overcoming, success, empowerment and prosperity.
But the context and language of Philippians 4:11-13 doesn’t really go there. Paul has just said that he has learned the secret of contentment in all kinds of circumstances – to be hungry or filled, to be humbled or to abound. Paul says, in effect, I can handle “all things” (better, “all of this”) by union with Christ who is empowering me. In other words, intimacy with Christ has made it possible to live in all extremes with contentment. Paul caps off his thought by expressing gratitude for a financial gift: “Nevertheless, you have done well by sharing in my affliction…” (v 14). In other words, In Christ I can go with or without, but thank you for sharing anyway.
Paul’s appreciation goes on with reference to the Philippians’ remarkable generosity throughout his ministry. Then another widely quoted verse surfaces: “My God will supply (literally, “fill”) all your needs according to his riches and glory in Christ Jesus” (v 19). Like v 13, this one is easy to hold up in faith, expecting God to overcome all need with prosperity. But in this context, Paul is describing his belief that the Philippians, who had been so sacrificially faithful to God’s work, would be remembered in their own need. Like Paul, whom they are called to imitate (v 9; cf 3:17), they may need to learn contentment in their present lack. But also like Paul, they will find their true riches through Christ, both in this life and, most fully, in the age to come.
All of these theological sentiments bookend a letter which begins with Paul’s prayer that these colleagues in ministry – who participated with Paul in the work of the gospel (1:6) – will be sincere and blameless till the day of Christ, being “filled” with the fruit of righteousness (1:10-11). In these bookends, two words are repeated – the words for “abounding” and the word for being “filled” or “fulfilled” (in both 4:18&19). The opening prayer emphasizes the focus on spiritual abundance (in knowledge and discernment) and spiritual fulfillment (with the fruit of righteousness). The concluding remarks in chapter 4 makes it clear that our material generosity is one means for sharing in a spiritual ministry that creates the wealth of eternal fruitfullness. That’s how the Bible describes being “fulfilled.”