I Can Do All Things?

jetpack

Philippians 4:13 may be the poster child for fortune cookie Christianity. If it’s not the poster child, it’s definitely battling for the top spot in the Youth Group T-shirt Contest with “I know the plans I have for you” and “All things work together for good.”

Let me just say up front that I don’t think that all popular verses are misused or taken out of context. I would argue that most verses mean pretty much what they say, though understanding things like context and culture can make a huge difference when we try to move verses into 21st century America, or try to move ourselves back into ancient Palestine.  

The Psalms were intentionally designed for time travel. Sure, context still matters, but unlike other parts of Scripture, the psalmists of ancient Israel were sort of like the worship leaders and devotional writers of today, inviting God’s people to enter into the text and claim the pronouns for themselves.

Psalm 51 is a great example. We know that this was written by David after he slept with a married woman and murdered her husband. How’s that for context? We also know that David wrote, “take not your Holy Spirit from me” at a time before Pentecost, a time after he had personally seen the Holy Spirit taken away from Saul because of sin.

But David’s words were not stolen from his private diary and sold on the antiquities market. They were recorded and shared for the benefit of everyone, and I am personally grateful. David’s confession allows each of us to resonate with phrases like, “against You, and You alone, have I sinned,” and “let the bones you have crushed rejoice,” and “create in me a clean heart, O God.” Beautiful stuff.

However, using the Psalms in this way does not give Christians a license to hopscotch through the rest of Scripture, claiming verses, shoving ourselves into the context, and stitching encouraging phrases together like some hope-inducing, fear-stifling Jesus quilt.

Let’s take Philippians 4:13 as an example of how not to use Scripture:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Here is how my high school self would have paraphrased this verse: No matter where my life takes me, no matter what God asks me to do, God can make it happen.

I was never foolish enough to believe that “all things” meant reading minds or becoming an NBA superstar or being able to climb Mount Everest while juggling pregnant tarantulas. I realized that I could never actually control Christ’s strengthening power. Christ is a person, with a heart, mind and will of his own. He’s not some kind of spiritual jetpack.

But even though my theology was consistent with other parts of Scripture, affirming that “with God all things are possible,” resonating with plenty of Biblical stories, I did not actually understand Philippians 4:13 the way Paul wrote it.

Here is the context of that passage in the New King James:

I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Funny how context can seem to reshape the words. In this context, strength has to do with perseverance, not power. “All things” has to do with circumstances, not accomplishments. Paul’s goal is contentment, not achievement.

Knowing the context, my middle-aged self would look at my teenage self and re-paraphrase: Life with Christ can be a lot like a marriage—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—but Christ can give me the strength to endure the highs and lows, keeping my vision clear.

Can I still put Philippians 4:13 on a T-shirt? Absolutely. Paul is not talking about something that is too personal to be shared. Our highs might not get us to the third heaven, like Paul [II Cor. 12:2], and we may not end up as low as being stranded in the ocean after a third shipwreck [II Cor. 11:25], but we can certainly relate to the sentiment.

Just promise me that when you design the T-shirts, you don’t put Philippians 4:13 inside the picture of a flaming jetpack. If I see that shirt, I’m calling the fortune-cookie Christianity police.

And, yes, I know the number: JER-2911.

5 thoughts on “I Can Do All Things?

  1. Hi John,

    Another great post. Thanks for the recent posts: this one, love never fails, and Greek to me.

    God has given an opportunity to lead a short Bible Study at my local church because the Pastor is a bit busy and asked if I would not mind filling in this week. After praying about it the Lord said, “to go for it” the topic He will let me discuss is one about misinterpretations due to translation issues, cultural differences, exegesis, and personal opinions. And how these things can affect our interpretation of Scripture. Of course the most important issue being whether we have taken away the meaning that the author’s orginially intended or not because if we did not that can lead to many problems.

    I know in the past when this issue never occured to me, I would often act on incorrect interpretations that I came to and when thigs went bad it shook my faith. At the time it never occured to me that, “perhaps things went wrong not because God is not working, but I acted hastily based on my excitment over what I thought was a correct intepretation, but maybe it wasn’t right. Because if it was, things should have worked out.”

    Now God is helping me learn this and have the opportunity to share. Just praying it gets across correctly as this subject can be controversial and can lead to a lot of arguements. Want to encourage my fellow church siblings to keep searching for God and the truth that comes from Him, not start a fight.

    Your last posts, definitely will really help in discussing these topics. Thank you in Christ.

    God Bless

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ryan.

      Let me know how the discussion goes. You’re right, people don’t often like to entertain the idea that their reading of the Bible could be clouded by a lack of cultural understanding, a difficulty with translation, personality or upbringing, denominational lenses, or even a dullness of Spirit. People prefer the security of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” as if the plain truth of Scripture is impossible to miss.

      But life in relationship with God, and life in relationship to a book, no matter how sacred, is not the same thing. And although I love the book, I know that my brain can easily (an innocently) twist the meaning, which makes me approach the Scripture with a lot more humility, asking God to make things clear and help me to apply them correctly.

      I appreciate your thoughts in this area, knowing that you have had similar experiences.

      Like

      • Hi John,

        Sorry it took a while to get back. Due to the church celebrating Easter, plus a retreat fund raiser, Bible Studies got on halt for about 4 weeks.

        Anyways, thanks to the Lord, resumed Bible Studies this week, and was able to finally prepare and share some thoughts the other day. Worked out because the Pastor was called into work at the last minute and needed to fill in for him anyways, so just picked up where we meant to 4 weeks ago.

        Overall the the main topic we discussed was essentially:

        1 Peter 3:15
        “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that you have in Christ, with humbleness and respect.”

        While this specific verse did not come up, the idea centered around why do we believe what we believe?, how do we know it’s true?, and how to make sense of what we supposedly believe especially as it comes to the Bible? Plus what do we do when contradictions come up even within the Bible itself? In all honesty, we might have all the “right Christian” answers, but deep down in our hearts if we aren’t even convinced, there is very little chance we will be convincing to others we try to share the Gospel with.

        In a weird way, the verses we chose to apply this to was 1 Timothy 2:11-15. A verse that has gotten some very strong debate over the years. I did share my own personal opinions as how the Lord has been leading me, but was careful to mention that this was my own opinions and that other people may think different things. Suffice it to say, I do believe Paul’s words have been taken a bit out of context. I think it centers around how we interpret the original Greek.

        Now, most of the people in the study have grown up in the church since there youth, and while they are not what I would describe as a dogmatic-ritualistic-religious bunch, they are definitely, also certainly not “off the wall” rebellious kids, so everyone knew all the right answers, so basically explained the concept in the way God helped me understand it, back when He started to work on my heart before I got saved. The group also spanned from middle schoolers to post college, so that was interesting. (This actually would go back to your old post: inairent)

        The abridged version of the study went something like this:

        “We all believe the Bible is infallible right?”

        “What does that mean?”

        “That the Bible is never wrong…”

        “Oh…”

        “Yes, then.”

        “How do we know this?”

        “Because it is God’s Word inspired by His Holy Spirit. And God is never wrong and only speaks the truth.”

        “Correct, but we do realize that if we even find one contradiction, one mistake, one error, no matter how insignificant it may seem, that, basically, it that would blow a big hole in that theory. Right?”

        [There faces]: (._.)?

        “Let’s turn to the book of Matthew 1:1. It is a genealogy of Jesus, so we don’t need to read all the names, but let’s go near the bottom, someone read starting from King David, down. Another Person turn to Luke 3:21, and afterwards, read from Jesus backwards up to David.”

        [After doing so]:
        “Did anyone else notice, the genealogies don’t match?”

        [There faces]: (._.^)?

        “Also if you read a little further down in the Matthew version it mentions how there were 3 sets of 14 generations to Jesus right?”

        “Ya….?”

        “Let’s count them, remember that brothers/sisters, and husband/wives count as one generation… Did you notice that it goes 14, 14, then 13….unlike what the Bible says it is not 14, 14, 14?”

        [There faces]: (0_o)?

        “Okay, just to let everyone know, I am not a closet atheist, here to secretly destroy your faith. So let’s think about this for a moment. We have a few conclusions we can come to:

        Option 1. Since we found contradictions, though it may seem minor, does that mean the Bible is actually messed up and wrong, if they got something as simple as a bit of math, and name keeping incorrect, what else did they get wrong? (I mean doesn’t even Jesus, ‘…he who is faithful in little is faithful in much, and he who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much…?’) So maybe we really did just believe in vain and everything we learned was wrong, I mean this is just a small example, but there are plenty of much more serious contradictions throughout the Bible, in fact some that have downright caused splits even in the protestant churches due to sharp contrasting doctrines.

        Option 2. Maybe something got messed up in the translation here, and if we went to the original text, and also did some research on the original cultural context we can make sense of this.

        Option 3. Or maybe it is not mistranslated, but rather we just misinterpreted the meaning of what the original author was trying to say.

        Option 4. A combo of Option 2 and 3.

        Suffice, it to say, I would personally argue that it is option 4. Now we don’t have time to resolve this issue right now let’s hold that for another day, but let us take our 4 options and apply them to 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

        What if, just maybe, that perhaps it was not Paul who due to his cultural upbringing was perhaps sexist from our 21st century perspective, but rather those who translated his words (cough*cough*Latin Vulgate – Catholic Church – Women in Roman Culture were seen as inferior to men and the property of their fathers and later their husbands…) that may have misinterpreted his words and thus the subsequent translations we got plus the interpretations thereof may perhaps not be what Paul originally meant.”

        [Perked some interested. Basically it got really quiet]

        “Also, doesn’t it seem weird that the “sexist” Paul also would right in Galatians 3:28 ‘There is no Jew or Greek, nor slave or free, nor male or female before God’? Basically, meaning we are equal before God?”

        Also, let’s look at the context of the exact church that Timothy was pastoring at the time.”

        [Used 1 Timothy 1:1-5 to show he was in Ephesus, and also turned to the book of Acts to show the problems the early church encountered with the cult of artemis in the entire Asia Minor area, but especially in Ephesus. Then gave them some historical context on what the cult of diana believed and how a word for word translation of the original Greek would render it in English, incoherent, but how we could gain some alternative translations from there. And that we could come up with some alternative interpretations that would actually make sense if Paul was writing to Timothy as to how to exactly deal with (in a God honoring way) the violent assaults against the church by those who adhered to the cult of diana, especially since she was venerated as a fertility goddess, particularly in Ephesus, and worshipped very strongly by women. That this was an isolated situation and not one of universal statement about women leadership in the church.]

        “Also, by the way, if you ever ask a Christian who consider themselves ultra conservative (Now one thing God has been teaching me is not to get caught up in labels, point is we should be seeking His truth, but for the sake of arguement), ‘does God change?’ They will answer, ‘of course not!’ And if you ask, “how do you know that?’ They will probably point to Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 13:8. But lets go look at two examples, in the Bible of one woman in a position of leadership and another who was ordained to teach as a prophetess. Someone turn to Judges 4:4 (Devorah) and read it. Then, someone turn 2 Kings 22:8-15 (Chulda) and read afterwards… But wait I thought God did not change His mind? Why was He okay with women teaching and leading in the past and is not okay post Jesus, I thought He does not change? Plus since He does not change why did between the time of Jesus on Earth and Paul writing this letter to Timothy God change His mind have the salvation plan go from repentance by faith through grace for all, to repentance by faith through grace for men, and having babies for women. Does that mean if a women is truly repentant and dedicates her life to serving God because she was barren and did not have kids, she will go to hell and if a women lives in absolute wickedness has even just one child (and let’s say out of wedlock for sake of argument) she will go to heaven? Plus if God changed His mind about salvation so early in the life of the church, how can we trust He hasn’t changed it now many years later, and that we are all actually on our road to hell without even knowing it, because God keeps changing His mind on the criteria of slavation?”

        [You could hear the silence]

        “Okay so once again we are left with our four options:
        1) The Bible is not infallible, so we believed in vain.
        2) Mistranslation and a lack of cultural/historical context.
        3) Misinterpretation by us
        4) Combo of 2 and 3…

        Guys, point is that I am not an ordained Pastor, Theologian, Prophet, or whatever, I am just me, but based on how God has been teaching me as He brought me to salvation, I will say that I believe truth by it’s nature cannot contradict itself, and given what we have been traditionally taught, and the alternate ideas we have discussed today as to what Paul might have been really trying to say, I can only say it is my opinion: that I personally believe God does not change since He is already perfect, and so He does not need to. Seeing that is the case and we obviously see there are examples of God using women to lead and teach, more than just the two examples we talked about if you do some digging in your Bibles, and considering there are occasions where Paul quite obviously points out that we are equal in Christ, and that in his other letters to different churches he often gets on the “guys” for their issues as well, at least to me, I would say that simple deduction will tell us that, we have mistranslated and/or misinterpreted what Paul as inspired by the Holy Spirit actually meant.

        And if I have not turned your brains into scrambled mush by now, the one thing I want everyone to take away is: be careful when reading versus in complete isolation. Remember God’s is the master planner, He will never contradict Himself, nor will He ever make a mistake, so if we read a verse in isolation and take away some meaning from that, stop and examine if the meaning you felt you received makes sense in the context of the rest of Scripture, because if it does not, we may have just misunderstood the text. So yes, it is important to examine the tree, but be sure to take a step back and examine the forest also.”

        So again, that was the abridged version, left out a lot of specifics, but, at the very least I hope it went well, and that the concepts made sense. Either way, I just pray the Lord will do His work and that He was pleased with what was discussed. Looking back there were things I definitely can improve on in terms of presentation and enunciation, but in the end I thank God for always helping us to get to know Him better day by day.

        Thanks again, John, your recent posts have been super helpful to the preparation of this Bible Study.

        God Bless

        Like

    • Wait . . . I’m not sure what you mean. Paul was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is along an ocean. Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, which overlooks the sea.

      Like

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