Philippians 4:12&13 “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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
Let me say a few words by way of introduction. The first is this, that we are getting near the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I can see the finishing line, as it were, and the temptation then is to hurry on and complete it so that one has ‘done’ this epistle. We ministers get together, and we invariably talk about the books of the Bible that we are preaching through. “I’ve just done such and such a book,” a man will say. It can become a rather dangerous attitude, as though this is the end and goal of the sermon, to teach the congregation the contents of the books of the Bible. Surely that is not the chief end of preaching the word of God. It is worship. It is to know in our hearts and minds the power of God’s promises and rebukes and instructions as they affect our lives. There has been an enormous revival of systematic expository preaching coupled with the insights of the history of redemption (or the biblical theological) movement. Remember, when you’ve done your exposition and developed an outline all you have is the skeleton of a sermon. The goal of preaching is to bring this word of God to bear upon the affections of the entire congregation so that by it they are all enabled to love God and their fellow men, and hate sin more thoroughly. That is what the Bible understands by ‘faith’ and ‘repentance’.
I am saying to you that I must not be in a rush to ‘finish’ this letter to the Philippians for this additional and very simple reason, that anywhere in Paul’s writings the most significant insights may suddenly emerge. They are there, for example, in the introductory words of such letters as those to the Romans and Galatians, full of profound truth. Read and think over the first few verses of those two letters and see for yourselves. Then here in this letter, in the very postscript, as Paul is wrapping it all up, one classic word of comfort comes running on the heels of another into our minds – “I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content” – “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” – “my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”. How our life would be changed as a congregation if we came under the power of those truths! Where else in all of literature would you find such staggering statements in the throw-away remarks at the end of some writing? What glory is in them. Our fathers would call such texts “Divine Cordial.”
The second thing I want to say is that those three great statements I have just quoted all hang together. The first presents to us the possibility of perpetual contentment in every circumstance of life. The second tells us who provides the strength for that contentment, and the third where all our needs will be supplied. Now no one learns contentment in totally affluent circumstances, nor does anyone learn it in completely deprived circumstances. One must have serious exposure to both. A brief student vacation digging ditches and cleaning latrines in a Guatemala camp is not going to teach a rich young kid contentment in poverty because he is aware that in two weeks’ time he will be back in western comforts. Let him or her spend three years there. Again, an African pastor who attends a week’s conference in the USA can be very happy with American hospitality and affluence, but what if he were to study there for three years. Might it not corrupt him? Would he not find ten plausible excuses for not returning to Africa? I am asking what will a period of exposure to riches or poverty reveal about our priorities before God? Could we handle it? There was a period when Paul had been immersed in plenty; he had been the golden boy – the David Beckham – of the Pharisees. He was invited to everyone’s home for a feast. Then there came a different time, when children threw stones at Paul, men set their dogs on him, and women spat at him. He was stoned and left for dead. Paul had no itch for his former glory days, and his experience of poverty and opposition did not take away his peace in serving Jesus. He had learned contentment in whatever God sent into his life.
This was the way God taught Paul contentment, and he teaches us the same, by exposing us to blessings and testings. Paul tells us that there were periods in his life when he was in need. In prison he needed liberty, and warmth, and intellectual stimulation, and better food, and Christian companionship, and hope for the future, and so on. In persecution he needed protection. After being beaten or stoned his body ached and he needed nursing and ointments and healing. In his care of the churches he needed fellow workers to give him counsel and information. In long walks across what we now call Turkey to Greece he needed energy and rest. Paul was a man who knew what it was to be in need. But Paul proved God’s faithfulness in those times of want and distress. In God his needs were met, and Paul learned contentment “in any and every situation” (v.12). But he tells us that there were also times when he knew what it was to have plenty. Food on the table twice a day: how does he describe it? – “well fed . . . and living in plenty” (v.12). A warm bed at night. No illnesses. Peace, protection and freedom to evangelise in the community. A church of loving friends. A congregation hungry for truth. The blessing of the Holy Spirit working, regenerating and sanctifying. The temptation was to stay in such a place and forget about being a missionary to the Gentiles, but Paul was not bought by all that. How quickly one accepts blessings. Only in a living growing relationship with God are our needs met. Think of that ease of manner that comes from economic security and recognition. When you are going through a rough time you don’t want to meet some successful pastors. You don’t want to attend the conferences where they hang around, because you have so little to report.
But there is also an arrogance that comes from poverty. Who dared to judge the beliefs and attitudes of Mother Teresa? There was a woman who was virtually beyond criticism. She intimidated every western journalist and ecumenical church leader who visited her. Paul’s contentment did not come from the arrogance of poverty or the ease of wealth. He owed everything to God: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (v.13). It is a tremendous statement. The promise built into it is almost breath-taking. Hear me! God has gathered us here today to tell us this: You . . . yes, you . . . can do all things through the God who gives you strength. You are meant to leave this meeting today with these words edifying and cheering and inspiring you, so that you say, “Yes, I can cope; I can get by; I can be more than a conqueror of my weakness and sadness and frustration; I can triumph in adversity; I can do what I’ve got to do to the glory of God and the good of those who depend on me. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” I have failed if I have not given you that renewal of hope.
1. WE CAN DO ALL GOD’S WILL FOR US.
When Paul claims “I can do everything” he does not mean that he can fly, or live under water. He is not saying that he can go down to the old cemetery and raise all the dust and bones to life. He is not saying that he can travel to the moon, or visit heaven at whim. He is not saying that he can demonstrate to us the possibility of perpetual motion. He is not saying that he can paint like Rembrandt, compose like Mozart, sculpt like Rodin, sing like Bryn Terfel, run like Colin Jackson, preach like Whitefield, write like William Shakespeare, theorise like Albert Einstein. That is not what Paul is claiming or what he is teaching us to ‘claim’. Don Carson also points out that, “the verse should not be deployed by well-meaning but ill-informed church leaders who are trying to manipulate church members into doing something they really don’t think they should do: ‘But Mrs Jones, you can’t say no to our invitation to teach ten-year-old boys, just because you’ve never taught a Sunday School class before or just because you feel you have no gifts or calling or interest in this area. After all, Paul teaches that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.’ That is horrible” (D.A.Carson, “Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians,” Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 119).
It is indeed horrible. Paul could not do everything he wanted. He couldn’t release himself from prison. He couldn’t strike the chains off his wrists or ankles as the angel struck them off Peter when he was incarcerated. Paul couldn’t even remove a little thorn from his own flesh when God had inserted it. He couldn’t say “Peace be still” in the midst of the great Mediterranean storm off the island of Malta and save the boat from shipwreck. He couldn’t make Euodia and Syntyche fall in love with one another all over again. He couldn’t strike dumb the mouths of the Galatian heretics who were tearing the congregation in pieces. He couldn’t cure Timothy’s stomach ailment. He couldn’t make the Roman trial end with a not guilty verdict.
John Gwyn-Thomas turned that truth this way: “This is a good example of how the Bible should be read and how it shouldn’t be read. It shouldn’t be read merely by taking a single promise, a statement, or even the testimony of the apostle, out of its context. I am sure there are many students who when facing examinations say, ‘I wish through Christ all of us could get a “first”‘! You cannot do it, much as you would like to. Christian or non-Christian, unless the work has been done, and God has given you the ability to get a ‘first’.” (John Gwyn-Thomas, “Rejoice . . . Always! Studies in Philippians 4”, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1989, p. 108).
So what does it mean? Look at the context; Paul is talking about times of plenty and also times of need, well fed and also hungry, living in abundance and also in want, and Paul had learned to be content with whatever God willed for his life. “I can do that,” he is saying. “I won’t be bitter or angry with God.” Everything that God assigns to him, Paul can respond to in a way that honours the Lord. However God is pleased to advance the gospel, whether by the long life of John and the short life of Stephen, let God’s will be done. Paul is saying, “‘I have learned the secret of facing plenty or hunger, abundance or want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.’ He said he was able to live in contentment as a child of God, in peace and fellowship with God, carrying out God’s purposes for his life, in all the circumstances in which it had pleased God to place him. Whatever the temptations, whatever the trials, pressures of body or mind, whatever the afflictions, even prosperity and success, with all the temptations that surrounded him whether he was in a damp cell chained to a Roman centurion or whether he was on the Mediterranean Sea, he had learned in all these situations that through Christ he could carry out the purposes of God and live as his child in them all. This is really what he was saying” (John Gwyn-Thomas, ibid).
We can spread this ‘all things’ a bit further to embrace all our lives before the Lord, and everything God requires of us. I can love God with all my heart, and my neighbour as myself – not perfectly but with the earnest endeavour of a new man in Christ. I can forgive those who sin against me. I can turn the other cheek. I can bear all things, endure all things, believe all things and hope all things. I can live like that. I can love my wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. I can obey my parents. I can esteem other Christians better people than I am. I can shoulder the burdens of the weak. I can pray without ceasing. I can become mighty in the Scriptures. I can be filled with the Spirit. I can present my body a living sacrifice to God. I can give a reason for the hope that is in me to anyone who asks me. I can run the race to the end, and finish the course. I can put on all the armour of God. I can die daily to sin and live to Jesus Christ. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Everything God asks of me in the Bible I can do.
It is absolutely magnificent. We sometimes look at the pressures we are under, the mountains God asks us to climb, the burdens he asks us to bear, and we say to ourselves, “How can we possibly cope?” We might say, “I can’t manage it. I’ll sink down and down.” Then we read these great words and they say, “Yes you can cope. You can live like that. You can be a more-than-conqueror.” And they are not saying these words just to a proportion of the Lord’s people, or a minority, not just to those who have had the baptism or the anointing or the filling, but they are saying these things to all God’s people. Paul is reminding us here what God’s children can do. It is an invidious suggestion that you can be a Christian and not live at this plane, the suggestion that it is even normal and average to be a Christian and not have these great and mighty resources. It is simply an excuse for sub-Christian living and for our failures: “No, we can’t do everything God asks of us because he didn’t give us Spirit baptism, and we can’t cross the river because we haven’t had Spirit baptism, and we couldn’t resist the devil when he came to us because we hadn’t had Spirit baptism.” Pathetic excuses! I don’t believe that a single Christian has a right to argue in that way. I believe that you can climb any mountain, you can bear any load, you can endure any pain, you can overcome any temptation, and you bear any pressure through him who gives you strength. Wherever God places us, in need or in plenty, well fed or hungry, in prison or in liberty we can do all things through him who gives us strength. We can never blame our lack of resources for our failure to do what is God’s will for his church.
How far have we grown as Christians? How much have we learned in the school of Christ? What a rebuke to our murmurings, our laziness, our cowardice, our fears, our refusal to help, our prayerlessness, our discontentment, our disappointments with God’s provisions for us. Paul could have complained, “‘O God, I have served you for these past years, I have been persecuted, I have got the marks of the lashes on my back, I have got this thorn in the flesh. The reward I get for these years of devoted labour is that I find myself under the threat of execution in a Roman prison, chained to soldiers. Where is the eventide of my life with its tranquillity, its peace, it sunshine, its pleasantness and its comfort?’ But Paul did not complain, instead he said, ‘I am rejoicing in the God, I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.’ So this man is a great man, a great Christian man, and God has set him before us as an example of what can happen to us mere Christians in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (John Gwyn-Thomas, ibid, p.109).
2. TRUE CHRISTIANS FAIL TO DO ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S WILL FOR THEM.
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength”, but we all have to acknowledge that we don’t live like that all the time. Why? What are the reasons for the way we limp and stagger through the Christian life?
i] We underestimate the power of remaining sin. Paul himself knew he was under an obligation to be content always, in every situation, and to delight to do God’s will, and that he was able to do whatever God asked him because of his access to God’s strength, yet he failed to live by his own standards. He tells us this: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that doees it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Roms. 7:18-21). Paul failed through the power of remaining sin – evil was right there in his life. It is there in the life of every Christian. Sin is no longer the lord over any Christian but it is a factor in every believer’s life and there is no secret way of deliverance from its presence. We use this familiar illustration: a group of armed pirates board a cruise liner one night and take over much of the ship, entering many cabins, the ballrooms and the dining rooms, but they fail to capture the captain on the bridge or take over the engine room. In other words the control of the ship is totally secure from the marauders. The pirates are causing a great deal of trouble on the ship as the crew fights with them, but the captain is still in control. The ship is on course. He is steering the ship to the port hour after hour. That is a picture of the Christian life. Christ is in control of our lives but evil is present with us fighting against Christ. Never underestimate the fact that the hatred that put the Son of God on the cross, and stoned Stephen to death is active in your life. When we fail to mortify it, to keep on opposing and weakening it, then it has a burst of strength and down we fall again. Never ignore its reality.
ii] We are failing in the little duties of the Christian life. The warnings come to us as they came to Peter about the nearness of temptation, but we don’t think those warnings are for us. We don’t think they are needed by us. We are glad someone else is in the service hearing the sermon. There was once a famous Indian missionary speaking to a number of Hindu women about the Christian life, and when he finished their spokeswoman said how pleased they were with what they had heard. It made them dream, and dream, and dream. The missionary knew that he had failed to speak to them clearly enough. “No!” he said, “Christ makes us want to do, and do, and do.” When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him how he could inherit eternal life the Lord Jesus told him of something he had to do. His love of wealth was a barrier preventing him inheriting eternal life. He had to give it away. He had to do that. There is always something to do. The Christian is to be zealous in doing good works. That is not an option. So, there is, for example, a person who has just moved to an old people’s home – visit her. There is a student who is losing his faith, talk to him. You have deadlines for your project, and exams are getting nearer – study! Buy the family a present. Write a letter to your parents. Go and apologise to that person you know you have wronged. Bow in thanks before God for his many mercies to you. They are simple things . . . little things, but it is often in the small things in life that we are found wanting.
People plead that they sometimes find it hard to know what is God’s will. If only they knew it was God’s will it would be easy, so they say. In other words they are saying that their main problem is a problem of guidance. I think that very rarely is our problem knowing God’s will, because the ethical parts of the Bible are the clearest. So often our problems of guidance are a lack of biblical thinking. Let me give you this illustration: there was a Scottish Presbyterian lady and she was present at the annual congregational meeting when the church was looking at the financial report. She suddenly had a feeling that she should get up and give her testimony to the church. This was something that was never done at this occasion, and she was very agitated as to whether she should do it. If it was done the event would have been talked about for years. She had been drilled into a consciousness of the fickleness and unreliable nature of our feelings, but she was in a quandary as to whether this inclination was from the Spirit, and she asked God for counsel. This thought came to her, “If the Holy Spirit left this to my best judgment, would I do it?” She had no hesitation is saying to herself “No,” that she wouldn’t testify there and then, and so she didn’t. Doesn’t the Spirit of God work through our biblically enlightened minds? Of course he does. So she remained silent, much to her thankfulness for the rest of her life. You may have a feeling, for example, that you should stand outside the Post Office and sing a hymn. I doubt whether that feeling comes to you from God. Resist it. A man spent Easter carrying a large cross on his shoulder across Wales. He felt he should do this. He wanted hospitality in one of our members’ homes, but our member felt he could not assist this stranger in his enterprise because of the importance of this truth, the sufficiency of Scripture. If we are going to address Wales with the message of the cross then that message comes in words not in mute symbols. The Bible is sufficient. The message also comes in the daily lives of the followers of the crucified Lord Jesus who are dead to the world and the world is dead to them. I am saying to you that we are to fill our minds with the great principles and precepts of the word of God, and in this way we will develop the mind of Christ, and so we learn to do God’s will. But if you are not charging your mind with God’s truth you are going to be a prisoner of your hunches for the rest of your days. Let us do the little duties of Scripture that are all too clearly revealed.
iii] Again, we fail to do God’s will because we do not look to Jesus Christ for fellowship and help. We know how association with other people has a profound effect on us. If this Sunday service is the only time in the week you are listening to Christians and hearing anything about Jesus Christ then you are today in dreadful danger. You are not a growing Christian. There was a notable American author Gamaliel Bradford who wrote some biographies. The first was of the agnostic wit and writer Mark Twain and the book required a lot of study. He said, “I lived with Mark Twain for years and it made me a worse man.” The second was of the man of God Robert E. Lee, and Bradford said, “I lived with Robert E. Lee for years and it made me a better man.” If the influence of dead men can affect us deeply, then how much can the influence of one who is alive, Jesus Christ, have over us? That leads us to our next point:
3. TRUE CHRISTIANS CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH THE STRENGTH-GIVING LORD.
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (v.13). Isn’t this a constant theme of this letter? “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (1:6): “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (2:12&13): “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10): and here in our text this consciousness of the mighty working in his life of the strength-giving God. It is throughout Paul’s writings; “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Gals. 2:20). Paul might have used the very word ‘contentment’ which the Stoics constantly used, but how different he was from them. Paul was not a kind of good, uncomplaining, submissive sort of man; the life of God had entered his soul. There was an energy, a power, a heavenliness in him and that was what made him specifically and peculiarly a Christian. As John Gwyn-Thomas puts it so attractively, “here was a man who believed that while he was going about the streets of Rome, traversing the mountains as a missionary pilgrim, while he was in prison facing a death sentence, he was constantly aware that what he did, he did through the strength of Christ; that it was God, the eternal, the everlasting, the almighty God who was empowering him” (John Gwyn-Thomas, ibid, p.112).
Paul believed this because he had been made a new creation; his whole life had been transformed from within. He had been given new desires, new resources, a new vision of the meaning of life. He had been made a new man in Christ Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit God had given him the potential and grace to live as a son of God in this world. When he experienced his own weakness erupting then this made him cling to God all the more. He went back to God again and again and so the resources of God were given to him increasingly. Paul believed that the Spirit of God which had raised Jesus Christ from the dead had actually taken up his dwelling in him. There was no greater power in the universe than that, and that energy was active in Paul’s life. What made Paul live for the unseen things of God, so that the things of eternity were more valuable to him than the things of time, even more valuable than his own life? The Spirit of Jesus Christ indwelt Paul.
So we keep going back to God and we say, “You are my Father. You put me in this situation today. You are calling on me to walk uncharted territory, and face challenges to my life that I have never had to face before. You are asking me to bear things that seem to me unbearable. You must give me strength.” This God who is our Father loves us, and he will never put us in a situation where our faith will fail. He rules this vast universe and controls all the circumstances of our lives. He cares for us and he wont quench a smoking flax. We are in Christ, so if God were ill-treating us he’d be ill treating his own Son. So we must kneel before him, and deal with him and say, If this cup may not pass from me, I am ready for thy will to be done, but you have to give me strength. I cannot get by on my own.
The bishops and many preachers think it is their business to comment on the general situation in the world. Why are we evangelicals dealing with matters of personal experience when the country is at war? Are we remote from life? Aren’t we conscious of what is going on in the media and in the world outside? “Make a pronouncement about the Iraq war!” Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “My simple answer to such talk is this. What I, or a number of preachers, or the entire Christian Church, may say about the whole situation will probably not affect it at all. The church has been talking about politics and the economic situation for many years but with no noticeable effect. That is not the business of Christian preaching. The business of Christian preaching is to say to the people, in this uncertain world . . . you must ask yourself, ‘How am I going to face the future? How can I meet it all?’ For me to give my views on international politics will not help anybody; but thank God there is something I can do. I can tell you of something; I can tell you of a way which, if you practise and follow it, will enable you, with the apostle Paul, to say, ‘I am strong, I am able for anything that may happen to me, whether it be peace or war, whether it be freedom or slavery, whether it be the kind of life we have known for so long or whether it be entirely different, I am ready for it.’ (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Peace: Studies in Philippians 3&4”, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1990, p.221).
I can do everything through him who gives me strength. That is the wonder of the Christian life; it is not a life I live myself and by my own power; neither is it a life in which the ‘I’ is obliterated (whatever that means) and Christ does it all. No, I can do everything through God’s enabling. We find here this stress of human responsibility and divine power which is everywhere in the Scriptures and particularly in this epistle. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling – we work it out – for God is working in us. We work because God is working. So too in our text. I am the one who does everything God requires, because God is strengthening me in everything. Dr Lloyd Jones says, “I wonder if I can best put this by telling you how an old preacher, famous in the last century, once put it when preaching on this very text. Those old preachers used sometimes to preach in a very dramatic way. They would have a kind of dialogue with the apostle in the pulpit. So this old preacher began to preach on this text in this way: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ‘Wait a minute, Paul, what did I hear you say?’ ‘I can do all things.’ ‘Paul, surely that is boasting, surely you are just claiming that you are a superman?’ ‘No, no, I can do all things.’
“Well, the old preacher kept up the dialogue. He questioned Paul and quoted every statement made by Paul in which he says that he is the least of all saints, etc. ‘You are generally so humble, Paul, but now you say, “I can do all things,” haven’t you started boasting?’ And then at last Paul says: ‘I can do all things through Christ.’
“‘Oh, I am sorry,’ said the old preacher, ‘I beg your pardon, Paul. I didn’t realise there were two of you.’ Now I think that puts it perfectly. ‘I can do all things through Christ.’ ‘There are two of you.’ Not I only, not Christ only, but Christ and I, two of us.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, op cit, p.224).
What circumstances could ever arise that would be too much for Paul’s God? No combination of circumstances. So no set of circumstances could crush Paul. He could do all things. He could face everything that providence brought and he could more than cope. He was given strength for his daily needs because of one who dynamically worked within him. It was all ‘through’ God or better ‘in’ him. Alec Motyer suggest an insight from the Passover in Egypt. That night the blood of the spotless lambs was sprinkled on the doors, and so all the people of God were, as it were, ‘in the lamb.’ In other words, they were in vital, personal contact with the advantages accruing to them from its death. They sheltered beneath its blood and they fed upon its flesh. So it was in Christ that Paul was safe, living daily under the covering of his sheltering blood and feeding upon him for daily strength. This is the relationship which every Christian enjoys with the Lamb of God. We are through Christ safe and strong. Hidden in him, enabled by him. He is our refuge and he is our power.
Jesus Christ lives in every one of his children. I believe that God’s Spirit inhabits the body of every Christian. I believe that the Father has made us his temples. I believe that the triune God lives in every Christian. I believe that every Christian bears the fruit of God’s Spirit. I believe that every Christian has those mighty resources, and every Christian can say, “I can do everything though him who gives me strength.”
11 May 2003 GEOFF THOMAS