“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” These words, written by the Apostle Paul to the Philippian church (Philippians 4:13), have been uttered by many people throughout the ages. But what does Paul mean by these words? Can we just claim whatever we want and expect that God has to give it? There are two important rules for interpreting Scripture. (Surely there are more, but let’s just focus on two!)
The first rule has to do with the context of the passage. For example, this verse has been used by some to mean that as long as we trust in God we can do anything – whether that is changing the course of nature, making a million dollars, or bench pressing 500 pounds. Yes, I have heard this verse used for each of these things. What was Paul really talking about though?
When he says ‘I can do all things’ we need to look at the context of what he’s been writing. Just before verse 13 he wrote, ‘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.’ So Paul isn’t saying anything at all about doing or getting whatever he wants. He’s talking about being content in any circumstance, even when things aren’t great.
This makes his words both clearer and more helpful to us. His words are clearer because now we know that Paul wasn’t talking about lifting weights, flying to the moon, or any other number of things we might try. They are more helpful because this is really where we need help anyway. Sure, we might want to make a million dollars…but it’s far more useful to be able to be content no matter our circumstances.
The second rule is called the “analogy of faith.” This is a phrase that was first used by Augustine but it’s been around longer than that. Simply stated, this means that when we find something in the Bible that is difficult to understand, we look to other parts that are easier to understand and help shed light on the passage in question.
This is something that we all know intuitively. If you find yourself in a dark area where you have lost something what do you do to find it? Do you grope around in the dark, hoping that your hand will come across it? Well, maybe if that’s your only choice. But what if you had a flashlight? Of course you would shine the light on that area. This also works for studying the Bible only we don’t use a flashlight; we use other passages to illumine the passage in question.
Paul says that he can do all things through the one who gives him strength. The best illustrations are those that come from Scripture. Since we know, from the context, that Paul is talking about being content, we can consider Joseph from the book of Genesis. His life is detailed in chapters 37-50. In those chapters, we learn about Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery and, later, that Joseph is falsely accused and sent to jail. During his time in jail he rose to a place of prominence and was taken out of prison and made second in command over all Egypt.
Joseph knew what it was to have much and he knew what it was and to have little. Through it all, though, he continued to trust God. In fact, his faith is so incredible that when he finally meets his brothers who sold him into slavery in the beginning he says to them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph was able to be content because he trusted in God – the one who gave him strength.
Like Paul, he learned how to be content in all circumstances. This is a lesson for us as well. Not just a lesson in how to study the Bible but a lesson to show that when we study the Bible properly we are able to learn from it. The Bible is not some outdated book or something that requires an infallible church tradition to understand. No, God grants wisdom and his own Spirit to his people to be able to read the Scriptures and to come to an understanding of the faith.