Welcome to week 4 and our final talk in our series Viral. Just like videos go viral, we’ve been digging into Bible verses that have gone viral—one a week, talking about what made that verse go viral, then discovering the context in which that verse was given, so that we can experience the richness of what it really means.
Today’s verse is so viral, you can find pictures of it on Tim Tebow’s face from his NFL football days. Not the whole verse, just the reference. On his face you will see Phil. 4:13. That’s Philippians chapter 4 and verse 13, in which the apostle Paul declares…
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
It’s easy to see why this verse went viral. It was actually the most viral verse a few years ago as reported by the YouVersion Bible app. People share this verse more than any other. And you can see why.
It says you can do anything so long as you have Jesus. Nothing is beyond you.
The image in my mind is Marvel’s Tony Stark about to be crushed by some baddie, but then he stretches out his arms, and his Iron Man suit goes into action. And with that, Stark is suddenly invulnerable and victorious. He can do all things through his suit who gives him strength.
A lot of people hear this verse and misunderstand it kind of like that—imagining that Philippians 4:13 means you’re guaranteed to be a winner because Christ is with you.
- You’re going to get the job over other candidates, because Christ is on your side.
- You’re guaranteed to make it in marriage, because Christ’s strength will make it work.
But is that what Paul was actually saying?
Let me give you another timeless principles for interpreting the Bible rightly, so that you hear what God really is saying through his Word. This one definitely applies to how this viral verse is sometimes misunderstood. Here’s the principle: If my understanding of a Scripture is not true for all Christians in all cultures and in every era, then I still have work to do.
When my understanding of a Scripture is not true for all Christians in all cultures and in every era, then I still have work to do.
So here’s the question for today: What did Paul when he said he could do everything through him who gave him strength?
The viral verse comes from a specific time in the apostle Paul’s life and ministry. He is under house arrest and chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting trial. These days you get a monitoring bracelet for house arrest. In those days, your ankle monitor came with a soldier attached!
Paul’s “crime?” Telling others that Jesus is the way to God; teaching that Jesus died and rose for the forgiveness of sin for everyone who trusts in him. For that, and that alone, agitators stirred up false charges and got Paul arrested. A plot against Paul’s life then necessitated moving him, after which Paul took advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen and appealed to Caesar himself. That is what brought Paul all the way from Israel, on the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, to Rome, the capitol of the great world empire of the time.
So again, it is a prisoner who writes this. Paul isn’t free to do what he wants. He’s no longer free to go wherever he wants. Every day he’s in the same place, under arrest.
And as Paul writes, he’s not doing well physically. That’s what’s going on with Paul when he writes this.
How about the Philippians? Who are they, the ones he’s writing to?
The church in Philippi is the first European church, the first Europeans to become Christians. Acts chapter 16 describes how Paul, led by a vision, went with his team to Philippi, taught a group of people there about Jesus, and on the spot they came to faith in Jesus and were baptized. That was the beginning of the church at Philippi, the first Europeans to believe in Jesus.
The believers at Philippi became some of Paul’s dearest friends. When he moved on to plant other churches, they supported him financially so that he could devote himself to ministry full-time. When they heard Paul was sick, they sent word to find out how he was.
That’s the background to who Paul was writing to, and why he was writing to them. In light of that understanding, listen to the broader context in which today’s viral verse is found. Philippians 4:10-13:
“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. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the 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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”Philippians 4:10-13
So do you see what Philippians 4:13 is about in context? It’s about finding contentment from Christ in the midst of hard circumstances.
It’s not winning the trophy or taking home the title. It’s about receiving from Christ the strength you need in the middle of harsh reality. It’s about finding contentment whether things are going great or against you. And it’s written by someone who, at the time, was facing a stiff headwind.
- He was under the weather physically.
- He was facing unjust persecution legally.
- And he was looking at a future clouded with uncertainty.
So what is Philippians 4:13 really about? It’s about the opposite of what it’s often used for. Most of the time, Philippians 4:13 is quoted in the expectation that God will change a tough situation. But Paul used it to accept a hard situation, to find strength to endure an unpleasant situation, and to be content despite the hard reality of his situation. That’s very different from what has made this verse go viral. It’s not in any way an easy out. It’s a radical change in mindset, a radically different way to view tough circumstances.
James Emery White makes a distinction between living by “if onlys” and living “as only.” I had to go back and chew on this a bit, and I want to pass it on to you. This is real-deal Christianity for when your back is against the wall.
“If only” vs. “As only”
Many if not most of us are much more driven by the “if onlys.” “If I only had that, if I could only do this, if I could only go there, if I could only be with that person, then I could be happy.” But what Paul wrote in Philippians is about living much more deeply than that. The secret is not to live by “if only.” The secret is to live “as only.”
“If only things were different, then…” vs. “As only those who are in Christ can…”
The easy, natural, immature way to go through life is to keep imagining, “If only things were different, then I could…”
- If I were more beautiful or more handsome or thinner or had more muscles, then…
- If I had more money, then…
- If I were smarter, then…
- If more people liked me, then…
The problem with “if only” thinking is that it never ends. It’s never satisfied. You never have enough. You’re never enough, never complete. If you live by the “if onlys,” you’ll always feel a lack, that you’re operating at a deficit. The New Testament nowhere presents that as God’s will for you.
Paul holds out a radically attractive alternative. Instead of going through your days thinking, “If only,” instead, face today “as only;” as only those who are in Christ can. Face today’s challenge “as only” someone who is in relationship with Christ can, believing that he can give you strength in the midst of what you’re facing, even if the circumstance doesn’t get better. Believe that. Better yet, believe him. Believe Christ who strengthens you.
Do you even begin to sense the powerful difference between living by “if only” compared to living “as only”?
And if anyone exemplifies how to do this, it is Paul. More than once in his letters, Paul encourages us by describing the kinds of things he was able to face “as only” someone who trusts Jesus can. 2 Corinthians chapter 11 is an example. Open your Bible app or your Bible there with me, 2 Corinthians chapter 11, beginning in verse 23. Paul contrasts himself up against certain hyper-spiritual self-proclaimed leaders who bragged and boasted just like people who don’t know Christ. And rather than try to one-up them with tales of worldly success, Paul goes the other direction completely. Instead of playing the world’s games of “I’m more successful than you,” he boasts about Christ strengthening him in otherwise impossible circumstances. Read it with me, 2 Corinthians 11:23ff Paul writes:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”2 Corinthians 11:23-29
That was Paul’s version of “Your Best Life Now!” Because your best life now is not your circumstances, but how Christ can strengthen you in your circumstances. That’s the timeless takeaway from the life of Jesus, from the example of the apostles, from the martyrs of the early church, and from heroic Christians throughout history. The ones whose stories grip us long after they’ve gone on to their reward are not so much about their worldly successes, as about Christ strengthening them in the midst of what would crush anyone apart from Christ’s intervention. That’s the secret that Paul discovered: I might not get everything I want, but I have Christ in everything I get.
Jonathan Merritt adds that Paul isn’t telling people we should dream bigger dreams; he’s reminding us that we can endure defeat if those dreams aren’t realized. That’s what ought to set Christians apart. This week’s viral verse isn’t a call to go conquer the world; it’s a reminder that we can press on when the world pressures and tries to conquer us. In that, we can do everything through Christ who gives us strength, strength to press on.
I’ve begun reading a book that’s shaking me up a bit. It’s Alan Noble’s “Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted World.” The disturbing part is the message that today, omnipresent technology focuses on two goals: capturing our attention and harvesting our data. We tend to care more about the latter, data privacy. We’re missing how much more harmful is the constant distraction from what matters most. Each piece of technology we own does what it can to make us pay attention to it, “like an overly eager child tugging at our sleeves, begging, ‘Look at me, look at what I can do!’ Flashing lights, vibrations, bells ringing, little red dots, email alerts, notifications, pop-up windows, targeted ads—it is all designed to capture your attention.
Here’s why that matters: gone is any distinction between what’s critical and what is trivial, between what is immediate and fleeting, contrasted against what is eternal and enduring. Everything is presented as important, all the time, and you’re obligated to keep up.
Source: paraphrased from Noble, pp 18-19, 23
That’s an accurate if painful diagnosis of where we find ourselves. The risk…is that you hear a verse like today’s, and it gets equal weight with everything else flying by. And so by the end of the day, no less by the next time your phone buzzes, what God is saying to you…is lost amidst the distractions.
For Paul, even though he was surrounded by all the buzz that was the great Rome, Christ was the center. He slowed down to listen for Christ in the midst of all the persecution and false accusations and gossip and slander, and even hunger and sickness. Christ was at the center, not at the periphery. Jesus wasn’t an add-on.
For Christians across the years, the way they’ve been able to find contentment when things were otherwise hard, was that Christ was the center. This is what Philippians 4:13 is about.
Philippians 4:13 is why some Christians like those in Siena, Italy stayed during the 3 years when the Black Plague or bubonic plague killed more than a third of the population all the way from Iceland in the north to India in the south. These Christians stayed to nurse the sick and bury the dead, understanding that by doing so, they might become ill and die. But they had discovered the same secret as Paul: that they could this—risk their health—through Christ who gave them strength.
The world has always needed more of this kind of Christianity:
- Christianity that has the weight of Jesus to it
- And the weight of Scripture to it
- And the weight of history to it,
With testimonies speaking to us from across the ages, Christians from other times and places demonstrating what viral verses like this mean, how powerful they are when we put Christ at the center, instead of trying to add him as the latest distraction, or just another interesting factoid.
That’s what Paul discovered. And it’s what he commended to his friends who were worried about him—the secret of finding contentment in Christ, that in everything, Christ can give you strength, strength to endure it, with supernatural peace.
I want you to hear from someone in our era who has discovered this same secret. Joni Earickson was 18 when she took a simple dive in the Chesapeake Bay—and hit the shallow bottom, breaking her neck and leaving her paralyzed. Today, decades later, Joni is still a paraplegic.
She has to be fed. Someone else needs to dress her in the morning and change her when she uses the toilet. Joni deals with chronic pain. And a few years ago, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer which required surgery and chemotherapy.
But if you get to know Joni through her video and podcasts and writing, you’ll find someone who is…happy.
That’s not what she was following the accident. For a while after the accident, she got stuck on why God would allow that to happen to her. She got stuck in anger and bitterness, becoming suicidal.
But over time, Joni began to discover the secret Paul had found in his imprisonment: contentment. Joy, even. Today, Joni Earickson-Tada is known internationally as an artist, radio host, author, and advocate for the disabled.
We had a member here, a physical therapist, go overseas with Joni’s ministry to custom-fit wheelchairs to handicapped youth in a developing nation—kids who, before that ministry came, had to crawl around in the dirt because they could never afford crutches or a wheelchair.
Joni is making a difference that she never could have made any other way. Joni will tell you that God has been good to her, and that she is content, even without the healing she would love to experience this side of heaven.
And if you ask her for her favorite passages from the Bible, Philippians 4:13 is on her list. Because it’s not about the “if onlys,” but living “as only.” Living as only someone in Christ can, to do everything through Christ, with the strength he provides.
That’s the secret Joni has come to know, that Paul came to know as well. And so can you. Here’s Joni’s take on it all.
[Skip to 5:35 with Joni voiceover saying, “Don’t be thinking I’m an expert at quadriplegia. But as it was then in the hospital and is today, every morning I wake up saying, ‘Jesus, I can’t do this thing called life.”]
Prayer: Our Father in heaven, thank you for giving us realistic examples of your supernatural peace. Contentment not by wishing “if only” you would remove this obstacle, but rather, we give you praise that you can give strength in the midst of the real-life stuff that hits us. Illness. Job loss. A wrecked relationship. Persecution.
The secret that you enabled Paul to discover, that you enabled Joni and others throughout history to discover, we ask you to enable us to discover. Reveal to us the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, that we would be able to honestly say as they have, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength. I can go through this as only those who have Christ can.”
Pray this after me in the quiet of your own heart: Lord Jesus, make yourself at home in me. Take your rightful place as Lord, not as an add-on, not as the latest entertainment. When crisis or stress hits, bring me back to this moment, and reveal to me the secret of being content, trusting that you are with me, and with you, I can face whatever comes.
Thank you for your promise to never leave me and never forsake me. I give you my all, in grateful praise! Amen.