I remember a time (May, 1981) when as a teenager, I was given the privilege of representing my High School in a soccer penalty shoot out competition. I survived the knock out rounds and ended up playing at Anfield, Liverpool's home ground in England before a crowd of more than 17,000 people. This was a very memorable night for me, to put it mildly - one I still remember with pleasure. At the time, Liverpool were the greatest soccer team in Europe. Three weeks later, they won the European Cup. As a boy I had stood on the terraces and watched my favorite team play so many times. Now it was my turn to play there and my emotions were mixed. I was both very anxious and extremely excited.
On the Sunday before this big event, a Christian brother, knowing what I would face and knowing that I was more than a little nervous to play in front of such a vast crowd told me to focus on the text mentioned above, namely Paul's words to the Philippians in chapter 4, verse 13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
At the time, the text was a real comfort to me and without doubt it became the object of my focus. But now years on, though I was inspired by the text, I do not believe it was a correct application of the text. Paul was not referring to sporting events in that text.
In our day, we are far too keen to rush to make application of the text. People want "practical" sermons and practical messages. Well there's nothing wrong with that. The Bible is intensely practical, yet we need to rightly interpret a text before we attempt to apply it. The one thing comes before the other. False interpretations lead inevitably to false applications.
How do we ascertain the meaning or interpretation of a text? The answer comes by applying the rules of hermeneutics, which is the science of biblical interpretation. One of the rules to apply is that of "context." Simply taking the time to read a text in its context eliminates so many false interpretations.
The words "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" have a context, and this context allows us to ascertain what Paul meant by his words. The whole book of Philippians provides a context, and we could take a lot of time to document it, but if we simply look at the few verses before the one quoted here, we immediately see what the "all things" were that Christ would strengthen Paul to do:
Phil 4:10 - I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
So, what were the "all things" of verse 13 referring to? Running the 100 meter race in less than 9 seconds, perhaps? Breaking the long jump world record? How about swimming the Atlantic in a day? No, the context has nothing to do with sports or human feats of skill. The "all things" refer to the trials of life - the good times and hard times, the times of joy and the times of sorrow; the times of prosperity and the times of lack. And for Paul, this contentment in the face of life's difficulties or joys was not something that came naturally to him but something that he learned (v. 11, 12).
The application is not that a Christian strengthened by Christ will win a soccer penalty shoot out competition. I scored 2 out of 3 by the way, and while still a notable feat against Liverpool's goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar, I still rue the fact that I missed one... I also remember being somewhat disillusioned that I did not win the whole competition because I was expecting Christ to "strengthen me" to do exactly that. My disillusion stemmed from a false interpretation and application of the text.
No matter what comes our way in our lives as Christians, we, like Paul, are to learn contentment and go through each trial knowing that Christ Himself will strengthen us to do so. Paul did not write this as a mere promise, as good as this would be. It is more than a promise, it is a statement of fact.. "I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
It is as if Paul is saying, "I am not going under, for Christ strengthens me.. I will not give up, for Christ strengthens me. Sometimes life is a lot tougher than I would like, and sometimes it seems like I cannot bear its pressures another moment and find myself in deep despair (see his words in 2 Cor 4), yet I know I can endure, because of Christ. Its me.. yes, me, Paul, that does it... and I know I can do and will do it.. but I recognize that its not because of my strength but His. This is not arrogance - this is not some form of puffed up pride in my heart. This is something altogether different. This is a Christ centered confidence - not in myself, but Him. He has not left me alone at any point, nor will He do so now. I am confident, no matter what happens in life, with both its times of severe pressure and its times of euphoric joy, I can handle it all, I can do it all, through Christ, who gives me strength."
Child of God, no matter what comes your way today, you can go endure it, because first of all, you learn to be content in each circumstance, and secondly, you know that the power that sustains you in such times of great abundance or deep poverty, is Christ's own power, and He is living in you, and will strengthen you. Of this, you can be sure. You can do all these things because Christ will give you strength.