Context changes everything

If you are the kind of person who likes scripture fridge magnets, then you will almost certainly have seen one with these words ’I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ (Philippians 4:13) What an inspiring verse! Are you facing a challenge? Then this verse promises you Christ’s strength!

But what does Paul mean by ‘I can do all things’? Does it mean that I can decide to launch myself out of my office window aiming to fly down Lynwood Gardens in the ‘strength of the Lord’ and expect to defy the laws of gravity? I doubt anyone reading this would believe that this is an appropriate interpretation of the verse and would restrain me, or even have me sectioned , were I to attempt such a foolhardy feat. Yet is it so different to imagine that this verse guarantees us exam success, strength to carry the shopping, confidence to win the deal at work? Is it a promise that God will show up and help us do anything we want?

This is where context comes in. Someone has said that ‘a text without a context is a con!’ That is certainly true in this case, as would be proved by my cuts and bruises were I to attempt Christ empowered aviation. Fortunately we don’t have to look too far to see Paul’s context here. Read back a couple of verses and you will see he is thanking the Philippians for taking up a collection to help with his physical needs. Even as he is dictating the letter, he realises that his readers might be misled to think that his physical wellbeing was what was important to him, so he qualifies his thanks by reminding them that his contentment was not based upon circumstances. Verse 11: Not that I speak from need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.

How did Paul learn his contentment?  Verse 12 tells us: I know how both to make do with little and I know how to have an abundance. In everything and in all things I have learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to have an abundance and to go without. Time and again Paul faced shortages and plenty, hunger and abundance. Notice how he links these together with the phrase ‘In everything and all things’. Did you spot that the ‘all things’ in verse 12 and 13 both refer to the same thing – Paul’s contentment! He can be contented in all circumstances only because Christ empowers his contentment. Christian contentment is not a stoical, grin and bear tough times because someone somewhere else is worse off than us. Followers of Jesus can be truly contented through good or bad circumstances, whether or not they change because their hope and confidence is in Christ. When we are content to rely on Him, He is truly glorified, because His strength is on display.

This blog post featured in the February 2013 edition of Lifelines

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God with skin on

There’s a much-used sermon illustration about a little boy who was frightened by a storm one night. Several times he cried out in fear and his mother would come to his room for comfort and to remind him that God was always with him. As she prepared to leave the third time her son grabbed her arm, held tight, and said, “I know Mummy, but I want God with skin-on!”

Each year at Christmas we sing ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, which includes the lines: ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity’ – expressing a profound fact about Jesus’ nature. Although the word incarnate is not found in the Bible, the truth it contains is – God became man! This astonishing revelation is at the heart of the Christmas message and is expressed on many occasions in the New Testament. Take Philippians as an example: ‘(Christ Jesus) though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ Philippians 2:6-7 (ESV)

Why did Jesus who was fully God have to become fully man? There are many overlapping layers to answering that question, but at least in part it was so that we could see God. Jesus said ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ John 14:9 (ESV). Like the little boy in the story, we don’t simply want to know the truth about God being with us, we want to experience him; we want God with skin on. Jesus was exactly that – God with skin on! The more we get to know Jesus, the more we get to know God.

There are times however when, like the little boy in the story, we need a hug or a shoulder to cry on, and in that moment another human being communicates the presence of God in a way that goes further than mere statements of truth. In those moments the followers of Jesus also ‘incarnate’ God and show the Father to people. Words are important, but words are not enough. How can you help people ‘see the Father’? How can you also be God with skin on?

This blog post featured in the December 2012 edition of Lifelines