You’ve seen it on T-shirts and coffee mugs, wall plaques and bumper stickers. You can get it on jewelry and candle holders. Just go to Etsy and search for the phrase “I can do all things through Christ” and you’ll see what I mean. I recently saw an ad for a T-shirt with a better version of this: “I can do all things through…a verse taken out of context.”
When it comes to reading Scripture—or any literature!—context is key. One must understand the context before one can understand what is being said. If you walked into a room to overhear someone saying, “I love you”, discovering that the person was speaking to a mirror would greatly alter your understanding of what he was saying. Context is key.
Philippians 4:13 is frequently used out of context. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but this doesn’t mean J-T can become a pro cyclist through faith. That’s not what the verse means. The context is Paul writing about facing hardships and struggles and suffering. Whether things are going well for Paul, or he is facing death (he wrote this while in prison!), he can do all these things through Christ who gives him strength.
I read Philippians this morning and I was struck by something Paul wrote that is made much more significant because of its context.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:12–14 ESV
Paul says he presses on. He forgets what lies behind and he strives for what’s ahead. That’s good advice. Too often we focus on failures and such and we forget what we’re trying to do. I’m reminded of Thomas Edison who failed 10,000 times to make a workable light bulb, yet when he finally did he said that he found 10,000 ways to not make a light bulb. That’s a good perspective on hard work and perseverance, and it’s not at all what Paul means.
Just prior to writing these words Paul explained what had once been his identity. He was circumcised on the eighth day, which indicates he came from a good Jewish home. He was of the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin—a Hebrew of Hebrews. Not only were his parents faithful, they could trace their lineage back to Abraham himself. He was a Pharisee, which means he himself was zealous to keep the law of Moses. In our day “Pharisee” is often used as an insult but in the first century the Pharisees were highly regarded by regular Jewish folk. They were so zealous to obey the law that if they grew mint in a pot on their window sill, they were sure to measure out a tenth of that mint in order to give a tithe of that mint. He was so very zealous that he says he persecuted the church.
The Pharisees believed that God would fulfill his promises to Israel, promises they understood as national power and prominence and independence, when all Israel obeyed the law of Moses. Since Christians were going around saying that the Messiah had been crucified, and therefore cursed by God, they were blaspheming against God. Since most of those first Christians were Jews, the Pharisees believed they had to do something to correct their blasphemy. For this reason Paul, a faithful Pharisee, persecuted the church. He was trying to wipe out blasphemy from among the Jews.
In short, Paul had been somebody important. He had been a rising star on the scene of national celebrity. He was becoming a hero to many. He was a man who got it, who understood how to make Israel great again. Then the crucified Messiah—now resurrected—interrupted Paul as he sought to persecute the church further. His identity changed. He was no longer the guy who was zealous for the law and who was better at keeping it than most. His identity was no longer his family tree and his own personal ability to obey Moses. His identity was now found in Christ. He wrote,
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:7–11 ESV
Paul gladly left behind his status, his growing fame, his notoriety. He gave up his access to the influencers of his Jewish culture. He left it behind because the righteousness that is his in Christ far surpasses any “righteousness” he may have mustered under the law of Moses. Paul understood that his status in Christ was one of complete and total righteousness. He was covered in the righteousness of Christ through faith.
It is at this point that he says he has not already obtained it. Righteousness was his through faith in Christ, but it was not as though his behavior always matched his status. He says he presses on “to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). He’s striving to make the righteousness of Christ his righteousness. That is, he wants his behavior to match his status.
He says he acknowledges that he hasn’t “arrived” yet. He hasn’t truly become righteous, yet there is this one thing he does: he forgets what lies behind and he presses on toward the goal of becoming like Jesus. What actually lies behind, though? His own “righteousness”. His own sense of accomplishment. The things he once clung to as his identity. The stuff that made him feel good about himself, that made the world feel right.
The apostle Paul struggled with his identity. He struggled to keep it rooted in Christ. This is why he strains forward to what lies ahead. There is effort involved. Living according to our identity in Christ is not something that just happens. It is not automatic. We must work for it. We must engage in the effort, just as the apostle had to—along with every single follower of Jesus, ever.
This is the struggle of the Christian life. We must strive to forget what lies behind, which is our old life and its behaviors and desires and attitudes and values, and we must press on to become what we already are in Christ: righteous and holy. We must work to make our lives match our status in Christ. Here’s the good news: the same grace that grants us this status in Christ is the grace at work in us to bring this about. Paul said he presses on to make this righteousness his own, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own”. Earlier in the letter he wrote,
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.Philippians 2:12–13 ESV
Like Paul, the Philippians must work out their salvation, the very salvation granted them by grace through faith. This work is possible because it is God who works in them and in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Our desire to be righteous comes from God who grants us his righteousness. As we experience his righteousness and his mercy and his grace, we are motivated to pursue it for ourselves, to live out what we are in Christ. When we see the context, that of God’s grace poured out on us in Christ, we are motivated to pursue what has been granted to us. Remember that this won’t just happen on its own. We must be intentional. We must press on.