It has been a while since I started this blog — my previous post was more than 7 years ago. However, I have turned a new page! With good intentions, I will try to be more pro-active and disciplined. After all, I can do everything… that’s how this post was born…
One of my favourite verses growing up was undoubtedly Phil 4:13. The Afrikaans versions of the Bible I grew up with (1953 and 1983), have translations very similar to the NIV84 version, which reads like this, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” This is such a helpful verse to know. It is also one of the most popular verses in the Bible. According to Christianity Today, the 3 most popular verses on Bible Gateway in 2016 and 2017 were John 3:16, Jer 29:11, and Phil 4:13 (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/the-5-most-popular-bible-verses-in-america/128580.htm).
I’ve turned to Phil 4:13 numerous times as a child before a test or a trial of some kind, many sports teams have claimed this verse for their side before a big match as is clear from the image on the T-shirt above, and undoubtedly opposing armies have called on this verse for victory in battle. Sadly enough, Phil 4:13 is understandably probably also one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible!
Whose fault is this? Surely this is not intentional? In my own case, I would at least like to think so. To my own defense, I have to reason that I was only following the words of the text… And to my own embarrassment, I have to admit that I have not always been mindful of the immediate context of the verse.
This highlights the importance of the work of Bible translators. The translation of the Greek word πάντα in the Afrikaans 1953/1983 as “alles“, in the NIV84 as “everything“, and in most other translations such as the ASV, ESV, KJV, NET, and NRSV as “all things” certainly gives license to readers of these translations to take the verse much too easily out of context.
One could argue that adequate understanding of the meaning of the source text (in this case the Greek sentence πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με starts with a good translation. The NIV11 translation of πάντα as “all this” is a significant improvement on the NIV84 rendering as “everything” and translations that stand in the KJV tradition which render πάντα as “all things”. Why do I say this? For this simple reason: the demonstrative pronoun in the sentence “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” does not stand in isolation and cannot be read in a vacuum, but refers back to a preceding noun or noun phrase and can only be adequately understood against the immediate context of the preceding verses. It begs the question: what does “all this” refer to? In reading the passage closely, it is very clear that “all this” is anchored in the previous sentences where Paul refers to being in need or having plenty –– having learnt “the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
The immediate context of Phil 4:13 therefore limits the range of possible legitimate interpretations of πάντα from “everything” or “all things”, i.e., a test, a rugby, tennis, or baseball game, a job interview, asking a girl out to a date, etc., to “all this” which constrains interpretation to the range of contextual implications called up by Paul’s immediate situation of living “living in plenty or in want”.
I won’t be calling on Phil 4:13 as often as I used to for a quick-fix prayer in all kinds of situations, but I trust that when I do, my prayers will be more focused and meaningful.