Our study today brings us to the close of this great Bible epistle written by Paul to his friends living in Philippi. I hope you’ve been as blessed and encouraged as I have been as we’ve tried to identify with the challenges of being a Christian 2,000 years ago. And this Sabbath, we’re going to find yet again that the words of the Bible are timeless and eternally beneficial.
There’s an old Christian story coming out of World War II, from the great heroic survivor, Corrie ten Boom. Perhaps you’ve heard how, years after the war ended, she was speaking to a gathering of believers. And of course, Corrie ten Boom and I both know that it’s one thing to stand before some people and simply talk about obedience, about sacrifice, about loving our enemies and doing good to those who despitefully use us. Talk is cheap today, and it always has been. But Corrie was sharing the love of God with these very nice people.
Then, all of a sudden, at the close, she saw a man walking toward her. Instantly she recognized that he was a former guard at the concentration camp. And not just a guard, but one of the most brutal in the regime. A tormenter, a sadistic soldier whose cruelty had been in large part responsible for the death of her own sister, Betsie. So instantly a million wrenching, painful thoughts and emotions flooded through her. It was impossible not to remember; it was impossible not to hate. This man walking up was a murderer.
And with a flash she realized what was about to happen. This was a Christian meeting; she was the speaker. Obviously this guard, all these years later, was going to seek forgiveness from her. It was written all over his face.
And do you know what? That was simply an impossibility. It was one of those situations that you and I both know so well. You can talk to yourself about what’s the right thing to do; you can pin up on the wall those words in the Bible about “love your enemy” and turn the other cheek and all the rest. But tell your gut about forgiveness, and you suddenly realize that what Corrie ten Boom was facing just could not happen. It was a physical and emotional impossibility. There was no way. No matter how brave a woman she was, no matter how heroic her story and her character were, this was beyond the pale. She couldn’t do it. Forgive this monster, this psychotic Nazi megalomaniac who had snuffed out Betsie’s life in the cruelest way imaginable? Not a chance. And in that very moment, with a sense of horror, she instantly knew it.
As we close up with this marvelous, incredible book of the Bible called Philippians, we find here in chapter four a verse which tells us NOTHING should be impossible. Here it is in verse 13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”
Some of you remember these words in the more familiar King James, but the force of what Paul writes isn’t sugar-coated at all: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
The New International Version text notes for this hopelessly challenging verse say this: “Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content”—we discussed that idea last Sabbath, you recall—“AND the source of Paul’s abiding strength.”
Now, let’s all agree on one thing right here. No one could deny that this Corrie ten Boom was living in unity with Christ. She was one of the most beautiful, loving Christians in the world. And yet, as this former gendarme, stripped of his former Nazi uniform, but still with the imprint of those war years on his face, walked slowly toward her in that church, she could tell that an impossible moment, an insurmountable confrontation was about to occur. This man had made life hell for her! He had helped to destroy her own flesh and blood, her beloved sister. There was no way she could forgive him or love him. Oh, she could probably lie and force some smooth, hypocritical words out of her mouth, in keeping with the testimony and sermon she had just shared. But what kind of a witness was that?
Sometimes when you and I face a crisis, all we’re going to have is a few seconds. We can’t hit a pause button and go find our Bibles and get into our prayer closets and pray for half an hour. We can’t tell our enemy to wait while we go off to a seminar and recharge our batteries. No, the reflecting we’ve already done, the verses we’ve already hidden in our hearts, the spiritual decisions we’ve made in earlier moments before the storm . . . they have to pay off right now and they have to pay off with frightening immediacy.
So Corrie had just those few seconds, and all she could do was pray about this impossibility. Jesus, help me! Send me Your Spirit! And sure enough, the man took her hand and began to stutter his apologies. He was so sorry. For years he had wanted absolution. Now, dear sister, could she give him peace of mind by forgiving him? Bitte? Please?
And you know, all at once, as she looked at this man, she no longer saw the Nazi uniform and the former hate. She saw instead a victim, almost a child, a person who had been himself scarred by sin and evil. And in one miraculous moment, she felt something come into her from an outside source, from a higher source. It wasn’t her; she knew that. But she looked at this man and felt more than pity. She actually loved this fellow child of God. She loved him! And so she poured out words of forgiveness, of acceptance, of love . . . words that were not fake, expressions that were not convenient lies. Meine bruder, ich vergeben dich. “My brother, I forgive you!” she cried over and over, embracing him.
Well, we have that story, and then we have this amazing verse. “I can do EVERYTHING through Him who gives me strength.”
You can take that verse right there, that promise—and if you believe it, you can apply it to all of the hard things we’ve studied together these past few Sabbaths. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Now that’s hard! When you’ve just lost a job and the country is in an economic meltdown, that sounds impossible! But it’s not impossible if verse 13 is true. “Don’t be anxious about anything,” Paul cheerfully tells us in verse 6 . . . and remember, he’s sending us this happy-face telegram from jail! In verse eight we have the hardest list in the world, a list of eight adjectives, how our thoughts should be continually on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Oh my! To do one of those once in a while would be hard enough; to fulfill all eight of them on a 24/7 basis sounds herculean? How can we possibly keep our minds on track like that 24 hours a day? You wouldn’t even try, except for this promise from God in verse 13.
One of the best Bible study tools you can own is to have a Bible with cross-reference notes in it, where one verse sends you over to verses with similar or companion messages. And here, Philippians 4:13 sends us backtracking to another letter of Paul’s, his second epistle to his Christian friends in Corinth. In chapter 12, he confesses to us about a mysterious ailment or “thorn in the flesh” he’s always had. Some Bible scholars suggest that perhaps Paul had really bad eyesight and that Bausch & Lomb weren’t able to do much for him. Three times he asked God to take away his hardship, and the Lord kept saying no. So that doesn’t sound much like “I can do all things”; why doesn’t God take away this persistent curse? But Paul’s concluding thought about it all is this: “But He [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My POWER is made perfect in weakness.”
And that’s a great insight—how, despite our weaknesses, we have access not just to God’s power, but to the unlimited resources of His power! We can have it all! Is there really any problem we have where, if all God’s power was applied, we couldn’t succeed?
Interestingly, in the very next chapter after what we’ve studied in this sermon series, Colossians one, Paul uses that very expression: “Being strengthened with ALL power according to His glorious might so that you might have great endurance and patience” (v. 11).
There’s a gospel song we used to sing in church, although it’s been a while—kind of a military march—which goes like this: “I can run through a troop, And leap over a wall; Hallelujah! Hallelujah! He’s my Strength and my Shield; He gives POWER to all. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
Well, it’s catchy, but you don’t take it too seriously until you discover that the words come right out of the very real battles of the Old Testament. Those words are right from II Samuel 22:30, where none other than King David—or, we should say, General David—writes them: “For by Thee I have run through a troop: by my God have I leaped over a wall.”
In just about the most secular illustration I can think of, this story reminds me of a young man named Marty McFly in the old time-travel film trilogy, Back to the Future. Every time he drives his friend’s DeLorean time machine sports car at 88 miles per hour, he seems to find himself in a different era of time. That’s another reason to stick to the speed limit! But in this particular story, he’s stuck in the year 1955 with the DeLorean plum out of plutonium. That’s the fuel he needs for safe time-travel. And the mad scientist, Dr. Brown, cries in despair: “It would take 1.21 jigawatts of power to get you back to the future! It’s hopeless! Where could we find 1.21 jigawatts of nuclear power here in 1955?” And then the interesting line: “The only thing around here with 1.21 jigawatts of power would be a bolt of lightning.” Which, because of time-travel, they know is coming up that very Saturday night at 10:04 p.m. It’s nice how Hollywood stories work themselves out in such a convenient fashion!
Well, in all seriousness, maybe today something is very dark in your life. Perhaps you’ve lost a child, and you’re so completely in despair that you don’t know how you can possibly go on. “I’m powerless to face the future without my little girl!” you scream into the wind. And where could you find the power, the bolt of lightning, to face tomorrow?
Let me tell you a story today about the great Oliver Cromwell, spiritual and military leader of England, who once faced that very kind of anguish. His son had died, and he was absolutely inconsolable. Oh, it was fine for others to preach about the Resurrection and about a future life in the distant future. But this was his own boy! Do you know what saw him through? We find this story in Dr. Ralph P. Martin’s Tyndale New Testament Commentaries for Philippians. Oliver Cromwell found his hope in this verse, Philippians 4:13. It was, in his own words, “one beam in a dark place” of utter despondency and misery. “I can do all things through Christ” was the promise that saw him through.
It’s important to notice where this promise applies and where it doesn’t. Are we guaranteed here that we can drive 88 miles an hour and not get tickets? Score a perfect 2400 on our SAT’s? Make $250,000 in our next job and get into President Obama’s new higher tax bracket? Bench-press 500 pounds? Should we want to use this verse in a “prosperity gospel” kind of way, where we “name it and claim it” or, as some selfishly put it, “blab it and grab it”? No, the context of this verse—remember, it’s the core promise, the buried nugget in chapter four—is talking about Christian work, about sacrificial witness, about doing God’s work . . . and it’s also about contentment during the trials of living for Jesus Christ. It’s about “rejoicing always” when things are less than rosy.
“This statement, then,” writes Dr. Martin, “does not make Paul a wonder-worker, a spiritual ‘super-man,’ who towers so far above the rest of men that his life is no encouragement to lesser mortals.”
No, and that’s really the good news as we finish up with the book of Philippians. This verse is for all of us. Not for getting our speeding violations fixed, but when we need power to do God’s will. Not when we want an A on a calculus test, but when we need heaven’s encouragement to face the loss of a best friend. In other words, Philippians 4:13 is for the really big things of life.
And how do we tap into it? How do we claim those 1.21 jigawatts of raw spiritual power for our own? Well, that power resides in the person of Jesus Christ, so the answer should be obvious. We get with Jesus and we stay with Him. In John 15:5 Christ Himself gives us the recipe. “I am the true Vine and you are My branches. If you REMAIN IN ME and I remain in you, you will bear much fruit.” And then the flip side: “Without Me, you can’t do a thing.”
You know, the fictional Marty McFly had to have that DeLorean in the right place at exactly 10:04 p.m. to receive that lightning bolt’s power. Thank God you and I can be plugged in . . . all day . . . every day. Shall we pray?
Father, we want to thank You today for this lasting promise—that we can do all things, all important and eternal things, through Your power. Help us to keep in our vision what the important things are, and then to joyfully trust in You for the supplied power to succeed in Your mighty name. Amen.
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