It’s a verse often quoted, but rarely appreciated fully – "I can do all things through him who gives me strength" (tNIV). Yet in this short verse three key questions require attention, if we are fully to grasp Paul’s meaning.
First, what is the referent of "all things"? The Greek term (panta) comes first in the sentence and so has emphasis. Paul has done the same thing in the immediately preceding sentence has he began it "in every and all circumstances" (en panti kai en pasin). Probably his continued use of this term in verse 13 builds on this earlier expression. So Paul is not making a general statement about his ability to do everything, but rather is reflecting upon the wide variety of life’s circumstances in which he has been initiated. Technically, we have to decide whether panta is the object of the verb or an accusative of respect, i.e. defining in what respect he has strength. When the verb ischuw is considered in the New Testament, we find that it normally is not completed by a direct object. So here I think panta means "in respect to all these things, i.e. the vicissitudes of life".
Secondly, we need to consider the nuance of the main verb ischuw – I am strong, powerful. This is the last in series of verbs (vs. 10-13) that are in the first person, as Paul shares his heart with his friends in Philippi. He is thankful for their unsolicited gifts and provisions during his imprisonment, but he wants to assure them that he has the self-sufficiency to cope. While it is tough, he has the resources to endure. "In respect to all these circumstances I can prevail!" is Paul’s affirmation. The word Paul uses in vs. 11 (autarkes) connotes self-reliance, independence, self-sufficiency, rather than ‘contentment’ as we usually understand it. Paul is made of stern stuff and even the prospect of execution has not daunted his spirit.
We might consider this an arrogant attitude on Paul’s part, until we come to the third element in his statement. The only reason Paul has this sense of independence is precisely because of his dependence! Using a participle as a noun within a prepositional phrase (en twi endunamounti me), Paul affirms that he only has sufficiency "in the one who infuses me with power". The third question is the identification of this person, the nature of his empowerment, and the end to which this power is granted?
It is Paul primarily who uses this term in the New Testament at critical places. Luke describes the newly converted Saul as "growing very powerful" (Acts 9:22) in his debates with the Jews in Damascus about Jesus and his status as Son of God. Paul describes Abraham (Romans 4:20) as empowered to have full confidence in God’s promises through his faith in God. Paul urges the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 6:10) to "be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power (tes ischuos)" and then proceeds to define the wonderful, protective armour God provides to help the Christian in struggles with evil. In his first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:12) Paul gives thanks "to the one who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service." He identifies this agent as Christ Jesus our Lord. And then twice in his second letter to Timothy (2:1; 4:17) he urges Timothy to draw on this same power and also acknowledges that in his trial before Caesar "The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength", with the result that the Gospel was proclaimed.
Paul’s sufficiency for service, for life, and for spiritual victory resides in Jesus Christ who ‘infuses him with power.’ But in Phil. 4:13 how are we to understood the force of the preposition en that joins the phrase "the one who infuses me with power" to the main verb? Does it define agency – "through the one who infuses me with power"? Or does Paul use it in a way that is similar to vs. 7 – "your minds in Christ Jesus", stressing the relationship he has with Jesus. This would suggest the translation "by virtue of my relationship with the one who infuses me with power". There is debate today as to whether the preposition en followed by a personal object can in fact designate human agency. So technically Paul’s emphasis here is probably on his relationship with Jesus, the one who infuses him with power, and secondarily then we might consider this the means by which he is able to prevail.
Finally, to what end does Jesus infuse Paul with this power? We have noted already some different aspects that he mentions – service in the Gospel, ability to withstand evil, empowerment to share the Good News, strength to endure hardships for Jesus’ sake. It is his union with Jesus, based solely upon grace, that gives Paul confidence in his possession of heavenly citizenship and resurrection, in gaining Christ, and in God’s completion of His good work in his life.
Was this awareness of Jesus’ empowerment something only for Paul to enjoy, or is Paul’s experience intended to benchmark every believer’s relationship with Jesus Christ? I think that Paul’s usage of this expression to encourage the Ephesian Christians and his application of it to Abraham (our faith model) and to Timothy, indicate his expectation that every believer has access to this power. If every Christian is "in union with the Lord Jesus Christ" and if Jesus’ Spirit lives in every believer, then we must conclude that every Christian should be "infused with the power of Jesus".
What hinders our enjoyment and experience of this power?
- Hawthorne in his Word Biblical Commentary translates "in union with the one…".
- Wallace considers it a rare or nonexistent category (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, page 373).