Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Philippians 4.13 and Contentment

I must say that it is so nice going to a church where the pastor has a PhD in New Testament. The church my wife and I attend (Lake Avenue Church) has just such a pastor. His name is Greg Waybright and he has a PhD from Marquette (his dissertation is entitled "Discipleship and Possessions in the Gospel of Mark: A Narrative Study") and he also did some work at Tyndale House at Cambridge.

This past week Dr. Waybright finished up his series on the ten commandments with a sermon on the last of the ten: You should not covet. Throughout the series he has been giving a positive command that coincides with the negative command: in this case the positive is that we should be content with what we have. (Here is a link to a little piece that he puts in the bulletin each week that is related to his sermon and here is a link to the audio of the sermon.)

Dr. Waybright has also tried to find biblical illustrations of the ten commandments as he has preached this series. He has found many, of course, in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. This week his illustration came primarily from Philippians 4.10-13, a passage in which Paul is trying to thank the church at Philippi for sending him a gift. In the process Paul reveals that he's both been in need and had plenty and that he has learned the secret of contentment, namely that he "can do everything" through Jesus who has given him strength.

This last bit (Phil 4.13) is probably one of the most commonly misinterpreted Pauline texts. It has inspired songs, Christian-themed shirts, and properity "gospel" preachers for as long as anyone can remember. The normal way that this verse is interpreted is that we can do anything, get anything, and/or be anything that we want through Jesus, who gives us strength.

However, as Dr. Waybright pointed out on Sunday, this passage is about being content. The interpretive crux is what should be done with panta ("everything" or "all things"). Since Paul has mentioned knowing what it means to be in need and to have plenty in the immediate context, surely these are the things he has in mind when using panta. In other words, Paul argues that he can do everything, i.e., live with or without, through Jesus. In still other words, Paul is saying that contentment is possible because Jesus relativizes the importance of having or not having things, time, money, etc, etc.

So Phil 4.13 should not be used as a proof text for the belief that God wants all of us to have it all materially. No. This verse is a call for all of us to be content the way Paul was -- "whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Phil 4.12). And I believe that Dr. Waybright was right, being content will prevent us from coveting what our neighbors have.

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