Urban legends are un- (or dis-)proved stories that have been passed down for decades, such as how Coke will dissolve a tooth overnight, how alligators live in New York’s sewers, or how Mr. Rogers was a sniper in the Navy SEALS. David Croteau, in his new book Urban Legends of the New Testament (review here), covers 40 of the most commonly misunderstood New Testament passages, or 40 New Testament “urban legends.”
I’ll cover three or four, with the first one being on Philippians 4.13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The Urban Legend
“All of us have goals in life. Some of you want to be professional athletes. Others may want to be famous musicians or actors. Some want to start their own businesses. Whatever you want to do, remember this verse and claim it daily. Put it on your mirror so you see it every morning and every evening. While apart from Christ you can do nothing, through him you can accomplish anything” (163).
Evander Holyfield had this verse reference on his boxing shorts. Last summer on American Ninja Warrior there was a guy with this reference on the back of his shirt. It’s hugely popular, strikingly encouraging, and is often poorly understood.
Phil 4.10-12 says,
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
In these verses Paul is thanking the Philippians for their gift, and he tells them that in all circumstances, especially in the difficult ones (4.12), God has taught Paul to be content. Paul then gives his famous tweetable quote in verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Does Paul really mean he can do all things? Could he really be the next American Ninja Warrior? Could he out-punch Evander Holyfield and out-throw Tim Tebow? Could he out-snipe Mr. Rogers?
Here, “all” does not mean “all.” In verse 13 “all” doesn’t mean “anything without exception.” Paul isn’t saying, “I can do all things. No exception!” The NIV says, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Why?
“Perhaps the translators were trying to get the reader to look closer at the context. The phrase ‘all things’ seems to mean ‘anything,’ but the phrase ‘all this’ makes me ask: what does the ‘this’ refer back to?… [Now] the key to correctly interpreting this verse is unlocked. The ‘this’ or ‘things’ Paul was referring to were the various circumstances in 4:12” (164).
Also, Croteau says the Greek doesn’t have Paul saying he can “do” all things. Instead, Paul says, “I am able….” “Therefore, Paul is saying, ‘I am able to be content in all these circumstances by the One who gives me strength.’” (165). Simply read 2 Corinthians 11:23b–28 and we can see how needed it was for Paul to have contentment. Beatings, stoning, lashes, muggings, shipwrecks… I’ve never experienced any of those things! And yet he’s able to remain content in his circumstances because of God’s power. The same God who has the power to bring our salvation to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1.6) is the same who who has the power to teach us contentment in every single day of your life.
“It is challenging to be content when having little or when in abundance. Many people might think having riches will lead to contentment. But the National Endowment for Financial Education estimates that as many as 70 percent of Americans who get a lot of money suddenly will lose all that money within a few years” (164).