So much difficulty in Bible study comes from knowing who is being addressed. It is a vital principle of Biblical interpretation to understand that all of the Bible is written FOR us, but not all of it is written TO us. That is to say, we grow from studying the whole council of God, but we must understand when something is written to us and when it is not. Obvious examples of this are Paul's request that Timothy bring his cloak and books (2 Timothy4:13). Or perhaps the reader of Haggai may think it is his specific command to rebuild the temple, if he doesn't realize that that direct application is meant for Israel alone. While these examples may seem comical to us, this is the way that much legalism, and error has slipped into many peoples faiths.
A keen example of this is the principle can be found in Matthew 6:14-15: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." This is a favorite verse in legalistic sermons the world over. It is so tempting to pull this verse out and say, "If YOU don't forgive, then brother, GOD WON'T FORGIVE YOU!" How the human machine loves guilt and law. Some interpreters have tried to relieve the tension by claiming that this is a different type of forgiveness than other places, but it doesn't ultimately matter. Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount to Jews living under the law, clearing up the centuries of tradition and man made rules that had built up on the Law Moses gave. This sermon was given under the law, to people who lived under the Law, directly applying this to ourselves is reading someone else's mail.
So, if that verse is not written to us, do we not need to forgive one another? Who would forgive someone without the threat of eternal damnation hanging over their head? The answer? People who have found their salvation and hope in the grace of God. Ephesians 4:31 was written to church age believers who were living under Grace: "And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." Why do we forgive one another? Because we are so grateful and overflowing from the forgiveness that we have already received from God. Notice the enormous change from "do so you can be" to "be so you can do"? And that makes all of the difference.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13
Are you able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Are you strong enough to bend solid steel? Are you able to open even the most cantankerous of pickle jars? We may be tempted to read this verse and think that perhaps it means that we should all be Christian Superman. With a big red cross on our chest we wonder why we are not out vanquishing evil, or running all day without getting tired. How can this be true when I get winded just walking up stairs? Perhaps there is something we are missing.
This is an incredibly inspiring verse and is featured on a number of pretty plaques, paintings, pictures, bookmarks and all other manner of Christian merchandise. The danger that is present in taking any verse and pasting it on something is taking the verse out of context. The danger of taking it out of context is relying on the Lord for something that His word never promised. An absurd example of this would be the person who lost their faith in the Lord because they weren't able to make the basketball team, become a famous actor or musician, or pass a test they didn't study for using this verse as their excuse. Yet, if this verse is considered out of it context then these are all reasonable expectations. The problem being, that the verse out of context makes no sense at all.
Now that we have established what this verse doesn't mean, we turn to what it does mean. Context provides this answer for us as well! And we will see that what the verse actually means is much better than what it often gets mistaken for meaning. The two verses which precede this verse read:
Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Think of the profoundness of this statement! There was a great move called Angus made a number of years ago where the protagonist is told (my paraphrase), "Superman doesn't need to be brave, he's invincible. It doesn't take much courage to do things when you know you can't be harmed." Paul here is the picture of courage. This is a true super-humanity. To be able to be content in EVERY situation? What's your secret, Paul? Are you the strongest man who has ever lived? Paul's answer: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Our identity and position in Christ, His life lived in and through us, is the only way that we can live in uttermost contentment and peace in spite of the very worst possible situation. This is a verse of comfort in our most difficult moment, accepting the fact that it is "not I but Christ in me." Gal. 2:20
"You are going to get a good, honest deal here...I'd stake my name on it!" Sound familiar? While I wouldn't pin this to any specific company, dealership or individual; I would venture a guess that you may have heard a claim like this many times in your life. Often times when we hear a phrase like this uttered we may think, given the person's reputation, that they really aren't putting much on the line. However, when Almighty God stakes His Name on something we really ought to pay attention!
In Isaiah 64 God compares Himself, the Living God, to the dead idols tempting the Israelites. After humiliating the impotent idols of wood and gold God turns to display His own character, which reads in part: "Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, 'My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,'" (Isaiah 46:9-10)
Notice the argument God makes for His own deity. He tells us that He is the true God, and the idols are false because He declares the future. He tells us what will happen, and has done so from the beginning. The applications of this great truth are limitless. Firstly, we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that heresies that suggest that "God doesn't really know what is going to happen" or "God likes surprises!" are patent errors. Secondly, we can know that God's declaration of the future is firm, being intimately tied to His very character and nature. Thirdly, we know that based on the accuracy of previous predictions (Predictions of which nations would rule, who would rule them, the great detail with which the first coming of Christ was predicted, and the list goes on and on) that His promises to us of salvation, sanctification and life eternal are equally sure.
Finally, we can rest in the clearly revealed fact that God is in control. This fact cannot be reiterated enough to us in difficult or confusing times. When may often find it difficult to understand how God allows this sin ravaged world to continue down its path of hatred, fear, violence, sickness, loss and despair. We cannot let our feelings dominate our perception. We must see it through eyes of faith in the revealed facts of Scripture, trusting that He is able to work all things together for good(Romans 8:28), He will sum all things up in Christ (Ephesians 1:10)and He will work all things together for His glory (Psalm 46:10).
Perhaps you've noticed it in your every day life, perhaps you only notice when things get really tough. It is a regular occurrence for many of us. We get to the end of our rope, out of energy, out of resources. We find ourselves looking dismally into the mirror and finding that there is nothing that we can do to fix things. We realize quickly how limited our resources are, and how little that we can do. This can even lead us to discouragement, frustration and depression. For some this is the darkest hour that life has to offer. For us, as believers, I believe there is another way to describe this moment: the most glorious moments of our lives.
Is this surprising? Are we shocked and disturbed when we come to the end of OUR resources quickly? Should we have expected more out of our own strength? Why should we expect more of ourselves when we know Apostle Paul understood his own limitations: "And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me." (2 Corinthians 12:9) Are we so much stronger than Paul that we can do on our own what He had to rest in the Lord's strength for? More to the point - are we foolish enough to believe that we are strong enough to do things on our own?
The moment when we have nothing left, we are used up, we are incapable of any more is the moment when we should realize that we are operating from the wrong power source. That is the moment when we cry out in honesty to the Lord and hear his loving reply, that he never intended us to be operating on our own power to begin with. That moment of darkness is the moment that we must turn "...to Him who is able to exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us..." (Ephesians 3:20). We don't have to run out of our own steam to rest in Him, it is our choice. Will you choose this day to spin your wheels, and see how much you can do; or will you rely on His resources and see what He will do through you? There is a correct answer. There will be a test.
As we continue in our study of our relationship with God, it seems important to remember how we received this new relationship. We must remember that it is nothing that we have done, and it is therefore nothing that we can lose. It is Christ's work on the cross that we take hold of by faith (belief, trust) in the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Of the many ways that our relationship with God is described in Scripture, this is always an amazing amount of assurance in this truth.
The Jews would be comfortable calling God "Our Father" meaning that they corporately were the children of God, but would not presume that they could individually call God "my Father." It seemed too close, too intimate, and placed God too close to man for comfort. Seemingly, degrading God and over-elevating man. So first century Jews would avoid this altogether. Truthfully, they were wise to do so. However, a distinct change has occurred and we can call God "my Father" with confidence because of what we know through the Scripture.
Jesus referred to God as His Father in a special way (John 20:17). The eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son justified His special and unique address to God as His individual Father. Here is the exciting thing: because we are positioned in the Son of God we have this position of sonship, and can address God as our Father and come to Him boldly, based on the work of Jesus Christ and our position in Him. Paul puts in this way: "For you did not recieve the spirit of bondage again to fear but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out 'Abba Father.'" (Romans 8:15) The word abba is an intimate term and sounds much like our English word "papa", not coincidentally! We can glean so much from this amazing revelation. God wants us to address Him as "Papa" and come to Him with the same readiness that any toddler would run to their loving Father, whether running to show a finger-painting, or to seek comfort for a skinned knee.
One final thought on this Fatherhood of God from Jesus: "If you then being evil know how to give good gifts to your childen how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:11) A principle of your Heavenly Father is that He will care for you and delights in the moments when you trust in Him. As a father of 3 I think I can see a bit of what God is trying to tell us. Nothing is more beautiful, honoring and pleasing to me when my kids are willing to trust me, that I am looking out for their best good. This gift is amazing, don't forget the great undeserved privilege that we have each and every day to come to our "Papa" and trust in His care.