10 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. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:10-13 ESV
Verse 10 presents what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat awkward and misplaced transition. It seems as if Paul is jumping to a whole new topic: His recent receipt of some sort of gift from the Philippian congregation. But, while that is the topic, Paul seems to be bringing it up at this point because it has everything to do with what he has been discussing in this section. He is using their gift to make an important point about what it means to “think on these things.”
Remember, Paul has just stressed that they were to fix their thoughts on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. They were to fill their minds with thoughts of those actions and attitudes that reflect those kind of characteristics. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Paul brings up their recent gift to him. But notice that is it not the gift itself that Paul turns his attention to. It is what the gift represented to him. He tells them that he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly,” not because of the nature of what they gave, but because of the heart behind the gift – “you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10 ESV).
The gift was a tangible expression of their love and concern for him. And, Paul lets them know that he always knew they cared for him, but was aware that they had been hindered in expressing their love in either word or deed because of distance and his own unique circumstance in Rome. For Paul, the gift was not the point. He doesn’t even mention what the gift was. It was simply a timely reminder of their love for him and, as he thought about that, he couldn’t help but rejoice. Their thoughtfulness to send him the gift was an example of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable.
Too often, we allow conditions and circumstances to determine the degree of our joy. When things go well for us, we react with happiness. When they don’t, we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, wondering what we did to make God mad at us. But circumstances were never meant to be metrics for measuring our joy or contentment. And neither were material things. But the truth is, far too many of us place excessive importance on stuff and things, seeking from them a sense of worth and using them as our primary source for finding satisfaction and significance in life.
The Philippians saw Paul as someone in need. He was under house arrest in Rome, so his circumstances were less than ideal. He had no source of income, so his financial situation was challenging. They may have heard that his housing was inadequate and his food supply was insufficient. From their perspective, it must have appeared that Paul was in dire straights, as he awaited trial before Caesar. So, they sent him a gift. And it was only natural that they would do so. They wanted to do something to help alleviate any suffering he may be experiencing as a result of his conditions.
But Paul, while grateful for their graciousness and love, used this as another teaching moment, letting them know that, in spite of what he was going through, he really had no need. It wasn’t about the condition of his circumstances or the abundance or lack of material things. And Paul makes that point quite clear in what has become one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses from the Bible.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. – Philippians 4:11 ESV
Think about what Paul is saying. His mention of the delay in receiving their gift was not intended to convey that he had lacked in anything. He had not been sitting around waiting for someone to do something about his circumstances. He had not been longing for a gift of some kind that would lighten his load or improve his living conditions. No, he said that he was perfectly content. He was at peace. He appreciated their gift, as an expression of their love, but he didn’t need it. Whatever it was that they sent was not going to make him any more happy or satisfied than he already was.
Over the years, Paul had learned a valuable lesson, that he was not attempting to pass on to them.
I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:12 NLT
Paul refers to what he has learned as being a secret or mystery. The Greek word he used is myeō, and it means “to initiate into the mysteries.” He had been taught something that few people ever get to know on their own. And the lesson he learned was taught to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Remember what Paul stated earlier in this same letter: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5 NLT). He was humble, obedient, selfless, sacrificial and obedient to God the Father, even to the point of death.
Paul was probably familiar with the story when the disciples had brought Jesus food and had encouraged Him to eat. But He had responded, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). While they debated among themselves how Jesus had gotten this food, Jesus told them, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). And it is likely that Paul was aware of the encounter Jesus had with a would-be disciple, to whom Jesus declared, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NLT).
For Paul, contentment had nothing to do with content. It wasn’t about things. Clothes, food, and living arrangements were not what brought Paul joy. The size of his personal portfolio was not a determiner of Paul’s contentment. The condition of his circumstances was not how Paul measured his sense of satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of material prosperity had no little or no impact on Paul. He didn’t allow the ups and downs of life circumstances to dictate his overall sense of contentment. And the key to this rather radical view on life was his relationship with Jesus. According to Paul, it was Jesus who gave him the strength to live as he did.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 NLT
Paul could survive house arrest, because of Jesus. He could put up with less-than-satisfactory living conditions, because of Jesus. He could do without comfortable clothes or good food, because of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just give Paul strength to survive want and neglect. Paul could survive all the temptations that come with material wealth, because of Jesus. He had remained undistracted by the allure of fame and notoriety, because of Jesus. He was not prone to envy other, more popular, ministers, all because of Jesus.
In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminded them that when he had arrived in their city, he wasn’t out to impress or to gain approval.
I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NT
His emphasis had been of Jesus. His strength had come from Jesus. He came to them, filled with fear and trepidation, but he found the power to do what he had been called to do – in Christ. And, in a second letter to the same congregation, Paul emphasized that the strength he received from Christ allowed him to endure anything and everything so that the gospel might be spread and the church of Jesus Christ might be strengthened.
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NLT
For Paul, suffering and troubles came with the territory. They were just part of the job description of being a follower of Christ. And he was perfectly content to endure all that came with being a faithful servant of Christ. Life isn’t about ideal circumstances or the presence of material comforts. It is about contentment in Christ.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.