ISSUE: 2020, Volume 17, Issue 4
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‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’, Phil. 4. 11.
The Epistle to the Philippians is marked by joy and rejoicing, as Paul displayed much affection for the Philippian believers. Paul wrote from prison, Phil. 1. 7, likely at Rome, to thank the believers for a gift that they had sent to him by Epaphroditus.
It seems to be this gift that caused Paul to rejoice ‘in the Lord greatly’ that their ‘care . . . hath flourished again’, v. 10. The believers had not been able to communicate with Paul, but the opportunity arose for them to be able to show their care, v. 10. ‘Care’ is a translation of the word phroneo, which includes in its meaning ‘being thoughtful or mindful’ of him. ‘Flourished’ has the idea of ‘growing or blooming again’ like a plant; this was how Paul considered the believers’ care for him.
There is a great need for Christians to be thoughtful and caring towards one another. Life is often so busy that there is simply not enough time to be thoughtful, and therefore care is not always shown; the sad consequence is that some believers feel neglected at times. May we look to the Lord to help us have a flourishing care for each other, following the example of the Philippian believers.
Verse 11 comes to the matter of Paul’s contentment, but, first, he qualifies his rejoicing, ‘not that I speak in respect of want’. Hendriksen explains that ‘the satisfaction of a material need must not be construed as being either the real reason for or the measure of . . . joy’. 1 This was because Paul was content; we will look at what we can learn from his contentment in verses 11 to 13.
Vine defines contentment as being ‘self-sufficient, adequate, needing no assistance’. 2 Strong adds ‘independent of circumstances’. 3 Paul was writing from prison, with no one near to help or assist, yet he felt adequate; he did not desire a change or a release from his difficulty. He says, ‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’, v. 11. Whatever the circumstance, Paul would be happy in it, and fully reliant on God to meet his needs.
Interestingly, Paul indicates that he ‘learned . . . to be content’, v. 11. This is not something that comes to us naturally; we must learn it. It was developed through Paul’s experience of trials and of seeking the will of God, accepting it, and resting in it. I take it that it is possible to ‘learn’ the opposite, i.e., to be discontent, to be questioning and challenging of circumstances and trials, even unappreciative of blessing. May we, like Paul, learn contentment.
Paul understood the ups and downs of Christian life and service through personal experience. He maintains, ‘I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound’, v. 12. ‘Abased’ means to ‘be brought low’ ESV; he had experienced both extremes.
The phrase ‘I am instructed’ seems to provide the basis for this contentment, it comes from one Greek word mueo, which Strong defines as ‘to initiate into the mysteries, to teach fully, instruct’. 4 Hendriksen comments helpfully, ‘Paul has learned the secret . . . He has been thoroughly initiated into it by the experiences of life applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit. To those who fear him God reveals this mystery’. 5 The fact that a believer in the Lord Jesus has the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within is something that those who do not believe cannot understand. But we who are saved can live out this contentment, in times of both plenty and hunger, and times of ‘abundance and need’ ESV. The great practical challenge from this, a challenge that comes up so often in the New Testament, is how much we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us.
A further application is relevant here, relating to living a Spirit-filled life. I remember hearing Jim Baker ask the very simple, yet challenging, question many times, concerning whether the flesh or the Spirit dominates a believer’s life. ‘What do you feed the most, the things of the flesh, or the things which are spiritual?’
There is a conclusion reached in verse 13 which demonstrates Paul’s confidence. Not confidence in himself, but in his Lord, ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’, v. 13. Some translators indicate ‘in Christ’ as being a better translation. By allowing the Spirit of God to have full control of his life, Paul is enabled to face suffering, hardship, trial, and persecution, as well as times of relative comfort and plenty, and faithfully serve the Lord. Whatever the circumstances, he could do all things in Christ. But more than this, it was the Lord that gave him the strength to do whatever the Lord had for him to do.
1. William Hendriksen, Philippians New Testament Commentary, Banner of Truth, pg. 204.
2 W. E. Vine, Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Nelson, pg. 125.
3 J. Strong, Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Riverside.
5. William Hendriksen, op. cit., pg. 205.