“Philippians 4:10-13 And Missed Data”

10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13, New American Standard Bible [NASB])

You may recall that universally applicable dictum “The devil is in the details.” The dictum means that small details about something are just as or more important than big things. This applies to Bible study, “Accurate interpretations and corresponding applications of the Bible are in the details.”

It appears to be fashionable these days to diminish the exhausting nature of biblical interpretation as though certain exegetical processes and details are unnecessary. The end result of an emasculated methodology is a failure to see all of the details of the text that bring accurate interpretation into the light. The only real solution for avoiding this blindness is an exegetical methodology that stubbornly pursues every interpretive process to expose all data in the text, no matter how pedantic that process may seem or how seemingly insignificant the results may appear. The grammatical analysis and syntax of every word in the text is an absolutely critical exegetical process. Philippians 4:10-13, a popular but often misunderstood and misapplied passage, proves my point that “Accurate interpretations and corresponding applications of the Bible are in the details.”

A standard rule of grammar is that a pronoun agrees with its antecedent in gender and number. Sometimes this “standard rule” does not seem to be in effect. Consider the Greek in Philippians 4:11 where the prepositional phrase, “in whatever circumstances” (ἐν οἷς), includes a neuter plural pronoun that has no clear antecedent in the context. However, a lexical search of the relative pronoun (ὅς, ἥ, ὅ) provides the answer. The pronoun in this seemingly grammatical anomaly “connects w[ith] the situation described in what precedes under which circumstances = under these circumstances” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [BAGD], 727). In short, the antecedent is not a word but a broader situation encapsulated in one word translated in the NASB as “want” (literally, need, lack, poverty, ὑστέρησιν, BAGD, 1044). The prepositional phrase and the entire verse is restricted to “circumstances of poverty.”

The discovery of poverty circumstances  as the antecedent for the pronoun helps elucidate other textual details needing explanation in verses 12-13. First, the initial two clauses of verse 12, I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity (οἶδα καὶ ταπεινοῦσθαι, οἶδα καὶ περισσεύειν), repeats a conjunction usually translated “and,” a conjunction normally placed first in its clause (note the bold words in the Greek text). This, and asyndeton (the absence of a copulative conjunction and seen throughout verses 12-13; see Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used In The Bible, 138), was deliberate and affects the understanding of the passage. Second, verse 12 consists of three contrasts between poverty and excess with two summary phrases in the middle (literally, “in any and in all circumstances”). In this passage and throughout verses 10-19 the circumstances are economic. Third, verse 13 clearly connects with the preceding verses in context, but the NASB translation and others seem to remove it to the periphery and away from the primary Pauline concern. Economics is the contextual concern for accurate interpretation which establishes itself forcefully with the adjective that begins the verse, “all things,” (πάντα, an adverbial accusative of reference; Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 203), paraphrased “with respect to all the preceding economic matters discussed”). It is a focus word connecting to the context and should be recognized by the interpreter as such. The NASB translation “I can do all things” does not connect without difficulty to the preceding context because “doing” is not the contextual issue as much as “being” (review the lexicon on ἰσχύω). “In regards to want and excess,” writes Paul, “I am strong in Christ.”

To summarize, note these exegetical details:

  • Paul limited himself by the pronoun whatever circumstances (οἷς) to matters relating to poverty when actually he intended to discuss all his financial circumstances. The explanatory asyndeton and the unexpectedly-placed conjunctions (καὶ) carefully balancing out the clauses adjusted Paul’s self-imposed limitation. (Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 1181), “We may indeed have καὶ [“and”] in both parts of the comparison, a studied balancing of the two members of the sentence” (italics mine). One can envision Paul laying down his pen and musing about how he would restructure his thoughts since erasing a papyri page was not an option!
  • Verse 11 contains three items that are expanded in verses 12 and 13. (1) Poverty circumstances expands to all economic circumstances(2) Learned (ἔμαθον) is reiterated in verse 12 with a different but specific mystery religion term (μεμύημαι from μυέω) literally translated “I have learned the secret and am living in the light of it” (perfect tense).  (3) The favorite Stoic philosophical term “self-sufficiency/content” (αὐτάρκης”) is interpreted by Paul in verse 13, “Whatever the financial circumstances, I am strong in Christ.”
  • Finally, these conclusions are confirmed by the presence of the introductory words “not that” (οὐχ ὅτι) at verse 11 and the omission of the expected balancing term “but” (ἀλλὰ, see verse 17 for the full literary pattern). When Paul wrote about his “poverty-related circumstances (ἐν οἷς)” a number of internal changes were needed in the letter resulting in a literary change (technically called an anacoluthon, see Bullinger, Ibid., 720). To complete the thought Paul added two beautifully-constructed verses to round out his thinking about his financial situation.

When recognized and thoroughly examined, the grammatical and lexical data noted above illuminate the text dramatically and can lead to clear contextual exposition with far-reaching applications! To reiterate the point of this article, “Accurate interpretation and corresponding applications of Philippians 4:11-13 are found in all of the above-mentioned details.”

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