A Contented Person Is Independent from Circumstances
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. (4:12)
Paul expands on what he alluded to in the previous verse. The twice-repeated phrase I know how … I also know how reveals that he had learned by experience and spiritual maturity to live above his circumstances and not to let them affect his contentment. That is an important lesson for believers to learn, for it is the difficult circumstances in life that most frequently steal our contentment.
Paul’s statement I know how to get along with humble means, to be hungry, and to suffer need indicates that he had had his share of poverty. He knew what it was to get by with meager material things. He also knew how to live in prosperity, to be filled, and to have an abundance when God graciously granted him more than he needed. All six of those terms refer to the material, earthly needs of this life, not to spiritual needs.
Paul was no ivory tower theologian; he had lived and ministered in the trenches. His life was not exactly a testimonial for the prosperity gospel. The apostle’s trials began at Damascus shortly after his conversion. Enraged that Paul
kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ, … the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to [Paul]. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket. (Acts 9:22–25)
At Lystra on his first missionary journey, hostile “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (Acts 14:19). Many of the Philippian believers no doubt remembered what happened to Paul and his fellow preacher Silas in Philippi:
The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:22–24)
Things did not get much better for the apostle in Thessalonica, where
the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them. The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. (Acts 17:5–10)
Trouble, in the form of hostile, unbelieving Jews, followed Paul from Thessalonica to Berea: “But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds” (Acts 17:13). Forced to flee Berea, Paul went to Athens, where he was mocked and ridiculed by the skeptical Greek philosophers gathered on Mars Hill (Acts 17:18–34). From Athens the apostle went to Corinth where, “while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat” (Acts 18:12). After ministering for three months in Greece, “a plot [to kill Paul] was formed against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria” (Acts 20:3). When he got to Jerusalem, Paul was attacked and savagely beaten after Jews from Asia Minor recognized him in the temple (Acts 21:26–30). Rescued from certain death by the quick action of a Roman officer (Acts 21:31–35), Paul began his long stay in Roman custody. Two years later, after hearings before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor failed to resolve the situation, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar. After a harrowing sea voyage, which included a terrifying, two-week-long storm that ended in a shipwreck (Acts 27), Paul finally arrived in Rome (Acts 28). As he penned this letter to the Philippians, Paul was again a prisoner in Rome.
Summing up his arduous, difficult, painful life Paul wrote,
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands. (2 Cor. 11:23–33)
In all Paul’s unique and constant sufferings, he had learned the secret of rising above them. In the midst of all his trials, he kept his focus on heavenly realities (cf. Col. 3:1–2). In 2 Corinthians 4:17, the apostle wrote, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” With that perspective, is it any wonder that no amount of pain, suffering, or disappointment could affect his contentment?
12 “I know what it is to be in need” translates tapeinousthai (GK 5427) as in the passive voice (“to be humbled”), which assumes that Paul’s lowly state is thrust on him. “To live in plenty” (or in prosperity) is relative and may simply refer to the times when he was not experiencing the hardships he cataloged in 2 Corinthians 11:24–27. He had learned the secret of trusting God to provide his daily bread, even when on half rations or starving. How to live is the issue, and Paul continues to present himself as an example for the Philippians to follow (4:9).
4:12–13. Paul spoke from experience. He had been through the extremes: surplus and poverty. He knew how to weather the dangers of both. This was his secret. Greek and Roman religions had secret initiation rites. Some religions and philosophies prided themselves on secret knowledge. Paul had a different kind of secret. His secret was his reliance on Christ, a reliance gained through his Christian experience. Stoics relied on personal will to gain contentment. Paul did not claim such personal inner strength. His strength came from Jesus living in him. Paul was in Christ and thus content no matter what his circumstances.
J. Vernon McGee writes:
Whatever Christ has for you to do, He will supply the power. Whatever gift He gives you, He will give the power to exercise that gift. A gift is a manifestation of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer. As long as you function in Christ, you will have power. He certainly does not mean that he is putting into your hand unlimited power to do anything you want to do. Rather, He will give you the enablement to do all things in the context of His will for you (McGee, Thru the Bible, V:327–8).
The Christian life is not only difficult; it is also impossible unless we acquire the power to live it through Christ. To be sure, this truth does not come naturally to us but must be learned.
12. It is to be noted that this contentment or soul-sufficiency (see on 1 Tim. 6:6) is derived not from any resources which the soul has in itself. Paul is no vain boaster who exclaims, “I am the Captain of my soul.” He is no Stoic who, trusting in his own resources, and supposedly unmoved by either joy or grief, endeavors with all his might to submit without complaining to unavoidable necessity. The apostle is no statue. He is a man of flesh and blood. He knows both joys and sorrows, yet is content. But his contentment has its cause in One other than himself. The real Source or Fountain of Paul’s soul-sufficiency is mentioned in verse 13. And that Fountain never runs dry, no matter what may be the circumstances. With reference to the latter Paul continues, I know what it means to live in straitened circumstances, and I also know what it means to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret, both to be filled and to be hungry, both to have plenty and to be in want.
Paul has learned the secret (a verb used only here in the New Testament and related to mystery). 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 (Ps. 25:14). Those who reject Christ cannot understand how it is possible for a Christian to remain calm in adversity, humble in prosperity.
The words in the present passage which require some elucidation are the following:
- to live in straitened circumstances
Again and again Paul had been “brought low,” same verb as used with reference to Christ in Phil. 2:8, the Christ who humbled himself. That the apostle indeed knew what it meant to be reduced to such straitened circumstances is clear from the following passages: Acts 14:19; 16:22–25; 17:13; 18:12; 20:3; Chapters 21–27; 2 Cor. 4:11; 6:4, 5; 11:27, 33. He knew what was meant by hunger, thirst, fasting, cold, nakedness, physical suffering, mental torture, persecution, etc.
- to be hungry
Hunger and thirst are often mentioned together (Rom. 12:20; 1 Cor. 4:11; 2 Cor. 11:27; and cf. for spiritual yearning, Matt. 5:6). In glory there will be neither hunger nor thirst (Rev. 7:16), and this because of Christ’s submission to these afflictions for his own children (Luke 4:2).
- to be in want
The apostle had often fallen behind. He had suffered from lack of such comforts as many other people would have considered necessities. He had come short. Yet, none of these things had deprived him of his contentment.
Over against the expressions indicating poverty and affliction are those referring to riches and glory:
- to have plenty
Before his conversion Paul has been a prominent Pharisee. The future looked bright and promising. Paul had had plenty, and this in more ways than one. Yet, he had lacked the greatest boon of all: Christ-centered peace of soul. But even after his conversion there had been moments of refreshment when even physically he had experienced what it meant, in a sense, to have plenty (Acts 16:15, 40; 16:33, 34; 20:11; 28:2; Phil. 4:15, 16, 18), and now no longer apart from but in connection with peace of soul. Now, to carry oneself properly in the midst of plenty is no easy matter (Prov. 30:8; Mark 10:23–25). As the adage has it, “In order to carry a full cup one must have a steady hand,” Paul, however, by the grace of the Holy Spirit had been schooled to abundance as well as to want.
- to be filled
This word, though used at first with respect to the feeding and fattening of animals (of which meaning there is an echo in the clause: “all the birds gorged themselves with their flesh,” Rev. 19:21), and applied to men chiefly by the Comic poets, was gradually losing its depreciatory sense and is here simply used as a synonym for to have plenty.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 300–302). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 258). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Anders, M. (1999). Galatians-Colossians (Vol. 8, pp. 263–264). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 204–206). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.