PAUL IN CHAINS Philippians 1“What has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel” (Phil. 1:12).In Christ, even bad news can be good news in disguise.
The church in Philippi.
Paul founded the church in the Roman colony city of Philippi aboutA.D 50, some 10 years before this letter was written. He visited there again aboutA.D 55, and kept in contact with the believers through letters and helpers like Timothy. The Philippians were apparently very upset when they heard that Paul had been sent to Rome after his arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21–28). They sent a gift of money with Epaphroditus to help Paul with his expenses. This messenger became extremely ill, but recovered, and Paul sent this letter to the Philippians by him when he recovered. Paul touched on many different topics in Philippians, from his own imprisonment to a feud between two leading women in the church there. Despite his own uncertain circumstances and indications of problems in the Philippian congregation, Paul’s letter is vibrant with a joy that exists independent of circumstances. In Philippians, we find the sources of joy available to Christians who walk through dark places with the Lord.
Paul thanked God and prayed for his partners in the Gospel (1:1–11). He assured them that his imprisonment had been a good thing (vv. 12–26), and exhorted them to stand firm together (vv. 27–30).
Understanding the Text
“I always pray with joy” Phil. 1:4. Prayer for others isn’t a duty. It is a joy: a special opportunity to caress and be close to people we love. This fresh approach to intercession marks the opening words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. No special, desperate need drove Paul to prayer. Instead Paul had cultivated the habit, whenever he thought of his dear friends in Philippi, of expressing the joyful feelings remembrance brings by offering up a prayer for them. What a simple, yet meaningful way for us to enrich our prayer lives. We can cultivate the habit, whenever we think of others, to give thanks and pray for them “with joy.” “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” Phil. 1:3–6. My first week in college in Ohio I had an appendix attack, and an emergency operation. My mom and dad drove down to see me, and Mother brought me a Bible. Trying to joke, I took it and said, “I’m not that sick!” Sometimes even we Christians think of prayer or other religious exercises as a last resort kind of thing. We pray when we’re desperate, or when we are fearful for others. But Paul prayed out of joy, and with supreme confidence. There was no clear and present danger to the Philippian church. These believers had worked in partnership with Paul in spreading the Gospel from the first. And Paul had total confidence that the work God began in their lives would be carried on to completion, “until the day of Christ Jesus.” We can have this same confidence when we pray for one another. God won’t abandon any of His own. Our prayers aren’t a last-ditch effort to keep them from sliding over the edge of some spiritual precipice. We pray for other Christians with joy, and with total confidence that God is at work in their lives. Why then do we pray? We pray as an expression of love. And we pray because we believe that God in some mysterious way uses our prayers to enrich that good work He is committed to do in His children’s lives. “And this is my prayer” Phil. 1:9–11. Romans 8:26 notes that we do not really know what we ought to pray for others. Yet Paul’s prayers for other believers, like the one recorded here, and like prayers in Ephesians 3 and Colossians 1, can guide us. These prayers are well worth committing to memory. Then, when we think of a friend, we can ask “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” “What has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel” Phil. 1:12–18. The Philippians were deeply upset at Paul’s imprisonment. For one thing, if Paul were convicted, the Christian movement might be threatened. The Roman government had declared certain religions licit, giving them the legal right to be practiced. Other religions had no legal standing. As the Christian movement emerged from Judaism, and Judaism was a legal religion, early Christianity was protected. If Paul were convicted of some religious crime, the movement he represented might be officially proscribed. Even if this didn’t happen, the great apostle and evangelist seemed “put on the shelf.” He had been under arrest for two years in Caesarea. Now he was under house arrest in Rome. What would happen to the Gospel without Paul? I read in today’s paper an account of the explosive growth of evangelical Christianity in Guatemala. That land, torn by bloodshed, its economy destroyed and its people destitute, now is about one third evangelical Christian, and the number is growing at approximately 10 percent a year! We must hurt for those experiencing the terrors of poverty and civil strife. Yet we also need to realize that God is using their suffering on earth to open their hearts to the Gospel. How often we are shaken by circumstances that are admittedly terrible, but in God’s providence “serve to advance the Gospel.” The lesson Paul was trying to teach the Philippians is that God takes apparent tragedies and molds them into triumphs (see DEVOTIONAL). “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” Phil. 1:21. Paul stated the one attitude which enables us to discover good in ills that would otherwise mar our lives. If we look at circumstances merely from a human point of view, and think first of our own comfort or our situation in this life, we might have good reason for despair. But Paul didn’t look at life this way at all. He was concerned only with serving Jesus and glorifying Him. If this is our primary motivation, our circumstances here will be relatively unimportant. We can live for Jesus in a hovel or a palace. We can share our pennies or our millions. We can give thanks for our rags or for our riches. Make pleasing Jesus your sole desire, and you declare independence from all the circumstances that can ruin the lives of others who struggle on without Him. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel” Phil. 1:27–30. This paragraph sums up Paul’s theme in a simple exhortation. “Whatever happens.” Whether you prosper or go bankrupt. Whether you become popular or an object of scorn. Whatever comes, live as a Christian who is worthy of the great gift God has given in the Gospel. What marks the “worthy” Christian life? Maintaining unity. Contending for the Gospel. Remaining confident rather than fearful. The exhortation is important for us as well as for the first-century Philippians. In this life we too may be given an unusual gift. The gift, “on the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him.” By using any circumstances He sends as opportunities to serve God, we can make our suffering not only a gift from God, but a gift to Him.
Circumstantial Evidence(Phil. 1:12–19)
In our courts of law the best evidence is direct evidence: there are witnesses to an event who can testify to who did what and when. Next best is circumstantial evidence: facts and information that when interpreted make who, what, and when likely. The problem with circumstantial evidence is always in that little phrase, “when interpreted.” For instance, take a beautiful, vibrant, athletic young woman. She has an accident that permanently paralyzes her from the neck down. “Terrible,” we say. And we’re right. “Her life is ruined,” we think. And we’re wrong! Through that accident Joni Eareckson Tada became a great gift to the church, and found a new and fulfilling life for herself. This is essentially what Paul was trying to teach the Philippians when he wrote, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel” (v. 12). Circumstances are deceiving. Yes, Paul, the early church’s premier evangelist and church planter, had been put on the shelf. Yes, he’d spent two years locked up in Caesarea, and now he was under house arrest in Rome. It looked like a terrible setback for the church, and a terrible waste of Paul’s few remaining years. But that is only how it looked. That is not how it was. Look, Paul said. Everyone in the palace guard knows I’m here because of Jesus. And most of the brothers have been “encouraged to speak the Word of God more courageously.” Like a football team whose star quarterback is out of the game, the rest try harder! Even those who resented Paul were out preaching more vigorously, and though their motives were questionable, Christ was being preached! So Paul didn’t see his imprisonment as a tragedy at all. He looked beyond the circumstances, and interpreted them with a clear understanding of God’s goal of getting out the Gospel. As for Paul himself, well, through the Philippians’ prayers, he would surely be delivered. Let’s learn to interpret circumstantial evidence as Paul did, taking into account the fact that God works all things together for good for those who love the Lord. What looks like a tragedy may lead to one of history’s greatest spiritual triumphs. What looks like defeat may be turning into victory. What looks like suffering may be the harbinger of joy.
Face the worst, and expect the best.
“Suffering, though a burden, is a useful burden, like the splints used in orthopedic treatment.”—Soren Kierkegaard