Delight in the Midst of Disaster (Philippians 1:12-18a) Small Group, MBC, August 2, 2014
(Favorite song to encourage you?) When Handel wrote the “Hallelujah Chorus,” his health and his fortunes had reached an all-time low. His right side had become paralyzed, and all his money was gone. He was heavily in debt and threatened with imprisonment. He was tempted to give up the fight. The odds seemed entirely too great. And it was then he composed his greatest work—Messiah.
Today you may be going through one of the lowest seasons in your life. Perhaps you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer and you’re wondering what the future holds for you and your loved ones. Maybe you just lost your job and you don’t see how God can provide for you and your family during this time of economic uncertainty. Perhaps your parents are getting a divorce and you’re scared and angry. Maybe a family member or friend just passed away and you don’t know how you can carry on. Whatever you’re going through today, I want you to know there is hope. God wants to work in and through you in the midst of your pain. But as you know, the Christian life can be bittersweet. It’s bitter when you experience suffering and loss. Let’s face it, trials and tragedies are awful! No one loves suffering and hardship. Nevertheless, the Christian life is also sweet in the sense that our suffering is never wasted on God. He works His purposes even in the midst of your pain. In fact, God will do some of His best work in and through you when you are in the midst of personal crisis.
Paul shares from personal experience that your perspective in times of pain makes all the difference. You’ll see that the question Paul asks himself is not, “Is what’s happening to me fair?” Rather, he poses this question: “Is what’s happening to me accomplishing something for God? Is it furthering His purposes in the world?” If you reflect on this question, you will discover that you can have your best witness in your worst circumstances. In passages today, Paul shares two encouraging realities about adversity. These realities will give you even greater confidence in the power of the gospel.
1. Adversity advances God’s kingdom (READ Philippians 1:12–14). Paul is going to challenge you to view your adversity in light of its kingdom contribution. In doing so, he insists that adversity does not stymie the gospel; rather, it advances the gospel. Paul puts it like this: “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else” (1:12–13). Paul opens with the important phrase: “Now I want you to know.” This phrase introduces something important. Here, it functions as a topic sentence for all that follows through 1:26. (Paul begins the body of his letter in 1:12 and it runs through 4:9.) In 1:12, Paul explains that his “circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” What are Paul’s specific circumstances? He is serving a prison sentence in Rome and is most likely in the custody of the “praetorian guard.” These are elite troops housed in the emperor’s palace. They are a specialized, handpicked, military group. They were Caesar’s own personal bodyguards—strong, courageous, brilliant, sophisticated, young men—kind of a mixture of West Point and the Secret Service. They served in the palace guard for twelve years, protecting Caesar and guarding the prisoners, who, like Paul, had appealed to him. After twelve years they transitioned into other influential careers. Some went on to be the commanding generals of large forces. Others went into public office and became senators or ambassadors to other countries. Still others advanced into the top echelons of business and industry. As a group, they were the movers and shakers of the future, the opinion leaders, and kingmakers of the next generation. They were a powerful and strategic group of young men. If you wanted to influence the Roman Empire, you couldn’t pick a better group to start with. Every day Paul grinned to himself because, for two years, one of them wore the other end of his chain, and for six hours, had to stay within four feet of him. He wasn’t chained to them; they were chained to him! Literally, Paul had a captive audience with whom he shared Christ, which led to a chain reaction of conversions throughout the whole Roman palace.
Paul’s imprisonment led to “the greater progress of the gospel” (1:12). The noun “progress” (prokope) means “cut before” and speaks of the cutting of a path by pioneers to open the way for an army to advance into new territory. Even though Paul’s imprisonment may have seemed like a setback, it actually served to advance the gospel among those in Rome. In God’s sovereignty, the Lord ordained Paul’s imprisonment in Rome so many people would hear the gospel who would not otherwise have heard it. Furthermore, many of these people are significant and influential people, who in the future, have a great impact for God. Although God closes a prison door behind Paul, He opens a new door for the gospel. Always remember, Jesus is Lord even in prison! He has His people behind bars so they can spread the gospel! This is why Paul cares more about the progress of the gospel than his own problems. He is confident that God is always at work. And he believes that you can have your best witness in your worst circumstances.
Similarly, God uses your painful circumstances to advance His gospel. You may not like your job, your school, your neighborhood, or your marriage, but God has you “chained up” to some people who need Christ. Have you realized that God gave you a particular job in order for you to share Christ with your boss and coworkers? Are you cognizant of the fact that God directed you to buy a house in a particular neighborhood with neighbors who need to hear about His Son? There are no mistakes or coincidences. God has a plan and He is advancing His kingdom through YOU.
Adversity will come to you sooner or later. Unfortunately, you’re not given a choice about most of the things that happen to you. I hate to break this to you, but you’re in one of three situations: (1) Either you’re in a trial right now, or you’re (2) just coming out of a trial, or you’re (3) about to enter a trial and just don’t know it yet. Such is life this side of heaven. But opportunity knocks whenever you experience a tragedy or trial. Thus, you must train yourself to see every tragedy as a divine opportunity to advance the gospel. You may one day lose a child, yet God can use that tragedy to open doors for the good news of Christ. Your spouse may leave you one day for someone else, and God may use your loss for His gain. Yet, God may open new doors to reach more students with His gospel. The question is not, “Is what’s happening to me fair?” but instead, “Is what’s happening to me accomplishing something for God?
Is what’s happening to me being useful to God in some way?
Is it furthering His purposes in the world?
Paul concludes this section in 1:14 by explaining another way that God is using his imprisonment: “and that most of the brethren, trusting [having gained confidence23] in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.” Paul’s prison sentence brought about greater boldness among the Roman Christians. Rather than laying low and hiding out, these believers felt inspired by Paul’s courage. Consequently, they are standing up boldly for Christ and proclaiming Him in unprecedented fashion. Apparently, they figure, “If Paul can share Christ in prison, why can’t I do it as a free person?” Likewise, when I hear about my brothers and sisters in places like Sudan, North Korea, China, and India courageously sharing their faith amidst severe persecution, I get motivated to boldly share Christ.
Do you realize that your commitment to boldly share Christ in the difficult circumstances of your life will embolden others to do the same? As a public school teacher, if you find ways to creatively share Christ, when other Christian teachers find out about what you are doing, they are going to want to do the same. As a state employee, if you host a Bible study and other Christian state employees find out about this, they may attempt to do the very same thing. You can have a powerful witness because God emboldens us to proclaim Christ by observing the witness of other believers. It will not be easy, but you can have your best witness in your worst circumstances.
[Adversity advances God’s kingdom because the world is all eyes and ears when Christians suffer. They want to know how you will respond. When you trust Christ in the midst of your adversity the gospel advances in and through you. A second reality of adversity is…]
2. Adversity reveals our priorities (READ Philippians 1:15–18a). In the midst of trials and suffering, you find out what is really important to you. Adversity serves as a true gut check. In these verses you will see how Paul’s true passion and priorities reveal themselves. In 1:15–17 he writes: “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” If you read through these verses carefully, you ought to be exclaiming, “Can you believe this? What in the world is going on here? It’s not bad enough that Paul is in prison, now he has some preachers who are hoping to rub salt in his wounds! Who are these devils? First of all, we must recognize that these are not false teachers; they are selfish teachers. Paul is clear in 1:15 and 17: these preachers “preach Christ,” but they do so from “envy and strife” and out of “selfish ambition.” The word translated “selfish ambition” (eritheia) was used to describe a selfish worker interested only in his own pay or a politician in the self-seeking pursuit of office regardless of means. In the same vein, with Paul in prison, there is now a perceived vacancy, and these preachers are all seeking to be the top dog. They are petty, territorial, calculating, and focused on self-promotion. They aren’t anti-Christ, they are anti-Paul.
What bothered these preachers was that Paul was getting too much attention. As far as they were concerned, he was just a little bit too famous—the big shot apostle who came to town as an imperial prisoner, guarded by Caesar’s personal bodyguards. All the Christians in Rome were talking about him and singing his praises. As a result, some of the local pastors got a bit envious of all the attention Paul was getting. Who was he to come into their city and get all the praise after they’d been there for years? So, some of them took advantage of the situation so that they, too, would become more prominent. It was kind of a rivalry with them. Perhaps they said things like this:
“You know how much we love and respect our dear brother Paul. No one loves him more than we do. However, it seems as if Paul causes trouble wherever he goes. Someone stones him, or they arrest him, or he has to sneak out of town in the middle of the night. We don’t like to mention it, but there are bad rumors about him back in Jerusalem. I personally don’t believe them, but we can’t reject them out of hand. It’s possible he’s guilty of the charges against him. He’s a wonderful preacher, but he seems to stir up trouble in every city. Frankly, I think it’s extremely embarrassing to have an esteemed apostle in jail…and in Rome of all places. Perhaps it would be better if Paul had never come to our city. In any case, he can hardly be our spiritual leader while he’s in jail. Let’s agree to pray for him and ask God to release him and send him somewhere else—preferably a long way from here.”
Fortunately, Paul could always fall back on those preachers who proclaimed the gospel from goodwill and out of love for him (1:16). These pastors recognized that God had placed Paul exactly where He wanted him. The word translated “appointed” (keimai) was a military term indicating a military assignment or orders. In other words, the good pastors knew that God had assigned Paul to his chains and to a courtroom appearance before Caesar; God had ordered him there to defend the gospel at the highest level in the Roman Empire. They wanted to do their part where they could.
So how does Paul respond to these two types of preachers? In 1:18a, he closes with some astonishing words: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.” The phrase “What then?” means, “What do I say about that?” or even, “So what?” This question refers back to 1:15–17. Paul is essentially saying, “All that I know is the gospel is being proclaimed…it is advancing! And that thrills my heart! I rejoice!” His sentiments are that it is better for people with impure motives to preach Christ than they not preach Him at all. After all, “He who is not against you is for you” (READ Luke 9:50). Suppressing Paul is like trying to sink a cork in a bath!
Paul can exude this attitude because he is consumed with the gospel. Ultimately, he is not concerned with his own reputation, ministry, or happiness. Rather, Paul wants the success of the gospel—he longs for it to advance. What an example! All kinds of issues cry for our attention: abortion, pornography, media bias, economic injustice, racial discrimination, classism, sexism, to name a few. These are important issues, but the great danger is that we become so passionate or concerned about these issues that the gospel is marginalized. This has been happening in the Protestant church for years! But when the gospel is preached by gospel-focused people, God transforms the culture. The key is “to keep the main thing the main thing.” Life does not revolve around being happily married, raising the perfect family, making a lot of money, or being successful in your job. Life revolves around preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. For Paul, the “main thing” is the gospel. And in the gospel, Paul will rejoice!
Undoubtedly, though, the slander of these preachers hurt Paul deeply. It must have broken his heart to know that some of his brothers were using his prison time against him. Nevertheless, Paul has a big heart and broad shoulders, and he knows people often do the right things for the wrong reasons. This is why in READ 1 Cor 4:1–5, Paul himself says, “I don’t judge others or myself; I leave that to the Lord Jesus Christ (paraphrase).
It is critical to follow Paul’s example and not get caught up criticizing the methods and motives of other ministries. This is counterproductive for several reasons: (1) Criticism is addictive, because it can turn you away from your own faults and breeds a spirit of self-righteousness and intolerance. I don’t know about you, but I have enough sins and weaknesses to worry about in my own life and ministry. (2) Criticism diverts an extraordinary amount of time and energy away from the positive proclamation of Christ. There are too many Christian witch hunters who are known for who and what they are against. We ought to be for Christ and His gospel, (3) Criticism stirs up divisiveness and disunity before the world. This leads unbelievers to say, “I’d rather be at the bar or the country club where people love me. The church shoots its own wounded and is full of backbiting.” We must be sensitive to this objection and change the world’s perspective. Let us begin by contending for the faith and not with the faithful.
As you contend for the faith and proclaim Christ, you can experience joy.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS? It’s been said, “If we see Jesus in our circumstances, then we will see our circumstances in Jesus.” Paul lived this!
Remember, Paul is writing this letter from a Roman prison. Furthermore, five of Paul’s thirteen letters were written from prison. Paul would not let himself give way to self-pity. He knows that in order to exude joy in the midst of adversity he must see adversity from an eternal perspective. The key to his joy was between his ears. Over thirty times in Philippians Paul refers to the mind or to remembering. When joy has leaked out of your life, the leak is between your ears. You must change your thinking so that you can experience joy once again. May you do so today. You can have your best witness in the worst of times. THEME
Don’t think for a minute that God can’t or doesn’t use your difficulties for a purpose larger than yourself. He does.” God can use your adversity in the same way. Whatever you’re going through today, pray: “Lord, help me to submit to You and trust You in the midst of my pain. May I only care about how my trial advances your gospel.”