To Advance the Gospel
Philippians 1:12-18 – Philippians: Life Together
Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 21, 2018 (am)
In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, we have been introduced to a friendship, a partnership, that is marked by the rich, relational love that grows up out of a shared mission. In fact, Philippians has been categorized by many as a letter of friendship (cf. Fee 2-10). In the first century, formal schooling would have included instruction in letter-writing. One of the instruction manuals still available lists… twenty-one different types of letters, the first (being) the “friendly type,” which was considered to be the reason for the “invention of letter-writing” in the first place (Fee 2). After the opening address and greeting [1:1-2], friendship letters—or a subset, family letters—include prayer for the recipients [1:3-11], reassurance about the sender [1:12-26], request for reassurance about the recipients [1:27-2:18; 3:1-4:3], information about movements of (messengers) between them [2:19-30, Timothy and Epaphroditus], an exchange of greetings with (other people) [4:21-22], and finally a closing wish for health and well-being [4:23] (Fee 3). One of the marks of friendship letters is the absence of a mentor/protégé-type tone, no teacher/student approach like we see in some of Paul’s other letters (Fee 5). A friendship letter is exchanged between equals like we see in Philippians, where Paul’s emphasis on their partnership in the gospel (5).
We peered through the open window of Paul’s words of deep and sincere love for these Philippians and recognized that their bond was rooted in their shared mission. A common cause always knits together the souls of those involved, like soldiers at wartime, foxhole friends. Joint-participation in the great commission—self-sacrificial, heart-engagement in the spread of the gospel—linked Paul and the Philippians in loving, joyful relationship that is still being savored and celebrated twenty centuries later!
But this same gospel mission had landed Paul in prison in the capital city of the Roman Empire. And that disturbing development is in view as our text opens today. Let’s absorb this encounter in three parts.
Gospel-Advance Supersedes Personal Comfort – 12-13
Paul had already mentioned his imprisonment (7), using it as a clear illustration of the depth of their love: they were still partakers with (him) of grace (7), still together, even now. They didn’t turn their back on him, or abandon him like so many others had done (2Ti.1:15). The Philippians were with him. But that didn’t mean they weren’t concerned, or fearful about what was happening, and what it meant for Paul, and for them (cf. 28). So, he wrote: 12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.
Did you hear that? Let it sink in. He’s talking about his imprisonment in Rome, and he’s softening it, saying it has happened… to advance the gospel! We get so familiar with Paul’s story that we can forget what it cost him to bring the gospel to the cities and regions where he was sent. We can even explain away his captivity, saying his Roman prison wasn’t like ours today; he was under house-arrest, and could entertain guests, etc.—like he was staying at Hyatt, only by force! But it wasn’t like that, not even in Rome! And it certainly wasn’t like that when he was in the maximum security area in the Philippian jail, chained in stocks (Act.16:24), having already been (beaten)… with rods (Act.16:22), long billy-clubs. So, even if his Roman confinement was a step or two above that, it was still prison!
Yet, Paul reassures his beloved Philippians by saying: it has happened… to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known through the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. In effect, Paul is saying that, since the gospel has spread, his imprisonment is really for the good! At least there’s a silver lining! The whole imperial guard at the Roman detention center has come to understand that the gospel is the reason why Paul is there—and this news seems to have spread to all the rest, possibly meaning even the Roman soldiers who were serving elsewhere (Martin 76). John Calvin (35) thought this imperial guard, the praetorium, referred to the palace of Nero with all its inhabitants.
Whatever, the gospel was spreading, so the Philippians need not worry about Paul. Rather, they can rejoice (18) with him!
This lands on my ears as a stunning reminder of the primacy of the gospel, an eye-opening word of instruction on just what Paul was celebrating with these Philippians—their common love for one another because of (their) partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (5). They knew this was wartime. And being a POW in an enemy camp could be a positive if you could win them to your side! These people were so devoted to the gospel, to the spread of the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ that had reconciled them to God and united them to Paul and one another, that they could be comforted regarding Paul’s imprisonment by seeing gospel-good coming from it! Rhetorical question (for now): how does our heart for the gospel compare? Do we recognize that it’s wartime, and this is our mission? Is this shared mission the foundation of our love for one another? Is it a love that can be felt? (8)
Gospel-Advance Disarms Personal Offenses – 14-18
But not all of those who were preaching the gospel in Paul’s day were feeling that love. Most of (14) them were, but not all. In fact, most of them, he says here, were even showing signs of recognizing the implications of his imprisonment. What would you expect to be the response of others who preach the gospel once they see Paul thrown in prison for it? Run for the hills, right? Lay low for a while until the heat dies down! But that’s not what happened. 14 … Most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, Paul wrote, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Their confidence to preach the gospel grew! How do we explain this?
Well, first we have to grant that there are two groups of preachers mentioned here, and there were different reasons for their confidence. Notice the structure here (15-16), a chiasm, that focuses attention on the outer statements, the opening and closing. 15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry… 17 (They) proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. They disagree with Paul for some reason; they want him to hurt. (And even though this is an emphasis, I don’t want to spend time here right now given our emphasis.)
15 … But others preach Christ from good will. 16 (They) do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel—not for the offense of the gospel, like people tired of hearing it so they threw Paul in prison, but for the defense of the gospel, like there’s some strategic plan in the works and it’s important for Paul to be in prison as part of that plan—like the gospel is going to be strengthened by it, defended in its authenticity. Earlier in this greeting Paul had mentioned the defense … of the gospel (7). In fact, he mentioned the defense and confirmation of the gospel (7). (He holds these Philippians) in (his) heart, (because they) are all partakers with (him) of grace, both in (his) imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (7). It’s possible that he’s just talking about the fact that his imprisonment will eventually land him before a Judge where he’ll defend Christianity.
But I believe he’s making a different point. I believe his very imprisonment, and his response to it, is his defense and confirmation of the gospel. His reaction is entirely unlike what you’d expect! He’s receiving it as God’s assignment. And he’s continuing right on in his calling there in prison: he’s bringing the gospel to those he meets there, just as if he were entering some new city. And as a result the whole imperial guard and… all the rest are hearing that (his) imprisonment is for Christ (13), to advance the gospel (12) so that it (will) become known (13). The Philippians had seen him (defend) and (confirm) the gospel before; he was in their city and was wrongfully beaten and imprisoned. At midnight he his partner were singing hymns and had the attention of everyone present, including the jailer (Act.16:16-34). Who reacts like that? How does that happen, except by the power of the gospel—accepting and cooperating with the plan of an all-wise, all-powerful God Who is working toward a different end than the rest of His fallen creation? This God enables His children, those who’ve embraced His plan, His gospel, by faith and are willing live it out, even if it lands them in prison!
So, Paul concludes asking: 18 What then? What do we make of this? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed—by those whose motives are envy and rivalry, and by those who do it out of love and cooperation with God and with Paul. Either way, he says: 18 … Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. … That is my priority, my passion, my calling, and my commitment. In that I rejoice. “The advance of the gospel means more to me than my own freedom,” Paul is saying. “And my love for the Philippians is justified by the fact that they get it! They understand it! They share my priority! They’ve been my (partners) in the gospel from the first day until now (5). And (they’re) all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (7).”
This is amazing! So, let’s ask ourselves a question:
How Does Gospel-Advance Rank in Our Priorities?
Using Paul as an example, and the Philippians: are we so engaged with the gospel, the mission of the church, the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mat.6:33), that we would even forfeit our freedom if that would help it to spread? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? And in some ways it’s an unfair question. We just don’t live in a place where that kind of decision needs to be made. It does happen in our day, in many places around the world. We’re just not as familiar with it right here. It’s a question we increasingly need to be asking, though, because it certainly appears that the day is fast approaching when we’ll be faced with it. And we don’t want to wait until that day to get ready for it!
But there’s another reason why we want to test our allegiance to this gospel today—to ponder where it ranks in our priorities. It’s because that is one of the clearest ways to discern whether we’re actually hearing and heeding the very call of the gospel itself, whether the gospel has taken root in our own hearts and is enabling us to share the heart of God, to cooperate with His plan and purpose. It helps us discern whether we love Him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. We’ve said often that the great commission—our call to spread the gospel—is really just a charge to introduce our two great loves to one another. And our two great loves are just a confirmation that we ourselves have truly embraced the gospel. When we receive by faith in Christ God’s saving, sanctifying love, it shows itself in our love for Him and for our neighbor, especially those in need. And the way genuine love shows itself best is in a selfless, even self-sacrificing, devotion to meeting the other’s greatest need—that’s just the nature of love. And the other’s greatest need is, and will always be, to know reconciliation with God through the gospel. When that reconciliation is accomplished, then they become lovers of God as well, and lovers of people, and ambassadors of the gospel to yet more people. There is no thrill in life like sharing the life-changing, eternity-altering message of the gospel. And there is no joy like seeing it received by faith in the life of another.
That passion is what linked Paul and the Philippians in a deeply loving relationship with one another. That passion is what enabled them both to see Paul’s imprisonment as really (serving) to advance the gospel (12). It’s a shared mission that unites us with the heart of God, and links us with the hearts of His people, and deepens our fellowship, our partnership in the local church, and enables us to walk in humility, side by side (27), pressing on to fulfill the mission. It’s this shared mission in the gospel that prepares us for coming persecution, prepares us even for prison without losing our heart of joy!
This is the legacy of the gospel, the unmistakable marks of the mission to which we’ve been called by faith in Christ. This is what set Paul and the Philippians apart from all those around them. And it still sets us apart in that same way today. The amazing perspective we see in the Apostle Paul here today tells us nothing about him. Rather, it tells us about the God we serve, and His gospel that we preach.
There are very few things in this life that we hold in higher regard than personal freedom. But in the gospel, we gain an allegiance even higher than that. As you feel that allegiance developing in your heart, don’t resist it. Embrace it, for it could only come from God. That’s the way His gospel works on us! And as we progress through this letter, we’ll find that there are additional things we naturally hold in even higher regard that the gospel also eclipses. But that’s for another day.
For now, let’s just celebrate Christ together as we remember the price He paid to bring the gospel to us. And let’s seek Him to cause it to take as deep a root among us as it did among the Philippians.