Our church is currently going through the book of Philippians, which has long been one of my favorite books in the Bible. Our sermon series is focusing on “The Joy of the Christ-Centered Life”. As you read through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it oozes with the themes of joy, Christ, and the gospel. Everything Paul talks about in the letter emanates from these three themes.
In chapter 1:12-18, Paul gives his brothers and sisters in Christ an update on in imprisonment in Rome. The context of the letter suggests that once the Philippians heard that Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem and transferred to Rome to await trail, they sent a love gift to him by way of Epaphroditus. They also wanted Epaphroditus to bring them back a report on Paul’s physical and spiritual condition. However, their friend became deathly ill while visiting Paul. When he eventually made a full recovery, Paul sends him back to Philippi with a joy-saturated update on his situation. Here is what he wrote:
“ I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Philippians 1:12-18
As you read those words, it’s hard to picture a man sitting in a Roman prison. Paul has the mindset of a soldier marching into enemy lines. Far from being a tool which was hindering the gospel, Paul’s shackles are testimony of gospel advance! From Paul’s report, we see three Christ-centered attitudes that Paul expresses which fuel his joy while he sits under chains in a Roman incarceration.
1. Paul’s first joy-fueling attitude is “No Matter What, the Gospel Comes First”. After describing how his chains have opened doors for Paul to share Christ with the Imperial Guard and also how his critics in the church have used his imprisonment to belittle him, Paul makes the astounding comment, “Only that in every way…Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” He’s not complaining about his unjust incarceration. He’s not expressing concern about his uncertain trial. He isn’t going on a personal rant about the character of his critics. He is simply saying, “If God chooses to use my chains or my critics as a tool for the gospel, that will bring me joy.” Paul never got over his Damascus road encounter with Christ. Ever since that day that Christ arrested Paul from his legalism and self-righteousness with grace and mercy, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ became the prevailing purpose of Paul’s life. That is why he could rejoice in trial, rejoice in personal attack, and rejoice in times when most of us would soak in discouragement, depression, or despair. There is a parallel relationship between our experience of gospel transformation and our verbal expressions of gospel proclamation. How about you? Have you come to a point in your journey with Christ where the stunning goodness of his grace has so overwhelmed you that you can look at your unjust and difficult circumstances as vehicles that God could use to demonstrate and communicate the gospel to others?
2. The second joy-fueling attitude is “God’s Mission is More Important than My Comfort”. Paul describes to the Philippians how God is using his chains as tools for gospel advance, not gospel retreat. It reminds us of how our natural human perspectives often have wired us to see trials and obstacles as hindrances and hurdles which keep us from talking about Jesus. Where many of us would be intimidated into silence by the presence of a battle-hardened Roman soldier, Paul was excited for the opportunity to share Christ with another fallen sinner created in the image of God. Chains and prison locks could never diminish the missionary heart of Paul. He knew every morning that God was bringing him someone else who had never heard the good news of Christ. So, when you read Philippians, you do not read about the uncomfortable conditions, you read about the evangelistic opportunities. This is because God’s mission was more important than Paul’s comfort. Too often as believers we are pushed into gospel silence by much less than what Paul was dealing with. Once we experience the least bit of resistance or discomfort, our mouths usually dry up. We may begin a gospel conversation and the other person takes a shot about “Christians who try to force their morality” and we quickly transition to a different subject. Or, we encounter a spiritual question we cannot quickly answer, so we decide to leave the witnessing up to those who are “smarter” than us and just let the goodness of our lives tell others about Jesus. Gospel conversations are not comfortable. When we attempt to tell others about Jesus, we are entering the arena of spiritual warfare. Of course it will be uncomfortable. But, the mission of God is more important than our comfort.
3. A final joy-fueling attitude Paul demonstrates is “God, Use This to Christ’s Glory, Not Mine”. Whether facing the unjust imprisonment of a Roman government or the unjust attack of those who were supposedly brothers in Christ, Paul doesn’t resort to defensiveness, retribution, or pity. Instead, he has learned that true joy comes from seeking the greater glory of Jesus Christ over the fleeting glory of temporal lives. Paul knows that God often uses our trials and hardships as the canvass on which he displays the glory of Jesus Christ. Paul also knows that whether it’s 30 days or 30 years, one day Paul will be gone but Jesus Christ and the gospel will remain. So, isn’t it better to live our lives as an arrow pointing to the glory of Christ rather than a conduit pointing to the glory of us? This same attitude was expressed by missionary Jim Elliot in his journal when he wrote, “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God!”. Elliot knew that the Great Commission call of Christ meant that every tribe was worthy of hearing the gospel, even the savage Auca Indians of Ecuador who had violently resisted every attempt by outsiders to engage them. Yet, Elliot and his friends pressed on, certain that they needed to hear Christ and would one day embrace Him. While those five men were brutally killed for being obedient to Christ, Jesus used their death and the subsequent attempts by the families of the missionaries to continue to engage, to eventually bring the gospel to them. Whether the gospel is transmitted through prison chains or spears, Christ can use anything for his glory as long as we look to him and not the glory of ourselves.
What would it take in your life for you to develop on “only that Christ is proclaimed” mentality? What attitudes does God need to refine in you which cause you to look to the difficulty of your circumstances rather than the opportunities to proclaim Jesus? Where is God calling you today to walk in deeper faith and confidence in Him?