12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.
15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. (Philippians 1:12-19 NRSV)
This fall we’re working our way through Paul’s letter to the Church of Philippi. Last week we covered Paul introduction and prayer for the Philippian Church. We caught a glimpse of the three key themes of the letter (koinonia [partnership], the Lordship of Jesus, and the encouragement to be confident in the ongoing work begun by God which he will see through to completion). In this next part, Paul presents us with some details about his own situation, and two questions come up which we will look at here.
First, is Paul saying we should all risk arrest or death for the sake of the Gospel?
Well, in short, no. That is where he has landed, and it has produced the effect of advance of the gospel. His chains have produced an opportunity for the Gospel to be brought to new people. His imprisonment identified him as belonging to Christ; as one who confessed that Jesus is Lord.
But Paul is not saying everyone should sign up to be arrested and possibly executed for their faith. In fact, even though Paul himself and almost all the early apostles ended up meeting violent ends, we have to realize that it actually was not the norm for Christians. We have this picture of Romans rounding up every Christian and throwing them into the arena with lions, or finding some other gruesome end for Christians.
Historians will tell you that this wasn’t really the case. Most Christians actually went on living their lives. They raised kids, had jobs, etc. Persecution of Christians happened, but it was usually localized (specific cities) and temporary. Much of our thinking about the martyrs of the early church comes from a later time- the 3rd century, which is when there were brief times of almost empire wide persecution (during the reigns of Decius, Valerian and Diocletian). But the first century saw less persecution that the 3rd. Actually, the first century saw fewer martyrs than the 20th. In verse 19, Paul even states he expects he will be released. Paul is not advocating for martyrdom (by the way, check out Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, [IVP 2013] for good discussion on Empire and Early Christianity. My review of said book is here).
What Paul is really saying is that his struggles have furthered the spread of the gospel. That’s his struggle. It may not be for everyone. In fact, most Christians are called to live lives of almost complete tedious anonymity. Christians is many places in the first century continued to live life with little or no fear of consequence. This imprisonment is not set as an ideal evangelistic strategy. Instead Paul is saying that in spite of the difficulties, God is at work to advance the work of the Gospel.
Our context is of course very different from Paul’s. The possibility of arrest was there is Paul’s time. Paul was in chains, but found in that situation an opportunity to make the gospel known. This doesn’t mean we should look to get arrested, or that we should romanticize the martyrs, but what it can do to encourage us, almost 2000 years later, is to ask the question, where has God placed me, and how can the gospel become known in the place where I am now. What can my workplace, my home, my community groups, the coffee shop produce in terms of opportunity to share the gospel.
There’s a story of a revivalist preacher, who received a letter from a woman who had been at one of his preaching events. She was encouraged, and filled with desire. She wrote to the preacher saying I am filled with this sense of a call to preach. I want to tell people the gospel, and have some itinerant preaching ministry. But I have 12 children, so I am unable to go out and travel from place to place to preach. The preacher wrote back saying “I am so glad that God has placed this desire on your heart to share the gospel. I am even more glad that he has provided you with an audience.”
We have to refrain from idealizing certain evangelistic “celebrities” or certain evangelistic trends. We often think of the wonderful scenes of well known preachers speaking to large audiences, stadiums full of people and then putting out the offer to come receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour and countless folks coming down the aisles, and we think that’s the way it should go; that’s evangelism. Those guys are the epitome of what a good gospel servant looks like. But Paul says no, absolutely not. That is one way. It doesn’t have to look that way. Gospel service, and Kingdom building can come in all sorts of forms. Don’t put preachers on pedestals. Please don’t.
Paul is not saying that his “accomplishments” should be admired, nor is he looking for sympathy. Instead, what he is saying is our work is advancing the gospel. You see, when people in Paul’s era wrote letters there was a typical format. You know, back in school you were taught the different types of letters (business, or personal) and you had a certain way of structuring it. You put your address, the date the senders address and a “Dear Sir/Madam”. The was an typical structure to letters in the Roman world. The format for Paul’s culture was sender, recipient, salutation (usually charein, grace or blessing to you), prayer for the recipient, then “I want you to know…” then the sender would fill in some personal business, the “here’s what’s happening in my life” stuff. But notice something here (an in most of Paul’s letters), Paul gives very few details about what is actually happening to him. There is no, here’s how they’re treating me, or the food here sucks, or anything about his own business.
Instead, his focus is everything that has happened, is advancing the gospel. He doesn’t talk about himself, but hey, check out how the gospel is spreading. “Instead of reporting how he was doing, Paul talks about how the gospel is doing” (Thielman, Philippians [NIVAC], 63). Or as Karl Barth comments, “To the question how it is with him, the Apostle must react with information as to how it is with the Gospel” (quoted in Thielman, 63). The progress of the Gospel matters far more than his own concerns, his own fame, his own security. He wants his context (chains) to be an opportunity for the Gospel to advance. So we should ask ourselves, how can our context (not chains) be an opportunity for the Gospel to advance?
His mention of imprisonment was meant to encourage the Christians of Philippi, who were facing opposition (not clear from whom), and were at risk of higher levels of opposition. In sharing his sufferings, he is not glorifying his own situation. He isn’t bragging or saying you all need to be more life me. In fact he says quite the opposite. He says keep up what you’re doing. The way you are responding speaks volumes about your love of the Gospel.
Remember the koinonia or partnership theme? Paul calls his Philippian friends partners in the Gospel, and says that they share in his sufferings. By loving and caring for and supporting Paul they partner with him. They don’t literally experience the same, but by their compassion they are part of Paul’s work. We find out as we read the letter that the Philippians sent Epaphroditus with aid and encouragement to Paul. They have kept up their support. They have continued the ministry he began in Macedonia. By doing this, it means Paul’s work was not just his. They are all in the task of sharing the light of the Gospel in the darkness of a world marred by sin.
So when Paul writes, he warns them, hey being in Christ has the potential to be risky, depending on where you are and how you do it. Paul says that his chains have emboldened those who preach in the city he is in. Scholars have some debates over where Paul is when writing to the Philippians. The traditional view is that it’s when he is in Rome awaiting trial which will ultimately end in execution. Others have said it is during an earlier imprisonment, perhaps at Ephesus, Corinth or Caesarea (see “Philippians, Letter to the” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters [IVP, 1993], 709-10 for the various views).
In this section Paul mentions the Praetorian Guard (NIV “palace guard”, NRSV “imperial guard”), which would mean Rome makes the most sense. The Praetorian was the personal army of the Emperor. But they did go where Caesar went, and had stations at other Imperial palaces around the Empire. And in Acts we also read about Herod’s Praetorian. So, it may not be the Praetorian (Caesar’s body guards in Rome), but could in theory refer to the a praetorian (palace guard) of a local ruler, or a contingent of the Praetorian posted elsewhere.
But if Paul is in Rome, and the Emperors private troops are finding out about Jesus, that has significant implications. The Praetorian Guard had incredible power in Roman politics. In fact, during the time of the earliest Church, the Praetorians intervened, and deposed and killed the Emperor Caligula and selected the next Emperor, Claudius. They also were responsible for the death of the Emperor Galba, and Otho came to power with their backing.
So, these folks with access to the Emperor, have become aware of the Gospel which Paul was preaching. This, Paul argues is encouraging the local believers. Paul doesn’t say whether the Praetorian folks are favourable to Jesus. He only says they know Paul is in custody because of his service to Jesus.
But Paul says the Christians where he is are encouraged, and the Philippians should be too. Paul mentions opposition (he doesn’t specify who is opposing the work of the Church, so we can’t be certain Paul is speaking of Roman opposition and not local folks who just don’t like what they see, or internal conflicts like in Galatia where folks in the Church are preventing the Gospel from having effect). But it is safe to assume, especially given the context of Philippi, that Paul’s friends are concerned about the potential backlash against Christians from those loyal to the Roman Imperial powers. But Paul is convinced that his presence among folks close to the powers that be, will mean that the Christians in Philippi can have confidence that God will take care of things, and ensure that no matter what happens, the Gospel will go out, and advance, and that’s the primary concern.
The second question is, what about these folks who preach the gospel for nefarious purposes?
Are they still preaching the gospel? Paul wasn’t talking about people who twist the gospel and preach something inaccurate. Paul elsewhere makes it clear he has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to perverting the gospel (see Galatians). Here, Paul is addressing groups who speak the same message but for different reasons. Some are preaching out of envy- they want to be like Paul and other preachers, and some are preaching out of rivalry, to outdo him.
We see, even today, what some call “Steeple Envy”- pastors competing to create a larger congregation, bragging about the number of Baptisms, and the plan to build a bigger sanctuaries to hold all the faithful coming to hear them preach; you know the big Bs of Church success- butts in the pews, bricks in the building, and bucks in the bank. Pastors who tout their successes and “blessings” and anointing of God should warn us. But Paul suggests that sometimes, even when these things are happening, the Gospel is still being preached accurately, and people are hearing it, and responding to it, and that’s not entirely bad. It isn’t entirely good either. We shouldn’t make the Gospel an opportunity for competition. Evangelism isn’t about notches on our belts or gold stars on our charts. It’s not a “win more for Jesus than anyone else”, but “your Kingdom come”. It is not me who converts. Jesus makes all things new, not me. My role in that is to be faithful with what is in front of me, and to let the Gospel be central.
Paul’s concern is “how is it with the Gospel?” He is not concerned with who’s winning more souls. If people are preaching to get gold stars, then so be it. If the Gospel is advancing, good. If their competitiveness is blocking the Gospel than let’s do something about it. But Paul is saying that he is willing to be less of a celebrity; not only willing, but thrilled if his lack of celebrity advances the work of the Gospel.
This is not to say it’s a good thing to have preachers out there looking for fame. In 2:3 Paul says they should do nothing out of selfish ambition. The one who preaches out of selfishness should stop, but the hearers who receive the gospel are no less Christian because the messenger is a jerk. Paul isn’t happy that these preachers are jerks, but he is happy that in spite of their jerkiness, the gospel is being heard, and advancing.
We have to recognize that in our culture motives matter. Almost as much a the content, people want to know “what’s your agenda here buddy?” Too many people have been burned by slick preachers who have preyed on well meaning people, and duped them out of their money or beaten them down with shame tactics. Too many preachers live in mansions, and drive nice cars, and wear custom tailored suits (I don’t have the problem of people seeing my wardrobe and thinking I’m getting rich from this preaching thing). Too many congregants feel they aren’t “spiritual enough” because they lack those idealized achievements of souls won, and material blessings overflowing.
I would say that the present more than most periods of history, people are so wary of hidden agendas. Content sometimes takes a back seat to intent. People want to know why you’re offering something, not just what are you offering. So, our motivations are under scrutiny. Are we inviting people in because we want their tithes and offerings, or because we are convinced that God is in pursuit of people to tackle them with grace and love. Are we really wanting people to come and encounter the extravagant love of God which is available through Jesus? Are we interested in statistics and bottom lines, or are we focused on grace and mercy? Are we offering the free gift of Christ, or a bait and switch? “Ha ha, now you have to tithe and be on a committee.”
Are we in this for us and our own status and comfort, or for the Gospel? Are we extending an open hand of grace or just an open hand?
Paul’s focus is always away from himself and towards the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Notoriety was somewhat thrust upon him. The Jewish tent-maker from Tarsus somehow got on the radar of the Roman authorities. He walked into Philippi, talked about Jesus with some Jewish women by the river, and then somehow out of that springs this movement in Macedonia that makes the powers that be unhappy. It’s a really remarkable thing. And throughout all his struggles and in the midst of this uphill battle against the most powerful system the world had known, Paul’s question wasn’t how is it with me, but how is it with the Gospel? Whether things are going terribly for me or not, I find peace, and joy beyond my circumstances when I see how it is with the Gospel. Because we know that in the Gospel, he is making all things new, and if it is well with the Gospel, it can be well with us.