Philippians (3) For the furtherance of the gospel
Philippians (3) For the furtherance of the gospel
The things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12, KJV).
On the face of things, Paul’s imprisonment in Rome must have been deeply perplexing to both himself and the church at Philippi. By every human criterion his itinerant apostolic ministry was of strategic importance to the progress of the gospel, and now here he was, languishing in a Roman prison, his voice silenced.
Were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances, many thoughts would rush through our minds. Was this a divine chastisement? A rejection of our ministry? A divine declaration of our uselessness and irrelevance?
There have been many such moments in the history of the church: moments when voices on whom great hopes rested were suddenly silenced; the martyrdom of William Tyndale, for example in 1536, when the Reformation was still hanging on a knife-edge; the premature death, as we would see it, of men like Henry Scougal or Henry Martyn or Robert Murray McCheyne or Douglas MacMillan or Murdo Alex MacLeod; the sudden removal of some key leader in a local congregation; a disabling illness which leaves a gifted Christian suddenly reduced to a sense of utter uselessness.
But no such sense of frustration and bewilderment appears to have struck the imprisoned St Paul. Instead, though he had now been a prisoner for years, his confidence in God’s overriding purpose continued unabated. God had put him there for ‘the furtherance of the gospel,’ and this had already been confirmed in two ways.
First, all the soldiers of the imperial guard (the praetorium) had come to know the reasons for his imprisonment. He had not been arrested as a common criminal. His chains were ‘in Christ,’ or, as he puts it in his letter to their sister church in Ephesus, he was ‘Christ’s prisoner on behalf of the Gentiles’ (Eph. 3:1). Not Caesar’s, but Christ’s! It is easy to imagine that the presence of this unusual prisoner had caused a buzz among the soldiers and while many, inevitably, would have seen him as a religious crackpot, others were clearly led to ask deeper questions, particularly about the strange God this prisoner worshipped. Who was this ‘Christ’ or ‘Chrestus’ (the first form of Jesus’ name to appear in Roman literature)?
We may be sure, too, that Paul took full opportunity of such questions to speak the word of the Lord to the guards, just as he had done to the jailer whose story (Acts 16:30-32) all the saints at Philippi would know full well, and who would doubtless be one of the congregation when they gathered to hear his letter read. But Paul did more than merely describe or explain the gospel. He defended it (verse 16), giving the soldiers cogent reasons to believe his message: including, no doubt, what he had seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears on the Damascus Road,
Secondly, Paul’s circumstances had galvanised those in Rome who were already Christians. By this time they were a well-established church, and a few years earlier they had been the honoured recipients of the greatest of all apostolic epistles. Now, encouraged (literally ‘persuaded’) by Paul’s bonds, and hugely emboldened, they were speaking the word without fear (verse14). That took real courage. Rome was no safe place to proclaim another Lord, rival to Caesar. But still they spoke as people without fear. They were indeed partakers of Paul’s own grace (verse 7).
Yet precisely at this point Paul faced another trial. Not all the preachers preached from pure motives. Even in the infant church there was no universal goodwill towards the Apostle’s life and doctrine. Some, understanding that the apostle had been put where he was in order to advance the gospel, did indeed love him, and preached out of that love, encouraging him by continuing the work he could no longer do. Others, however (and they, too, members of the church), preached out of envy, canvassing for their own party, and aiming only to pile further pressure (thlipsis) on the Apostle.
It is a strange contradiction, that the gospel of love and peace should be preached out of envy and strife, and that a party of Christians should make it their object to crush the spirit of a suffering believer. But it is by no means rare: ‘Religious teaching often aims more at the discomfiture of those who dissent from us than at bringing men to Christ.’ (Alfred Plummer, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, p. 23)
Clearly, the sort of divisions which marred the life of the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10-17) were manifesting themselves in Rome as well. Equally clearly, however, Paul does not view these partisans in the same light as he did the Judaisers who had infested the churches of Galatia: they were not preaching ‘another gospel’ (Gal. 1:6). Had they been doing do, Paul would not have ‘rejoiced’ (verse 18): he would have openly resisted them. But they were preaching Christ, and for Paul that was the one criterion that mattered. It was not their teaching that was wrong, but their spirit. They were preaching the truth from motives of personal rivalry, or even, as verse 17 puts it, ‘to stir up fresh trouble for me as I lie in prison’ (New English Bible).
There are three things to note here. First, Paul doesn’t assess the situation by its impact on himself, shrugging it off with the negative, ‘They’re not doing me any arm.’ He assesses it by what it means for Christ and the gospel. He looks for the positive, and rejoices because despite all that’s happening to him, Christ is being preached and the gospel really (verse 12) is being advanced: not simply ‘not hindered’, but ‘advanced.’ Were it not being advanced, but merely holding its own, there could be no rejoicing, only a divine spark of discontent.
Secondly, there is here a deeper paradox than Paul's rejoicing. There is the fact that God was blessing the message, his message, even when it was preached in a bad spirit and from unworthy motives. The gospel has such power that the shortcomings of the messenger can never annul it. What a mercy that is! Where would we be if God blessed only the preaching of the pure in spirit!
Thirdly, what is preached is always more important than how it is preached; content more important than method, and even more important than motives; the message more important than the medium, and even more important than the messenger. The history of the church abounds with examples of men who preached Christ and yet came under fire from other Christians who didn’t like the way they were doing it. 18th century Scottish Seceders banned George Whitefield from their pulpits because he also preached in Church of Scotland ones; London’s Hyper-Calvinists kept up a relentless criticism of C H Spurgeon because he was too free with the gospel offer; many engaged in a pamphlet war against the American evangelist D L Moody because they didn’t like his methods; many today dismiss preachers because they’re either too ‘modern’ or not ‘modern’ enough. But preaching is not a matter of taste. St Paul would have asked but one question, ‘Are they preaching Christ?’
D L Moody is said to have replied to one of his critics with the remark, ‘I prefer the way I evangelise badly to the way you don’t evangelise at all.’ This doesn’t mean that every brilliant communicator or entertaining preacher is to be welcomed uncritically, or that St Paul would have warmly endorsed every modern tele-evangelist, any more than he endorsed the ‘super apostles’ at Corinth. But the paramount question remains, Is Christ being preached? Are we proclaiming his redeeming blood, albeit with ‘poor, lisping, stammering tongues.’
It is redemption, and not the incarnation, glorious though it is, that constitutes the heart of Christianity; and today, more than ever, that is the citadel we have to defend.