“But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” (Philippians 1:12-18)
Maybe you were running a winding race, taking an arduous class, working on a demanding project, or involved in another challenging feat when the obstacle itself roared ferociously and demanded you to quit or produce some persistence. Persistence, endurance — call it what you will — is staying firm in a course of action against all conflict. When the battle arises, those who call up persistence and bring it to the front line of combat will not share the shame of the deserter who can’t muster up this decisive element of victory. And nothing turns up persistence quite like self-forgetfulness — the freedom of having no thought of self or self-interest of any kind. After all, an exhausted runner who cannot forget about the burn in his or her lungs, the wobbling of their knees, or how good it would feel to just lay across their bed is likely to fold up and collapse, face down in the dirt, even before the finish line — as do so many Christians in this age who run the race with themselves in mind and not the actual goal: the Gospel.
Few people in Scripture had as great of a concern for the sake of the Gospel as did the founding apostle of the Philippian church, Paul. Philippi was a prime place to begin a work being considered by the known world to be a “miniature Rome.” It reminded its citizens and visitors of the imperial city on a smaller scale. The miniature Rome was founded by the father of Alexander the Great, Philip II, and was situated just 10 miles inland from Neapolis (modern day Kavala), a busy port city in the region of Macedonia.
The founding of the church in Philippi was supernatural. Through a vision of a man asking Paul for help in Macedonia, God sent Paul there to begin doing the work of the Gospel. A wealthy woman by the name of Lydia met and Paul his companions by a river one day and was converted and baptized. Almost immediately after, her whole household converted and was baptized and it was in their home that the church originated. Paul’s ministry was effective in Philippi — to say the least. On one occasion, Paul cast a devil out of a fortuneteller, was jailed for it, and was released from prison by a miraculous earthquake. This demonstration of God’s power ended up transforming the heart of the jailer who was present. Before the night was over, the jailer’s whole house had become followers of Christ. Demonstrations of God’s love and power authenticate those representing it, which make for faithful and beloved followers, such as those who had become part of the Philippian Church. And perhaps this is why they were distressed over Paul’s most recent dilemma — incarceration in Rome!
Word had gotten around that the apostle had fallen into some unforeseen trouble and was now in prison in Rome. And that he was. The Philippians never imagined that the bold apostle, whom God had miraculously delivered from prison at least once before (in their own town), would ever be held up in house arrest, in chains, awaiting his verdict. Well, how come God isn’t delivering Paul this time? Did Paul do something wrong? How does Paul feel about his bonds? Has this imprisonment changed Paul’s thinking about the Lord and His ways? These and other similar inquires were being asked by the Philippian church. And in times of distress, such questions make perfect sense to ask. After all, have you ever experienced a mighty deliverance from God only to wonder where He is the next time trouble comes knocking? You may wonder Why isn’t God moving as fast as he did last time? Is He sleeping? Am I praying wrong? What’s the hold up? And so the Philippians sent Epaphroditus with a letter to Rome to find out.
When Epaphroditus located Paul what he witnessed was shocking: not only was he incarcerated but he was chained night and day to a Roman solider. And not just any solider, but the Roman Praetorian! These were hardened soldiers, rude legionaries, unsympathetic pagans, a group of 9,000 Imperial guards (the official bodyguards of the emperor)! And here had their apostle ended up, arm to arm with the most unlikely candidates for salvation, separated at all times by only 18 inches of cold metal. Who would have ever expected this? Oh, the soldiers got a break from the smothering environment. They came, they went, they rotated in and punched out. But never a break for Paul, he was host to the never-ending merry-go round of Caesar’s confinement. But with every change of the guard, the Gospel had a chance to enter into yet another life. And in this case, the lives of the honored Pretorian soldiers who were later termed “Kingmakers” for after they served for 12 years they were granted higher honors, achieved political affluence, and often played an intricate part of choosing the next emperor. But now before this, they had to spend some time chained to the Gospel. This was far from Paul’s own plan- he could never have set this up himself, only God. Sometimes our own planning is just too obvious. God often has a different plan and its submission to this plan that we need, not deliverance from it. And we need to be OK with that: after all are we in it for us or for Him? Is this our show or His?
It’s imperative how we handle trouble and the unforeseen deterrents that blindside us unexpectedly. True today as it was back then: people watch when were in trouble. They want to see how we handle it for that is what authenticates or abnegates a man, for indeed a man is truest to himself when that man is standing alone. And as it was, Paul had to stand-alone for more reasons now than just his chains. The brethren there in Rome, whom he had written to several years prior (the letter now known as Romans), were not showing him a very commendable degree of help in his chains. The pro-Paul group in the church had stopped showing him support. They were afraid that they would end up in that prison, right next to him. Well, if it could happen to Paul, it sure could happen to us! they must have thought. Nero was on his rise to lunacy. Preaching was now a dangerous venture and Paul’s case was the proof. Their witness cooled and their testimony became solely a practice amongst each other. And Paul heard very little, if ever at all from them. And the anti-Paul group in the church, those who despite his letter weren’t yet convinced that food and circumcision had nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, innately thought, uh-huh, you see? Here he is preaching the wrong things and look where it has gotten him! To them his chains were their validation. But the lonely Paul persisted, manned his post, and to everyone’s shock his peril started to turn around!
Of course, at first, the soldiers disdained Paul. Naturally in their assumed thinking, he was an enemy of Rome. But as time went by, this illusion began to gradually change. The soldiers listened to Paul as he talked with friends who came to visit, mused over the words he dictated to his secretary when writing to churches elsewhere, and wondered when he called out to God in prayer. The guards began to ask questions, not out of skepticism, but fired from an ever-increasing inquisitiveness-the one that naturally comes when they realize someone is not who they believed them to be at first. It was starting to become clear to the Roman Pretorian that this man was not in jail because of his crimes. He was in jail because of the Christ he served. His patience, his gentleness, the graciousness by which he spoke and the humility through which he served, bore witness to every guard that knew him. He never complained. It was obvious he was a different kind of soldier-a solider for Christ. And before long, the guards that Jesus bled and died for were beginning to convert and follow Jesus because of the apostle’s rock-steady example. More so, the things they were learning from Paul began to spread-from guard to guard, to their families, to the rest of the Roman world, and yes, even to Caesar’s household! Paul’s chains, which everyone else jeered and despised, became the very thing that God used to cause the Gospel to grow!
What a situation this what turning out to be! Here Paul was single-handedly, with the help of the Spirit, infiltrating Rome with the Gospel, from the inside out! What volumes this spoke to the pro-Paul party! It sparked within them an extra-ordinary boldness. They quit being concerned about Nero’s suspicion. They realized that if Paul could have success in chains they could have just as much success or more, being free. Paul’s chains became a spark plug, if you will, igniting a bold witness once again in the hearts of the Roman believers. A revival in the Gospel cause, with a man in chains leading the charge! With the new move came a heightened sense of prominence. Paul’s name was now becoming known in the house of peasants and magistrates and everything else in between.
The anti-Paul party in Roman church responded differently-they grew jealous of him. You see, the church at Rome existed before Paul had ever even written to them prior to his incarceration. The teachers there had attained a level of their own prominence amongst their peers and brothers. Paul’s letter had turned some of their beliefs about the law upside down and detracted from their standing. Now, this episode concerning the Roman Praetorian’s steady conversion was the ultimate blow to their popularity. Paul had become the big shot in town and these teachers grew envious of Paul’s victories, giftedness, and this new mission he was accomplishing. To respond they did what any driven individual might do: compete. Their motivation for preaching became a personal battle against the apostle. Yea, they weren’t Judaizes or those with poor doctrine and they did herald the same message and exercise the ambassadorship as Paul. But their motive was different: they were out to prove something for their own sake to spite the man in bonds.
Could the Philippians have ever imagined all of this was going on in Rome at the time? Do you think Lydia or the Philippian jailor ever thought that Paul could turn Rome upside down the way he did Philippi? In regard to the Philippian’s inquiries contained in the letter which Epaphroditus had brought, the intelligent apostle knew that their real interest was going to be in his perspective of the situation and he sought to address it. Anybody with themselves in mind might write back, I ended up in prison and oh, those fellow believing dirt bags didn’t help me once! They have no idea what I have been through and now they are preaching the Gospel in spite of me! What a bunch of heartless scoundrels, kicking me while I am down! Maybe you can relate? Have you ever had a moment where you have done something for the Kingdom, endured something privately for the sake of Christ, and a fellow believer has spited you for it? And later you hear or see that person telling another person about the Lord! Wouldn’t it be natural to say within your heart, Oh if that person only knew what a hypocrite they are dealing with! It can be enough to make one want to quit! But such cogitations are those of a person who hasn’t begun employing self-forgetfulness. A self-forgetful servant of the Lord would consider any gain for the Gospel progress, no matter the situation or motive.
In Paul’s mind, the opposition, the incarceration, the jealousy-they were all pawns in the grand scheme of God’s master plan to advance the cause of the Gospel. It wasn’t a morbid “thank God for all things, including my punishment” mentality. That wasn’t part of Paul’s theology, nor should it be part of ours. It was more profound than that. In his perspective, he saw how God could take even his unfortunate chains and the jealous motives of his fellow brothers and still use them to reach the known-world for Christ. Though he is not in the situation of his choosing, he is getting the results of his choosing. And he never complained because he was fully satisfied because his passion wasn’t himself but the Gospel. Hence the reason Paul wrote back to the Philippians that the things which have happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel. And with that Paul set the record straight! He was not in prison because God was mad at him or because he didn’t have enough faith or because he was a heretic or harboring some secret sin. It was because his imprisonment was all playing out to advance the heart of God: redemption. And he wasn’t mad and wasn’t ready to quit. If anything, he had more endurance than ever to press on! So what if I am in chains? My chains are setting people free! So what if they are jealous of me! It motivates them to tell people about Jesus! It isn’t about the chains or the motivation of the jealous! It is about one thing: have they heard about the Lord and Christ? And if my perils are bringing this about, than He is Mighty!-the unselfish thinking of a man obsessed with the cause of Christ.
And so when Epaphroditus returned back to the “miniature Rome” and gathered the band of believers who had been birthed in the miraculous, the faithful courier had another great lesson for them that was just as supernatural as the rumbling earth dramatic exorcisms: self-forgetfulness which breeds persistence which always turns into victory. How timely for a church that was currently experiencing their own struggle and opposition.
What about you? Has righteousness caused you some woes? Has your obedience stirred up the opposition, maybe even in those on the same side promoting the same cause? Don’t say you are ready to quit now! Muster up some persistence! Today, practice forgetting about yourself and give no more time to pondering the reason for your chains or the motives of those against you. Let God ponder all that. Instead ask the Lord to give you a fresh perspective, to align your thoughts with the bigger picture, to take you to a new altitude so you can see what it is all really working towards. If you respond this way you might be surprised how much progress God will make through you, in spite of your present condition. So pick up your head and carry on. Your world awaits the Good News you have for them.