The Progress of the Gospel
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Philippians 1:12–26
“THE PROGRESS OF THE GOSPEL”
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes and I will 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, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
The name John Bunyan is familiar to many of us because we have either read or heard of his best-known book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. What you may or may not know is that Bunyan wrote his Christian allegory during a twelve-year imprisonment. His “crime” was repeatedly defying the Church of England and preaching what was at that time considered to have been “non-conformist” message. In other words, he preached the Gospel.
Twelve years in prison can either embitter a man or reveal a depth of character that is able to sustain him and allow him to be a source of strength and encouragement to others. Because Bunyan had entered his jail cell having a firm conviction that “Jesus Christ is Lord” and the Gospel is real, he utilized what some men would considered to have been “lost years” and became a prolific writer, producing works that have blessed the Church for four centuries. It has been said concerning the legacy that he has left that “Nothing glorifies God more than maintaining our joy when we lose everything but God.”
Bunyan is not alone in that regard. The throng of Christian soldiers who have been persecuted and martyred continues to grow with every passing year. Jesus had forewarned that following Him would come at a great cost, and that those who enter the fray had better be willing to see it through to its completion. Turning back is not an option, no matter how difficult the circumstances will be or how intense the opposition may become. As strange as it may seem to modern sensibilities, afflictions and persecutions are the means by which the Lord is building His church.
Paul’s missionary travels had taken him to the Macedonian city of Philippi (cf. Acts 16:6-40). There he and his companions preached the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. Some of the local residents responded to the Savior in faith and a church was begun. But it took a night’s confinement in the city jail for momentum to build and the church in Philippi to be planted.
As Paul and his team journeyed onward, his heart began longing to go to Rome where he might—if God so willed—take the Gospel to the seat of the world’s most powerful government (cf. Acts 19:21, Romans 1:15). He hoped to go to Rome as a preacher, but instead—as Providence would have it—he went as a prisoner. The 21st through 28th chapters of Acts provide a detailed record of that experience: repeated trials, a dangerous sea voyage, and a drawn-out incarceration as he waited to plead his case to the Emperor.
The believers in Philippi had heard about Paul’s imprisonment and were greatly concerned for his well-being. Writing from his confinement, he could have composed a lengthy letter chronicling those circumstances and asking for sympathy. Instead, he summed up his trials with the single statement that we find in verse 12, calling them simply, “that which has happened to me.” His most immediate concern for writing this letter was to ease their anxiety over him, and the most important message he sought to convey was that it was possible—for both him and them—to rejoice during the most difficult of times.
The apostle understood that, even though it was he who experienced them, his present circumstances were not primarily about him. The ministry is never about a man...it is always about “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Paul had become a living demonstration of that truth as the passage before us reveals. It is here that we read of his chains in verses 12-14, his critics in verses 15-18, and his crisis in verses 19 through 26. All would appear to have been “roadblocks” in Paul’s ministry, but with each he finds reason to “rejoice.”
Let’s explore these one at a time, starting with...
Paul’s ability to rejoice in the midst of confinement (verses 12-14).
Back in verse 7, he had expressed to the Philippians his gratitude for their having stood by him during the time of his “imprisonment.” Now here in verses 12 through 14 he elaborates on his circumstances...not to generate sympathy, but instead to demonstrate how the Lord actually employs our most difficult and trying times in order to carry out His providential plan.
Listen again to how the apostle expressed it: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” The word for “advance” (“προκοπτω”) was used of an army “progressing forward” and “pressing the battle.” One commentator refers to it as a “pioneer advance into previously unclaimed territory.” Paul was consciously aware that the Lord was using his “imprisonment” to “advance (the cause of) the gospel,” especially in areas where it had not yet been preached. He, in fact, tells us elsewhere that it has always been his “ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest (he) build on someone else’s foundation” (cf. Romans 15:20). The Lord is still calling the Church into the “unreached fields” of the world today. As we go—and I pray that we do—we can be confident that the Lord will have a people prepared to hear and respond to the message we bring (cf. Acts 18:10).
Paul based his confidence on two observable outcomes. First, his chains gave him contact with the lost. Verse 13 tells us that the Gospel had “become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to the rest.” His “imprisonment” was not an “unwelcome interruption” to God’s sovereign plan, but rather a means of accomplishing that plan. The “imperial guard” were elite Roman soldiers whose assignment was to guard the royal palace and its adjoining barracks where troops were stationed. The “rest” that he mentions may have included soldiers of lesser rank, and possibly even servants of Caesar’s household. Whoever they were, they became aware that Paul’s “imprisonment” was “for Christ.” Actually, the text reads “in Christ” (“εν Χριστω”). He was incarcerated because he was “in Christ.” Rare is the occasion when identification with Jesus does not comes at a price.
Paul’s second reason for confidence in his chains was that they brought courage for the saved. Verse 14 says that “Most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” The testimonies of those who place themselves at risk for the sake of the Gospel—some who are persecuted, some who are imprisoned and tortured, some who are martyred—should not only move our hearts to compassion and prayer, but move our feet, our hands, and our lips to fearlessly take the Good News to those who have yet to hear it. Those who surrender their freedom or their lives in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel become role models for the rest of us.
Don’t be surprised when and by what means the Lord may place you in the company of unbelievers to tell them about Him. Because of Paul’s chains, Christ was made known. The Gospel was everything to him, which is why he could rejoice amidst his confinement.
In verses 15 through 18, we read about...
Paul’s ability to rejoice in the face of criticism (verses 15-18).
Even in Paul’s day Christians didn’t always agree with one another. He certainly had his share of critics. At times he was forced to defend his apostleship (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-2), and at other times he was compared unfavorably with other ministers of the Word (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). When the purity of the Gospel was at risk, he rendered harsh and condemning words to those who had perverted the message (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). But that does not appear to have been what was happening here.
In the verses before us, Paul differentiates between those who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry” from “others from good will.” It was not the content of the message but the character and motive of the messenger that was at stake. The reason other ministers of the Word would oppose Paul is uncertain. Perhaps they didn’t like his abruptness. Maybe they were jealous of his notoriety. Or it could have been that they questioned his claim to have been an apostle because he certainly didn’t seem to be “prospering” in a manner they thought a “true” apostle would. Whatever the reason, they were clearly antagonistic toward him.
The two competing groups are further described in verses 16 and 17. Paul’s proponents are said to have preached “out of love,” understanding God’s sovereign purpose behind his incarceration. He had been “put (t)here for the defense of the gospel,” and they would stand by him. On the other hand, his opponents “proclaim(ed) Christ out of selfish (or personal) ambition, not sincerely but thinking to” add to his affliction while being imprisoned. The New International Version reads, “supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” It’s hard to answer such charges when your hands are tied.
So what was Paul to do? How was he to mediate the conflict between the two groups of “evangelical preachers”? That was the dilemma he posed to himself, and he addressed it in verse 18: “What then?” His answer tends to evoke an initial surprise: “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
Really, Paul, where is your defense? Oh, wait, you talked about that in verse 16. Your task was to “defend the Gospel,” not yourself. While it is true that the messenger represents the message, and can either adorn it or discredit it, Paul is able—at least in this instance—to give thanks that content of the message itself was not being polluted.
Paul could write things like this because his theology was in good order. He had learned, by the grace of God, to see things from a larger perspective than his own. He was a man who had a single-minded passion for Christ and the ministry of Gospel. He realized that he owned neither, but was rather possessed by both. What a contrast to those in his day as well as ours, whose passion for the Gospel seems, more often than not, a passion for their own “correct” view of things. For Paul, there was a higher standard by which to assess the ministry of the Word. Every Gospel preacher and teacher must inevitably face God and account for the faithfulness of his ministry. That day will surely come, but for now Paul was willing to let the message go forth by whatever means.
There was an occasion when Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23), and another time when He said, “The one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). Clearly, the Lord was not contradicting Himself. So which is it? The well-known lines attributed to Augustine are perhaps helpful here: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things charity.” In other words, what is at stake?
For Paul, the answer was easy...it was the Gospel. As long as the message is correct and clear—in spite of the messenger—it can be used by God to reverse the course of a hell-bound sinner and to glorify His name. To borrow a line from Os Guinness, “Balaam’s ass was the patron saint of apologists” (cf. Numbers 22:21-35). God can and does use whatever means necessary to declare and defend His Word. Ministers of the Gospel are not at war with one another.
It is a matter of historical record that the two great English evangelists, John Wesley and George Whitefield, disagreed on doctrinal matters. Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist and Wesley was an Arminian. Both had fruitful ministries, preaching to thousands and leading many to Christ. One day someone asked Wesley if he expected to see Whitefield in heaven, and he replied, “No, I do not.” “Then you do not think Whitefield is a converted man?” “Of course he is a converted man,” Wesley answered. “But I do not expect to see him in heaven because he will be so close to the throne of God, and I so far from it, that I will not be able to see him!” Though the two men differed on some matters of doctrine, they both believed that a person was saved “by grace through faith in Christ. Throughout their lives, neither preached out of “envy...rivalry...selfish ambition...(or) pretense,” nor opposed the ministry of the other.
Paul, therefore, even in his confinement Paul could “rejoice” because the Gospel was being proclaimed, even by those who aligned themselves against him. Today, Baptists hold differing interpretive positions from other evangelical denominations on the ordinances. Even among other Baptists within our convention, we differ on styles of worship, Bible translations, and so on. There may even be some pastors with whose means and motives I may not fully agree, and who would not agree with mine. But, for those of us who believe the Gospel and preach it every Sunday, we can “rejoice” that “Christ is (being) proclaimed.”
Paul was able to rejoice in the midst of confinement and in the face of criticism. Now in verses 19 through 26, we see...
Paul’s ability to rejoice in the presence of crisis (verses 19-26).
Philippians is the most personal of Paul’s epistles, and these eight verses may be the most personal section in the entire letter. Sixteen times he employs the first-person singular pronoun (“I,” “me,” “my”). Attached to those pronouns are expressions of confident assurance, which he calls “eager expectation” in verse 20. It was a restful confidence, not in himself but in the fulfillment of what the Lord had promised to do.
For example, he says in verse 19, “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this (imprisonment) will turn out for my deliverance.” The “help” (“επιχοργια”) he mentions is a term found only twice in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:16 it is used in reference to the “support a ligament gives to the body.” It is the Holy Spirit who “supports” the ministry of every Gospel preacher.
The “deliverance” of which Paul speaks has nothing to do with his “release” from his “imprisonment,” but rather with the realization of his final “salvation” (“σωτηρια”). What is rarely noted in the expression, “this will turn out for my deliverance,” is that it is a verbatim quote from Job 13:16 as it appears in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. It is altogether likely that Paul had the context of that passage in mind when referencing his critics in the previous section, just as Job did when first citing this phrase.
Verse 20 through 24 are worth reading again and pausing to consider what is being indicated to have been the foundation of his unshakable confidence: “As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” What a statement! Paul is convinced that by “making much of Christ,” which is what this term for “honor” (“μεγαλυνω”) means, that he will be granted a future “hope” as well as a present “courage,” to endure whatever befalls him...“whether by life or by death.”
He elaborates, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” For Paul, death without Christ was “loss,” but with Christ was “great gain.” This ranks right up there with the most well-known sayings that the beloved apostle has left us. We often hear it read at the funeral service for a Christian, but here Paul is using it within the context of expecting to live.
“If I am to live,” he writes, and the grammar suggests a certainty that he will, “that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.” If Paul had his “choice”—which, of course he didn’t—he would be “hard pressed between the two” in deciding which state was preferable. The picture is that of being “hemmed in on both sides, and being unable to move one way or the other.” That, in itself, is a remarkable dilemma to have. For most of us, the choice wouldn’t be so hard. “Live or die. Let’s see, which shall I choose?”
His “desire” was “to depart (be ‘unloosed’, a euphemism for death) and be with Christ,” a situation that he described as “far better.” “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary (more needful) on your account.” One has to perhaps have a pastor’s heart to understand what the apostle is saying here. Were the Lord to have opened heaven’s gate to him at that very moment, Paul’s heart would have found it hard to leave behind the saints into whom he had poured his life. Writing on this passage, John Calvin said, “The only value in this (present) life is the welfare of others.” Few of us truly believe that, do we?
In either state—by life or by faith—Paul would be consciously with Christ. Of that he was fully persuaded. His submission to the will of the Lord and his intense love for his readers are what led him to conclude in verses 25 and 26, “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” The word for “progress” is the same one we saw in verse 12 and was there translated, “advance.” Even the prospect of his return to them was meant to elicit “joy” as they themselves “progressed” and persevered “in the faith.”
Such a desired and anticipated coming would give them “ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus.” Here the word “glory” (“καυχημα”) suggests a “supreme confidence”...that upon which one places his or her trust.
This kind of conviction was no idle speculation on Paul’s part, but a confident expectation that his ministry was not yet at an end. In verse 26, he is confident that there was more that the Lord had for him to do. Evidence from the Pastoral Epistles and church history suggests that he was released from this first of two Roman imprisonments and that he traveled back to Philippi before being apprehended, returned and incarcerated again in Rome, and on that occasion suffered a martyr’s death. Paul would die...but the Gospel would continue to spread.
Just as we saw that because of Paul’s chains, Christ was made known; and because of Paul’s critics, Christ was proclaimed; so we see that because of Paul’s crisis, Christ was exalted.
“Joy” will not come automatically when chains, critics, and crises enter our lives. Hearts need to be made right in Christ in order to experience it. As followers of Jesus, you and I should be encouraged to know that it is not only possible to “rejoice” during difficult times, but that “joy” is the product that comes to a heart that is right with God and a mind that is set on Jesus Christ.
I suppose every Christian would nod in affirmation to Paul’s memorable words found in verse 21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” But how often do out hearts and minds betray us through our actions and thoughts. Often for us it is, “For me to live is Christ—plus work, leisure, sports, relationships, accumulating wealth, and any number of other factors. And if the truth were known, it is all too often that “plus factor” that has become our primary passion.
“For to me to live is ______”...well, you go ahead and fill in the blank. But just remember that whatever you insert on that line will in time bear its own fruit.
- “For to me to live is money, and to die is to leave it all behind.”
- “For to me to live is sex, and to die is disgrace.”
- “For to me to live is fame, and to die is to be forgotten.”
- “For to me to live is power, and to die is to lose it all.”
- “But for Paul, ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’”
Both our “progress and joy in the faith” are altogether contingent on whether or not Christ is our primary and singular passion. What an infinitely greater option to know Christ in this way than the self-gratification that dominates our culture today.
“Dying” can be “gain” only to those who know Christ in a saving and sanctifying way. In a world gone mad and a generation that has lost its way, it is the followers of Jesus who have the singular word of hope. All of us expect eventually to die—“to depart and be with Christ.” For Paul, this was a “passionate longing,” a “desire.” All too frequently for us, it is “far off addendum,” something that is remote and—if we are honest—not something we give a lot of thought to. Perhaps we should.
May the Lord be pleased to grant us the ability to know His joy in the midst of every circumstance of life:
- May He broaden our perspective at those times when we feel confined by life’s circumstances.
- May He deliver us from being preoccupied with others when we are criticized by them.
- And may He calm our apprehensions during times of crisis when the outcome remains uncertain.
The “progress” of the Gospel depends upon how we respond to our chains, our critics, and our crises. The world is watching and taking careful note of what they see.
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