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A Joyful Report from Prison
Paul’s imprisonment has served the gospel’s cause
Philippians, Chapter 1, verses 12-18
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from falsemotives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
One of the primary reasons that Paul wrote his epistle to the Philippians was to tell them how things were going for him in Rome. The Philippians were concerned about the apostle. They wondered what would happen to him, and they were concerned about the effect his imprisonment would have on the overall cause of the gospel. Would people continue to respond positively to a message whose best known and most eloquent advocate was now a prisoner of the state?
Paul’s first words about his situation are intended to lay the Philippians’ fears and worries to rest. With enthusiastic joy he reports that the Lord has taken all the negative things that happened to him in connection with his imprisonment and trial and used them to advance the cause of the gospel. Paul’s imprisonment and trial have become a tool in God’s hands to remove prejudices and obstacles and to provide a positive atmosphere for a clear and effective proclamation of the gospel in the capital city of the world. In his own life the apostle is now experiencing the truth of the divine promise that the Lord had earlier given the Roman believers through him: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That promise remains true for believers of every age, from the greatest apostle to the humblest Christian.
God was working through Paul’s imprisonment to advance the cause of the gospel in Rome. That was clear to Paul from at least two important developments. First, his case—and, consequently, the gospel’s cause—had received favorable publicity, first among the members of the palace guard and then throughout the whole city of Rome. The mention of the palace guard (its official title was the Praetorian Guard) would be of particular interest to the Philippian veterans. This well-known military company was a detachment of elite imperial troops stationed in Rome. Its soldiers served as the emperor’s bodyguards, among other things.
Paul doesn’t fill in all the details for us here, but apparently some members of the guard were also assigned on a rotation basis to guard prisoners like the apostle, who had come to Rome to appeal their cases to Caesar. As Paul awaited his trial and then received his first hearing, he became acquainted with many of the soldiers of the palace guard. These soldiers gradually began to realize that Paul was no ordinary prisoner and certainly no criminal. As they observed the apostle and heard him speak to his friends, his secretary, his judges, and to them, even these hardened soldiers could not help but become interested in Paul’s case and the cause for which he stood. It became clear to them that Paul was a prisoner solely for his connection with Jesus Christ, not because he had committed any crime.
The guard members spoke about Paul and his case to one another, to their families, and to others in Rome. As a result, the gospel of Christ and the remarkable ambassador who was willing to suffer imprisonment for the sake of the gospel became front-page news, the talk of all Rome. The mistrust and hostility that many in Rome had harbored toward this new religion called Christianity were broken down as the real issue in Paul’s case became clear and as the gospel message itself became more generally known. Paul’s eloquent defense and confirmation of the gospel at his public hearing likewise served to generate favorable publicity for the gospel throughout the imperial city.
A second positive development was that many of the “brothers in the Lord”—that is, believers who were already in Rome before Paul arrived in the city—found new courage to proclaim and confess the gospel. Years earlier a congregation had been founded at Rome. It consisted mostly of gentile converts. After Paul arrived in the city, large numbers of Jews, including several entire synagogues, were also converted to Christianity. The reaction to Paul’s case had produced a positive attitude toward Christianity in Rome, and the Lord was blessing the apostle’s testimony of Christ in a marvelous manner. This gave all the believers in Rome fresh courage to identify themselves publicly as Christians and to share the good news of the gospel with others.
One negative note, unfortunately, does creep into this generally positive picture. Those who were now proclaiming the gospel in Rome with such eagerness, the apostle says, did so with two different motives. Some proclaimed Christ out of genuine good will. They truly loved the gospel, and they loved and respected the Lord’s apostle. They understood what the Lord was accomplishing through Paul, and they were genuinely encouraged by the apostle’s example.
Others, however, proclaimed Christ out of envy and rivalry. It seems that some of the Christians who had been in Rome before Paul arrived in their city became jealous of the apostle’s gifts and of all the special attention he received. Hadn’t they, after all, been working harder and longer for Christ in Rome? Why should Paul now get all the attention, all the “glory”? Shouldn’t they get some too?
So they continued to take advantage of the favorable atmosphere for proclaiming Christ that the apostle’s presence in the city provided, but these Christians did their proclaiming of Christ with a selfish spirit that was interested in their own honor. This envious spirit may not always have been evident, but it was there, and it pained Paul that anyone should preach the gospel out of anything less than pure and loving motives.
Yet Paul was able to keep everything in perspective. He did not excuse those who were preaching from false motives and trying to win applause at his expense, but he did not pity himself either. Paul realized that the truly important thing was that the gospel was being preached. Someday some would have to answer to God about their false motives, but the Lord was using even those selfish believers, despite their motives, to proclaim Christ. Because Christ was being proclaimed and honored, Paul rejoiced.
What a sad thing it is when jealousy and envy spoil the relationship of believers working together for the Lord’s cause. “Professional jealousy” can exist between called church workers of differing abilities. Petty jealousies and rivalries may arise among church members, leading them to be quick to criticize and to work for the Lord and his church on earth in the spirit of envy and strife.
We don’t like to admit that such selfish motives creep into the hearts of us all, but we know that it is true, so we need to guard our hearts against such a spirit. We need to strive against the desire for personal recognition that so often spoils even our best efforts for our Lord and his church. At the same time, let us daily seek from our Lord the pure hearts that will enable us to serve him and his church on earth in the spirit of genuine love and good will. It is also comforting to know that the Lord can take even those actions of ours that flow from less-than-pure motives and use them in the service of his kingdom.
Paul rejoices to live or die for Christ
Philippians, Chapter 1, verses 18-26
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
Paul has rejoiced to see his imprisonment advance the cause of the gospel. Now in that same spirit of rejoicing he continues, “What has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” The English translations have a difficult time trying to catch the real sense of what the apostle is saying here. Dr. Beck probably comes the closest by translating, “[These things . . .] will turn out victoriously for me.” From the moment he became a Christian to the time he wrote these words as a prisoner, the apostle Paul had one great passion: to glorify Christ. As he surveyed the situation in which he now found himself, he was confident that no matter how it would finally turn out for him, whether he lived or died, Christ would be glorified. For Paul that was reason for joy.
Paul’s confidence that Christ would be glorified through him was not just an overconfident boast. He based it on the Philippians’ prayers for him and the help that the Holy Spirit would give. The apostle knew that not only the Philippian congregation but all of Christendom was praying for him so that he might give a good confession before his Roman judges. Prayer for one another is an important part of believers’ partnerships in the gospel, and Jesus assures believers that such prayers are heard and answered.
Furthermore, Paul was confident that the Holy Spirit would be with him to supply him with all that was necessary for glorifying Christ. Jesus had promised the original disciples that when they were hauled before earthly judges, the Spirit would be with them to put the right words into their mouths. Paul knew that promise of Jesus also held true for him. The Spirit was indeed using Paul and the public testimony he gave at his trial to glorify Christ.
Paul had experienced the Spirit’s help at his first hearing. He was sure the Spirit would continue to be with him, to equip him with a courageous faith and the right words so that he could fearlessly continue to confess Christ before his judges and before all of Rome. Christ would be glorified as a result of his testimony, so Paul could say that his imprisonment and trial and everything connected with it would turn out victoriously for him—even if he would be condemned and put to death.
The first phase of Paul’s trial appears to have gone well. Every indication pointed to a favorable outcome, but he realized that the verdict could still go against him and could even result in his execution. But even that grim prospect could not diminish the apostle’s joy, for he knew that the Spirit would use either his life or his death to glorify Christ.
If Paul lived, if he was acquitted and released, he would continue his apostolic labors and do and suffer even more for Christ. If he died, he would go to the Lord with an unshaken faith and a song in his heart. He would give the ultimate testimony of martyrdom as evidence of his commitment to the cause of Christ. Either way, it would be evident to everyone what the Lord, by his grace, can accomplish in his children.
The apostle’s great desire to glorify Christ in living and dying is beautifully summarized in the familiar words of verse 21. These words have been described as Paul’s “magnificent obsession.” “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” From the dramatic moment on the Damascus road when Paul came to know the risen and glorified Christ to his anxious days as a prisoner for Christ in the world capital, all of Paul’s life and living was for Christ.
By grace he had been made a new creature in Christ. In Baptism he had put on Christ. Daily he lived in the knowledge that his sins were covered with Christ’s righteousness. He drew his strength for living from Christ. His constant desire was to know Christ more deeply and to serve him more completely. Paul regarded himself as a slave of Christ with no will of his own, totally submissive to his master’s will. Christ was the secret, the source, the summary of the apostle’s life. Christ filled his life with joy and enabled him to effectively communicate that joy to others.
If a believer’s life is Christ, then it naturally follows that “to die is gain.” Throughout their earthly lives, believers are united with Christ by faith, but their oneness with Christ, their knowledge of him and service to him, are imperfect, blurred, and clouded by sin. At the moment of their physical death, all that will change for the better. What believers possess spiritually by faith here on earth they will have by sight in eternity. In eternal life they will see Christ face-to-face and glorify him with perfect service, adoration, and joy. As Paul saw it, death was gain, for death would bring more of him to Christ and more of Christ to him. If Christ was being glorified in the apostle’s life on earth, how much more would Christ be glorified through Paul’s perfect worship and service in eternity.
Having set forth the great principles that govern a Christian’s living and dying in Christ, Paul applied those principles directly to his own situation. He knew that a favorable verdict at his trial would mean more fruitful work for him. Being set free would permit him to take up his apostolic labors again. He would again be able to preach the gospel openly, among old friends and in new places. That kind of work always is fruitful labor. Jesus himself guarantees it. Through such fruitful labor, of course, Christ would be glorified.
Yet, Paul says, if the choice between living and dying were left strictly up to him, he would have a hard time making a decision. Like every believer who truly knows and loves the Savior, Paul had an intense desire to depart from this life and to be with Christ. He longed to be free from the suffering, trouble, and pain that characterize life in this sinful world and to enter into the perfect joy of heaven. There was no doubt in the apostle’s mind that at the very moment when his soul departed this life, it would be with the Lord.
Eternal life with Christ, Paul says, is better than life here on earth. Despite the obvious advantages death would bring to him, however, Paul also felt hard pressed by another consideration. “It is more necessary for you,” he tells the Philippians, “that I remain in the body.” The apostle was aware of the fact that the Philippians, as well as many of the other recently converted Christians, still needed him.
The Philippian congregation was less than ten years old. Many of its members had only recently turned from idolatry. The congregation had its weaknesses and was surrounded by dangers. If it was now suddenly deprived of its beloved apostle and his strong leadership and guidance, the congregation’s development could be seriously hindered. Personal advantage for the apostle lay with departing from this life to be with Christ, but necessity, or advantage, for his readers lay with his continuing to live on.
Paul recognized that the choice of whether he lived or died was not up to him. The Lord would make that choice for him. But on the basis of the factors he had just mentioned, the apostle permitted himself what we might call an inspired speculation. Because he was convinced that longer life for him would mean fruit resulting from more apostolic labors, and because he knew that such labors were still needed by the young churches, he was confident that he would be allowed to continue his work on earth, at least for a little while longer.
If it was God’s plan for him to forego for a time the glories of heaven so that he could continue to live and labor for the gospel, Paul would not only accept it but would rejoice in it, because Christ would continue to be glorified through his apostolic work. What special joy the Philippians and the apostle would share after the dark days of his imprisonment if they could be reunited to rejoice in their partnership in the gospel and to praise the Lord for his mercy in reuniting them.
All the historical evidence we possess indicates that the apostle’s expectations were fulfilled. Apparently, he was set free from this particular imprisonment and allowed by the Lord to carry on his apostolic labors, at least for a few more years. It is also quite likely that Paul did see the Philippians again before he was arrested and imprisoned for the second and final time. That second imprisonment and its outcome are discussed in Paul’s last letter, 2 Timothy.
Paul’s eloquent and joy-filled words in this section express the attitude every Christian ought to take toward both living and dying. For a Christian, life is Christ. Real living is impossible apart from Christ. The great goal of every Christian’s life ought to be to serve and glorify Christ. If Christ is truly our life, our obsession with him and our joy in him will be evident in everything we do. Our thinking and planning will all be centered in him, and our words and actions will constantly testify of our commitment to him who has made us new spiritual creatures through faith in him.
Living such a life and reflecting such a commitment is not always easy. There are many hindrances and enemies, including the sinful nature within us that wants us to live only for ourselves. Like Paul, though, we can find the strength to live for Christ in what the Holy Spirit supplies us through the means of grace. We can confidently pray for the Spirit’s rich supply. As we grow daily in grace and knowledge and living faith, we can make the words of Paul’s confession our own: “For to me, to live is Christ.” In such living alone can we find real satisfaction and joy.
We can also learn much from a consideration of the apostle’s attitude toward death. The apostle did not go to pieces at the prospect of death. He was not so attached to this life that he regarded death as an unwelcome intruder. For the apostle, death was gain, a personal advantage, because he knew it would mean passing from a troublesome life marred by sin to a perfect existence with the Savior. Paul was ready to go and be with the Savior at any time. Yet, if it was the Savior’s will for him to live and work on, he would gladly do that, until the Savior called him.
The apostle’s view of death avoids two extremes: an undue attachment to this impermanent life and an impatient desire for death. The former is a danger for Christians at any age. The latter can be a danger especially for suffering or aged Christians. A suffering Christian may humbly beseech the Lord to deliver him from his troubles, but not every wish to die is a pious wish. If it flows simply from a desire to escape the obligations of life or to be relieved of its burdens, it is only selfishness. Sometimes a whining desire to die is nothing less than an impatient complaint against God. In the apostle’s words, though, we note no impatience, no complaint, only a joyful willingness to glorify Christ in life or death, at the time and under the circumstances that please the Lord. This is an attitude worthy of imitation by every Christian.