April 14, 2016
"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ."
Many scholars believe that the “what has happened to me” which Paul is referring to here was actually his awaiting a hearing with Caesar, while in chains and under house arrest as a prisoner of Rome (approximately AD 62, see Acts 28:16). This is not an ideal situation for someone whose entire life was focused on traveling and preaching the Gospel to unreached people, especially when the very real possibility of execution hangs in the balance. The Philippians knew this and they wanted to find out if Paul was safe and if he was doing well.
Paul, however, wants to talk about other things. He’s not concerned about his own safety or well-being right now, but instead he actually sees God’s fingerprints in his imprisonment. God is using Paul’s captivity as the means to save his captors. The Gospel, Paul says, has advanced in the heart of enemy territory, not in spite of his imprisonment but because of it. The very opposition who hold Paul’s life in their hands is now captivated by his undying commitment to this man Jesus Christ.
"And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear."
It’s important to recognize that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome could have very likely resulted in execution. Paul’s not naïve about this (Philippians 1:20, 2:17), even if he feels confident that God has other plans (Philippians 1:24-26). His brothers and sisters in Christ (adelphoi) aren’t ignorant of this fact either, yet somehow they’re becoming “confident in the Lord” and “much more bold to speak the word without fear.” How is this possible? Why would people risk their lives to proclaim Christ, and in the process become emboldened rather than frightened?
Well, let’s look at the words Paul chose to use. Notice that their confidence is in the Lord. That’s Jesus for these believers. So this isn’t primarily a confidence that springs out of camaraderie or a spirit of solidarity, but one that is anchored in the reality and lordship of Jesus Christ. When Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19), he isn’t just stating two random facts, he’s making an argument. Jesus is saying that their confidence for sharing the Gospel isn’t rooted in a blind hope, but the objective fact that he really governs all things.
"Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
Paul now presents a bitter-sweet paradox: not everyone preaching the Gospel is of the same mind. With Paul restricted in influence by his captivity, others have emerged to fill the void. Some of these preach from a place of good will and love, intent on defending the same Gospel of Jesus Christ that imprisoned Paul. Others preach from a place of envy and selfish ambition, hoping to steal the fatherly influence Paul had acquired during his church planting.
Paul says they were seeking to afflict or hurt him, adding to the trial of his imprisonment. What form did this affliction take? Likely slander and defamation. Although they may have presented the truth about Jesus, their motivations were corrupt and sectarian. The Gospel hadn’t changed their hearts, even if they knew it with their heads. So what is Paul’s response? Is he angry because he’s being thrown under the bus? Is he frustrated that people with corrupt motivations are gaining an audience? Is he worried about his reputation and status?
Not at all. Paul is concerned with one thing and one thing only: that the name of Jesus Christ be proclaimed everywhere. Paul knows that Jesus is the most important reality in the universe. There is literally nothing more important. We were made—all of us—to know Jesus (Colossians 1:16), and Paul knows this is true. So he will gladly embrace slander and humiliation if it means that people ultimately find the invincible joy in knowing Jesus. In fact, that is why his embrace of this painful treatment is joyful, because his joy is invincible.
Let’s be honest: For many of us, Paul’s attitude and response here isn’t normal.
In fact, it's kind of painful to even begin to consider. The Gospel is something we know and believe, but it’s not necessarily something we share. Maybe we’re crippled by fear and worried about what people think about us? For good reason, our reputations, friendships, and even jobs are sometimes on the line when it comes to whether or not we talk about Jesus. Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that sharing the Gospel is just for the professionals, and not for us? Or maybe we've just inoculated ourselves to the commands of Jesus with a convincing argument about fairness and not infringing on anyone, even if it ultimately costs them Jesus?
Whatever the case, reading Paul’s response to his imprisonment and the slander he received may help expose our own weakness. If we know Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, then we’ve been given invincible joy. Our response should be to set aside comfort, whether physical or social, and embrace risk for Christ and the sake of those who do not know him. The temporary joy of living a risk-adverse, ridicule-free life is incomparable to the joy of a life full of knowing Jesus Christ and making him known (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, 1 Peter 4:12-14).
Here are some questions to help you dig a little deeper, both personally and in group: