A sermon on Philippians 1:12-26 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 14 November 2021
Every letter in the New Testament was written for a reason. And understanding that reason helps us understand what the letter is trying to communicate.
For example, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written because the church in Galatia had got off track in key points in the gospel. Paul wrote to them to set them straight. Paul’s letter to the Romans was written because Paul had never been there and he wanted to visit them before moving on to other missionary work. He wrote to them to outline his message for them in order to get their support for his work.
Paul didn’t write his letter to the Philippians because they had a problem. There was nothing going on among them that he had to sort out. There was no issue that he had to solve. Nor did he write to them because they didn’t know him. They knew him very well. Instead, Paul wrote to them to reassure them. Paul had planted the church in Philippi. He was like a father to the believers who lived there. And they were worried about Paul. So Paul wrote his letter to them to let them know that the things that had happened to him were turning out for the best, and that his future was bright whichever way it turned.
So what had happened to him? Well, Paul was in gaol. He was in chains. We don’t know where. It might have been in Rome, it might have somewhere else. He talks about a “palace guard”, but does it have to be in the emperor’s palace? Couldn’t it be in some local governor’s palace? We don’t really know where Paul was in gaol. But we do know why. It wasn’t because he had stolen something. It wasn’t because he had murdered someone. He was in gaol for sharing the gospel. For teaching that Jesus is Lord and that in him we are free.
We take that message for granted. But to the leaders of the Roman empire it sounded like a declaration of war, because they believed that Caesar was Lord. On the screen is a picture of a coin. Ancient rulers used their coins to spread their propaganda. When people used their money to buy their bread, it reminded them who was in charge. It’s an Iron Age equivalent of a tweet or a press conference. There is the head of the emperor Augustus. It calls him Caesar. On the back it says Divine Julius. Put together the coin promotes Augustus as the legitimate heir of Julius Caesar who had since become a god doing his best to support his empire. This coin’s message is that Caesar is Lord. It’s promise is that if you keep the peace and pay your taxes you will be blessed, or at least you won’t end up in gaol or worse.
And then along came the Christians saying that Jesus, a man crucified by the Romans for being a rebel, was Lord instead. The Romans were worried that the early Christians were terrorists who were secretly working to undermine the state. In addition, the message of freedom in Jesus sounded like a threat to the established order of things, a threat to the rule of the Romans over subject people, of the rule of men over women and of the rule of masters over slaves. And what the Romans feared more than war was a slave rebellion. That the people who cooked their food and cleaned their houses and taught their children, would turn on them in their sleep. So the Romans treated Paul like he was a terrorist cell leader. They put him in gaol.
When Paul’s friends in Philippi heard about it they were worried. They took up a collection and sent it with one of their members to look after Paul. Paul was grateful for their generosity and he wrote back to them to give them an update on what was going on for him. He wanted to reassure them.
In particular, he wanted them to know that what had happened to him had really served to advance the gospel. Paul’s thoughts and concerns were not primarily on himself but on the cause that God had called him to promote. Paul saw himself first and foremost as a messenger sent to deliver a message. The message of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection. Paul wanted the Philippians to know that although they could throw him in gaol, nothing could imprison the gospel. No bars could contain it and no chains could hold it back.
Paul’s imprisonment had served the advance of the gospel in two different ways. Firstly, because the whole palace guard had come to know of the reason that Paul was in gaol. It sounds like a cliché but is it possible that every prisoner gets asked the question, “What are you in for?” If one of the guards had made that mistake with Paul, I imagine that an hour later that guard would have received a fairly good introduction to the key points of Paul’s message. The rulers of Rome might have thought that they had chained Paul’s message, but all they had done was to create a new captive audience for the gospel, the guards who were paid to never leave his side.
The second reason that Paul’s imprisonment had served to advance the gospel, was that many believers were inspired by Paul’s courage to share the gospel themselves. Again, it’s the exact opposite of what the rulers wanted. They wanted people to be afraid of doing what Paul had been doing. That’s why we punish people, to warn everyone else that the punishment will happen to them too if they do the same bad things. But that can backfire when the person being punished becomes a martyr, a hero suffering for a cause. Because that can make other people think that the martyr’s cause must be something worth fighting for, even dying for.
And that’s what happened. Wherever it was that Paul was in gaol, many of the believers there wanted to be just like him. And they began boldly sharing the gospel with their neighbours without any fear of the consequences.
Some Christians, however, were preaching Christ for different motives. They didn’t like Paul. They were jealous of him and felt threatened by him, turning up in their little town where they were used to being the top dogs. They were glad Paul had been put in gaol and out of their way. So they were promoting the gospel to make mischief, hoping that if the authorities saw them doing the same that got Paul put into gaol that they would keep Paul in gaol even longer or worse.
Did that worry Paul? Were his feelings hurt? Was he worried about what was going to happen to him? Not at all. He wrote,
But what does it matter? The important things is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
It would be wrong to say that Paul didn’t care. It would be better to say that Paul was glad. Paul was glad that these mischief makers, whether they meant it or not, were still serving his Lord and achieving his own life’s goal. Paul knew that small minded people can get caught up in their power plays and their hurt pride and their self-centred worries and fears. But Paul knew that there were more important things at stake. That life isn’t about who makes the most money and who can boss everyone else around and get their way. Life isn’t about marking our territory and protecting it. Life isn’t about being appreciated and rewarded for the good that we do. Life is actually about something much more important. And if the mischief makers were sharing the gospel out of some perverse desire to hurt Paul then let them try. Only let the name of Jesus Christ be told to the people who are perishing without him. Because as we will see very soon, life for Paul wasn’t about himself. It was about Christ.
In verses 19 to 26 Paul began sharing his expectation and hope for the future. He wanted to reassure the Philippians that he expected to be released. He wrote,
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.
By “deliverance” Paul does not mean his eternal salvation but his release from gaol. That’s what the Philippians had been praying for and it’s what Paul felt that the Holy Spirit had been preparing him for. Paul had been called to preach the good news of Jesus, to be the messenger for the kingdom in places where the name of Christ had not yet been heard. And nothing he had experienced had convinced him that his job had finished. Instead, all that Paul could see were the great benefits that his release could bring. It would mean that his work would go on. He could then visit churches like the Philippians and help them and they could help him to go on to plant new churches in other places. After all, if his imprisonment was having such a great effect on the work of the gospel, how much better a result would his release bring.
Paul expected and hoped that he would be set free. But he knew that that wasn’t the only way that things could turn out. He might not be released. Instead, he might be put to death just like Jesus. In that case, he wrote, he only wished 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 labour 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.
Paul’s words should not be misunderstood. The fact is that he had no choice. He was in gaol, hoping and expecting to be released, and in real danger of being put to death instead, and the power to choose between the two outcomes did not actually lie with him. But what he was trying to communicate to the Philippians is that he was content with any outcome. To be released and to go on living meant returning to do the work of a messenger of Christ. While to be put to death for the cause of Christ meant to be set free in a very different way, to depart from this life of sorrow and suffering and to be made new in the coming kingdom of God. To go to be with Christ.
Either way, he was content because for him to live is Christ. For other people, life means something else. For some people, life is work. They work hard, they achieve their goals which gives them even more reason to work hard. Other people live for the weekend, or for their football club of for their town or for their family or maybe simply for themselves. You can tell what people live for by their choices. It shows in their actions and in their words. It motivates their decisions and explains their feelings. It shows in what makes them happy and in what makes them sad. When their true goals are blocked they get angry and when they are fulfilled they are over the moon with happiness.
What do you live for? What dominates your thoughts? What motivates your choices? What makes you worry? What makes you angry? What fills you with joy? What are you living for?
Paul lived for Christ, the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. He was Christ’s man from top to bottom and from the inside out, his messenger and his ambassador, whether in gaol or set free. Following Christ was not just a hobby. It’s not just something he did on a Sunday. He didn’t believe in Christ like we believe in gravity, something we know that is there and we depend on, but we don’t give it much thought. Instead, the message of the gospel penetrated so far into his heart and mind that it influenced all his values to the point that it determined his identity. Paul was a Christian like some people are Collingwood supporters or like some people are flag waving Americans. Now Paul may not have agreed with their cause, but he had all their passion and more.
However, for all of Paul’s expectations and hopes, life for him could have still taken some twists and turns. But wherever the road led, Paul knew that there will be work for him to do, work that would bear fruit in lives brought to salvation in Christ. And that was the reason for Paul’s joy that could not be taken away from him, that could not be imprisoned and that could not be crushed. Because his life is Christ, then his joy is as unassailable as the power of the risen Christ.
Every letter in the New Testament is written for a reason. And Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians to reassure them, but if you ask me, also to challenge them and to inspire them. His simple message was, Don’t worry about me. I’m in prison but the gospel isn’t. I expect to be set free and if I am that will be good for you. I’ll come and visit you again. And if I’m not set free then that will be good for me. Because my life is Christ. Wherever life leads me, I am his and he is mine. They can take my freedom. They can take my life. But they cannot take my life’s greatest joy which is to know Christ and to make him known.
If you do not have that joy, I pray that you find it. And if you have lost it, I pray that you will find it again. Let the gospel so penetrate your heart and mind that it shapes your whole identity to point that life for you is Christ.