Philippians 1:12-18 “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 do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defence 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 false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
Earlier this month a New Tribes missionary to the Philippines, Martin Burnham, was shot dead. He and his wife Gracie had been kidnapped by Abu Shyyah, an Islamic group linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists. In May last year the Burnhams had gone on vacation to celebrate their eighteenth wedding anniversary and on the first day of their holidays at an island resort they had been abducted by these criminals. Their three children, Jeff aged 15, Mindy aged 12, and Zac aged 11 have been waiting back in the USA for a year supported by their extended family and the little evangelical congregation in Rose Hill, Kansas, which so many of the Burnham family attend and serve. They have constantly prayed for their loved ones’ protection and release. We had an American family staying with us last week, and the 10 year old daughter had prayed most days through the past year that God would keep those missionaries safe. Thousands of others gave money and also interceded for this couple’s safety. “Why, Mommy?” the little girl asked when the news was broken on June 7 that during a raid to rescue them Martin and a Philippine nurse had been shot. The little girl took the news very badly. God had laid them on her heart, and now God permitted the husband to be killed. Why? Why must a Christian like Gracie face widowhood at 40? Why do three children have to grow up without a father? Why are people in the Philippines who need to hear of Christ robbed of that privilege by so pointless a murder? Why did the $300,000 ransom which was paid fail to obtain their deliverance? Christians will often ask the question why? Is there knowledge with God of things below?
Paul makes a passing reference in our text to “what has happened to me” (v.12). He doesn’t make a meal of it. A journey to Rome which should have taken weeks took many months. He was nearly drowned. He then spent many years in prison – someone has suggested that as a Christian he spent more years in prison than out of it. What a long journey to actually sitting and writing this letter: some years earlier, “when the apostle had set foot in Jerusalem, he was forewarned by the Holy Spirit that bonds and imprisonments awaited him (cf. Acts 20:22f.). Trouble was not long delayed. Though Paul went out of his way to reassure Jewish scruples (21:26f.), an entirely false accusation was levelled at him by his own people (21:28); he was nearly lynched by a religious mob, and ended up in the Roman prison, having escaped a flogging only by pleading citizenship (22:22ff.). His whole case was beset by a mockery of justice, for, though all right was on his side, he could not secure a hearing. He was made the subject of unjust and unprovoked insult and shame (23:2), malicious misrepresentation (24:5; 25:6f.), and deadly plot (23:12ff.; 25:1ff). He was kept imprisoned owing to official craving for popularity (24:27), or money (24:26), or because of an over-punctilious facade of legalism (26:32). The deceit and malpractice and vilification that surrounded his person were past belief . . .” (J. Alex Motyer, “The Richness of Christ”, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1966, p.33). But Paul just calls all of that, “what has happened to me . . .”
The apostle Paul was a dynamic personality, energetic, outgoing, creative, ready in and out of season to advance the kingdom of God. How frustrating for such a gifted man to be locked up for some years in a prison cell. What needs and opportunities were surrounding him. He had planned to take the gospel to the other end of the Mediterranean, to distant Spain. He had hoped en route to take in a period in Rome to address the congregation there, and benefit from their gifts. Those plans all foundered. Instead, as the months went by God gave him a cold cell, a bed of straw, poor food and bored lascivious soldiers on guard duty for company. Why? Sometimes we have no idea of the reasons why God is dealing with us in particular way. John Flavel’s book reminds us of “The Mystery of Providence.” One day we may know better, but in this fascinating section the apostle Paul gives us a number of reasons for his sufferings, and both his attitude and the principles he lays down can help us all come to terms with the troubles we meet on our short and uncertain earthly pilgrimage.
Let us think of all the groups who were affected by Paul’s imprisonment.
1. THE CHURCH AT PHILIPPI WAS STRENGTHENED BY IT.
It is plain from this letter that Paul had a deep affection for the Christians in Philippi, and that this love was mutual. They showed genuine concern for his welfare. They had sent one of their members named Epaphroditus with some money which they had collected to help Paul during his time in jail. The vast majority of the members were anxious to know how things were going in Rome, and they would rejoice at any news of an immanent release and vindication. But there were other professing Christians who were critical of Paul, of the fact that he has appealed to the Emperor. “Wouldn’t this rather splashy gesture bring the ‘Way’ into ill repute?” they argued. “Isn’t that action rather typical of Paul who rushed headlong into things where a cooler, wiser head would have been more cautious? Did he have to go up to Jerusalem and get himself arrested? Wasn’t he warned by a prophet that this would happen? He knew that they hated him there. Surely he could have handled it better?” This is the sort of criticism slyly directed at Paul by his critics. They masked their resentment at his doctrines with barbed words at his conduct.
Then there were others who had what our fathers called “the faith of miracles.” In other words, they are those the Lord Jesus refers to as doing many mighty works and casting out demons in his name while themselves remaining unconverted and condemned (Matt. 7:22&23). The apostle warned the Christians in Corinth of having a faith that can move mountains, and yet lacking love, and so being a nothing (I Cor. 13:2). So there were those present in Philippi who had been drawn to the congregation by a religion whose leaders could open every door in a jail and unloose the chains which were binding every prisoner. They heard of the God who answered by earthquakes and they wanted some of that action. But they were disappointed when God did not accomplish that same mighty work in Rome where Paul did not pop out of prison the day after he arrived. He was imprisoned for years, and God did nothing. What sort of God was he? Unpredictable? Capricious? Weak? He could shake the little prison in Philippi but the great jail in Rome was too much for him, was that it?
To all of those people, and to their followers down through the ages, Paul writes this letter out of his own experience to instruct the Philippians concerning perplexities, frustrations and delayed answers to prayer which every follower of Christ has to experience. He was anxious for them to learn a lesson which he already knew, “that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (v.12). The whole letter redounds with such God-given confidence as he tells them: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (4:11-13). So Paul pours the oil of comfort into the lives of these Christians in Philippi by this letter, as well as to us in this congregation and congregations everywhere ever since, and until Christ returns. This marvellous prison epistle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, came out of the most puzzling providence and yet has been a means of strengthening Christians ever since. There is not a member of this congregation who has not profited from the truths of this epistle.
But there are others also changed by this imprisonment.
2. PAUL HIMSELF WAS ABLE TO REJOICE IN IT.
“And because of this I rejoice” (v.18). Paul looked at everything that was happening in Rome from the fulcrum of his chains and he praised God. No doubt initially Paul longed that he might be quickly released, and that his official vindication would mean that throughout the whole Roman Empire Christians could evangelise and worship openly and legally. That is why he had appealed to the Empire. But the weeks turned into months and then into years during which his trial was constantly postponed and Paul was languishing in bonds. Yet there in prison he learned to glory in his infirmities, and even take pleasure in such a necessity and distress as his incarceration. In prison he found the sufficiency of God’s grace, “and because of this I rejoice!” he could write.
Have you consider how self-effacing Paul is? He doesn’t call attention to himself as a sufferer. He doesn’t elaborate his discomforts. He doesn’t want people’s pity, in fact he doesn’t seek the congregation’s attention or interest. That would turn their eyes off Christ. He does refer to his chains (v.14), but so that the fact of his forced confinement would make more of an impact on the Philippians. “The chains are for Christ,” he tells them. In other words, Christ was his Lord and he was his servant, and it was this Lord Christ who had put him precisely in that spot, chaining him to this wall or to different men on guard. When a new soldier came on duty and fastened the other end of the chain to his own wrist he would take a look at his prisoner. The handcuffs meant nothing, and so the new man would casually ask Paul what he was inside for, and Paul would reply, “For Christ,” and then the conversation would move on. When a Christian visitor called and the guard was forced to listen to their conversation he soon discovered that it was all about this Christ and how those who served him were faring. The apostle was concerned that the Philippians might become over-anxious about him, and over-anxiety is a sin, as much a sin as stealing or lying. “Do not be anxious about anything” (4:6), he tells them. Sinclair Ferguson points out, “There is something Christ-like in Paul’s attitude here. One of the impressive things about Jesus’ ministry to his disciples in the last hours of his life was that, despite his own need, he was concerned to comfort and strengthen them. John tells us that although our Lord was deeply troubled (John 13:21), he encouraged the disciples not to be troubled (John 14:1). The language in both verses is the same, which is probably John’s way of inviting us to link these two verses together. Like Jesus, Paul was more concerned about others (in this case, the Philippians) than with his own comfort. He practised what he preached (cf. 2:4 “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”). But more than that, he knew that God invariably means to bring new blessings out of the trials and difficulties his servants experience” (Sinclair Ferguson, “Let’s Study Philippians,” Banner of Truth, 1997, p.17).
Paul tells us that he knows why he was put there; “I am set” [in this prison cell manacled to this soldier] “for the defence of the gospel” (v.16). In other words, he was a man under orders. “The term used here is military. When the time came that a praetorian’s period of guard duty was over, he was relieved by another. The chain was passed from hand to hand and the new guard was ‘set’ to keep watch over Paul. It was not his part to query the duty allotted to him: such decisions were made by other minds in other places. However he might have planned his service to lie in other and more exciting, and apparently more worth-while, enterprises, this was what was required of him, and this was the situation in which to uphold the traditions of the regiment to which he belonged and to win his superiors’ praise. But Paul was as much ‘on duty’ as he was. Perhaps we may venture to imagine what went through the apostle’s mind when a sentry entered for the first time. ‘He has come in here because he is on duty; he is “set” to guard me. Wouldn’t he be surprised to learn that I am every bit as much on duty as he is, that I am “set” to guard him for Christ!’ Paul did not see his suffering as due to divine forgetfulness (‘Why did God allow this to happen to me?’), nor as a dismissal from service (‘I was looking forward to years of usefulness, but here I am chained to the house’), nor as the work of Satan (‘I am afraid the devil has had his way this time’), but as the place of duty, the appointed setting of service, the work at present required. The great ambassador of Christ is not free to bear the tidings of the Lord over land and sea as before, but he has not ceased to be an ambassador. The form of the ambassadorship has changed but the purpose and duty of it still remains – ‘an ambassador in chains’ (Eph. 6:20)” (J. Alec Motyer, “The Richness of Christ,” Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1966, pp. 41&42).
Every one of us has to see our present occupation as the work God is giving to us now, in the place, and in the company that the Lord has decreed. Wherever we find ourselves there we too are on duty. We may feel we are virtually chained to this husband or wife, to these needy children, to this parent who has become senile, or to these wearying studies. Or are we members of this little church fellowship with its obvious weaknesses, or locked into this tedious routine of a dull job or boring household duties? Then we must remember that we are set there by God to defend the gospel by our credible Christ-like living. Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Paul was able to rejoice in the place in which God put him.
Philip Hacking, once a minister in Sheffield, was involved in the disaster in the Hillsborough soccer stadium in that Yorkshire city in April 1989 in which 96 spectators were crushed to death. A Christian nurse from his fellowship was set there in that scene of horror by God. Hacking says “I was present at the match, and was trying to counsel a little. One of our girls, who’s a nurse, had sat for hours with a lad who wouldn’t say a word. He was waiting to see whether his friend was dead or alive. She sat with him, she gave him coffee, she wanted to speak to him about Jesus but it seemed impossible to say anything. Eventually the message came that they’d found his friend but he was dead. He went to examine the body, and she went with him. He’d hardly spoken a word for hours, and suddenly he thumped the wall and he shouted, ‘My God! My God! Why? – if there is a God!’ My nurse friend was able to say, very sensitively, ‘Yes, there is a God, I know him. He’s changed my life and he is able to change yours too.’ She went on to say, “Do you realise the words you said are the words that Jesus said on the cross? ‘My God, my God, why?'” (Philip Hacking, “Servants of the King,” The Keswick Convention 1989, STL Books, Bromley, 1989, p.24). God had put her there for the defence of the gospel, and defend it she did. There are periods in our lives in which we feel we’re in chains to the most unpleasant providences, yet it is God who has set us in that place in defence of the only gospel given to men, and in that we can and may rejoice as Paul himself did. You will also, if you put the gospel in first place.
3. THE ROMAN GUARDS WERE AFFECTED BY PAUL’S PRESENCE IN PRISON.
“As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (13). The full Praetorian Guard numbered nine thousand men and were the official bodyguard of the emperor. Members of the Philippian congregation would see the Roman soldiers marching through their town and some of them might say, “They need the gospel. How could the good news about Jesus break into the world of the Roman army? If only Paul could meet with some of them and talk to them of the Saviour for a long time we are sure many of those battle hardened veterans would start to follow Christ. But how could that be possible? Let’s just pray about it.” But Paul arrives in Rome and there he meets soldier after soldier. Speaking to them and writing letters becomes his major ministry. It’s not raw country boy recruits who couldn’t read he is evangelising but the elite company of Caesar’s troops whose barrack rooms and bath houses soon buzz with discussion about religion for year after year. All this was because of one single prisoner who was in the custody of the very troops who guarded the emperor.
There had been a period in which Paul had been given a measure of liberty from the jail, and he lived for that time in a private house, but even there a guard would have had to be on duty. The prisoner and the guard were chained together, but Paul didn’t whine to them that it was all so unjust, and that he had grown to hate the sight of the Roman legionnaires. He didn’t bribe them to have wine smuggled in, and women too, or plot an escape. No, he bore a plain powerful witness to the three or four soldiers who worked the daily shifts and kept an eye on him. He looked forward to the constant new men whose turn it would be to guard him. How wearying the constant conversations, the absence of privacy, the new guard wanting to talk, and Paul tired from the previous four hours of questions and answers. Yet Paul was under obligation to love his guarding neighbour as his guarded self. Over the years he would meet many of the imperial guard in a one-to-one relationship.
An enormous impression was made on them all. Paul told them about a Jew named Jesus from Nazareth. He shared with them some of Christ’s scintillating teaching. He told them of his mighty works, that when he spoke the winds and waves obeyed him. He told these soldiers about the centurions who loved the Lord, one of whose servants he raised from a death bed. He told them how the Lord Jesus was the promised Messiah, God the Son, and that he had died as the lamb of God to take away our sin. “We deserve eternal death because we are sinners,” Paul said, “but Jesus, because he loved us, died in our place.” He told them that they must repent of their sins, really turn away from them, and turn in faith to the one who said, “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The men on guard duty had never met a man so much at peace with himself as this prisoner. They later went back to the barracks thinking over everything they had been told, and they talked to their friends, so that other troops were filled with curiosity to meet this extraordinary man. The good news he told them resulted in this achievement of grace; “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (v.13). Paul had put his life at the disposal of Christ, and though he was bound, the word of God is never bound.
Let me illustrate from three sources the power of the providence of restrictions and limitations (if they be received from God); firstly from the English reformer Hugh Latimer, the greatest of all the English preachers of the sixteenth century, the one who eventually was burnt at the stake in Oxford. When he was arrested during the reign of Queen Mary, Latimer was committed to a painful house arrest in the home of the mayor of Oxford, Edmund and Margaret Irish. For 18 months he had to live there with their hatred of all he stood for, their boorish behaviour and foul conversation. Day after day he was called by God to endure it. Latimer was set in that mayor’s house for the defence of the gospel, and at the end of it, just before his martyrdom, Margaret Irish was won over by his faithful and gracious testimony. She not only grew in admiration of his consistent life, but she came to trust in Christ alone for her salvation.
Another illustration of this lesson refers to the late Bob Sheehan’s father. In the second World War he was a stretcher bearer, and God attached to the other end of that stretcher a Scottish Christian who lived for Christ and spoke of him to Mr Sheehan whenever he had an opportunity. That stretcher was the chain that bound those two men together, and by 1945 and VE Day, they were both following Christ. The implications of that ‘chain’ for the Sheehan family and the congregations who heard his son Bob preach at Welwyn were immense. I am saying to you, ‘Receive your chains from Christ!’
The third illustration of this conduct of Paul being imitated today to the same powerful effect is in the case of the late Martin Burnham, the missionary to the Philippines, murdered last week. Several hostages, including his wife Gracie, testify to his patient Christian response to suffering for those 376 days. Chained to a tree each night, Martin Burnham would thank his guard and then wish him a good night. On their marches through the jungle he would do what the Saviour told us all to do – offering to carry the bags of other hostages and also his captors. He spoke of Christ to them, sharing the message of the gospel with rebel leader Abu Sabaya himself. When the bullets were fired in the rescue attempt he dived across the body of his wife and protected her, but lost his own life.
God has designed some chains for every one of us. As I look at a congregation I see everyone in chains. You may be tied to a desk when you would like to be in evangelistic work. You may be tied to a home, with young children in need of constant care. You may be tied to one room, never able to get out of your house. But God has put you there and so God will use you there. Remember that the first prayer to pray is not ‘God use me’, but ‘God make me usable.’ Then seek to speak a word and do something for Jesus Christ where you are. This passage in Philippians may change entirely the way you look at the factors that hem you in. You may be able to say, “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (v.12).
The fascinating greetings at the end of the letter presumably refer to the success of Paul’s evangelising these soldiers: “All the saints send you their greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Phils 4:22). How many of those soldiers were later posted to a tour of duty in the furthest parts of the Roman Empire, to the British Isles? Could some of those once chained to Paul have been later sent to Caerleon, Carmarthen and Chester where they shared with some of the early Welsh men and women the wonderful message of sins forgiven through faith in the Lamb of God?
4. THE CHRISTIANS OF ROME WERE ENCOURAGED BY PAUL’S IMPRISONMENT.
“Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (v. 14). Knowledge of this revival in the Praetorian Guard would have had an enormous impact on the congregation in Rome. It would have made them zealous for the Lord. They would have thought, “It really is true. The Spirit of Christ makes every kind of man and woman new creations.” There were others who like Paul were also Roman citizens, and when they saw the special protection this status had afforded him then they spoke up too. But most important of all the church continually considered Paul’s example, some of them visiting him and reporting to the congregation how he was, and they were all challenged to confront their difficulties and speak up for Christ whatever the cost. If the apostle could do so much from a prison cell how much more should they be accomplishing with their freedom. New courage and boldness was given to the church. Most of all there was a new love for Paul, and for his Lord, and for sinners. Paul refers to it saying, “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others do so in love.” It was with a new love that they witnessed to the people of Rome.
Let me share with you something that came home to Pastor John Armstrong last week when he heard of the martyrdom of Martin Burnham. He says, “I heard very little about martyrdom as a child. The only story of martyred missionaries I know anything at all about was the history of five young men who were killed by Auca Indians in Ecuador in the 1950s. I still recall reading “Through Gates of Splendour” as a boy of twelve. I remember when I first saw their photos I felt a desire to follow Christ to the death. It was in the recesses of my heart that I first sensed God calling me to preach the Word no matter what it would cost me. Later I read Jim Elliott’s memorable words, recorded in his journal while a student at Wheaton College: ‘H e is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’ To this day whenever I go into Edman Chapel, Wheaton, and read the plaque on the wall which bears the story of Jim Elliott and Nate Saint I am moved to recommit my life to Christ and his Kingdom.” The motivating energy that comes from seeing the bravery of a suffering and dying Christian must have been the prime factor that drove away the excuses and cowardice from the Christians in Rome as they heard of Paul’s spirit and his activities even in chains. They began to live for Christ as they had not been living hitherto.
This was the effect on “most of the brothers in the Lord” (v.14) Paul says, not that the preachers started to preach powerfully, but it was the brothers who were talking with people telling them of Christ. So most of the church was on the march. The people of God were set on fire for the Lord, and all this did not happen through Paul’s mighty preaching in Rome. He was in prison chained to an unbelieving soldier, but the effect of his life in jail impacted the whole congregation who were all out of jail. They suddenly weren’t as scared as they used to be. Paul was facing a meeting with the Emperor and a possible death sentence, but how he spoke up for his Lord! So their instinct for self-preservation and a good reputation went, and they simply spoke about Christ. What they did was so very ordinary, they spoke a word for Jesus as they sought and received opportunities. They spoke like any other human beings; they opened their mouths and they chatted. They talked to people about the message of the Scriptures. They explained their faith, and they gave a word of testimony to its impact upon them, and they answered the questions they were asked in dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Yet this simple activity was so important for Paul that he wrote about it by the help of the Holy Spirit to Greece, and he told the Philippian church what was happening. “I want you to know that the ordinary men and women on the streets and in the homes of Rome, in their day to day conversations, are speaking the Word of God.” Someone spoke to a New Tribes missionary called Donna Davis last week. She knew Martin and Gracie Burnham well, and she said, “News accounts talk about Martin as if he were a hero, and I suppose that’s true, but at the same time the Burnhams are ordinary people.” Who are the martyrs who speak and suffer for Christ? They are mere Christians who are prepared to follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
So here were Christians living in Rome who had not been using their gifts, not walking in the Spirit, not presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to God. Then Paul arrives and is put into prison and shows them what a life lived for Christ can do even there, and these Christians are changed. They stop thinking about themselves and their little lives. Maybe some of them had kept a careful record of what they did and thought and how people treated them each day. They could tell you from their diaries exactly what had happened week after week, but when they got serious about living for Christ that all seemed so petty and they discard them or radically change what they record. As Dr Lloyd-Jones says, “Even psychologists are aware of this fact and, indeed, it is a part of their stock in trade. The whole business of psychological treatment is to make men and women forget themselves, to become interested in something else, to transfer this self-interest to something else. It is this morbid, pathetic interest in self that makes us so miserable. That is why we break down in life: that is why we fall when tribulation comes – self-pity. ‘Why should this be happening to me?’ I ask. I am looking at myself all the time and because of that everything is exaggerated. Now Paul does not do that in prison because he is looking for Christ, and the glory of Christ, and the gospel is what he is concerned about” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder & Stoughton, 1989, p.78). This is the reason for the change in the brothers in the Lord in Rome. We too may visit a brother or sister passing through a life-threatening illness and having major surgery, and we observe a joy and hope and trust in God. How it strengthens us! By the same grace from the same Saviour we too shall be more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Then there was another way in which the gospel was being furthered. They were preaching Christ. It is a refrain that occurs three times in these verses (vv. 15, 17 &18). Again Paul is referring to ordinary Christians and he is saying that even they were doing this tremendous thing, that they were preaching Christ. The word used for ‘preaching’ was a technical word in the ordinary language of the day which Paul took up. It was the word used for the herald or town crier, and the picture we have here is of the Lord’s people acting as heralds of the gospel. They are virtual town-criers and they are proclaiming Jesus Christ in Rome. They are telling people that he is God and man, and that he is a prophet, priest and king, and that he is the Lord and Saviour of all who turn from their sins and trust in him. They bore such testimony to this that the much of Rome was hearing about it. A town crier doesn’t go the remote corner of the beach and talk to the seagulls, or to the top of Plunlumon and speak to the sheep. He goes where the people gather and he tries to give his message maximum publicity, and he speaks with authority not simply from his own initiative. He speaks as one given a message to declare and a commission to speak it to all. Every Christian must know that he or she is the recipient of the Lord’s Great Commission. “Go! Speak!”
There is no one in this congregation who needs permission from me to be the Lord’s town crier in Aberystwyth, in fact we are all under that obligation just because we are Christians. By God’s grace every Christian is a prophet unto God. We believe in the prophetic status of every believer, and we are to show forth the praises and virtues of our Lord to everyone who will hear us. We are to give maximal publicity for the gospel, and we are to do it with the consciousness that this is God’s will for every Christian, that God has made us heralds and prophets to address his word to his creation. We are put in the places of daily duty for the defence of the gospel, and our great theme must be Christ. “In other words, the message of the church and of the gospel is definite; it is not a vague message of goodwill, nor a general exhortation to people to live a better life. It is not a mere appeal for morality, or soothing words to a nation which is experiencing economic difficulties. Nor is it a kind of general attempt to raise the morale of the people, and to get more production and things of that kind. All that may come in the future as a result of the gospel, but that is not the thing that confirms the truth: it is preaching Christ. Thus, the test of the message should be: is Christ in the centre? Is Christ essential? Does it all emanate from him? Does it all revolve around him? Would there be a message if Christ had never lived? That is the test, and I think we must all agree that so much that passes for Christianity, judged by this test, is not Christianity at all; it would all be possible without Christ. There is a great deal of idealism in Greek philosophies, and in Islam. There is much good and moral uplift entirely apart from Christ, but it is not the gospel, it is not the word. The thing I am anxious about, said Paul, is Christ. I preach Christ . . . So then the apostles turned to the people and said: That is the good news we have to tell you. If you believe in this Christ, if you say that the Son of God has died for your sins, God forgives you; your biggest guilt is cleared, your sins are removed, you are accepted of God and you have become his child. That is the good news. We preach Christ Jesus as the Saviour of your souls” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989, p, 65 & 66 & 69).
I emphasise this because the professing church has largely lost the gospel. There is a Professor of Missions at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago named Paul Hiebert. He was raised amongst the Mennonites in America and became a missionary in India for many years. He has commented on how the American Mennonites in the last century came to lose the gospel (and what happened to them has happened to all the denominations in our own land of Wales). One generation preached Christ, but they held that there were certain social, economic and political entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments. The following generation denied the gospel: the ‘entailments’ became everything. I am saying that his has happened in Wales, and it has destroyed living Christianity and closed down most of the churches in the nation, and that we are witnessing large swaths of what is called ‘evangelicalism’ in Britain today going in the same direction. The greatest need of the pulpits of Wales is to become obsessed with the gospel of Christ.
5. EVEN PAUL’S OPPONENTS WERE ENCOURAGED TO PREACH CHRIST.
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry … 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 false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of that I rejoice” (vv. 15, 17&18). There were certain people, who, because Paul was in prison were taking advantage of his absence and were preaching the gospel largely to annoy him. They sought to magnify their own ministry by putting Paul down. They were anxious to draw people to themselves, but the extraordinary thing was that though they demeaned Paul, and were preaching Christ with an utterly disgraceful motive the apostle himself rejoiced because Christ was being preached. That was more important than whether or not he himself achieved universal respect in the church.
Obviously there are certain misunderstandings about the dynamics of all this which we must clear up. Paul is not saying that he is indifferent to the kind of teaching that a servant of Christ gives. If we should turn to his letter to the Galatian church we would learn that a person who dilutes and perverts the gospel of Christ is to be condemned. Paul is not alone in using such strong language. The apostle John warns that if someone comes with a different doctrine then make sure you don’t bid him, “God Speed!” Those apostles were faithful servants of their Lord who told them to beware of wolves who would come to the church dressed as sheep. There are those who preach a message which is not the gospel of Christ. If the foundational doctrines are wrong or denied then we cannot possibly rejoice, and Paul would not be rebuking us for not rejoicing – quite the reverse. Paul tells the Corinthians, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha” (I Cor, 16:22). There was a survey of the beliefs of the clergy in the Church of England published in the Times yesterday (29 June 2002). Four out of ten male ministers do not believe in the virgin birth of Christ, and seven out of ten women clergy do not believe in it. We cannot rejoice in that. Less than half the clergy believe that Christ is the only way to God. About 40 per cent of the clergy do not believe in the physical resurrection of Christ. We do not rejoice in that. Any schemes or pleas for unity in the name of freedom of opinion and sincerity while those denials are maintained is a betrayal of Christ. If men preach salvation by works, or salvation by respectability, or deny the need for a new birth then we cannot rejoice. We cannot welcome such preaching. We cannot condone it. We cannot be associated with it, because the doctrine is wrong. In other words, Paul is not suggesting in these verses, “It doesn’t matter what they preach so long as they mention the name of Jesus. Then I’ll be happy.” No, no! ‘Jesus’ is not some kind of mantra which you chant. The Apostle was not soft towards any and every preacher who offers a show of piety and who claims to preach ‘Jesus.’ Paul didn’t say in some bland way that since we all follow the one Lord then we are all one. Paul would want to know which Jesus they were preaching. We too must constantly ask if a Jesus being promoted is the Mormon Jesus or the Jehovah’s Witness Jesus or the naturalistic, liberal Jesus or the health, wealth, and prosperity Jesus. Or is it the biblical Jesus, the Jesus of Chalcedon, and the 39 Articles and the 1689 Confession? Paul gives the weight of his authority and approval not to his opponents’ devotion to Christ as such, and not to their concern for the unconverted as such, but to this fact, that he agrees with and authenticates their message. They were preaching the Christ of the Bible.
Let us go on a little and notice the strength of language which Paul uses when he describes his opponents – “envy and rivalry … selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains … false motives” (15 & 17). James Montgomery Boice comments, “Did you know that Paul very likely lost his life as a result of the trouble caused by the troublemaking Christians at Rome? The information that exists from the early church age about the death of Paul and the things that led up to it points to this conclusion: envy led some Christians to denounce Paul and, as a result of their denunciation, Paul and perhaps others also were presumably executed under Nero” (James Montgomery Boice, “Philippians”, Baker, 1971, p.59). Dr Boice produces three strands of evidence for this, the fact that Paul was initially not well received in Rome, that he seems to have been forgotten and when Onesiphorous arrived there no one seemed to be able to tell him where Paul was. It was only after considerable searching that he found him. But these leaders of the Roman congregation had to pay attention to him when the Praetorian guard became awakened to Jesus Christ by Paul’s testimony. It was then that those leaders spoke out against him – there are references to a hostile spirit in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Then another strand of evidence for this Christian opposition Paul is provided by the Roman historian Suetonius who alludes to friction in Rome brought about by those who preached in Christ’s Name. The third cause for us to believe in the strength of feeling by Paul’s opponents is in a letter written about 90 A.D. by an old Christian in Rome named Clement. He makes reference to jealousy and strife which in some way caused Paul’s execution. So it is not unlikely that some of his opponents actually denounced Paul to the authorities and so betrayed him, as his Master was also betrayed by one who had been a disciple. So they certainly stirred up trouble for Paul while he was under arrest (v.17).
So here were a group of men in the leadership of the church at Rome who virtually hated Paul. They were envious of his influence and success, and they were ambitious for leadership. Yet when everyone began to evangelise fervently even they were constrained to preach Christ with new zeal. How impressive and influential is Paul’s example. He really did live that the gospel might be advanced. That was his raison d’etre. So Paul could rejoice in their strange activity, his grumbling opponents were both preaching Christ, while also using the pulpit to make sly innuendoes and veiled threats and concealed, damaging hints about him. They were preaching the holy forgiving Christ the Saviour! They were men who gave a faithful gospel message, declaring a selfless, self-sacrificing, unself-seeking Christ, but privately they indulged in another set of values, self-seeking, and moved to hurt one whom Christ had died to save and set apart as his apostle. They were double-minded, dual personalities. Yet there was a complete absence of a retaliatory spirit in Paul. He didn’t reveal the identity of one of his adversaries There was no feeling of ‘Name and shame.’ He felt hurt at their attitude, but he doesn’t dwell on what they were doing to him. He concluded with thoughts such as these: “They are genuinely preaching Christ. I don’t like why. I don’t particularly like how, but over many years I have observed that God has put his treasure in clay pots and uses them to his glory.” Those who heard Paul’s opponents preaching had no idea of their attitude to the apostle. The congregations only heard good preaching of Christ, and some of them came to believe. God veiled the preachers’ bad motives from them.
There may be a great deal in contemporary evangelicalism that we find profoundly disturbing, and the skids may be under it as it slides into another agenda of social and psychological entailments which the American Mennonites have come to represent as Christianity. But one criterion can make us rejoice, that Christ is still being preached from other pulpits all over the land. Their services may be teenage-oriented, garish, high pressure, far too dependent on such devices as music softening up a congregation for the message to seem more attractive, immature, manipulative and confused. Yet is the Christ of the Bible being preached? Is he being proclaimed as God and man? Is he being preached as pre-incarnate, incarnate, exalted? Is he being preached in his state of humiliation and glory? Is he being preached in his offices as prophet, priest and king? Is he being offered as the only Saviour, the one Name by which we must be saved, and the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, so that there is no need of purgatory, and praying saints, and penances, and an interceding Mary, and ritualistic Calvary-repeating dressed-up priests? Is their Jesus all sufficient? As we evaluate preaching, especially in denominations different from our own, the prime question is and must always be, is Christ being preached? If so, I am called upon to rejoice.
Let us close with these measured words of the Anglican scholar and preacher, J. Alec Motyer: “Differences of personal like and dislike must ever remain in the church. Different stages of sanctification must ever mark individual Christians and groups of Christians on this side of glory. These things must be accepted, and, as far as unity is concerned, set on one side. There is but one essential. In its broadest statement, it is agreement in the truth; in its inner essence it is agreement as to what constitutes the saving message, the gospel, what we tell the world about Christ. Lacking this we will look in vain for unity; having it we have the one thing on which Paul here insists, and which remains the single point of insistence throughout the New Testament teaching on the unity of the church” (J. Alec Motyer, “The Richness of Christ”, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1966, p.48).
30th June 2002 GEOFF THOMAS