The Progress of the Gospel

A sermon by Lee Irons


Philippians 1:12 Now I want you to know brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.  13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.  18 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. Philippians 1:12-18

Paul Reports His Imprisonment

Paul's main point in this section is to report on his circumstances to the Philippian church. Their deacon, Epaphroditus, will be returning to them with this letter in hand, and so Paul naturally wants to encourage the Philippian church that even though he is imprisoned, his imprisonment has actually turned out for the greater progress of the gospel. This is an unexpected byproduct of Paul's sufferings. It would have been relatively easy for Paul to focus only on the negative consequences of his sufferings — how he is no longer free to travel and continue his missionary work of planting churches among the Gentiles, how he is unable to visit churches like the one at Philippi that have already been established, and how his imprisonment has caused other Christians to preach Christ in order to cause him distress in his imprisonment. But Paul doesn't dwell on these negative things. Instead he places all the emphasis on the positive byproduct of his suffering.

Two Positive Byproducts of Paul's Trial

There are two positive and unexpected byproducts of his imprisonment, both of which are summed up in verse 12 as contributing to "the greater progress of the gospel."

The first unexpected byproduct (v. 13) is that the true reason for his imprisonment has become well known throughout Caesar's palace. It has become apparent that his imprisonment is "in Christ." In other words, it has become publicly well-known throughout Nero's household that he is a prisoner, not of Caesar, but of Jesus Christ, and that he isn't merely there to defend himself against the legal charges that have been brought against him — he is appointed for the defense of the gospel.

The second unexpected byproduct (vv. 14-18a) is a result of the first byproduct. Because Paul's imprisonment has taken on a larger dimension as the defense of the gospel itself, the majority of the Christian brothers in Rome have far more courage to preach the word of God without fear. It is true that some are preaching Christ because they are motivated by envy and some are doing so out of love for Paul and for Paul's gospel. Nevertheless, Paul rejoices that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed.

As a result of Paul's imprisonment, Christ and his gospel are being promoted and proclaimed. The gospel is being proclaimed by Paul himself as he speaks of Christ to the praetorian guards to which he is chained night and day, and the gospel is being proclaimed by Paul's Christian brothers in the city of Rome, who have become even bolder in their proclamation precisely because Paul's case has become a well known cause celebre throughout the city.

Paul Rejoices that Christ is preached

We need to follow Paul's example by rejoicing that Christ is preached, even when he is preached from wrong motives. If we have Paul's singular passion for the gospel, then we will not be upset or bothered when Christ is preached from wrong motives, but we will rejoice that, in spite of the flaws of other churches and ministries, Christ is being proclaimed.

He is not talking about false teachers, but about genuine brothers in Christ who preach the same gospel and the same Christ that he preaches, but who are doing it from wrong motives and with a party spirit, seeking to gain more disciples than Paul and wanting to expand their own ministry at Paul's expense. They are preaching the truth, but they are doing so with the goal of trying to cause Paul distress in his imprisonment. Thus, they are not motivated by love and good will, but by a selfish motive that is using the gospel as a means of self-aggrandizement.

That's how much Paul loves the gospel — that he's willing to rejoice when Christ is preached from false motives!  When you look at Christendom, with such a mixture of truth and error, it is easy to be discouraged. But if you adopt Paul's perspective, you can say, "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice" (v. 18).

Rejoice that Christ Is Preached, No Matter What the Method or Motive

"In every way" is an important phrase in Greek. It means, that in every manner that the gospel is preached — whatever the method of evangelism, whatever the motive of ministry — we ought to rejoice that Christ is being proclaimed. This does not mean that the philosophy of ministry is a matter of adiaphora [it makes no difference], that it doesn't matter what methods we use in our teaching, preaching, worship, and evangelism. No!  Paul makes that very clear in 1 Corinthians 3 when he warns church leaders and preachers to take heed how they build — for there is only one foundation that can be laid, and that is Jesus Christ. And so preachers and church leaders must exercise great care to make sure that they are building on that one foundation, and not on another foundation, and to make sure they are building with materials that will survive the consuming fire of judgment — with gold, silver, and precious stones, rather than with wood, hay, and straw. So the philosophy of ministry is not adiaphora. It is absolutely essential.

However, what Paul is saying is this:  even when we look around us and see church leaders and preachers who are building with wood, hay, and straw — if they are preaching Christ — no matter how mixed with error and unsound methods — if they are preaching Christ we ought to rejoice that Christ is being preached!

God Can Draw a Straight Line with a Crooked Stick

Why? Because God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. God can even use a false teacher like Balaam to communicate truth unto the salvation of souls. Even when the truth is veiled and hidden behind a whole lot of fluff and smoke — yet the Spirit can pierce through all that and make the arrow of truth pierce through to the hearts of his elect.

You see how for Paul, Christ is all in all. It is Christ alone that matters. Not the human beings who are but the instruments through whom Christ is proclaimed. Not the fallible institutions that Christians like to build — whether it be a denomination, or a seminary, or a parachurch ministry. All men will all fail. All institutions will fail. The only thing that will last is the person of Jesus Christ.

Encouragement from Paul's Optimistic Perspective on His Sufferings

Paul has described his circumstances to the Philippian Christians. He has encouraged them to look on the silver lining beneath the cloud. The Philippian Christians no doubt were tempted to be discouraged with the news of Paul's imprisonment. Perhaps they were also discouraged with the way things were going for them in the city of Philippi. They were in trouble with the Roman government and being persecuted by it. They were experiencing disunity as a congregation, disunity that was hindering them from standing united in their proclamation of the gospel to the world around them.

Paul gives his own optimistic perspective on his sufferings with the express purpose of setting forth an example for us that we should follow in his steps and adopt the same gospel-centered, Christ-centered optimism. We need to be encouraged to get out of our funk, to stop wallowing in self-pity at the problems we face, to quite squabbling over small points — and to become united once again around Christ and his gospel. We need to take the opportunity afforded by our sufferings and troubles as a congregation to seek out the ways in which our circumstances are turning out for the greater progress of the gospel.

Turn Lemons into Lemonade

Whenever you encounter trials, whenever you suffer, follow Paul's example by refusing to dwell on the negative aspect of the situation and focus on the unexpected positive byproducts. In particular, the positive byproducts as they relate to the gospel. Whenever you encounter a trial, know that God is at work in and through the trial, and he is orchestrating the pain and the hardship for the greater progress of the gospel. It may not always be an overtly evangelistic result. It might be more personal — God might be using the trial for "your progress and joy in the faith" (v. 25). Look for the silver lining in every cloud! However, don't look for something earthly. The unexpected byproducts of suffering are often invisible and intangible, precisely because they are not temporal benefits that fade away, but spiritual benefits that will last for eternity.

Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

All Things Work Together for Good

There is nothing that occurs in our lives that does not fit. For the Christian, all things work together for our good — even the parts that don't seem right, the parts that cause us the most anguish of soul. And the ultimate proof of this is the gospel itself, which proclaims the paradox of power through weakness, of glory through suffering. Look at the cross. Did it appear to the disciples at the time that this was part of God's plan? Of course not. And yet through the humiliation and apparent defeat of the cross, the gospel has become the power of God unto salvation. This is the secret that Paul learned.

There is only one way we can have this mindset, and that is by imitating Paul's singular passion for the gospel. Paul's whole life is centered upon the gospel. He is so preoccupied with the gospel that he considers it a great privilege and a joy to suffer for Christ, all because he knows that the result of his suffering is the greater progress of the gospel that he so passionately preaches and of the Savior he so passionately loves. The singular passion of Paul for the gospel of Christ is an example for us to follow. Let us fix our eyes upon Christ. Let us order our lives and our priorities in such a way, so that whether our earthly dreams are being realized or being dashed, we are content as long as Christ is exalted and his gospel is being furthered.

The cross stands at the very heart of the gospel. And so if your heart is mastered and dominated by the gospel, then you will not flee from suffering but embrace it as part of God's hidden wisdom.

Obstacles Are Your Fellowship with Christ's Sufferings

Notice how Paul seizes upon his imprisonment and turns it around. He doesn't sit there in his prison cell, chained to the Roman guard, and bemoan his condition and engage in a self-pity party. Nor does he reason, "I'll just stoically gut it out and wait until I'm released." As he says in v. 19, he was optimistic that he will be delivered. So it would have been tempting to view his imprisonment as a temporary obstacle, a roadblock hindering him from doing what he is really supposed to be doing, and to just passively wait until the roadblock is removed.

Paul does neither of these things. Instead, he seizes upon his imprisonment and turns it into the very means of the fulfillment of his lifelong passion. The Jews and the Romans are giving him a big sack of lemons and he turns it into lemonade. He makes the unlikely situation, the unwelcome situation, not an excuse for self-pity, nor a problem to be stoically endured, but another opportunity to preach Christ, which is the very thing that he's devoted his whole life to. He views this as his date with destiny. He regards this apparent tragedy and defeat, as the moment he's been waiting for — namely, the opportunity to stand before Caesar in the capital of the Roman Empire and preach Christ. This is not a cross to be borne. It is the very fellowship of Christ's sufferings so that he might thereby press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

He says, "I am appointed for the defense of the gospel" (v. 16). The word "appointed" implies that his imprisonment is God's predestined plan for him. He has been place into this situation by God himself, in order to stand boldly in the capital of the Roman Empire and proclaim the gospel there.

Brothers and sisters, your trials, your difficult situations, are not obstacles to be overcome but divine appointments to be embraced. Do not run away from them. Do not stoically persevere in spite of them. Take your trials, embrace them as God's foreordained purpose and plan, flip them upside down and turn them into the moment you've been waiting for, an opportunity to know Christ better and to make him known to others.



See other perspectives on suffering: Making Sense of Suffering and Why Did God Let It Happen? and more here.

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