By Sam E. Stone
Philippians is a letter of encouragement. Although Paul wrote it while a prisoner of Rome, it is not a “Woe is me!” message. The Christians in Philippi and countless believers since have found in this letter reason to rejoice, no matter what life’s circumstances may be.
Pat Edwin Harrell called today’s text “a picture of the gospel’s progress.” He notes that Paul reveals how his imprisonment has directly (1:12-14), indirectly (vv. 15-18), and unfailingly worked to the glory of Christ (vv. 19-26). The Philippians had evidently been concerned about Paul’s condition in prison, and so they sent a gift to him through Epaphroditus (2:25; 4:10, 14). Paul begins his “thank you letter” by letting them know about the opportunities he has had.
A Chance to Witness to Unbelievers
Philippians 1:12, 13
Elsewhere we read how Paul was kept under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:16, 30). He mentions his chains also in the other prison epistles (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; Colossians 4:3, 18; Philemon 1, 9, 23).
Rather than grumbling about having to go through this, the apostle took a completely different view. He saw his imprisonment as serving to advance the gospel. He had opportunity to witness to the guards who were with him, the people who came to see him, and others who observed his reaction to adversity.
The message of Jesus had been able to reach places it might otherwise never have touched—even into the whole palace guard. What happened has been called “a serendipity situation.” His captivity did not end his evangelistic ministry. Instead, as William Barclay put it, “The bonds destroyed the barriers.” As a result, even some who belonged to Caesar’s household became believers (Philippians 4:22).
A Chance to Encourage Brethren
The Christians were understandably nervous and fearful since the apostle Paul was imprisoned because of his faith. Now, however, they could see how the Lord was blessing and using the situation in order that Christ could be proclaimed. This made them confident in the Lord.
Paul acknowledged that those who were preaching had mixed motives. Some did so out of envy and rivalry, while others did so out of goodwill. Those who acted out of love included people like Timothy (Philippians 2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (vv. 25-30).
Frank Thielman notes that Paul put into practice the advice he had given others. “‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?’ he had said to the Corinthian believers when he heard that some were taking others before pagan judges to . . . redress various injustices (1 Corinthians 6:7). It was more important for the church to be the church than for its members to receive the personal satisfaction of winning lawsuits against fellow believers.”
Paul was willing to subordinate his personal agenda to God’s. He rejoiced that his enemies were preaching Christ. Even those who did so for wrong reasons could make a positive impact.
A Chance to Exalt Jesus
Because of this, Paul said, I will continue to rejoice. The entire book of Philippians affirms that Christians should always rejoice (see 2:18; 3:1; 4:4). Paul does not call for some superficial, emotional “happiness.” Instead, he sees rejoicing as the result of confident faith. The believer knows God is ultimately in control. He can work all things (even the bad ones!) to bring good for his children (Romans 8:28). Even now, though restricted by chains, the apostle is confident that what has happened will turn out for (his) deliverance.
Deliverance could come in one of two ways—his chains removed or his death. Either way, Christ would be exalted. It was a win-win situation. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Whether his release came by having his chains removed or by dying as a martyr, the Savior would be honored. That was all Paul needed to know! The ultimate choice was God’s, not his. He set forth the options: living in the body (means) fruitful labor . . . To depart and be with Christ is better by far! The apostle acknowledged that God may still need him on earth. This could be more necessary for you. An old hymn says, “We’ll work till Jesus comes . . . then we’ll be gathered home.” Continuing to live and work for God isn’t the easiest choice, but if God has a job for us to do, that’s what we need to be doing. Paul concludes, I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.