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Philippians 1: 12-14
Nowhere, in all its 66 books, does the Bible ever say that when someone becomes a Christian all their problems disappear. Quite the opposite. The apostle Paul warns that it is through many tribulations that we must enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus said to the disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b). Jesus Christ was a ‘man of sorrows.’ If we are His disciples and follow Him and walk in His footsteps, we too will be people of sorrows. Paul says Christ suffered and was glorified. He says we shall reign with Christ and be glorified with Him if we also suffer with Him.
We live in a fallen world, a world that groans under the curse. On day, God will remove all that but for now we are impacted by the effect of the Fall. But, whilst also giving us a helpful does of reality saying there is suffering for the people of God in this world, the suffering anyone of God experiences, the Bible also gives us things to help to anchor us. Our troubles have a shelf-life; they are the troubles of this world and will not follow us into the world to come.
The Bible assures us God is in control, even of His people’s sufferings. God will not abandon us to our sufferings. He is present with us. He has purposes in people’s sufferings. God redeems the suffering of His people for a glorious purpose. God, through suffering, works to bring about great and precious fruits.
You have a painful experience of one kind or another, in ways which we cannot understand at the time. But we live by faith in God’s promises and God brings out of that painful experience something that is for the individual’s own benefit.
But I want to bring to you something perhaps we don’t often think about – God uses an individual believer’s painful experiences to benefit somebody else. He uses suffering and the anguish that we go through, to bless and to profit another person, to bring them to faith in our Saviour. Our suffering in this world can create gospel opportunities that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Our painful experiences can actually be used and be instrumental, in God’s hands, in people’s conversions. Do you want to be an evangelist? Perhaps, even a difficult experience may make you one.
Philippians chapter 1 is an example of a trial with an evangelistic purpose.
“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. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14).
Paul says, ‘I want you to know brother, the things which have happened to me, happened for the furtherance of the gospel. What happened to Paul? He is speaking of the opposition he had encountered in his ministry, and the suffering that that had brought upon him.
Interestingly, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul catalogues for the believers there, everything he had suffered, simply for being a servant of Christ. One thing he mentions here, and in Philippians, he was imprisoned, in confinement. When Paul wrote this letter he was under house arrest, confined, unable to leave because of his preaching the gospel. He refused to deviate from his task of declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the Saviour of sinners.
Paul was confined, in a home. He would have been guarded 24/7 by Roman soldiers. Not just any Roman soldiers, the palace guard, who were amongst Caesar’s premier soldiers, the elite. This gives an indication of how much of a threat Paul was regarded in the world of his day. He had the top men guarding him, really tough men. It is possible he was actually chained to them, or that may be a metaphor to speak of his confinement.
The Philippians have heard of this. Paul had a good relationship with this church. He was involved in planting that church (Acts 16). He had maintained a good relationship with them. That comes out in the opening verses of the chapter (verses 3, 4 & 7).
He evokes God as a witness, “For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:8). Paul had a close relationship with this church, “Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.” (Philippians 4:1). He loved them deeply. Why? He had fellowship with them in the gospel, “for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now,” (Philippians 1:5). He saw in the Philippians a passion for Jesus Christ. He was drawn to them. Don’t you feel that when you see people with a passion Christ? You want fellowship with them. These were people who had come to know, love and serve Jesus Christ.
He speaks in verse 7 that they themselves may have suffered for the gospel. They were dear to him, and he was dear to them. They had supported his itinerant ministry. When most other churches had left him to his own devices, the Philippian church had invested in Paul, showing how serious they were about the gospel. Despite being poor believers materially, they supported and provided for him.
They had head Paul was in a serious condition, confined whilst he awaits a verdict about his future, will he live of will he die, will he be executed or set free? He is in a very difficult position. The Philippians have sent to Paul a man to help, Epaphroditus, later mentioned in the book, “Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need,” (Philippians 2:25). He has a gift from the Philippians. No doubt, Epaphroditus came not only with a gift and prayer, but also to find out more to give news back to the Philippians, to inform their prayer, “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel,” (Philippians 1:12).
Paul says it has been a major step forward for the work of God. They might have thought it was a disaster; the gospel had benefitted immensely from Paul’s travels. Having seen Paul’s fruitfulness in planting churches and encouraging people, all of a sudden Paul can’t get out to preach in the market place and the synagogue. He is stuck in this accommodation, under house arrest. Surely, the work of the gospel was being curtailed. Were the enemies of the gospel succeeding? But Paul says, ‘If only you knew! In ways which you couldn’t have anticipated, God has turned the table on His enemies.’
In verses 13 and 14 Paul explains two ways in which his confinement under house arrest has been beneficial to the gospel, how it has created opportunities for people to hear and know Christ, which would not have happened otherwise.
Firstly, “So that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ,” (Philippians 1:13). The people guarding Paul, and others, have come to hear that he is there because of his testimony to Jesus Christ. There were 6 hour shift patterns for the guards, so Paul saw many soldiers in a 24 hour period. As they were with him, he talked to them of Jesus Christ. He preached the gospel to the palace guard and to all the rest. It seemed these soldiers had spoken to other people. The soldiers were passing the message on. “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.” (Philippians 4:22). Paul gives greetings to the Christians in Philippi, but especially to those of Caesar’s household. It would seem people in Caesar’s household had come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It would appear that it was Paul’s confinement that was instrumental in this.
Caesar’s household would never turn up at the synagogue or the market place to hear Paul preach. So, what does God do? He takes Paul and puts him in their midst. He puts Paul in Caesar’s household – in confinement with access to those prison guards. Paul had a ‘captive audience!’ Comically really. They thought he was captive, but they were captive because they had to be there and they had to listen to what Paul way saying. Paul had a captive audience in the Roman army, in the palace guard, who then spreads it. If Paul was going to get the gospel message to Caesar’s household, it would only happen by him becoming their prisoner. Paul would never have had the opportunity to witness to them, to declare Christ, in any other way. Paul’s confinement was by God’s sovereign appointment. By God’s sovereign appointing, Paul gets this opportunity to witness into the heart of the enemy. It would have been a difficult experience, but it was a trial with an evangelistic purpose.
This was one way in which Paul had a difficult experience which turned out to benefit others and to create gospel opportunities. It gave him access to places he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
Secondly, Paul writes, “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” (Philippians 1:14). Paul was in Rome, under house arrest. There was already a church in Rome, but it seems there was much timidity, and they were intimidated into silence. But Paul says, through his confinement, something wonderful has happened; they have become confident by his chains. His imprisonment had made them much more confident and much more bold to speak the word of God without fear. How would that have happened? They would have seen the way God was upholding the apostle Paul. Under house arrest, Paul couldn’t leave, but he could have people coming to him. Some of these brethren, no doubt, would have come in to speak to Paul and pray with him. They would have seen in Paul, Jesus Christ upholding him, Paul knowing the peace of God that passes all understanding, guarding his heart and mind. They would have seen it was not easy serving Christ, but they would have seen in Paul, God’s protecting hand. They knew that if God was going to be with them like He was with Paul, then they too could speak the word boldly, without fear. Through Paul’s suffering, people would have seen in him the power of God – not for great miracles but through him being sustained. Previously, the church was not doing its job because of fear. Now, the church was emboldened and empowered. The gospel is now being spread in Rome.
They could have thought, how is the gospel going to get in greater power to Rome? Many might have thought the answer would have been to invite Paul to speak in the synagogue and in the market place, invite him to address people there. But no. God sits Paul in one room, for people to find him there. How is the gospel going to get out that way? Well, Paul will get access to people in that place he wouldn’t get access to otherwise, and the emboldened church, though seeing what has happened, will get the gospel out. Through Paul’s difficult experience, gospel opportunities were created.
There’s a very important statement Paul makes, “And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there,” (Acts 20:22). Paul’s final words to Ephesus. At a later date, the Spirit has told Paul he will suffer. He then says, “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24). Paul was single-minded. He had a ministry given to him by the Lord – to tell others the good news of sins forgiven by Jesus Christ. He is prepared to lay down his life for that. He knew there was trouble ahead. But he knew he had a commission. He didn’t cling to his life. Paul would literally be a living sacrifice. He offered himself a living sacrifice to God.
Being fruitful in our witness to the Lord will inevitably bring pain and heartache. Sometimes, God leads us into difficult experiences to create gospel opportunities. For example, in one sense it’s sobering and in another sense it’s thrilling, to think that God is at work through everything. Could it be that, perhaps, at some point the Lord will take us into hospital with a serious illness? It would be very painful and difficult. Or it could be a loved one in hospital with a serious illness, which would be very painful and difficult. But in that hospital are other patients and medical staff, who would never think of darkening the doors of the church. Patients and medical staff who, if a tract came through their door, would throw it straight in the bin. But God has a magnificent purpose, to take a person and bring them into the Kingdom. But how on earth are they going to come under the gospel if they will not come to a church? Or they will not receive literature, or come to a church fun day or anything like that? How are they to get the gospel? Could it be through a believer going into the same ward as them? Or a believer being one of their patients? Or through a believer going in visiting and having opportunity with other patients and medical staff? A difficult experience, creating a gospel opportunity. The Lord, in redeeming that painful experience, brings about the birth of a brother and sister into the family of God.
The story of Romanian evangelical priest Richard Wurmbrand is a stirring one. Boy, did he suffer. But boy, was he fruitful! Who knows, in time to come, the way things are going in our nation, we might find ourselves in prison for the cause of Christ, and gain access in that way, into places we wouldn’t have had otherwise?
Through the difficult experiences of Paul, and of us, people see the truth of God displayed. They see a reality, not just words spoken on a Sunday. They see the reality of God in a person’s life, in a believer’s life, as they suffer. They see not just sorrow and pain, but peace, anchored and sustained by the keeping power of God. People say, ‘I don’t understand it. I see other people suffering with the same condition, but there’s something different about you, in the way that you are able to go through this.’ It can make people sit up and think. Perhaps the Lord will use it. A gospel opportunity.
In the first three centuries there was great persecution brought upon the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Roman Empire. Many believers were martyred in horrendous ways. But there are documented examples of people who attended the executions, the burnings and giving to the lions, who were utterly amazed at the grace God gave believers as they went through that. And some of those watching, actually came to faith in Christ because of it, who were then themselves executed.
Who knows that God may use our lives in that way, sending difficult experiences so that we become a stage for God to demonstrate His power, even in people’s suffering, that it may turn other people’s hearts? Our challenge is this – and it is very much something we work towards – can we really say, to any measure with Paul, ‘Take my life.’ Or are we, ‘No, Lord. I’d love to be a witness for you, I’d love to be involved in evangelism, telling others about Jesus, but not through a difficult experience that will be a gospel opportunity, out of which will come a new brother and sister in the family of God.’
Are we willing, in light of what God has done for us, to offer ourselves to Him in that way? Did not Jesus give His life so that we might come to know Him? Christ suffered incredibly for our salvation. We are to practice Christ-like selflessness and sacrifice for the good of one another. Difficult experiences are part and parcel. We can’t escape them. But isn’t it good to think how the Lord can redeem them?
May God help us in these days and give us our Christ-like perspective. We are here for Him, for the work of the gospel. May we give our lives, whatever happens, in His service.