The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in January 2022*
Sermon Audio: The Advance of the Gospel (Phil 1:12-18)
Optimists are people who tend to look on the bright side, notice that the glass is half full, make lemonade when given lemons. They are positive and uplifting. Pessimists tend to be gloomy, noticing that the glass is half empty, always ready to poke holes in what looks like a good plan. The worst case scenario is always the most likely scenario; the thing we dread is likely going to happen; getting our hopes up only leads to being disappointed. Optimists and pessimists are polar opposites, Tigger and Eeyore; entirely different creatures with entirely different perspectives on life. (And, for some reason, almost always they wind up marrying each other).
No one likes being called an optimist or a pessimist. The terms imply that you don’t see reality rightly—you either are blind to the negative or positive aspects of life. Everything you say must be qualified with your dour or naïve perspective. Yes, but you’re an incurable optimist, or, you’re just saying that because you’re a pessimist. The implication of both of those sentences is: we cannot trust what you say to be an accurate rendering of reality. Christians, arguably, have good reason for being either optimists or pessimists. We believe in the doctrine of total depravity and original sin, thus seem to have good reason to have a fairly negative outlook on life, but we also believe in an overcoming Savior and a sovereign God who is returning to establish His kingdom in its fullness, so we have a pretty good reason to be optimistic.
Was Paul an optimist? At one point Paul explains: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” 2 Cor 4:8-9. Notice the duality in what he says. He acknowledges his great suffering, yet maintains that he is not abandoned to despair—it is neither optimism or pessimism per se. In fact, just one verse earlier he states, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us,” 2 Cor 4:7. The treasure there is the gospel, and he thinks of himself as a fragile jar of clay—easily broken. But the cracks only let the light of the treasure shine out more clearly. There are things that make Paul sad, yet he always finds reason to rejoice (2 Cor 6:10).
In our text today Paul is going to detail a set of circumstances that are incredibly frustrating and limiting, but will resound with Paul’s confidence that God is always on his side.
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. – Phil 1:12-18
- Paul most certainly was not a pessimist. Is Paul an optimist?
- Paul is a man who believes in a sovereign God who especially uses what we wouldn’t expect to accomplish His good purposes.
- For instance: our suffering/weakness
- “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Cor 12:10
- “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28
- “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matt 16:18
- God has sovereignly ordained that His gospel will advance, regardless of what man may do to stop it. This should make us very bold. This should make us humble.
“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.” – Phil 1:12-13
What has happened to Paul? We know from the end of the book of Acts that Paul was imprisoned in Rome because of his ministry, and this is likely where he is writing this letter (note: the “imperial” guard, a Roman “praetorian” guard; most likely found in Rome). His ministry had led him to face persecution often. In his farewell address to the elders at the church in Ephesus he explains to them:
“…the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God,” Acts 20:23-24
So, the Holy Spirit had specifically informed Paul that in whatever city he would be travelling to, there he would face persecution. Which is a pretty alarming reality. If you or I were travelling missionaries and were informed that the next city we intended to visit had hostiles present, intent on hurting us and throwing us in prison, my guess is that most of us would likely skip that city? Or if we were to go into that city and be promptly thrown in jail, we would likely consider that a dramatic set back. But Paul has a different set of goalposts than we do. He does not count his life of any value or precious at all. The only thing that matters to him is that he finishes his race, that he testifies to the gospel of the grace of God.
And Paul wants the Philippians to know that his imprisonment has actually served as a means of advancing the gospel because it has now became known “throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ,” (1:13). Paul is a travelling missionary, so one would think that preventing him from travelling would put an end to his missionary work, only it hasn’t. It has led to Paul spreading the gospel among his jailers, among the guards, spreading to “all the rest.” Remember: Paul is confident that there is a sovereign God who has willed that His gospel will advance, that His church will be built, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, so Paul is just unyieldingly confident. And his confidence and boldness in the face of trials has a salutary effect on those around him:
“And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear,” Phil 1:14.
This is a counter-intuitive truth to consider: Paul is saying that the Christians around him who have observed his imprisonment, seen what it has cost Paul to be obedient to Christ, are now becoming more confident and less fearful to follow his example. That seems like the opposite of what should happen, right? That is the intended societal effect of imprisonment and punishments—it disincentivizes the rest of society from participating in that act. But, it leads the rest of the followers of Jesus around Paul to become more confident, more fearless. Examples of Christian courage are contagious.
Many of you know that recently Adam Diaz from Abide Church and myself gave a lecture to the faculty CBC regarding a Christian perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Adam is also a professor at CBC, so he brought me in to give the lecture, and we together taught different sections of the lecture. While we said nothing in the lecture that was inflammatory and conducted ourselves throughout the lecture and the Q&A time with gentleness, the response from the faculty was fairly negative. To a smaller degree, some of the people in the Q&A time were rude to us, but more importantly both beforehand and afterwards there have been individuals who have responded by threatening lawsuits, by filing formal complaints with the college for allowing us to give the talk, filing formal complaints with accreditation board over the college, and other formal actions to make sure that nothing like this happens again. Adam, of course, is putting his job on the line by doing this. After the lecture and Q&A time, Adam and I were walking back to his office debriefing what happened. We were frankly discouraged at the reception and interaction with the faculty, but we felt a simultaneous hope that perhaps other Christians at the school would now feel emboldened to be more confident in sticking to their convictions, but also a fear that maybe those same Christians felt even more intimidated by seeing how we were treated for our modest push against the current culture.
But Paul gives us a helpful perspective: Christian courage is contagious. Note: I am not pretending to hold up what I did as a great act of courage. It was really Adam who was the courageous one of the two of us because he is legitimately putting his job in jeopardy. But still, when we compare that level of opposition compared with what Paul faced himself, what our brothers and sisters are facing today in closed countries like China and Afghanistan and Iran, it just doesn’t compare. But, what I am saying is that the path of the Christian life is a path where we should regularly expect resistance and difficulty. Paul later in Philippians is going to remind us that, “…it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Phil 1:29). Jesus taught, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” (Matt 5:11-12).
It’s a feature of the Christian life, not a bug. And when other real Christians see someone model courage it awakens something inside of them that says, Yes, I should be willing to lay it down on the line like that. There will be plenty of false believers who, when push comes to shove, will choose their own security and comfort over Jesus. But those who have God’s Spirit dwelling in them will see and will be emboldened, will be less gripped by fear to declare God’s Word.
Friend, I wonder where Christ is calling you to be bold today? Perhaps in your workplace? Perhaps with your neighbor? Is there something that world is requiring you to buckle on that compromises the truth of the gospel? Maybe in your friend group there is a culture where it is normal to make racist or crude jokes and you know that if you take a stand against it, everyone will think you to be a spoil-sport, maybe even assume you think you’re better than them. Maybe you have been asked to sign a document at work that says that you will affirm and approve any and all sexual and gender identities in the workplace, and you know if you refuse to sign it at worst you could lose your job and at best you will be seen as a benighted fundamentalist who is motivated by hatred.
Maybe you are fearful to stand for Christ because you think that you will be less effective, less influential if you “out” yourself as a Christian at work, or maybe even put your job in jeopardy. Consider this: God has sovereignly ordained that His gospel will advance, His church will be built, and even when His path leads you into a place that you cannot understand, that you can’t see how it leads to more gospel-advancement, you can trust that God knows better than you do, so you stay the course.
Paul’s understanding that God’s sovereign purpose to advance the gospel doesn’t only make him bold and others bold, it paradoxically also makes him humble.
“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice,” Phil 1:15-18.
There is a group of preachers laboring in the world alongside Paul—these are the people who have been emboldened by Paul’s model in vs. 14. But there is a mixture of motivations behind these preachers. Some are motivated by a sincere love of God and of Paul. They know that Paul was put in jail for defending the gospel, so they are going to carry the torch. Others, however, are motivated by “rivalry and envy.” They preach Christ out of “selfish ambition, not sincerely.” They actually are hoping to hurt Paul while he is in jail! How does that work? It could mean that these individuals are hoping that by spreading the gospel more, Paul’s punishment will become more severe—the guards will take it out on Paul in anger that the gospel is still being proclaimed. John Calvin in commenting on this passage says that he personally knows of men in his own time who do something like this—preaching the gospel only to afflict pious pastors. However, it seems more likely that these men, being motivated by “rivalry and envy…and selfish ambition” are more interested in growing their own platform at the expense of Paul. They have begun to think that ministry is a competition and now that Paul is in jail, now they have their shot to stand in the spotlight. And they are hoping, at least Paul assumes, that Paul knows he isn’t in the big times anymore, that he has been surpassed by these “super” preachers (cf. 2 Cor 11:5).
The work of a preacher can be a tempting environment for selfish ambition, for vanity, for conceit. Being put up on a platform and teaching others from a position of authority can be a strong drug that inebriates the preacher into thinking that he must be something special. But as soon as a preacher makes the proclamation of the gospel finally about his own image and vanity, then he necessarily views other preachers as adversaries. They are not co-laborers working alongside you for the same goal. They are the competition vying for the same pool of attention.
This is a mindset that Paul strongly rejects. Later, Paul will explain to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” (Phil 2:3). There could not be anything more anti-gospel than using the gospel as a platform for yourself. In the gospel Jesus, the Son of God, becomes a servant, becomes a man, despite being the one Being in the universe worthy of all praise and glory and accolades. He goes from the heights of heaven, to the depths of the earth, and not only that, but then dies for the people who are sinning against Him. And then resurrects and ascends to the throne of Heaven so that now those who follow Him, sinners who have trusted in Him, can be with Him forever. When you really see that, how low Jesus was willing to go for you, how asinine do you have to be to then take that message and say, “Man, I can sure use this as a great platform for myself.”
But that is what these people were doing, these people that Paul had himself taught and labored with. But notice Paul’s response: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice,” (Phil 1:18). Try to enter Paul’s experience as much as you can. You have sacrificed your whole life for this cause. You have been beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, starved, stoned, reviled, whipped, and abandoned—all to spread the gospel. And you have poured your heart and soul into teaching a group of men, and then once again been thrown into jail because you won’t stop preaching. But along comes a group of these guys who know think that you being thrown in jail is an opportunity for them to shine? Thinking that the preaching ministry is a kind of beauty pageant where they get to win the applause of others? Whispering to other people that you are on the outs, that they are the new hot commodity? How would you feel? What would you do? What does Paul do?
He rejoices. Paul is just glad that the gospel is being preached, even if the people preaching have impure motives. Of course, he condemns such motives (cf. Phil 2:3-4). But again, Paul has a different set of priorities. The gospel is going out, and that is all that matters to Paul.
Paul has somehow been able to so separate his own pride and ego and sense of self-importance from the equation, that even though these dopes are intentionally trying to hurt Paul, Paul doesn’t care. “What does it matter? All that matters is Jesus.” You can’t hurt Paul. Why? Because the gospel has sunk down into his heart. It no longer matters to Paul what other people think of him (cf. Gal 1:10), it doesn’t even matter what he thinks of himself–all that matters is what God thinks, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me,” – 1 Cor 4:3-4
And in Christ, Paul knows exactly what God thinks of him. So who cares about these knuckleheads—God will sort them out. Tim Keller often says that there is nothing more relaxing than humility. What would your life look like if I could suck all of your anxiety about your ego and what other people thought of you out of it? Probably pretty relaxing.
But isn’t it amazing that God can even use preachers and churches with impure motives to still proclaim his gospel? The sovereign God has willed that the gospel will advance, the gates of Hell will not be able to stop it.
This should make us bold, should make us confident—but it also should make us deeply humble. It isn’t about us. The gospel doesn’t create naïve optimists or dour pessimists. It gives us humble confidence that our God wins.