Philippians 1:12-14 12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
One of the most striking things about Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians is his ability to recognize and appreciate God’s hand in and through his difficult times. He is not lounging at an Italian bistro, sipping his café latte, as he has casually pens these words. Rather, he writes these words from a jail cell. While this would never be a comfortable situation, it is only worsened by his being wrongfully imprisoned. It is not as if he was caught at a moment of weakness with his hand in the pastry case at the local bistro, but rather he is being persecuted for preaching the gospel of Christ. Naturally there are a number of negative connotations associated with being a criminal, not least of all his credibility and trustworthiness as a religious leader and teacher. Paul is not only physically uncomfortable in the cell of his prison, he also must be terribly concerned about how his imprisonment is being perceived and understood by the church, the critics, and the heretics who challenge his gospel of grace. Paul has labored so tirelessly for the work of Christ, faithfully enduring persecution, battling heresy, preaching and living the gospel, and teaching and empowering leaders in the church only to be now bound in a prison cell. How easy would it have been for him to give up? How logical the temptation must have seemed for him to blame God and quit his ministry? Can you imagine the thoughts that must have flooded his mind, and the feelings that must have gripped his heart? Yet, in the midst of his despair, and in the face of such temptations, he writes one of the most encouraging letters in the New Testament. Where could such encouragement come from? Certainly it could not have come from his circumstances or from his life. Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of Paul’s life is just how much strength and encouragement he has in the midst of his trials. For even this letter is not written by him alone, but rather by him and his close friend and ministry companion, Timothy. For even though God had allowed him to undergo such difficulty, the truth is that he never left him. No matter where Paul found himself, he was never truly alone. God gave him the strength and the wisdom to see and appreciate that God’s hand was at work in and through his trials.
In reading through the letter of Philippians this past week, it struck me just how faithful and trusting Paul was throughout what should have been such a dark time. He did not see this circumstance as an occasion for complaint or for giving up, but rather as an occasion for God to work through his situation. While I can recall numerous occasions where God has used or worked in my discomfort, the impressive thing about Paul is that he recognizes it while he is going through it. Paul is not sitting back in a vacation home reflecting back upon difficult times, but is rather referring to the difficulty that he now experiences as he writes. Somehow his pain, disappointment, and discomfort have not been able to blind him from seeing what God is doing. It is interesting looking back at this period in Paul’s life, from our perspective now, and to realize just how significant God’s work through Paul’s suffering was/is. For if it were not for Paul’s imprisonment how would we have Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, or Philemon (the Prison Epistles)? The fascinating thing about this is that Paul could not have known that this imprisonment, which kept him from all of his missionary travels, gave him the opportunity to sit down and write all of these letters that would impact the church for thousands of years to come. There is no doubt that Paul would have made a great difference if he would have continued his travels in this time of his life, however, we would not have the powerful record that we now have thousands of years later if he had not been thrown into prison.
Philippians 1:20-26 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.
Beyond merely recognizing that God is working through his discomfort, Paul goes on to hope that he will continue on in his discomfort that the gospel may be furthered through him. What an obscure hope for one to voice. He acknowledges that it would be easier, and in a sense even preferable to him, to simply die, but he is more concerned about furthering the gospel of Christ, and appreciates how much God is using him toward that end. Paul shows a level of insight, maturity, and strength that astounds me. For even now, as I write this blog, here in Cincinnati, I acknowledge that there a some things in my life that I would love to change, but Paul’s words challenge me to look for ways in which God may be using the discomforts and difficulties in my life in order to work in and through me. This is typically much easier to see after the fact, however, how much more effective can I be if I, like Paul, am looking for ways to be molded by God and to be used by God right where I currently am? Like Paul, we need to strive to be faithful through our trials, and to look God’s hand at work in and through us, even when he seems to be absent.