Those are questions I was prompted to ask as I read the first chapter of Philippians this week. Paul wrote the letter from a Roman prison. As a general rule, prison has a deterring effect, if not on the prisoners themselves, then certainly on society as a whole. I’ve seen enough prison documentaries that even if my conscience wasn’t bound to the Word of God, I would be a model citizen. Most people don’t have to go to prison to realize they don’t want to go to prison. That’s true today and it was true in the Roman Empire 2000 years ago.
Just as important as knowing you don’t want to go to prison is knowing how to prevent that from happening. People who sell drugs go to prison. You don’t want to go to prison? Don’t sell drugs. People who rob banks go to prison. You don’t want to go to prison? Don’t rob banks.
In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul informs the recipients that it had become known to the whole imperial guard and to the rest of the people of Rome exactly why he was in prison. He was there for proclaiming Christ. What effect would we typically expect that kind of information to have on the city? Something like this: “People who proclaim Christ go to prison. You don’t want to go to prison? Don’t proclaim Christ.”
Logic would tell us that Paul’s imprisonment would have a deterring effect on the spread of the gospel. That makes what actually happened truly amazing: “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (1:14). Paul’s imprisonment had the opposite effect of what we would expect. The believers around him were much more bold to speak the truth. They were much more bold to proclaim Christ.
How can we explain such a thing? I think one key is what Paul writes about the foundation of these believers’ confidence. They had “become confident in the Lord” because of Paul’s imprisonment. There was something about how Paul conducted himself while in chains that led others to grow in their confidence in the Lord to such an extent that they were willing to engage in the very activity for which he was arrested.
I think we see at least three things in Paul that would have inspired confidence in the Lord. First of all, Paul modeled joy in the Lord. That is counterintuitive to the normal human mind. Prison and persecution are horrible. One would expect Paul to be in utter despair. Yet, he wasn’t.
There was joy in his prayer life (1:4). He rejoiced that Christ was being proclaimed, even by those who did so out of rivalry against him. So joyful was he about this that he said it twice in one verse (1:18)! His joy in the present circumstances was implied when he asked the Philippians to complete his joy by being of one mind (2:2). He was concerned that the Philippians have joy as well (2:17-18, 28; 3:1). In 4:1, Paul told them that they were his joy. Twice in 4:4, he exhorted them to rejoice in the Lord. He also rejoiced in the Lord that they were concerned for him (4:10).
And what was the ultimate reason for Paul’s joy? “…for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance…whether by life or by death” (1:19-20). Paul rejoiced in the Lord because whether he lived or died, Christ had secured his deliverance, not merely from a physical prison, but from the penalty and power of sin. This is why he was able to write in the very next verse, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
A testimony of joy in the midst of a serious trial can be almost unsettling to those around you. It speaks volumes about the value of the One in Whom you rejoice. There is so little joy in the life of the typical person that when one witnesses it first hand, especially in the life of a person enduring suffering or persecution, it garners their full attention. It matters the manner in which we suffer. Are we doing so with joy or in despair? What are we saying about Christ to those watching us?
Second, Paul modeled confidence in the Lord. The epistle to the Philippians is riddled with it. In 1:6, he wrote, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” This confidence about the Lord’s accomplishment of their sanctification is echoed in 2:13. Later in the first chapter he confessed his certainty that the Lord would see him through his imprisonment (1:19). Much of the third chapter shows Paul declaring no confidence in his own flesh, but rather faith in Jesus Christ (3:1-11).
Paul’s confidence in Christ was demonstrated in his ability to be content in all circumstances. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:12-13). Some may think that last sentence to be a bold statement and it is. But it is not a fleshly dependence upon self, for in ch3 Paul denied any confidence in the flesh. Rather, Paul is convinced that he can survive any ordeal because of the strength of Christ in him.
He also trusted that Christ would sustain the Philippians: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19).
This confidence was based upon what Paul knew of the character of God. Paul lived in the certainty that the Lord would never leave him nor forsake him. The letter is devoid of any mention of anxiety…except for when Paul exhorts the recipients to be anxious for nothing, but to let their requests be made known to God (4:6). Paul had a peace founded on confidence in the Lord. What did that communicate to the people watching? The Lord can be trusted.
In whatever difficulty you find yourself today, or in that trial that you’ve just come through, have you demonstrated a steeled confidence in Him? Perhaps like Paul, we should focus not so much on the uncertainty of our circumstances, but on the absolute certainty of who God is.
Third, Paul modeled a hunger for the Lord. This seems to bleed through ever chapter of the letter. As already noted, Paul stated in ch1, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain…” (1:21). So enthralled was he with the Lord that to live was Christ, yet his preference was death: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (1:23).
One of the greatest pictures of longing for the Lord in all of Scripture, in my opinion, is found in that passage in ch3 where Paul disavowed any confidence in his own flesh. Although in terms of his pedigree and accomplishments in Judaism, he had as much reason as anyone to put confidence in his own righteousness, he considered it nothing:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (3:7-11).
He hungered for Christ to the extent that he wanted to share in His sufferings, to become like Him in His death.
Paul showed Christ to be worth all the persecution he was enduring by rejoicing in the midst of it, trusting in the Lord without wavering, and preferring Christ over even his own life. If we are not communicating the same things in our trials, it would do us and those around us some good to view our suffering through the lens of the gospel. Our suffering is not just about us and what God is accomplishing in us. It is also about His reputation among those around us and how our example might leaders others to confidence in Him.
Think for a moment about your current difficulty. What does the Lord want to demonstrate about Himself to those around you by how you endure that situation? What is your life teaching others about Christ? The church and the world could use some God-centered suffering in us, suffering that demonstrates the joy of following Christ in all circumstances, the trustworthiness of our Savior, and the surpassing value of knowing Him. Such suffering, rather than causing others to shun trials and persecution, might cause them to welcome it for all the intimacy it would afford with such a magnificent Savior.
Posted by Greg Birdwell