The Surprising Path of Gospel Progress
December 8, 2019
We are back in the Book of Philippians today. In the month of October, we went together through the first eleven verses in the Book of Philippians, which was enriching for me, if nothing else. Hopefully, you got something out of it also. But through the first eleven verses of this letter we saw this exemplary, amazing love and concern Paul has for the church at Philippi. But in addition to that, there is also an understanding throughout this letter that the church in Philippi has a great amount of love and concern for the Apostle Paul also. Paul speaks directly about this in Philippians 4 at the end of the letter. He observes how concerned they are for him in Chapter 4. And if you look at verses 14 through 16, he reveals the depths of the concerns he understands they have for him. He says, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church extended into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.”
So they love and they care for Paul. We see that there. And that means they long to be a part of his ministry and to help him accomplish his ministry. We can see this further from the way he talks about the church in Philippi or the churches in Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8. I think we read that passage once, but let me read again really quickly. In 2 Corinthians 8:1 through 5, Paul says to the Corinthian Church:
*We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not was we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.*
So the church in Philippi sees itself as intimately involved in Paul’s ministry, and you see that in the language in that passage from 2 Corinthians 8. They want to make sure Paul does not face a single hardship on his own, but they are bearing as much of that burden as they can, even from a distance. As much as they can, they want to be a part of it. So because of that connection, they most certainly know of Paul’s desire to be in Rome. That happens to be where he is as he’s writing this letter. They know of the ministry he desires to have in Rome. Actually, if you flip back to Romans 1, you can see this. If you look at the first chapter of Romans, verses 11 through 15, you see just how much Paul wants to be with those members of the Roman church and what he intends to do when he’s there. He says:
*For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as month the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.*
Paul has this desire to be ministering the Gospel to the believers and the unbelievers in Rome. That is the desire that he has. And the Philippian church has the desire to be making this happen. The last time they were with him, they probably knew of this eagerness. So imagine the opportunity for discouragement that must come to them when they discover he has finally made it there—the very place he was eager to preach the Gospel—but he is a prisoner. To help us think through this, coming out of the symposium on missions we just had, imagine if we had one of the greatest, most gifted elder-qualified men we could imagine—mighty in Scripture, bold in his proclamation, and so theologically sound he is writing books that are being published that other churches are using. And we as a church come together and we raise every dollar that we can and everything we can spare and so much that it is a sacrifice to us to send him and support him as he goes to another county to strengthen the church there and to powerfully proclaim the Gospel there. We would have some sort of big sending-off service. There would be tears shed because he’s been so instrumental to our church. But even though it’s sad, we realize this is a good thing, the right thing to do, and this is going to bring glory to God and strengthen his kingdom.
And then upon arriving there, we hear news back from him and find out he is there, but he has been become a prisoner. Now he’s confined and he is unable to move around freely. We can see how that would become incredibly discouraging. We might immediately start doubting whether we should have ever sent him in the first place. We might start having second thoughts about everything we sacrificed to get him there. We would think what a waste it is to have someone who is that gifted and that good as a teacher, to have the brightest and the best just rotting away in prison. We would be second-guessing. “What could we have spent that money on instead? Wouldn’t it be better if he were here ministering to us and if we had that money back?” Not only would it cause doubts about the decisions by the church, but it would possibly also cause us to have doubts about the plan of God, or at least how we perceived it. Those are questions we are tempted to ask during any type of trial. “Did we do something wrong here? Is God punishing us? Did we make some sort of mistake in our thinking? Were we not reading the Scripture right? Was he wanting us to do something else and we missed a sign or something?”
This would be similar to what the church in Philippi might be thinking when they hear that Paul is now a prisoner in the very place he longed to go and preach the Gospel. And that is why what Paul says in the verses we are looking at today would be so shocking for them. Look at verses 12 through 14 in Philippians 1.
*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 imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.*
The first time they were hearing this letter from the Apostle Paul, whom they love so much, they would have heard those first eleven verses with joy and gladness and expectation. That’s what they expected—the sweet way in which Paul expressed just how much he still loved and cared for them, how much he treasured them in his heart, and how much he prayed for them. They would no doubt have had that kind of emotional reaction we get every time we hear loving words from someone whom we care about whom we haven’t been able to see or with whom we are unable to interact for some reason. But as he finished those first eleven verses—that extended greeting—and he moves into the main body of the letter, which is what is happening in verse 12, they would be surprised by what he has to say to them first. He has confirmed their fears—yes, he is in fact a prisoner, but his position as a prisoner has actually served to do the exact thing that he was passionate to do—to advance the Gospel in Rome. That is what we’re going to see today.
As our church—Grace Church—continues to grow and the understanding that our purpose, our reason for existence, the reason why God leaves us on earth after he saves us, and he doesn’t take us straight to him—the reason is so we would live lives committed to evangelism and to discipleship. So as we have now come to this understanding—this has been kind of the lifeblood of our church for quite a while now—as we’ve come to this understanding about our purpose as a church today, we are going to see from this passage that the circumstances we find ourselves in are essential for defining and serving this purpose of evangelism and discipleship. Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, they mean nothing when it comes to our actual responsibility to evangelize and disciple. That is our mandate no matter what. But the circumstances in which we find ourselves in this life are nothing more than God’s determined context in which we are to faithfully evangelize and disciple. They’re the tools God has given us for maximum effectiveness in our mission.
We cannot look at our circumstances and determine how fruitful of a ministry we can have. That is not something we can do. We are simply to be faithful and then watch God work and trust that the sovereign God who has given us this task has also placed us where he wants us for that task. And he only brings into our lives that which will help us on that mission. Those things we might think of only in terms of trials make us more productive in evangelism and discipleship. When we are faithful through trials, we will be even more effective in that which we have been created to do.
Paul realized that what he was going to say in these verses would be surprising to his brothers and sisters in Philippi. That is evident from the wording of verse 12. He says, “Now I want you to know.” It does actually say that. The Greek conjunctive particle “de” is there in the first verse. The ESV leaves it untranslated, but you will see in most other translations this verse begins with, “Now,” or “But,” or some word like that to communicate this word is there. The idea is that Paul is telling them something indicating that he is shifting his thought in another direction from what he was just talking about, or from what they might already be thinking. He’s trying to shift their thought. It’s like when you’re about to tell someone something that you know will shock them, or something they are not expecting, like, “Now I want you to know.” And when you say it like that, you can just see by the language in that entire verse that he’s saying something surprising is happening, something different from that which was expected. He’s saying, “Actually, my circumstances, my imprisonment is having the exact opposite effect you might have thought. Actually, they’re having a positive effect.” That is what the Greek word “mallon” that is translated as “really” means. It indicates something unexpected is taking place.
And there’s actually more of a nuance to that word than just translating it as “really.” There is this aspect of comparison to that word. So it really doesn’t quite capture the sense Paul is expressing here. It is something more akin to saying, “But more rather,” or, “But even more to a higher degree than was thought of.” What Paul is actually saying is that these dire circumstances are actually turning out to advance the Gospel in an even greater way than had Paul not been in the circumstances. It’s like he’s saying, “This imprisonment has been far better for my ministry here in Rome than had I been freely proclaiming the Gospel and meeting with the church like I had planned.” Or, “There is more fruit because of my imprisonment than there would have been otherwise.” So that is what we see Paul saying in verse 12—that the Gospel is advancing and his ministry is even more fruitful than if he were not in prison.
Verses 13 and 14 are the supporting statements for this truth. It’s those two verses that give us our two points for the sermon today. Number one—God designs circumstances to maximize the fruit of evangelism. And number two—God designs circumstances to maximize the fruit of discipleship. And the reason these things are true is because God is in control over our circumstances. If he has placed you in this world to do the good words of sharing the Gospel with unbelievers and building up believers through the implications of the Gospel, and he is sovereign and in control over all things, we can know for certain he has us in the in the place where he wants us, and he has us going us through whatever trials he has for us in order to accomplish these two things through us.
So, the first point is that God designs circumstances to maximize the fruit of evangelism. We are going to spend quite a bit more time on this point than the second point—just so you know. But this is what we see Paul saying there in verse 13. That is why he says it the way he does. Immediately after he makes his claim in verse 12—that what is going on with his imprisonment is causing the Gospel to advance even more than if he was not in prison—he backs it up by saying, “So that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” So as evidence for the fact the Gospel is advancing in an even greater way than he hoped for, Paul points to these two groups of people: “the whole imperial guard,” or the whole pretorian, and the group classified as “all the rest.” He says all of them now know that his imprisonment is for Christ. The language says the “whole pretorian,” which could refer to a building in Rome. It could refer to that. But most commentators agree this is in reference to the collective group of soldiers, the imperial guard. That makes the most sense considering the fact this group is mentioned alongside the other group—all the rest. Paul has two groups of people in mind. It would not make sense for him to refer to a building, but rather a group of people.
The imperial guard—we need to know who they are. This is an elite group of soldiers stationed in Rome as the emperor’s bodyguards. This is a group of special, hand-picked soldiers originally formed by Caesar Augustus in 27 BC. At that time, it was made up of nine cohorts of the best soldiers. A cohort is about 600 men, about a tenth of a legion. But by the time of Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi, the number of soldiers who made up the imperial guard may have been as high as 10,000. Paul is now saying his imprisonment has allowed the whole imperial guard to know he is a prisoner for the sake of Christ. This is something that would not have happened and may have been impossible were he not a prisoner. To be able to reach such an elite group would be difficult for anyone who is not on the inside, and now Paul is on the inside. So he says, “The whole imperial guard and all the rest” have come to know this about him. Paul is not actually saying that every single person in Rome has come to know this, but it is more of a general statement. And anyone else he has encountered and who knows about his situation would have come to this knowledge also.
Notice that Paul does not actually say that he has been able to share the Gospel with all of them. Rather, he says they all know his “imprisonment is for Christ,” or as some translations put it, “For the cause of Christ.” People are coming to this understanding, “Oh, he’s in prison for the cause of Christ. That doesn’t actually sound like it would help to advance the Gospel.” Telling people that being a devoted follower of Jesus Christ might cause them to end up in chains like it did the Apostle Paul does not seem like a great evangelism strategy. But Paul says that people are becoming certain that the reason he is in jail, a prisoner, is for the cause of Christ, and it causes the Gospel to advance in a better way than if he were to freely proclaim the Gospel on the streets of Rome like he had initially intended. The reason this is so is that not only do they hear Paul preach the Gospel, but they also see the effects of a life that has been transformed by the Gospel. They get both of those things. That is evident and obvious because of the nature of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome.
In Rome, Paul was not being held in a jail cell, which is the way we typically think of imprisonment. The word that is translated as “imprisonment” literally means bonds or chains. In Ephesians, another prison epistle, Paul refers to himself as an “ambassador in chains.” Paul was a prisoner of Rome, but this was a different type of imprisonment than we commonly think of. Prisoners who were sent to Rome in appeals cases, as Paul was—at the end of Acts, Paul was sent to Rome as a prisoner because he had appealed to Caesar. These types of prisoners were entrusted to the close watch of the imperial guard. They carried this out by chaining a member of the guard to Paul at all times so he would always be under the watchful eye of the Roman government. This is what his imprisonment looked like: Different Roman soldiers, members of the imperial guard, took four-hour shifts being chained to Paul with a chain that was probably only about 18 inches long. That was Paul’s life all the time. Zero privacy.
Not only was Paul certainly preaching the Gospel to these men, but they were right next to him all the time, only 18 inches away. That means they had to listen to the conversations he was having with anyone who came to visit. They were hearing his instructions to those he was discipling. They were hearing him sing hymns. They listened to him dictate his letters. They heard his prayers. They watched him seek forgiveness when he sinned. They heard and saw in him Gospel realities in all his life. And they watched him remain joyful throughout all these circumstances. They were able to see that this man really believed what he was saying. When an unbeliever hears the Gospel from us, it is fairly easy for them to dismiss it even if it maybe starts to make sense to them at the time, even if they can’t really argue with it. But once you have gone, once they go away, they can easily retreat into all of their excuses and all of the reasons why believing that stuff would be foolish to them. They can start to think, “Yeah, that guy who shared that with me probably struggles with the same secret sins that I struggle with. No one can really live without some of these sinful things and actually be happy.” But as an unbeliever, when you are forced to sit next to the result of Gospel transformation—when you see that man is handling his poverty and his difficult physical circumstances with more joy, more delight, more purpose than you are handling your life, when you can’t deny the transformation because you are chained to it, and it gets much more difficult to make those excuses.
So you can imagine the conversations these imperial guards were having with each other as they were changing shifts and stuff. “We need to catch him in something. He’s got to do something that messes this up.” As they are going through these shifts and they are having these conversations with each other, there is something different about this prisoner. Paul specifically singles out the fact that the Gospel is advancing because people have come to know that the reason Paul is a prisoner is that he is a follower of Christ. That is causing them to have to take the Gospel more seriously. The longer they are with him, the more they see him, and the more his character becomes evident to them. It is clear that there is no way a man like this would be a prisoner if he would just shut his mouth and stop talking about Jesus. If he would have just kept his faith private and hadn’t felt the need to tell everyone, he would have been fine. Kind of like the way this culture is constantly telling us this. That is their accommodation—how we should practice our faith. “That is fine, you can believe whatever you want as along as it remains your private practice. That thing you need that comforts you, that helps you get by—that is fine. You can have that. Whatever works for you. Just as long as it’s not interfering with anyone else. Just as long as it is not making anyone else feel uncomfortable, you can go ahead and believe whatever you want.” But if Paul would just drop this whole thing, it would be so much easier for him to gain his freedom and get back to his normal life. In short, they could not deny the reality that Paul really had died to this life and that he really did see himself as someone who belonged to Jesus Christ. He no longer got to prioritize anything that he would like to do or any of his dreams, or anything that would make his life easier.
So there are a few huge implications we can draw from this reality we see here in Paul, some points of application to challenge us. The first one is if someone were chained to you all day, and they were forced to watch the way you live, would they see something that verifies the Gospel you proclaim to them, or would they see something else? If they watched how you spent your day, how you treat your spouse, how you treat your neighbors, how you treat the guy who cuts you off in traffic, how or if you study your Bible, if they heard your prayers, how you used your time, what you prioritize, how you talk about other people, how you responded to the sin of others, how you responded to your own sin, would you be able to say, like Paul, “This is better! This is so much better than if they were only hearing my evangelistic presentation. The Gospel is now advancing in a much greater way than if they only heard me speak this message and did not actually get to see how it has completely transformed me. This is better.” Maybe that is not the case for some of us. Maybe the lack of persecution in our culture and the relative ease we have as Christians in this culture has caused us to fall into the trap of not living our lives like we depend on God. Maybe the unbelievable number of distractions this world offers us has caused us to love this world—something we are warned against. We become callous to that which is truly satisfying, which is knowing God and living for him.
That is one implication. Another implication we can take from this verse is this: Could it be we are not as bold in our evangelism because we think exactly the opposite about this? We do not want anyone to look closely into our lives because we are so desperate to keep people from seeing our failures, trying to convince people we have it all together more than we do. That is important to us—for people to see that about us, to think that about us. We cannot be like that if we are truly Christians. Of course the more people get to know you, the more they are going to see you sin. Yeah, obviously you do not have it all together. Ask your spouse. You do not have it all together. This is also the only way they will ever see how a real Christian responds to his or her sin, which should be by repenting and by seeking forgiveness. If you have truly been born again, made regenerate by God through Christ, if you have been given a new nature that longs to please God and live for him, one that hates sin and seeks to rid yourself of it, then you will be different. You will be different. If you are truly in Christ, you can rest assured if you are chained to an unbeliever—if someone who is really in Christ is chained to someone who is really an unbeliever—and you are forced to witness each other’s lives, there will be something unexplainable about your life to that person.
Do not be afraid. Even if that unbelieving neighbor saw you losing your temper on one of your kids one day over the fence, and you have yet to pin him down with a specific thing yet, so he’s got a one-up on you, don’t think like that. Time and truth go hand in hand. The more you are around each other, the more evident it will become. If you do actually discover you are no different from an unbeliever when it comes to a lack of joy or a love for the world and living for yourself, then it means there is a much bigger reason why the Gospel is not advancing through you. It’s because you have yet to fully understand how truly disgusting your sin is, how truly abhorrent your rebellion against God is—a rebellion before a perfect and holy God and therefore, you have not actually put your trust in the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God because you don’t see how much you need it. You have not put your trust in that sacrifice for your sins, for the wrath of God that was justly due toward your sins to be put on Christ on the cross. That has not happened for you. How could someone believe this? How could someone believe that and then live a sadder, more selfish life than someone who rejects that Gospel? Of course, they cannot.
A third implication comes when you understand that since the mission and joy the Apostle Paul is to preach and advance the Gospel, he understands his imprisonment in a fundamentally different way than we tend to think of things like this. Most of us in Paul’s position would use it to excuse why we cannot do as much right now, or why we cannot do something as well as we would like to. We sometimes think of things like that as hindrance, as something that is holding us back, something that maybe once we overcome it, or once God helps us through it, maybe then we would be freed up to really get down to serving God the way we know we are supposed to—once we come out of that, just waiting for that kind of trial to pass. But Paul is not looking at this as an obstacle, as some situation he has got to get through. While most of us in this same situation would see the chain as keeping us from something, Paul sees it as a ministry God is keeping for him. While we might only think, “There is nothing I can do to get out of this situation. I am stuck. There isn’t anything I can do. I can’t get away from this soldier,” Paul is thinking, “There is nothing this soldier can do to get away from me.” He is thinking, “I long to be used by God to preach the Gospel in Rome. That has been my dream. That has been what I wanted to do. And now, not only am I in Rome, but the government, who has arrested me because I preached the Gospel, has now taken someone whom I would have never been able to preach the Gospel to—they’ve taken this person—the very government that hates that I preach the Gospel—that government has taken someone that I’ve longed to preach the Gospel to and they’ve chained them to me for four hours. And after that four hours, they are going to take another man whom I longed to preach the Gospel to, and they are going to chain him to me for four hours. And they’re just going to keep doing this.”
When Paul is glorying in this, the sovereign God whom he serves is using the very government that hates the declaration, “Jesus is Lord,” and they are chaining an endless succession of elite Roman citizens to Paul so he can explain to them that Jesus is Lord. Paul does not see himself as a prisoner chained to a Roman guard; he sees it that a prisoner of the kingdom of darkness has been chained to an ambassador to the King of kings. The amazing truth of what is happening—what we see going on—Paul references at the end of his book in the second to last verse of Philippians. When Paul is giving his final greetings, look what he says: “All the saints greet you especially those of Caesar’s household.” This is amazing because of whom is Paul technically a prisoner? Caesar. He is technically a prisoner of Caesar. Yet as Caesar’s prisoner, Paul still sees his primary identity as a slave of Christ. And as Christ’s slave within Caesar’s household, he is working to set those who are true captives free. Paul sees far beyond these earthly circumstances that would cause so many of us to think of ourselves as trapped, waiting for God to do something so we can get back to work and really do some ministry.
What is it you that makes you feel trapped or imprisoned? Maybe it is a job that you do not like that much, and you are praying for God to get you a new job. Maybe you do not have the job you want, or you are looking for a job. You feel trapped in unemployment. Maybe you want God to take you somewhere else where you can feel like you can do real ministry. You feel like at this moment in time you’ve got this understanding: “Right now I’m in a wait-and-see kind of period. I’m in that holding period, that holding pattern waiting for the next thing.” Guess what? There are no holding patterns in the Christian life. There are none. Waiting for the next thing is not a thing. All we have is a constant succession of endless divine appointments until God calls us home. That is our life. What unsuspecting unbelievers has God trapped in that place with you? One of his people? He did not put you there, he did not place you there as a spy so you could blend in and get some information about what the enemy is up to. We laugh at that, but so many Christians act like that at work. They go there. They hear all the godless policies that are made, all the policies that are caving to the LGBTQ agenda, caving to the liberal agenda. Then we come back to church and we talk to each other like we just got back from separate spy missions. And we are getting ready to go back undercover on Monday. And the only people we tell about these issues is each other. God does not need spies. There is no secret information on the enemy that God needs from you. We are to be lights in darkness. God has placed you and maybe only you as the representative to all those lost people about what a Christian believes and what a Christian looks like.
Maybe it is a family situation you feel trapped by. It is an uncomfortable family situation. You have unbelieving family and you just deal with the get-together. You know, you put your head down. You wait for it to get over with so you can go back to what you are supposed to be doing. Are you trapped there with them? Is that what is going on? Or do you understand yourself to be a representative of Almighty God in their midst, one who posses the Gospel of life, the greatest news imaginable, but also the most hated and rebelled against news? It is hated and rebelled against by those who are trapped in darkness. Are you trapped by them, or are they trapped by you, the messenger?
Maybe you are a stay-at-home mom and you feel trapped by the same little unregenerate heathens whom you must tell the same news about the law and Gospel every single day. You feel trapped repeating the same things every day. And no matter how many times you have told them, when you tell them tomorrow, they’re going to act like you have just revealed some hidden information from before the foundation of the earth. And this has been your life for years and it feels like Groundhog Day, like nothing different is going to happen, like you have not made an ounce of difference. And you are tempted to start thinking of yourself as tethered to them, like there is real ministry out there and you are trapped, like you are in a type of prison. Is that how you see it? Or how you are tempted to see it? Or can you see it from the perspective of one who belongs to a sovereign God? You understand in as act of grace and mercy—he has trapped those adorable selfish little reprobates with you. He has trapped those who want to hear the Gospel and see the Gospel with you, one of his children, one of his ambassadors, one who can teach and model his word to them daily. And one who, in coming to faith in him, confesses he had died to himself and has been raised to live a new life for Christ and serve him in whichever way he chooses.
If we can change our mindset on this to where we never see ourselves as victims of our circumstances, but we always see ourselves as in the exact place God wants us for his purposes—this is where I am; this is where he wants me—it will be life-changing and joy-inducing. When you think about it, it really is the only way any of us who claim to believe the things we say we believe about God—it’s the only way we can actually live with any real integrity. I have seen this so clearly—they are not going to like me using them as an example—but I have seen this so clearly in my parents throughout my entire life, especially in their stays in the hospital. As I think back throughout my entire life, I cannot think of one time when either of my parents has had to be in the hospital for any significant amount of time when they haven’t called me and told me about at least one person they were talking to—a nurse or fellow patient with whom they were sharing the Gospel, and asking me to pray for them. It is a great testimony. The hospital is the place you are most likely to be tempted to make everything about you. It is quite easy because that is what everyone around you is doing. You are the one who is sick. You are the one whom everyone is checking on. You are the one everyone is visiting. You are the one who possibly has something very seriously wrong with you, maybe even potentially life-threatening, and to be able to go into that situation, recognizing the only people God is going to bring into that room with you are those whom he has sovereignly planned to be in the presence of one of his children, one of his servants and to treat each person that comes in there that way—that is how we are to be. Again, if we believe what we say we believe about who God is and what he has done, it doesn’t really make sense to think of it any differently than that, does it?
Second point—God designs circumstances to maximize the fruit of discipleship. Look at verse 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.” So here we see that not only has Paul’s evangelistic witness been strengthened by his imprisonment, but also his purpose in discipleship. Now the believers in Rome have become more confident in the Lord, and they have become more bold in their Gospel witness because they see Paul imprisoned. They see Paul chained up to a Roman soldier. This is fantastic for Paul because remember what he said back in Romans 1, verses 11 and 12. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul said, “For I long to see you [Romans], that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” That is what Paul wanted to see in the church in Rome. Paul’s whole goal for his visit to Rome was to strengthen them, to be able to encourage one another with their faith. And now, because Paul is visiting them, but in chains, he can strengthen them to a greater degree than he would have been able to otherwise.
First, we see through his imprisonment that the church in Rome is gaining confidence in the Lord. They are gaining confidence in the Lord. It is not just that they are gaining confidence. Some translations weaken this point a little bit by attaching the phrase, “in the Lord,” to “brothers.” So it says, “brothers in the Lord.” That is not what Paul meant; that would be repetitive. If you are a brother, it is taken for granted that you are in the Lord. It makes the most sense to attach the phrase, “in the Lord” to the confidence they have. Paul is saying that because of these bonds; because of his imprisonment, the church here now has a greater trust in God. They trust God in a greater way, which is exactly what Paul wanted to help them with in the first place. When we read about Paul’s desire for the Roman Christians in the Book of Romans, we can rightly trust that this is how Paul was praying. He was asking God to bring him to Rome so he could strengthen the brothers there. That is what he wanted to do. And now as Paul writes this letter to the Philippians, he is understanding that his imprisonment in Rome is God answering his prayer in an even greater degree than he could have previously imagined. This is true because nothing encourages us like witnessing a fellow Christian suffering for Christ well.
Have you considered the fact that your suffering is one of the greatest possible tools you could be given when it comes to responsibility to disciple? When you consider the main thing you are doing in discipleship is inviting someone to watch how you live, it’s not really about you teaching and imparting knowledge—that is part of it—but really, disciplining is teaching the truths of Scripture to them and then inviting them to watch you so they can see what that looks like lived out. The time you help others around you most is by suffering like a Christian.
Yesterday at STM, we asked some questions of the elders, some of the men who have been here the longest, specifically about some of the most challenging things that have taken place in the history of this church and in their lives. And those of us men who were there were able to be encouraged as we listened and we heard stories of their boldness and their resolve, and the resolve of other people in this church to do what was right instead of what was easy. —even when it prolonged the hardship, even when it prolonged the suffering, even when not only did it not put the trials away, but it added more trials, even though during those times I am certain they were praying for an end to the trials. God was doing through them the very thing they desired the most. He was strengthening his people.
If you really desire to disciple those around you—the younger Christians in your life, maybe your children, you need to realize that God must frustrate the plans in your life for this to happen. He must take you to places that you would rather not go because that is the very best way for those whom you are trying to strengthen to grow. They need to see how a godly person reacts when things do not go according to plan. They need to see that depending on God is worth it, and he always come through. They need to watch a person who has given his life to Christ to accept suffering for his own good and for Christ’s glory as a gift from him. They need to see it. And when that happens, then we will also see this second effect Paul mentions—they will become “more bold to speak the word without fear.” As you see the transformational power of God manifest in someone’s life to the extent that their trials do nothing but make it clear that it is nothing but the power of God that explains that guy’s life—it is the only thing that explains it. And it cannot help but make you more zealous to proclaim that faith, that power.
When you can point to the life of someone who remains joyful and faithful in trials and then you look at your own life and see less faith, less joy, less obedience when it really should be easier for you—that causes something in you to say, “This isn’t how it should be. This is not how it ought to be. That person has something I need. I do not understand things like that person. I need to talk to him more.” And it drives you to your knees and it causes you to ask God, “Make me like that.” When you see the reality of the truth of the Gospel lived out in his life, you are reminded once again why this Gospel message is the desperate need of all people, whether they know it or not because that is how life is supposed to look. That is how we should be living. That is the desperate need of all people. You will be more encouraged to share even if it means more suffering for yourself. And suddenly, that suffering does not seem to be nearly as big a deal because you have watched someone else endure, because you have watched someone else walk through something harder than you. You have that example in front of you, and you can see the promise of God lived out before you—that he will never leave you or forsake you. When we appear weak, then he is strong. When we are most exposed as the fragile clay pots we are, it causes the treasure inside of us to look that much more spectacular to those around us. It is a good thing.
So, my brothers and sisters at Grace Church, we have been growing in our understanding of our responsibility as faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know we are here on this earth to evangelize and disciple. That is why we are here. We need to understand and believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the circumstances that God has placed in our lives at this moment, that the things we sometimes feel chained to or imprisoned by, that we sometimes think we need freed from—these are the very things that define for us exactly where and who our ministry is to center around right now. Those things that are such a struggle—the trials, the suffering we so often pray to be free of—these are the very things God has given us as powerful tools in the ministry he has called us to. Our response must be to trust the good purposes of our sovereign God and be faithful children, slaves and soldiers of our Lord and Master. We are about to sing a song about being soldiers. Just remember the fact that not only are we soldiers, but we serve the God who chose our battlefield and knows exactly where we are, where everything is. He has placed us perfectly.
Father, thank you so much for your Word. We just need a word like this because we would never come to these kinds of thoughts, this kind of understanding on our own. Father, I pray for Grace Church, that you would make us a people who have an unswerving trust in you and your plans, that our belief in the sovereignty in God that we sing about and we proclaim so much—that we would prove we really believe that by the way we go about our lives, by the way we interpret the circumstances we see in our lives. Make us to be faithful and obedient disciplers and evangelizers, and help us each to spur each other on in these tasks. In Jesus’ name, amen.