Paul’s unshakable confidence in the Lord’s providence underpinned all that he wrote. Regardless of his circumstances, he focused on the well-being of the Church and the advancement of the Gospel. Under God’s sovereign hand, teaches Alistair Begg, stumbling blocks can be turned into stepping stones for the unfolding of His plan. Like Paul, we can remain optimistic even in the most dire of circumstances when we trust God’s purposes in our lives.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Philippians 1:12—and I want to do justice to the text, and yet do justice to the time frame, by considering the emphasis of these verses under the heading “Christ Is Preached”—“Christ Is Preached.”
There is little doubt that the Philippian church must have expressed great and grave concern upon learning of the apostle’s imprisonment in Rome. There would have been those who began immediately to panic and say to one another, “What a serious blow this must be to the cause of the gospel.” Others would have remarked, “Our greatest preacher, our finest apologist, the one most singularly being used has now been shut away; he’s unable to travel, he’s unable to teach as he has been used to be doing, and presumably we’re in for a time when the message of the gospel is going to go into decline.”
Of course, what we discover is that that is actually the opposite of what was taking place. And the attitude of the servant of God—namely, the apostle Paul—is radically different from that kind of perspective. He is not only a joyful servant, as we find him in the opening verses of the chapter, but we also are now to discover that he is an optimistic prisoner. And he expresses the concern of his heart very quickly: “I want you to know,” he says, “that since you are concerned for me, as you must inevitably be, please don’t be unduly alarmed.” In other words, he is not preoccupied with his own predicament. His preoccupation, if any, is the well-being of the church. And it is imperative that they understand that his imprisonment, far from hindering the work of the gospel, was actually serving to advance it. And that there is no lull in the activities of Paul; you don’t find him writing and saying, “Well, I’m on a bit of a hiatus here for a while, but hold the fort, and when I finally get out we will get back to the business of the good news.” He doesn’t say that, because, as I mentioned, his focus is on the unfolding purpose of God rather than his own predicament.
And we discover that every circumstance of life, every occasion that confronts the apostle, whether he is in chains as a prisoner or whether he is free to move around the country, he is always looking to see God at work. And the secret lies in his understanding of what is taking place. And his understanding is expressed in a phrase in verse 16, just four words: “I am put here.” “I am put here.” It wasn’t that somehow the circumstances had overwhelmed him, that everything had begun to spin hopelessly out of control. It may have looked like that from the outside; it may have appeared that the wheels had come off and chaos was about to ensue. But, “No,” says Paul, “I understand that I am put here.”
In other words, underpinning all that he writes is an unshakable confidence in the providence of God—that all of the events of life are under his sovereign control , and that here he is explaining, in his own personal life and circumstance, the truth that he was to write to the church in Rome, where in Romans 8:31 he remarked, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” And again, from a human perspective, it would appear that everybody was against Paul: that’s why he was in prison, that’s why he was in difficulty. But in actual fact, he sees in these circumstances the outworking of God’s plan. In fact, being a prisoner was simply, for Paul, another unique opportunity for the proclamation of the gospel. And that’s why he says what he says: “What has happened [here] has [actually] served to advance the gospel.” The word that he uses is a word that would be used to express the ability for something to move forward, overcoming any kind of obstacle.
I saw a car the other day overtake in a fairly restricted area of a city, and it found itself face-to-face with a giant Caterpillar, with one of those—that is, a Caterpillar truck, earthmover—with one of those huge shovels at the front. And I smiled to myself, because I’d seen it from an angle, and this fellow thought he was doing a wonderful job of screeching up the inside, and he screeched face-to-face with this gigantic machine, the tires of which were actually as tall as the sides of the car. And if the chap in the Caterpillar had wanted to, he could have either gone right over the top of him or he could have picked him up in his bucket and put him somewhere. There wasn’t even a possibility of the little pip-squeak in the car hindering the advance of the man, both by dint of the size of his mechanism and, as I grew closer, the look in his eyes. It wasn’t even a question: he was moving down the road, and nothing would impede his progress.
Some of you, in serving in the forces, perhaps served with the American, the US equivalent of the Royal Engineers. And if you did, then you know that your whole express purpose was to be in the advance party to prepare the way for all that was to come. And as you advanced, so you made it possible for whatever was the next level of involvement to come behind you. And that is the word and the phrase and the notion that is here. The apparent stumbling blocks have, for Paul, immediately been turned into stepping stones, in the same way that God’s unfolding purpose throughout history has been fashioned in that way by those who love him.
Joseph: we saw in his life, no matter what the circumstance, it became a stepping stone for the unfolding plan of God. Daniel in the lions’ den: “Here’s the deal: if you want to save us, that is fine; if you want to throw us in the fiery furnace, that’s fine. You should know that the Lord will be with us in the furnace, and if he wants to take care of us in the furnace…” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; I’m bouncing between the den and the furnace. In both circumstances they proved the providential care of God.
And here’s the issue, you see: Roman soldiers were unlikely to go to Paul’s evangelistic talks. These hard-bitten jokers were not about to go and spend time in the evening—they’d be going down the pub, they’d be going out with their buddies, they’d be shooting the equivalent of hoops, they’d be doing whatever they were doing. They wouldn’t be about to seek out this troublesome little converted Jew who was gathering crowds all over the place. So God said, “That’s fine, but I’m going to evangelize the soldiers. I’m going to do it in a sort of different way. Since they’re not coming to the meetings, I’m going to send the evangelist to them. And I’m not going to involve him in a prison ministry where he gets to walk in and walk out, but I’m going to involve him in a prison ministry where he gets to walk in and he doesn’t come out.”
God has done that frequently in history, hasn’t he? In fact, I don’t know the history of a nation where persecution hasn’t come at some point, apart, I think, from this nation. And still we rattle our sabers and convince ourselves that the way for the advance of the gospel is for us to ensure that we have dominion over everything, that we champion every cause, and we bring everything into subjection under us. It may well be that God has yet a plan for turning this nation the right way up, and he may be planning to do it in a really different way—from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
The good news was about to break into the very household of the Roman emperor, and the way in which it was going to come to pass was a result of what God had chosen to do with the life of his servant. Now, you will notice that, as he says in verse 13, the result of the predicament that he faces has affected “the whole palace guard,” and it has also had an impact on the “brothers” in the Roman context, who “have been encouraged to speak the word of God more [boldly].” And you have this wonderful picture of Paul being chained up to various prisoners, and the guards would have relieved each other, they would have done their shift. Paul would have had a captive audience; they would have noted his patience, they would have noted his kindness, they would have seen his courage, they would have discovered his joy. When people came to visit him, they would have heard the conversation, they couldn’t avoid it. They would have watched as Paul said, “Well, why don’t we just pray together before you leave? Thanks for coming to see me.” And they would have heard him pray, “O God, I thank you that you put me in here, and I thank you that my brother came to see me here, and I thank you for the guy that’s chained to me here, Lord, and I thank you that he got to hear everything we’ve said, and I thank you that the guy that relieved him on the day shift yesterday, he got to hear it too. O God, you are in control, and I bless you.”
Some of us tonight, in a very different way—without spiritualizing this—need to recognize that God is in control of our circumstances. And the news was spreading through Paul, and may spread through us, in some of the strangest ways. Because God’s logic is very different from our own. We tend to assume that the circumstances have to be right if we’re going to be effective Christians. But God is not waiting for the circumstances to be right; he is committed to producing really effective Christians even when the circumstances are wrong . That’s why we shouldn’t spend so much time trying to change our circumstances. “Get on with the gospel,” you see. Spending all this energy, and all this money, to try and change the political circumstances of our nation. God says, “Get on with the gospel! The circumstances are not the deal. The gospel’s the deal! In the jail in shackles, out of the jail in freedom, whatever it is: advance the gospel, preach Christ, seize the opportunity.” You have it by apostolic precept, and you have it by apostolic example.
And what a wonderful thing it must have been for these folks in verse 14 as their confidence grew—these believers in Rome—as the news of Paul began to spread throughout the city, and as the talk in the bazaars would turn to the fact that one of the soldiers who had been working as a guard for a while was speaking to somebody in one of the local brew houses, and he was saying, “You know, we have got one weird guy in there at the moment.” And here’s this diffident Christian, and he’s sitting over in a corner, and he is overhearing this, and the fellow says, “He’s some fellow, though, you know.” And he finds rising within him and stirring within him a renewed confidence. The implication is not, “Well, if Paul can do that in jail, maybe you can do this in freedom,” but the thing is this: that the fellow finds himself saying, “If God is able to provide for Paul in that circumstance, then surely he is able to provide for me in this circumstance. I need to be a little bolder in the things of the faith.” It wasn’t some form of bravado that they were declaring; it was a confidence in the Lord himself.
“So, it’s advancing,” he says. “The gospel is advancing. I’m here—my circumstances are less than advantageous, from a human perspective, but God is using it both to see the guards come under the sound of the gospel and also to stimulate the believers in Rome to be about the business of sharing their faith.” Then he says, “However, I recognize that while I have a concern for you, and while they have a growing confidence as a result of what’s been taking place, I sense there is also a conflict in the motives of people who are preaching the gospel.” And he defines it; he says one group is preaching “out of goodwill,” they’re motivated by love, and the other group is motivated by “rivalry” and, in certain cases, by jealousy and “selfish ambition.”
Isn’t it nice that Paul is able to declare the good stuff and the bad stuff? You know, he doesn’t … if you’ll forgive me for this one, this isn’t like a missionary letter. You know, the average missionary letter, when you read it—and I’m not thinking of any of our missionaries, of course; I’m not, actually—but the average missionary letter, when you read it, you say, “How in the world is everything going so good over there, because when the chap was here it wasn’t going that good, you know?” “Everything’s great. Oh, we’re advancing, we’re evangelizing, everything … oh, yes!” Get real! He gets real: “Fact is,” he says, “some people are downright bad in their motives in the way the gospel’s being preached. Others have my best interests at heart. There is an ugliness of those seeking to stir up trouble for me.” Look at that in verse 17: “They would like to take my chains, as it were, and rub them ’round my wrists to make them chafe me.”
Jealousy and self-centeredness—the desire for position, the desire for influence—rear their ugly heads when the gospel is being preached. Don’t you think for a moment that that isn’t true. One of the most significant things any of us face in being entrusted with the charge of the gospel is the potential for dreadful, self-crippling pride, whereby we cannot rejoice in the advance of the gospel in another’s ministry because we personalize it always—and often, then, out of envy for the success over here. We do the right things and we preach the right sermons and we sing the right songs, but God, who searches and knows our hearts, recognizes that our motives are all wrong.
Well then, what is Paul to do? If some are preaching from a wrong motivation, should he allow that to keep him awake at night? Should he allow the poorness of their approach to mar his confidence in Christ and his commitment to see the gospel advance? The answer is no. The wrong motives of bad men must never be allowed to become the determining element in our attitude. Let me say that to you again: the wrong motives of bad men must never be allowed to become the determining element in our attitude. Because if you think about that, it will cripple you. And you will either become cantankerous, constantly questioning the motives of those around you, constantly refuting what they’re doing and rebutting what they’re doing … and in that respect the devil has got a great gain, because now the one who desires to see the gospel preached has given up on the preaching of the gospel and has taken to himself the high road of explaining to everybody why the gospel is not “truly” being preached by those who have these impure motives. It’s a great temptation. It happens. May God save us from becoming one of those kinds of pulpits—the kind of pulpit to which you attend, and instead of the gospel in all of its fullness emanating from there, it has become a kind of “coward’s castle” whereby the individual seeks to refute every wrong notion from everywhere around. Paul doesn’t get into that.
You say, “Well, is he saying here that he doesn’t care about the gospel that is preached?” No, look very carefully. He’s talking about the motivation. He’s saying, “Some people’s motives are bad, but they’re still preaching Christ.” It’s not that they’re preaching a false Christ. He refutes that. You only need to read the book of Galatians. He’s not about to tolerate false gospels. He comes down on that like a ton of bricks. So he’s not saying, “It doesn’t matter to me whether the gospel is preached well or whether it’s preached poorly.” He’s passionate about that. What he’s saying is that the gospel is advancing, even for the most impure motives. People are doing it in order to try, as it were, and get their church going while Paul’s away so that they can draw a big crowd. He says, “I don’t care if they’re trying to draw a big crowd. I just care about the fact that they’re actually preaching about Christ. God’ll take care of the motives of their hearts. I don’t need to worry about that. I’m just concerned the gospel advances.”
What a wonderful lesson that is to us, isn’t it? His concern was for the Lord’s glory, not for his own stature. Look at the question, verse 18: “What does it matter?” What does it really matter? Do you ever say that to one another? “What does it matter?” Is this stuff we’re getting really steamed up about—how much of it really matters? What does it matter? “Well, you know, I don’t think his motives are right.” What does it matter? We’re not in charge of his motives!
So, let me wrap this up with a couple of observations.
I think it teaches us something here about the nature of personalities in the preaching of the gospel, as well. All of us have heroes in the preaching of the gospel, individuals to whom we owe a great debt before God. I do. I have my own little gallery of preachers up the stairs in my study, and I sit before them on my ottoman regularly, and I look at them, and I imagine that they can see me. And I admire them. I hold them in, I think, a rightful sense of reverence and awe. But they’re just men. They’re just servants through whom the gospel is preached. So in a society that is personality driven, let’s ask God to teach us how to be thankful for the individuals that he uses in our lives, but to save all of our ultimate accolades not for the one who plants or waters, but for the God who makes things grow.
There’s a lesson here about human personality; secondly, there’s a lesson here about motives. It is possible to be doing something that is in itself good, but our reasons for doing it are wrong. The Lord is interested not only in what we’re doing, but also in why we’re doing it. If I want to go and serve God overseas to show the world what a fantastic missionary I am, then I probably ought not to think of going under the Lord’s auspices. If I want to teach the Bible in order that people might understand what a wonderful ability I have, then I might as well fold it up and go home.
It has something to say to us about confidence in witnessing: “The brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” I do hope that Sunday worship encourages you to be fearless and bold in your preaching of the gospel. How good it is that tonight, in just a moment from now, we’ll have a succession of people who will stand and courageously and boldly explain that their allegiance is to the Lord Jesus Christ.
And finally, the passage has something to teach us about accepting God’s purpose—accepting the fact that God orders all the events of our lives. This, you see, is what kept Paul on the straight and narrow. And I said to you that God had been saying that very much to me in my own heart, way back as we began our study in Joseph. Indeed, the only way to genuine humility and to any realistic sanity is in recognizing that all of our circumstances, even the most trying, are under the hand and the care of God .
Go back and find on your shelves Tramp for the Lord, the story of Corrie ten Boom. It’s an old book now, paperback for most of us. Read it again as a bedtime book and listen as down through the corridors of time you have this wonderful unfolding story of God’s grace and goodness to this lady and to her sister, Betsie. Fantastic story: exuding joy, exuding contentment, exuding a passionate concern for the gospel in a flea-bitten, soiled, stinking, dungeonlike existence. “Don’t worry,” she says, “the things that have happened to me have served for the advancement of the gospel.” The important thing is that Christ is preached: “Christ for the world, for the world needs Christ!”
Let us pray:
Gracious God and Father, write your Word upon our hearts, we pray, for your glory and for our good. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 Philippians 1:12 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:13–14 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:12–14 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 1:15 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 1:15 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:14 (NIV 1984).
 Corrie ten Boom and Jamie Buckingham, Tramp for the Lord (Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1974).
 Attributed to Eric Liddell. See, for instance, Eric Eichinger, The Final Race: The Incredible World War II Story of the Olympian Who Inspired Chariots of Fire (Carol Stream, IN: Tyndale, 2018).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.