I wonder if, when questioned, you’ve ever struggled to recall what benefit you have gained from a speaker’s subject. Perhaps, after some thought, the considered answer has been, ‘well nothing really’, meaning, of course, you had gained little from his ministry. No word of encouragement, no word of challenge or cheer, no word of hope, no spiritual food. In short, there had been nothing whatsoever to feed your soul. How sad! In John chapter 21, the Lord Jesus said to Peter, and as an instruction to all who teach God’s word, ‘Feed my sheep’.
These articles will consider four occasions where Paul, in his letter to the Philippian saints, used the word ‘nothing’, occasions, perhaps, when nothing was acceptable:
Each reference brings to us a challenge for today.
For many years Paul had desired, and longed, to preach the gospel in Rome, the hub of the great Roman Empire.1 If he could establish a strong witness there, then, possibly, millions would be reached with the message of God’s salvation.
He wanted to go there as a preacher, but God took him there as a prisoner. If the experiences through which he passed were all recorded, they would have filled a book. He summarized them simply: ‘the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel’, 1. 12.2
Now in Rome, as a prisoner, Paul writes to the saints in Philippi about three matters he wanted them to know.
Four times in this chapter he speaks of his ‘bonds’. The word is ‘chains’, desmos, that is, iron chains. It is not just a figure of speech for his imprisonment.
A mayor may wear a gold chain – speaking of his position of honour. There are chains that other people wear as ornamentation, often to display their wealth. Paul was kept in iron chains, the humiliating shackles of a prisoner. However, Paul’s chains were divinely planned. This was God’s will for him; it was no event of mere chance. Nevertheless, we also observe that his chains were distinctly productive, for they did not prevent Paul from preaching and spreading the gospel of Christ, vv. 12-14. In reality, his chains brought him into contact with lost sinners; his circumstances were being used for Christ!
Paul tells us quite clearly that his bonds resulted in the ‘furtherance [or spread] of the gospel’ – the word ‘furtherance’ meaning ‘pioneer advance’. As a military term, it refers to an army of troops opening the way into new territory. Paul’s chains, and confinement in prison, were the means of opening new doors for the gospel. He was making in-roads into the very heart of the emperor’s palace. The praetorian guards, Caesar’s soldiers, were hearing the message of salvation, and they, in turn, were telling others about it, v. 13. Out of his adverse circumstances came good results!
When he wrote to Timothy, Paul said, ‘I suffer trouble as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound’, 2 Tim. 2. 9. It has been said that Paul’s imprisonment caused ‘A chain reaction’!
The expression ‘my bonds in Christ’ means that all knew he was a prisoner because of his loyalty to the crucified Christ. God sometimes uses these strange means to further His work and spread the gospel. Who would have thought of this activity associated with one, a man chained and guarded by soldiers, probably four per shift, each shift possibly of six hours, that is sixteen soldiers per day? In the presence of each of them, Paul would pray, and to each soldier Paul would make known the gospel of God’s salvation. Souls were reached and saved, including ‘they that are of Caesar’s household’, Phil. 4. 22.
It is not easy to speak about, but God sometimes puts ‘chains’ on his people to use them effectively in the spread of the gospel. The ‘chains’ He puts upon His own may include a period of trial, or suffering. It may involve restriction in their activities and movements, so that God can use them to accomplish His work. Often a time of sorrow and loss comes so that through us others may hear the way of salvation. Perhaps God has put you in chains recently, and you wonder why?
Paul’s chains had one other good result – they gave courage to lukewarm saints: ‘Many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear’, 1. 14. His chains gave him contact with the lost, but God also used those chains to give courage to timid believers. Many believers in the city of Rome, who, when they heard of Paul’s faithfulness and determination to witness under such trying circumstances, took courage, and began to ‘speak the word without fear’. The word ‘speak’ here does not mean preach; it means to converse openly about Him in daily living. If fear is contagious, so also is courage. God wants to use your circumstances, your ‘frailty’, or ‘disabilities’, to help, and encourage other saints to go on with God.
In all his sufferings for Christ there were some who purposed harm for Paul, but the message of these verses is that however much harm was intended for him, criticism could never prevent Paul from defending and rejoicing in the gospel of Christ, vv. 15-18.
There were two parties, supposedly believers, who were ‘preaching Christ’. We read ‘the one preach Christ of contention … the other of love’, vv. 16-17. Paul does not condemn the men who preached of contention. He did not say they preached false doctrine. Rather, he was saddened by the motives from which they preached, and the results it produced. We read words like ‘envy’, ‘strife’, ‘contention’, ‘not sincerely’, ‘supposing to add affliction to my bonds’. The word ‘contention’ means ‘to seek for followers, to begin a faction, and so set up rivalry’.
The sinister motives of such men are still present today, and churches are suffering. How sad when brethren set out to oppose the gospel and hinder the work of Christ! They hurt the testimony and hurt themselves too. Like the true man of God he was, Paul continued with singleness of heart to defend the gospel, and even rejoiced that ‘whether in pretence or truth Christ was preached’, v. 18. What an example to us!
It seems clear from verses 19-26 that Paul faced a crisis, a crisis that weighed very heavy on his heart. It was the awful fear that he would fail the Lord, and let Him down. How will he hold up? How will this great man behave in these trying circumstances?
This was a very trying time for the apostle. It was possible that Rome would find him guilty of being a traitor, and he would be taken out and executed. He had always lived in such a way that Christ would always be glorified. How will his manner of life be seen in this position? In these circumstances would he live a responsible, well-behaved life, would his demeanour accord with the teaching of the gospel he preached? Would his conduct be worthy of Christ?
When David faced the fury of the court of Saul, it was written of him, ‘David behaved himself wisely in all his ways; and the Lord was with him’, 1 Sam. 18. 14, Here Paul expresses two important matters in respect of his life where wisdom was needed:
i) His Concern – lest any shame be brought upon the Lord and His gospel. He did not want to fail the Lord – he desired only that the watching eyes of the unbelievers saw Christ in him. Whatever happened, he desired that his body become the vehicle through which Christ might be brought closer to men – he wanted his life to be a spiritual telescope! Verse 20 expresses this perfectly.
ii) His Confidence. What triumphant words are contained in verse 19, ‘For I know that this shall turn to my salvation’. This is a key verse in the chapter, especially in relation to Paul’s situation. Two words must be highlighted: ‘this’ and ‘salvation’.
Some Bible teachers see in the word ‘this’ a reference to his imprisonment, that it would eventually turn out to be for his benefit. I believe that he is thinking of the news of the previous verses that Christ is being preached. Whatever means or motives, one thing his imprisonment and bonds has accomplished is: believers are talking about Christ and preaching Christ; Christ is being made known!
The word ‘salvation’ does not mean his release from prison. The word refers to his spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being. The good news of the furtherance of the gospel was like a tonic to his soul, saving him from discouragement and despondency. Indeed, it resulted in his spiritual welfare, spurring him on to greater service for the Lord, and lifting him above the petty contentions of the ‘brethren’ who opposed and sought to hurt him. All this saved, or preserved him from being ashamed. All this would be brought about by two indispensable factors: ‘your prayers’, and ‘the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’.
When faced with the burdens of life, may we, like Paul, never undervalue the prayers of our fellow believers, or hinder the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit.