Philippians: The Joy and Suffering of the Furtherance of the Gospel – Part 4

Chapter 1:The Gospel’s Progress amidst Opposition and Suffering

Section 2: Verses 12-26

Paul’s imprisonment and its effect on the gospel

Although verses 12-26 focus on Paul’s immediate circumstances, they are really an amplification of the thoughts developed in verses 3-11. God, who promised that the good work in the saints would continue until the day of Christ, vv. 5-6, now explains something of the progress of the message that produces this transformation. In fact, verses 3-11 set the tone for the rest of the epistle, as ROBERT C. SWIFT explains:

‘Verses 12-26, besides linking with the prologue, also point forward to succeeding sections in the epistle. Verses 23-26, for example, clearly foreshadow 2. 5-11. Following Christ’s example, Paul released any claim on privileges he rightly possessed in order to serve the needs of others more effectively. In that way, as well as by the mention of his anticipated coming to them, 1. 27; 2. 24, this section points to what lies ahead in the epistle. These verses form a smooth and natural transition to the body of the letter which begins at 1. 27’. 1

The advancement of the gospel as recorded in Philippians reaches an autobiographical point in verse 12. The apostle turns from generalities to his current imprisonment and how it had impacted upon the dissemination of the good news. Contrary to human wisdom, the plan of God includes this surprising development, and uses it to spread Christ’s message where it otherwise would not go. What is more, his imprisonment profoundly affects his brothers in Philippi by motivating them to preach the word of God in his place. Finally, it reveals the prisoner’s attitude toward the true meaning of life, showing it to be a Christ-centred life.

Prison Ministry from the Inside

The opening words of this section must have astonished his first readers, ‘But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel’, Phil. 1. 12. How could this extremely negative development help the ministry forward? If an internationally famous evangelist or missionary were to be imprisoned today, scores of prayer meetings would be devoted to praying for his immediate release. Yet the apostle affirms that his legal difficulties were actually a boon to the spread of the gospel. His attitude is exemplary for suffering Christians: they must see God’s hand behind the positive and negative occurrences in their lives. As MOTYER puts it, ‘Paul belonged to that never-to-be-repeated apostolic band – the men who could say “Be imitators of me”. The result is that we find here something more than extracts from the diary of a fascinating man: this is an example of true Christian living; this is a statement of principle for the guidance of the saints’.2

On Duty for the Lord in the most Unlikely Place

Paul’s assessment of his situation revealed a spiritual worldview which recognized God’s sovereign hand behind every situation in life. Nor were his words an overstatement, for now Christ’s glad tidings were going into unexpected places, even among the elite Praetorian guard. The KJV of verse 13 has, ‘in all the palace’. Literally, it is ‘to the praetorian’, which could refer to the palace where the Praetorian guard protected the emperor or to the soldiers themselves. It seems likely that he refers to people, rather than a specific geographic location, although the same sentries to whom he would witness were also employed in the court itself. Thus, the gospel penetrated the inner quarters of the ruler and bore spiritual fruit, 4. 22.

Ironically, when he says he is ‘set’, it translates, ‘keimai … a military term, emphasizing the point that in prison he is enduring hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Tim. 2. 3-4), and as much “on duty" as the guards posted to watch over him are on duty in the service of Rome’.3 Even a prison can be a springboard for the word of God, which cannot be bound, 2 Tim. 2. 9.

The apostle’s confinement also emboldens his more timid brethren to openly proclaim the despised message of the cross. When the Lord sets aside some of His servants, it often stirs others to rise and labour in their place. Human wisdom supposes that persecution would cause others to draw back from identifying with the rejected Christ. Frequently, the reverse transpires. Rather than arrest the gospel’s advance, Stephen’s martyrdom spread the Christians like seed, compare Acts 8. 4 with 11. 19-21. Apparently, that bold speaker’s message and death also lodged in Saul of Tarsus’ mind, for the Lord told him, ‘It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks’, Acts 9. 5. In his later sermons at Pisidian Antioch and Athens, Acts chapters 13 and 17, Paul made some of the same points that Stephen made in Acts chapter 7.

A Team of Rivals

More surprisingly, this unforeseen turn of events motivated some who disliked Paul to redouble their evangelistic efforts in a futile attempt to make his experience more galling, v. 16. They were motivated by ‘envy and strife’, v. 15, and probably sought to increase their own popularity and influence by doing what he could not do. One scholar describes the former term thus, ‘Eritheia, derived from erithon, a hired servant, means labour for hire, and is commonly used of hired canvassers, in the sense of factiousness, party spirit’.4 On the two terms MACARTHUR adds, ‘Strife is from eris, which refers to contention, especially with a spirit of enmity. As it is used here, it is frequently associated with envy and jealousy, as well as with other sinful passions, such as greed and malice. Envy leads to competition, hostility, and conflict’.5 These preachers are free; whereas, it is obvious that Paul lacked the Almighty’s favour – why else would he be in prison? Instead of naming his adversaries or defending his own honour, the great missionary rejoices in the further proclamation of Christ, v. 18. Though he deplores their base motives, as long as the true gospel is preached he is happy.

The Goal of Paul’s Life

Paul’s next statement is somewhat perplexing, ‘For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’, v. 19. Specifically, ‘this’ and ‘salvation’ are the puzzling words. On the former word, it is best to understand it in the broadest sense possible: all of these happenings – imprisonment, support of those who love him, opposition from those who detest him – work toward the greater goal of his ‘salvation’. Contextually, it is clear that he is not referring to salvation from God’s wrath (other scriptures make it clear that this was already a past occurrence, e.g., John 5. 24; Rom. 5. 1; 8. 1). Some Bible teachers suggest that he is speaking of his ‘deliverance’ from prison. While this is possible, the verses that come after indicate that he envisages salvation from all human and satanic opposition in the great task of magnifying Christ. He points out in verse 19 that the saints’ intercession and the power of the Holy Spirit are the tools that strengthen him to overcome his foes and accomplish this task. The phrase ‘turn to my salvation’ echoes the Septuagint wording of Job chapter 13 verse 16, and Paul’s situation is analogous to that Old Testament hero.6 Job was maligned as unrighteous; yet, in the end, God exonerated him. Likewise, Paul sees himself being vindicated before the Romans and all other adversaries in glorifying Christ through his sufferings. At a higher Judgement Seat than Rome, all of these things would be marshalled to show the rightness of the Lord Jesus, His apostle, and His gospel.

It all comes down to Paul’s personal credo, ‘For me to live Christ; to die gain’, 1. 21 literal rendering. If one puts anything else into the first part of that statement, then they cannot say ‘To die is gain’. For example, if one declares, ‘For me to live is sport’, then they cannot say ‘to die is gain’ (there is no reserved seating at the World Cup for dead men). Or, another might affirm, ‘For me to live is business’; the global economic events of the last two years demonstrate that one’s business may not last this life, let alone the next. The only way to be able to say, ‘To die is gain’ is to have Christ as the object, chief joy, and highest good of one’s life. Paul can say this because 21 the Lord Jesus is everything to him – more important than possessions, health, wealth, friends, family, or even life itself. Later in this epistle, he asserts that, ‘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’, 3. 8 ESV. For Paul, living is about Christ; therefore, dying would be gain, for he would gain unfettered and undistracted access to the Lord.

In the final verse of this section, Paul faces the real possibility that he may be executed. This does not frighten him. If he dies, he goes to be with the Lord, which is ‘very much better’, v. 23 JND, NAS. If he lives, he generates more fruit for the Lord’s glory. It is a ‘win-win’ situation! Nonetheless, he recognizes that the young church in Philippi would benefit from his continuing in the body. What is more, verse 25 indicates that he knew – possibly by revelation – he would be released and return to them. He thus looks forward to their ‘furtherance and joy of faith; that your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again’, vv. 25-26.


1 ROBERT C. SWIFT, ‘The Theme and Structure of Philippians,’ Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 141 (141:242-243). Dallas Theological Seminary.
2 J. ALEC MOTYER, comment on v. 12, The Message of Philippians. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984; electronic edition (Logos).
3 RALPH P. MARTIN, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 11 . Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987; electronic edition (Logos).
4 Pulpit Commentary, ed. By H. D. M. SPENCE and JOSEPH S. EXELL, electronic edition: Ages Software, Rio, WI, USA.
5 JOHN MACARTHUR, JR., Philippians. 2001, Electronic edition (Quickverse/E4).
6 The Septuagint, abbreviated LXX, was an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures; it is sometimes quoted in the New Testament by the Lord and His apostles.