I want to focus on the word “trust,” as we begin because even if you’re not a pilot or a skydiver, trust is something that every one of us has to exercise every day. We exercise it by getting into our cars to drive to work each morning. We exercised it by sitting down in our chairs at the kitchen table this morning, trusting they would hold us up. Trust is at the core of what it means to please God and to follow Jesus. The Bible says we are to: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5).
Have you ever thought about what it means to trust in God? The words “trust,” “faith,” and “believe in” are all synonyms. When the Bible says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31), it’s another way of saying, “Trust in the Lord.”
Trust is an integral part of a living, ongoing relationship. Trust means knowing someone well enough that you can count on that person and then acting in accordance with that trust. Believing, having faith, trusting are the fundamentals of life with God. Trust, however, does not come naturally for most of us.
Today we’re going to look at a time in Paul’s life and ministry where his faith in God was tested beyond its normal limits and how “faith” was worked out and matured through his temporary afflictions.
By way of reminder, Paul is writing this Epistle (letter) to a group of people in Philippi, a group of people he had not seen for about five years. Paul founded this church in Philippi about ten years earlier (50 AD). Their love for him and participation with him in the gospel fostered a profoundly loving relationship between them.
Paul is writing with much joy and love in his heart for these people. And in his salutation, what we meditated on the last time we were together, we found Paul, with this frame of mind and heart, expressing his love and joy for them. He wants them to be encouraged that God is a completer!
And now, Paul begins to explain his prison circumstances to these beloved people, not to cause worry or fear, but to give them greater encouragement to persevere in the faith, or as he says in verse 27, so they may “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my [a]imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the [b]praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brothers and sisters, [c]trusting in the Lord because of my [d]imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
1. God is sovereign over our afflictions
To understand this rightly, we must first understand what it means to be sovereign.
This is part of what it means to be God. For God to be sovereign means: “There are no limits to His rule. He is sovereign over the whole world, and everything that happens in it. He is never helpless, never frustrated, never at a loss. And in Christ, God’s awesome, sovereign providence is the place we as Believers should feel most reverent, most secure, most free.”
This is undoubtedly on Paul’s mind as he writes this letter. The thread that entwines this whole letter together is Christ and His Gospel. In chapter one alone, Paul mentions Christ and His gospel or some aspect to either nine times! And in these first verses, we are looking at we see this evident even in Paul’s prison sentence.
Paul is in prison because of the “cause of Christ,” as he puts it. He is not there because of violence, thievery, embezzlement, murder, or any crime that would warrant such a penalty. He is there because he is obedient to Jesus Christ.
“That which should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God. Our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan, and He brings or allows to come into our lives only that which is for His glory and our good.”
― Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts
But, take notice of what he tells his readers about his situation, he says it: “turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” He wrote that not only the reality of him serving jail time was well known (quickly passed through the grapevine) throughout the whole governor’s palace but also the reason he was in prison!
Now that is not so unusual in our day. Cell phones, the internet, Facebook, Pinterest, and the like make for gossip and essential news to travel extremely fast, but that is a fascinating point in his day.
And what was the result? Notice verse 14 again, many people came to faith in Christ DUE TO his being in prison! And not only that, they had “Far more courage” to speak the word of God without fear! Not what we anticipate would happen if we were to be thrown in jail.
Do you trust in the sovereignty of God over ALL your circumstances, even the scary, fear-filled ones? Have you considered that He can use your “God appointed” afflictions to work out for the “greater progress of the gospel” in the lives of those around you?
Dear unbelieving friend, I want you to see that no matter where you are, no matter how bad you have been, no matter what your circumstances, God sends His people to those places to reveal Christ to you! He has, and still does, give his children gospel ministry in even the darkest and most hopeless places. So, grab hold of Him as many people around Paul did.
15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even [a]from envy and strife, but some also [b]from goodwill; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition [c]rather than from pure motives, thinking that they are causing me distress in my [d]imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.
God is sovereign over the gospel
Now, even though the gospel was progressing amidst Paul’s hardship, strife was ever-present.
Take notice of the two motives Paul mentions for the gospel going forward.
A. Envy and strife
“He rejoices that Christ is proclaimed. But some of the proclaimers are sinning as they proclaim, trying to afflict Paul by making him feel jealous that they are free while he is in prison. What is more astonishing is that this sinful behavior is just the opposite of the way the gospel itself would incline a person to act. So, they are hypocrites. They preach the gospel and then contradict in their very motives the gospel they are preaching.”
The one response that of envy and strife is a hypocritical approach to sharing the gospel. Paul says these people were doing it “out of selfish ambition,” not out of love for Christ and appreciation of the salvation He graciously bestowed upon them.
Their goal was to cause him distress, believe it or not, upon the grief he was already facing being imprisoned and limited in his freedoms. But the others, those of goodwill, shared Christ out of love. Love for Paul, love for their savior!
Brothers and sisters, we should be cautious to keep our motives in check in regards to our serving Christ and sharing His gospel. Are your motivations pure for telling others the gospel message, or are they hypocritical?
Are you sharing the gospel because you genuinely want to be obedient to Christ? Because you love Him and those other sinners He came to redeem, or are you sharing the gospel, participating in an evangelism ministry, because you are worried about what other Christians might think about you if you didn’t?
The only pure motivation for sharing the gospel is a love for Jesus Christ and what He willingly and joyfully accomplished for you and me at the cross.
Now don’t miss this fantastic fact that Paul tells his readers in verse 18:
“No matter what, in pretense (for show) or in truth, the gospel went forward, Christ was proclaimed!”
How can that be? How can the gospel be effective in such a place under such circumstances? The short but accurate answer–God is sovereign over His gospel!
19 for I know that this will turn out for my [a]deliverance through your [b]prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my eager expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 [c]But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know [d]which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sakes. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy [e]in the faith, 26 so that your pride in Christ Jesus may be abundant because of me by my coming to you again.
God is sovereign over our lives
God’s providence concerning his being in prison and the gospel being proclaimed there, “for show or in truth.” In verses 19-21, Paul is expressing his faith in the providence of God. Notice he says that it is his “earnest expectation and hope,” That even in those circumstances, Christ, as always, would be exalted in his body whether by life or by death.”
How can a faithful minister of the gospel, in prison, have such confidence? How can he trust (that word we talked about when I started this post) that God would use him and be exalted by using him even if it means his demise? Well, that has to do with rightly understanding the “providence” of God.
What is the providence of God? Here is the answer of the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 27): It is:
“The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”
And why is that important for us to grasp? Why was that critical for Paul to believe? What good will it do? Here is the answer to question 28.
“That we may be (patient) in adversity, (thankful)l in prosperity, and for what is future have (good confidence) in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in his hand that without his will they cannot so much as move.”
What joy, dear Christian, how God is sovereign over our afflictions, sovereign over His gospel, and here in these verses (22-26) Paul reveals how He is in control of our lives.
a. Hard pressed from both directions/competing desires
b. Be with Christ (death) or remain on here (life, ministry)
c. Remaining will be “fruitful labor,” (22)
d. Remaining is more necessary for the Philippians (24)
e. To be with Christ is “very much better.” (23)
f. Paul’s love for these people is evident in these verses.
Well, Verse 22 is a clear follow-up to verse 21. Paul is picking up on his first clause (to live is Christ), Paul is assessing what its outcome will mean for him in the body (literally “flesh”), namely, fruitful labor. An opportunity to bear more fruit through ministry. But, it would be a physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually costly process–and the prospect of leaving the battlefront and going home was appealing indeed.
But rather than follow that up with a similar sentence (“if it means death”), he jumps ahead to reflect on what he might do (if he, in fact had a real choice in the matter.) “I simply cannot say,” “I don’t know which to choose.” he says; indeed, I am torn between the two, since it means Christ in either case.” (Gordon Fee, amended)
Paul says that he is “hard pressed,” the Greek word used there is “sun-echo” means to be hemmed in on both sides and was used of a traveler in a narrow passage or gorge, with a wall of rock on either side, hemmed in, unable to turn aside and able only to go straight.
And so, Paul expands upon the options of life or death. One commentator puts it this way: “If he continues his sojourn on earth–“But if I live on in the flesh”–then he sees it as an opportunity to bear more fruit through ministry. Again we see Paul’s strict single-mindedness (the mind of Christ)–he saw himself as an instrument for the unleashing of God’s glory as long as time permitted (cf Acts 9:15). However, this unleashing would be a costly process–and the prospect of leaving the battlefront and going home was appealing indeed. So appealing that he adds, “yet what I shall choose, I cannot tell (lit.–I do not know).”
Paul’s point seems to be that he had not yet decided which to choose because the Lord had not yet made it known to him which to choose. Because he was not sure of the Lord’s will in the matter, he was not sure of his own.
Have you ever felt that way, Christian? Do you think that way right now? Have you come to a place where you have lost your zeal, your faith is waning, the conflicts all around you are seemingly impossible, and you want to -if-you-haven’t-yet, cried out, “Lord, take me home, I am more than ready.”
I want to encourage you with this quote:
“If God has done what you think he should do, trust him. If God doesn’t do what you think he should do, trust him. If you pray and believe God for a miracle and he does it, trust him. If your worst nightmare comes true, believe he is sovereign. Believe he is good.”
― Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist
Don’t give up; trust Him and wait for His will to be revealed to you.