Advancing the Gospel (preaching resource for 9/24/23, 17th Sunday after Pentecost)
This post exegetes Philippians 1:20-30, providing context for the 9/24/23 RCL Epistles reading drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Francis Foulkes ("New Bible Commentary").
|"Without Purse or Scrip" by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)
Desiring to advance the gospel into new territory, Paul had prayed and made detailed plans to travel to Rome. He knew that a beachhead in the capital city of the mighty Roman Empire would afford entrance into the far reaches of the Mediterranean world. His deep desire to get to Rome was eventually realized, but not in the way he planned. Rather than travelling there as a preacher, he went as a prisoner.
Now chained to a Roman guard, Paul writes the letter we call "Philippians" to Christians in Philippi. Rather than giving the details of his harrowing journey to Rome and of his continuing imprisonment, he merely refers in passing to “what has happened to me” (Phil. 1:12). Luke gives the details in Acts chapters 21-28, beginning with Paul’s illegal arrest in Jerusalem. The Jews thought he had desecrated the temple by bringing in Gentiles, and the Romans thought he was the Egyptian renegade on their “most-wanted” list. Paul became the focal point of both political and religious plotting and remained a prisoner in Caesarea in Palestine for two years. When he finally appealed to Caesar, he was sent to Rome. En route, his ship was wrecked. After three months of waiting in Malta, Paul finally embarked for Rome and his trial before Caesar’s court. In the eyes of many, Paul’s ordeal added up to failure. But Paul was single-minded and filled with joy in his devotion to Jesus and the gospel mission. If difficult circumstances were needed to advance the gospel into new territory; then so be it!
The word advance in 1:12b, is from a Greek word that means, “to cut before”—it was used to speak of an army of pioneer wood cutters which preceded the regular army, cutting a road through an impenetrable forest, thus making possible the pioneer advance of the latter into regions where otherwise it could not have gone. Paul assures the Philippian believers that his circumstances have not only failed to curtail his mission, but have advanced it—and not only that, they have brought about the advance of the gospel into regions where otherwise it would not have gone.
Because of Paul’s chains, Christ was known (Phil. 1:13), and because of Paul’s critics, Christ was preached (Phil. 1:18). And now in today's reading in Philippians we learn that because of Paul’s crisis, Christ was exalted (1:20):
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will 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 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
It was possible that Paul would be found a traitor to Rome and then be executed. His preliminary trial had apparently gone in his favor. The final verdict, however, was yet to come. But Paul’s body was not his own, and his only desire was to exalt Christ in his body—whether through life or in martyrdom.
Does Christ need to be exalted? And how can a mere human exalt the divine Son of God? The Greek word translated “exalted” carries the meaning of “magnified.” Think of it like this: though a telescope is much smaller than the celestial object it is focused on, the telescope magnifies the object—bringing it closer into view. The believer’s body is to be a telescope that brings Jesus into close view. To the average person, Jesus is a misty historic figure who lived centuries ago. But as nonbelievers watch a believer go through a crisis, a “little Jesus” begins to look very big, and a “distant Jesus” begins to come very close. Paul was not afraid of life or of death. Either way, he wanted to magnify Christ, bringing the joy of Jesus to others.
Paul confesses that he faces a difficult decision. To remain alive was necessary for the benefit of the believers in Philippi, but to depart and be with Christ was far better for him personally. Paul decided that Christ would have him remain, not only for the “advance of the Gospel” (1:12) but also for their “progress and joy in the faith” (1:25). He wanted them to advance in their spiritual growth. What a man Paul is! He is willing to postpone being with Christ in glory to stay on earth and help Christians grow.
Death held no terror for Paul. It simply meant departing. This Greek word for departing was used for a ship weighing anchor or for striking camp. What a picture of Christian death! The “tent” of our body is taken down at death, and the spirit returns to God (2Cor 5:1–8). Departing was also a political term; it described the setting free of a prisoner. God’s people are in bondage because of the limitations of the body and the temptations of the flesh, but death, or the return of Christ (whichever occurs first), will free them. Finally, departing was a word used by farmers; it meant “to unyoke the oxen.” Paul had taken Christ’s yoke, which is an easy yoke to bear (Mat 11:28–30), but how many burdens he carried in his ministry! To depart to be with Christ would mean laying aside these burdens, his earthly work completed. There is not necessarily a contradiction between thinking of death as ‘sleep’ (as in 1Thes 4:13–15) and as departing to be with Christ. It may be only our limitation of thinking in terms of space and time that makes it impossible for us to understand fully what lies beyond the gateway of death.
No matter how you look at it, nothing can steal a person’s joy if they have single-minded devotion to Christ. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) said Paul. What do we live for? Fill in the blanks: “For to me to live is______and to die is____________. Perhaps some would fill in the blanks in these ways:
• “For to me to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.”
• “For to me to live is fame and to die is to be forgotten.”
• “For to me to live is power and to die is to lose it all.”
Christ-followers share Paul’s understanding and deep conviction that to live is, indeed, Christ; and to die (and thus depart to be with Christ) is, indeed, gain. This single-minded devotion brings great joy to our lives now, despite the difficulties we encounter.
Our calling to advance the gospel
27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit,[a] striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. (Phillipians 1:27-30
Paul continues here by reinforcing his previous point that as followers of Jesus, we (like Paul) are called to participate actively with Jesus in a partnership (Phil 1:5) to advance the gospel (Phil 1:12). In this pioneering mission, we are called to stand together, contending for the faith of the gospel (Phil 1:27). This faith is the body of truth given to the church by the Spirit through the Apostles (including Paul) as set forth in the New Testament (which refers frequently to the Old Testament). Jude calls this truth “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Peter calls it a “precious” faith (2Pet 1:1). And Paul warns that “in later times some will abandon the faith” (1Tim 4:1). God “entrusted” this faith to Paul (1Tim. 1:11), who entrusted it to others, like Timothy (1Tim 6:20), who entrusted it to “reliable men…qualified to teach others” (2Tim 2:2). Indeed, the church’s teaching ministry is a primary way that the faith is both defended and passed on to succeeding generations.
To contend together for the faith will often involve defending it against counterfeits. Satan is a master at foisting false gospels on the world and the church. We must defend against his lies. In this defense, we don’t use the aggressive, manipulative power tactics that are “weapons of the world” (2Cor 10:4a). Rather, we defend in love, using spiritual weaponry that includes Scripture and prayer (Eph 6:11–18; Heb 4:12). Here in Philippians, Paul rallies believers to join in a defense of the faith. Victory comes through three essentials elements: consistency, cooperation and confidence.
1. Consistency (27a)
27a Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ….
Our most powerful weapon in defending the true faith is not the brilliance of our argumentation, but the beauty of our collective example—our conduct in the sight of non-believers, which reflects the love and life of Jesus. The verb conduct is from a Greek word referring to citizenship. Paul notes that the primary citizenship of all believers is in heaven (Phil 3:20). This idea of citizenship was very meaningful to the Philippian believers because Philippi was a Roman colony, and its citizens were actually Roman citizens with all the rights and privileges that citizenship afforded. The church of Jesus is a colony of heaven on earth. As believers, we ought to behave like the citizens of heaven. And so we ask, “are we conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel?” We are called to “live a life worthy of the calling” that we have in Christ (Eph 4:1), which means walking “worthy of the Lord [that we may] please him in every way” (Col 1:10). We do not behave in order to be saved, or to earn God’s favor or forgiveness. Because we are forgiven and saved, we seek to behave in ways that demonstrate God’s favor—to do so is our grateful response to our heavenly citizenship. And the unbelieving world around us will come to experience the reality of the gospel by seeing this positive response.
We want our conduct as the body of Christ to convey clearly the glorious good news that, in Christ, God loves and forgives all humanity. God, in Christ, has reconciled all humanity to himself, and now includes all people in his redemptive love and life. In Christ, all people are in union with God and are invited to participate actively in that union with the Father, Son and Spirit. God accomplishes all of this for us in and through Jesus – through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and continuing intercession. Does our shared conduct proclaim this truth? To add to or detract from it is to deprive it of its power to witness to the gospel. Indeed, the greatest weapon in defending the purity and power of the gospel is a transformed life lived in the view of others. As we live this life, Christ is exalted and the enemy’s false gospels are nullified.
It is consistency in living the gospel before unbelievers that is the first essential element for victory in defending the faith. The second element is our cooperation.
2. Cooperation (27b)
27b …Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel
Paul now changes the illustration from citizenship to athletics. The word translated “contending” gives us our English word “athletics.” Paul pictures the church as a team, and he reminds the church at Philippi that it is teamwork that wins victories. Sadly, there were some divisions within the church at Philippi. For one thing, two leading women were not getting along (Phil 4:2). Apparently the members of the fellowship were taking sides, and the resulting division was hindering the work of the church. The enemy is always happy to see internal divisions in a local ministry. “Divide and conquer!” is his motto, and too often he has his way. It is only as believers stand together that they overcome the wicked one.
Throughout this letter, Paul uses an interesting device to emphasize the importance of unity. In the Greek language, the prefix sun- means “with, together,” and when used with different words, strengthens the idea of unity. At least sixteen times, Paul uses this prefix in Philippians, and his readers could not have missed the message. In Phil 1:27, the Greek word is sunathleo—“striving together as athletes.” But sometimes a congregation, just like an athletic team, has a “glory hound” who has to be in the spotlight and get all the praise. This weakens the congregation’s ability to “stand firm in one spirit.” The Apostle John had to deal with this issue. He wrote that “Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us” (3John 9). Perhaps John remembered the time when he and his brother James had asked to be given special positions with Jesus (Mat 20:20–28). Any such self-promotion weakens team cooperation. We are called to be as “one man” in our gospel mission.
It would not be difficult to expand this idea of the local church as a team of athletes. Each person in the congregation has their assigned role on the team. As each fulfills their role, the team is strengthened. Not everybody can be captain or quarterback! And there are team rules—given by the one Spirit who speaks to us through Holy Scripture. And there is one team goal—to honor Christ and do his will. If we all work together as a team, we can reach this goal, win the prize, and glorify Jesus. But the minute any one of us starts disobeying the team rules, breaks training (the Christian life does demand discipline), or looks for personal glory, teamwork disappears and division and competition take over. And so Paul reminds us of the need for teamwork – many members with one mind. Victory in defending the truth of the gospel is ours as we practice true Christian teamwork.
As citizens of heaven we should walk consistently in ways that reflect the true gospel. And as members of the same team we should work cooperatively. But there is a third essential element in achieving victory in defending the true faith, and that is our confidence.
3. Confidence (28–30)
28 …without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
The Greek word here translated “frightened” pictures a horse shying away from battle. To be sure, nobody blindly runs into a fight; but then, no true believer should deliberately avoid facing the enemy. In these verses, Paul gives us several encouragements that give us confidence in our battles to defend the faith of Jesus.
a. Struggle proves that we are believers (1:28). As believers, we not only trust in Christ but we also suffer for and with him. Paul calls this “the fellowship of sharing in his [Christ’s] sufferings” (Phil 3:10). Some new believers have the mistaken idea that trusting Christ means the end of struggle. In reality, it means the beginning of new struggles. “In this world you will have trouble” is Jesus’ statement (John 16:33). And Paul told Timothy, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Tim 3:12). We need not despair when struggle comes our way. It’s par for the course.
b. To suffer is our privilege (1:29). We suffer “for him” (“for his sake”, KJV). In fact, Paul tells us that this suffering is “granted” to us—it is God’s gift. If we were suffering for ourselves, it would be no privilege; but because we are suffering for and with Christ, it is a high honor. After all, he suffered for us, and to suffer for and with him is a privilege and a way that we show our gratitude to our Savior.
c. We are not alone (1:30). Satan wants us to think we are alone in this struggle, that our difficulties are unique, but such is not the case. Paul reminds the Philippians that he is going through the same struggle that they are experiencing. Indeed, the enemy is everywhere. Knowing that fellow believers are struggling too is an encouragement to keep going.
Struggling spiritually exercises spiritual “muscle” and helps us grow up in Christ. God gives us the strength to stand firm in our struggles, and our confidence in God’s strength is proof to the enemy that he will lose and that we are on the winning side (Phil 1:28). The Philippians had seen Paul go through much struggle when he was with them (see Acts 16:19ff), and they had witnessed his firmness in the Lord. The Greek word here translated “struggle” gives us our word “agony.” It’s the same word that is used for Christ’s struggle in the Garden of Gethsamane (Luke 22:44). As we face the enemy and depend on the Lord, he gives us all that we need for the battle. When the enemy sees our God-given confidence, it makes him fear.
Dear ones, let us stand together with Christ in defending the one true faith—the precious gospel of Jesus Christ. Victory is ours in this defense as we display consistency, cooperation, and confidence. All of these essential elements are God’s good gifts to us through the Holy Spirit. And sharing these elements brings glory to Jesus as his gospel is preserved and advanced in the world.