Hope amid hardship

Philippians 1:21–30 is part of the lectionary readings for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which is September 20th. Philippi was an ancient town that was originally called Krenides. This means “springs,” which was probably a reflection of its abundant water supply.

The city was renamed by King Philip II of Macedonia when he subdued it around 356 b.c. Later, Philippi became a strategic Roman colony, since it was situated on a major road (called the Via Egnatia) that linked Rome with the continent of Asia. This Greek city was located about 10 miles north of the Aegean Sea and was coveted for its gold mines and fertile soil.

During Paul’s second missionary journey, he started the first European church in Philippi (Acts 16:9–40). This probably occurred around a.d. 50.

A few of the converts of Philippi, such as Lydia, became some of the apostle’s dearest friends. The dramatic conversion of a jailer and the exorcism of a slave girl also occurred in this city. Some Bible scholars suggest that the physician, Luke, was from Philippi, since it had a well-known school of medicine and because he noted its prominence (v. 12).

In any case, the Philippian church always held a cherished place in Paul’s heart. He came back to visit this city on his third missionary journey around a.d. 55–56. In fact, he may have passed through the city twice on this particular trip.

After the Philippian believers sent Paul a generous gift while he was under house arrest in Rome, the apostle wrote this letter to thank them for their kindness and to report on his current situation. At the same time, Paul took this opportunity to urge them to remain strong and united in their faith in the Messiah, even though many external and internal elements may have been discouraging them.

The apostle was referring to his house arrest when he spoke about himself as being “in chains for Christ” (Phi. 1:13; see Acts 28:30–31), and not of his later imprisonment in the Mamertine dungeon prior to his execution. The circumstances relating to his house arrest around a.d. 60–62 were certainly more agreeable to his physical well-being than the brutal incarceration he suffered in Rome at the end of his life around a.d. 66–67. It was during this final imprisonment when he wrote Second Timothy (1:17; 4:6–7).

Undoubtedly, the Philippian Christians knew that Paul was under house arrest and was awaiting his trial before Caesar on serious charges. The consequences of those charges could be terribly grievous for the apostle, at least physically.

It was possible that Paul could be sentenced either to death or a long, harsh imprisonment for sedition against Rome. His friends in Philippi probably prayed fervently that God would comfort and deliver the apostle from the unpleasant and precarious situation.

Paul was aware of the Philippians’ concern for his welfare and safety. For this reason, in this letter, he wanted to assure his friends that God was not only caring for the apostle, but also bringing unexpected and marvelous fruit to his ongoing ministry (Phil 1:12).

Paul was especially excited about the Lord’s work among the emperor’s guards, for they all knew that the apostle was under arrest because of his unwavering faith in Jesus and Paul’s courageous defense of the gospel. Some of them had received the Son as their Lord and Savior.

It was clear to everyone that the apostle was not under house arrest because he had violated a civil law or because he was a political agitator. The sentries who were responsible for guarding Paul probably observed how he lived out his faith in the Messiah.

Some might have listened to the apostle’s teachings about the Savior and shared what they learned with other palace guards, noting that Paul’s characteristics were nothing like those of most other criminals they guarded. Moreover, the gospel was advanced not only among these guards, but also to many other people (v. 13).

Furthermore, Paul attributed the proclamation of the gospel by other Christians in Rome to the apostle being “in chains for Christ.” Whether Paul was describing an actual condition in which he was chained to a guard or was referring to his imprisonment and sufferings in general is unclear. In any case, the apostle was elated that his example encouraged other Christians to be brave and bold in declaring the Word of God (v. 14).

There was the possibility that all of Paul’s believing readers might also come under the iron fist of the Roman authorities. If the Lord could still bring tremendous fruit to the apostle’s ministry while he was under house arrest, they too could be fruitful for the Lord, whether in or out of prison.

Although believers were courageously proclaiming the gospel in Rome, Paul was not ignorant of the rationale behind their preaching and teaching. Some were doing it for the right reasons, which he praised, but others were doing it for the wrong reasons. These individuals were not preaching the Savior to nonbelievers “out of goodwill” (v. 15), but “out of envy and rivalry.”

Yet, why would believers be inclined to act in these ungodly ways? They were certainly members of the Christian community. Most were probably jealous of the prestige Paul had earned within the Christian community and competed for the same pastoral authority he held among them.

Unlike Paul’s rivals, his friends in Rome preached the good news about the Messiah with trustworthy motives. Their evangelism sprang from the love they had in the Savior—a love that empowered them to tell nonbelievers about the compassion Jesus has for the lost.

In addition, Paul’s friends understood why he was under house arrest—not because he was an outlaw, but because he stood up for the gospel of Christ. Knowing this also instilled in these believers the courage to boldly stand up for the Lord Jesus (v. 16).

When Paul said of his imprisonment that he was “put here for the defense of the gospel,” he was specifically saying that God had brought the apostle to Rome for a particular purpose. It was no accident or quirk of fate that he was there.

In the approximately 30 years that had passed from Jesus’ resurrection to Paul’s imprisonment, the gospel had been carried through incredible means from an obscure province of the Empire—Judea—to the court of Caesar himself. The Father had chosen the apostle to defend the truths about the Son in front of the most powerful and influential leaders of Paul’s time. The Roman world could reject the life-giving message the apostle brought, but it could no longer ignore it.

Evidently, Paul’s rivals were not content just to operate independently of the apostle’s ministry. They were also motivated by the desire to intensify his dilemma while he was under Roman custody.

These antagonists might have realized that their preaching would place Paul into further jeopardy with the civil authorities, perhaps even contributing to his conviction. With the apostle out of the way, they could enhance their standing within the Christian movement in Rome. So, it was clear to Paul that these preachers were insincere in proclaiming the gospel and that selfish ambition was their underlying motive (v. 17).

Despite the malevolent intentions of the apostle’s rivals, he didn’t care about their antipathy toward him, as long as the gospel was preached. If nonbelievers were hearing the good news about Jesus Christ and receiving Him as their Lord and Savior, that was all that counted to Paul. He didn’t care what happened to him as long as people were coming into the kingdom.

Therefore, Paul was not concerned about the motives behind the preaching of selfish Christians. The apostle only wanted to be sure that people were receiving the right message about the Savior. Evidently, they were, for Paul was overjoyed at knowing that Christians were advancing the gospel even within the capital of the Roman Empire (v. 18).

Paul was confident that he was securely in God’s hands. The apostle believed that whatever happened to him would bring glory and honor to the Father, because He was in control of Paul’s life and the circumstances that affected his existence. So, though the apostle was under house arrest in Rome, he could rejoice and keep on rejoicing, for the Lord was with His bondservant and sustaining him.

Also, Paul knew that his Philippian friends were praying for him. A unique intimacy had developed between the apostle and the Christians in Philippi, and Paul naturally cherished their deep concern for him.

Moreover, the apostle coveted the prayers of other Christians, for he appreciated the distinctive power that believers’ prayers had in enlisting God’s aid (v. 19). Paul likewise valued the strengthening he received from the Spirit of Christ, which supplied him with the courage, determination, and hope to persevere joyfully throughout his current circumstances.

Most certainly, the apostle depended on the Lord’s Spirit to deliver His bondservant from any situation that brought him hardship. Whatever the Roman authorities decided to do with Paul, God would vindicate the apostle.

As Paul awaited his trial, his major concern was not whether the Father would save His bondservant’s life, but whether the apostle would present himself in such a way that the Son would be exalted. In fact, Paul was both eager and hoping to bring glory, rather than shame, to the Lord.

The Greek noun rendered “earnest expectation” (v. 20) provides a vivid picture of someone who cranes his or her neck to catch a glimpse of what lies ahead. Paul was letting his readers know that, while ignoring all other interests, he keenly anticipated honoring the Lord during the apostle’s trial.

Paul realized that the verdict could mean either life or death for him. That is why, in verse 20, he referred to “my body”.

Throughout the long ministry in which the apostle preached the gospel, whether to friendly crowds or hostile ones, Paul always sought to exalt the Messiah. Now, whether the Romans released or executed the apostle, he desired above all else that his Lord still be honored by His bondservant.

In a few words, the apostle beautifully summed up the no-lose situation of being baptismally united to Jesus: “Yes, for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v. 21). This immortal affirmation expresses a believer’s faith and hope.

To Paul the gain meant much more than the eternal benefit of heaven. The profit was that, if the apostle was martyred for his faith and hope in the Son, the gospel would be further advanced.

Paul was also confident that, if the Romans did not execute him, he would continue to be fruitful in his ministry. In fact, even if the apostle was forced to serve more time in prison, he would continue to proclaim the gospel.

Paul remained certain that, because of his preaching, nonbelievers would turn to faith in the Messiah. Indeed, due to apostle’s strategic position in Rome, he would have additional opportunities to be God’s instrument in bringing more people into the kingdom (v. 22).

Nonetheless, to be with the Son in heaven was also appealing to Paul. In fact, if he were given a choice to continue to minister God’s Word or be in the presence of Christ, the apostle confessed that the decision would be difficult to make.

Yet, Paul stated that he would choose to be with the Savior. The reason is that the apostle would have a much deeper communion with Jesus in heaven, though Paul already enjoyed a close relationship with the Son here on earth (v. 23).

Despite the apostle’s own inclination to depart, he believed it was more important for him to remain. In fact, his whole reason for staying was for the sake of tending to other people’s spiritual welfare, specifically for the pastoral care of his friends in the church at Philippi (v. 24).

With bold confidence, Paul told the Philippians that he was certain he would live in order to fulfill his duties in bringing them to spiritual maturity. Perhaps the great responsibility he had in caring for so many young believers throughout the Mediterranean world convinced him that it was too soon for him to die.

Evidently, the Lord gave the apostle a premonition or an assurance that he would not yet be executed. Maybe word was passed to him that the Roman authorities looking at his case were favorable to him.

Whatever the reason, Paul was now unmistakably upbeat (v. 25). Furthermore, the apostle thought that the Romans would not only spare his life, but also grant him his freedom, for he promised the Philippians that he would visit with them once again (v. 26).

We do not know whether this joyous meeting ever occurred. If it did, the Philippian Christians would have been thrilled to see their friend and mentor. They would have listened carefully to his stirring account of how the Lord was glorified through the apostle’s harrowing yet rewarding experiences in Rome.

Having been in Philippi and encountered persecution because of his faith, Paul knew what the believers in the city were facing. Also, since the apostle was deeply concerned for their individual and corporate welfare as a church, he sought to encourage with a love and instruct them with a tenderness unique among his known letters.

Whatever difficulties might arise against the Philippians, Paul exhorted them to be faithful to the teachings about the Messiah. This demanded a high standard of godly behavior (v. 27). Only by maintaining this high calling toward one another would they be worthy examples of the Christian life.

Once again, Paul reminded the Philippians of his possible return. In the same way, much as the apostle asked Philemon to prepare a guest room for him (Philem 22), Paul’s mention of visiting Philippi was a subtle way of persuading his readers to comply with his instructions.

It was also typical of the apostle to make it evident to his readers that their obedience would be of tremendous encouragement to him. In this case, the Philippians could bring him supreme joy, especially as he endured the ordeal of Roman confinement. By adding that he would hear reports about them even if he was unable to visit them, he was urging them to heed his words immediately (Phil 1:27).

Paul expected his readers to be united in spirit and be of one mind. Of course, he wasn’t insisting that they all have the same personality or share the exact same views about everything.

Nor did the apostle want his readers to be carbon copies of himself. Different people have different gifts with which to serve God, and all are equally valuable to Him.

There is also a wide range of personalities within the church, each integral to the health of the Messiah’s spiritual body. Even so, Paul was concerned with the rivalry and conflict that were apparently dividing the church in Philippi.

There were people in Philippi who were extremely hostile to Christians. Perhaps this animosity was a residual result of the incident in which Paul delivered a slave girl of a spirit that gave her fortune-telling abilities (Acts 16:16–40).

Paul and Silas had angered the owners of the slave girl because the owners were then deprived of income. So, they stirred the Philippians to attack Paul and Silas by convincing them that these men with their Christian beliefs were a threat to their Roman customs and religion. Although the evangelists departed at the request of the city’s magistrates, the believers in Philippi likely encountered continued abuse because of their association with Paul.

The apostle counseled the Philippians not to be overcome by their adversaries. The Greek word rendered “frightened” (Phil 1:28) can also be translated “alarmed,” “terrified,” or “intimidated.” For believers in the time of Paul, the term would bring to mind an image of the uncontrollable stampede of startled horses.

The apostle certainly did not want to see the Philippian church in such disarray. Christian unity would steel the believers against their opponents and prevent any emotional chaos in the fellowship.

Remarkably, the Philippians’ calm response in the face of affliction was a sign from God to both the persecutors and the persecuted. To the persecutors, it sealed their “destruction” (v. 28) as enemies of God and the good news His bondservants proclaimed.

To the persecuted, this sign confirmed their certain “salvation” in baptismal union with the Son as His chosen followers. The Father would see to it that His enemies are defeated and that His spiritual children are saved. Nothing can stand in the way of God’s sovereignty.

According to Paul, belief and suffering go hand in hand. Indeed, suffering for Christ’s sake is another sign of the believer’s baptismal union with the Redeemer (v. 29).

Paul identified the suffering of his friends in Philippi with his own afflictions. They had observed firsthand how the apostle was persecuted in their city. They had also heard about his struggles since then, including those during his house arrest in Rome.

So, the Philippians should have been able to recognize that their burdens and experiences were no different from what Paul experienced. Since he repeatedly conveyed to them in his letter the joy God had given the apostle, despite these adversities, he likewise wanted his readers to rejoice with him (vs. 30).

Key ideas to contemplate

We might look at our lives and see nothing but clutter and chaos, and conclude that there is no evidence of a pattern or purpose at all. We might only see how disorganized we are, how boring our existence is, or how frenetic our activities have become. In contrast, Jesus, wants to beautify and arrange each of our lives according to His purposes.

1. Dealing with the impure motives of others. Paul noted that one group of believers spread the gospel for selfish reasons, like politicians seeking to advance their own causes. The apostle, however, was not dispirited by this circumstance, for the Savior gave Paul’s life meaning and purpose. Consider how the apostle’s attitude encouraged others to proclaim the Savior to their friends and neighbors.

2. Facing death with courage. Paul could be courageous about the possibility of martyrdom, for he knew that death would be a “gain” (v. 21). Expressed differently, the prospect of execution meant that he would be with the Savior. In turn, the apostle would experience unending joy in the presence of the Lord.

Take a moment to look at your life circumstances in the way Paul regarded his. How might doing so transform your attitude toward living?

3. Serving others. While the prospect of being with the Redeemer appealed to Paul, he also desired to continue serving churches, such as the one at Philippi. The apostle recognized the benefits of—as well as the need for—further ministry to the congregations he had founded. If you were faced with this option, how willing would you be to undertake it for the glory of the Savior and the betterment of His followers?

4. Being transformed by Jesus’ glory. Jesus has the wisdom, knowledge, and power to turn our dark hallways, dust-filled corners, and cluttered rooms into something bright, clean, and inviting. Paul saw this pattern and purpose even as he was imprisoned in Rome. He discovered that the darkest prisons can become beautiful when they are decorated with Jesus’ glory.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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