"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear."
The Progress of the Gospel
I wonder what your favourite topic of conversation is. An outsider visiting the UK might easily come to the conclusion that it was the weather as that is a safe subject for many of us isn’t it? Some of you are sports fans and you enjoy talking endlessly about football, or cricket or tennis. Others of you perhaps will talk about a TV programme. Then of course there are families and how the grandkids are getting on.
There is one subject that we probably all enjoy talking about – assuming we can find someone to listen to us – and that is ourselves. And how easily we can go on about ourselves and our situation, our ailments, our aches and pains! Some of us can go on so well that others have learnt not to give us too much of an opening.
Well, Paul has finished his introduction and he has prayed for the Philippians. It is now time for him to move on in the writing of his letter and he wants to get on to his favourite topic. Our task this morning is to look at what it is that is going to dominate his thinking as he carefully directs the thinking of the church members in Philippi.
Is Paul going to focus upon himself and the eventful life he had led? Was he going to moan and complain about his current situation in prison?
Let’s find out.
Brothers and Sisters
But before we go any further I want to draw your attention to the way in which Paul refers to the church members in Philippi as brothers:
v.12 "I want you to know, brothers..."
This is the first time in writing to the Philippians that Paul has addressed them in this way but it will not be the last. Paul will go on to use this expression a total of eight times in this letter and it supplies us with an important description that should help us to understand something more of the nature of the Christian church.
The word Paul used refers to siblings and in the ancient world this usually referred to descendants, whether male or female, of the same father. To reflect this some of our Bibles translate the word that Paul used with the phrase "brothers and sisters". It is thus a warm word, a family word, that emphasises lasting and durable relationships and is applied very appropriately in the church context because the church is God’s family. When a person becomes a Christian he or she is immediately introduced to a new set of relationships, durable relationships, because the Christian has become a member of God’s family. This doesn’t guarantee that everything will always be easy going – we all know that tensions can all too easily exist within families – but the Christian is not going to be kicked out of this family, he will always have brothers and sisters in Christ.
So as Paul continues his letter he is writing to fellow members of God’s family and he has something important that he wants to share with them.
Something Important to Think About
"I want you to know"
Strictly speaking such a phrase is unnecessary because Paul is about to write what he wants them to know any way. If the phrase was left out the sense would remain essentially the same. So why did he use it? Well, this was a common literary device of the day and it was designed to focus the attention of the reader to what followed. It underlined the fact that the author considered that what he was about to say was particularly significant. In writing like this Paul was emphasising that he had something important to say. We can paraphrase his words in this way:
"I have thought about it carefully and I have come to this conclusion. I want you to understand and to think about what I’m about to say: I don’t want you simply to know bunch of facts, I want you to realise how they are related and how one leads on to another."
Let me pause for a moment for I want to remind you that the Christian is meant to be a thinking person. Being a believer doesn’t mean shutting down your intellect, not at all, it calls for sharper and deeper thinking than perhaps we’ve ever done before. Our God is an intelligent and wise God and the believer has nothing to fear when it comes to thinking because his God is the God of truth. It is not thinking per se that we need to avoid but poor thinking and we engage in poor thinking when we think about the wrong things or when we think about good things in the wrong way. The way forward is not to avoid thinking but to learn to think well.
And this involves all of us. Paul was not writing simply to the leaders of the Philippians congregation nor was he writing to particularly gifted members, he was writing to all the saints, to the ordinary brothers and sisters.
Now, back to what it was that Paul considered so important to share with the Philippians.
If Paul had been following the letter writing customs of his day then his readers could now expect to be given some details about his present circumstances and specifically about how he was coping with them. And we can easily understand the anticipation of the Philippians as they heard that phrase "I want you to know". Surely Paul was now going to bring them up to date concerning his situation and they were interested to hear what he had to say. After all they had sent Epaphroditus to Paul carrying a gift that expressed their concern for him and now it was Epaphroditus who had brought back this letter from him. How keenly they were looking forward to hearing how things were going with the apostle!
Maybe they were already aware of some of the things that had happened to Paul since he had left Philippi and they were sure that he had many exciting stories to recount. And of course Paul did. He could have told them about his arrest in Jerusalem where he had been falsely accused of desecrating the temple. He could have told them how he had narrowly escaped being lynched by an angry mob before being taken into Roman custody. He could have told them how he had just avoided another flogging and then how he had faced a preliminary hearing before the Jewish leaders. He could have spoken about another riot that nearly broke out; about a plot to murder him that had been hatched against him but which had been happily frustrated.
Oh yes, Paul had lots he could have talked about and he could have taken advantage of this opportunity to moan about how he had been kept in prison for two years by Roman governors who hoped he would offer them bribes to secure his freedom. He could have complained about the continued opposition of his fellow countrymen that forced him to make his appeal to Caesar. And how many more things could Paul have written about as he was taken to Rome? Another shipwreck? A poisonous snake bite? Two more years of house arrest?
"I want you to know, brothers…" and just as the expectation rises that he will give a detailed account of his current circumstances, complete with a full black story, he defies the literary expectations of his day and focuses all attention on something completely different, he focused upon the gospel and upon the progress it was making.
Paul just wasn’t particularly interested in describing in any detail what had happened to him because he had come to understand that God used each circumstance of his life to fit him for the greater purpose of promoting the gospel. He knew himself to be as ‘clay in the potter’s hands’ (cf. Is.64:8) being moulded to meet a particular task. He understood his trials as refinements carried out by a silversmith making him pure and fit for purpose. His God was the One who worked all things together for good and he was at work in Paul’s life.
So instead of going into great detail about what had happened to him, Paul moved quickly on to focus rather on the why of it all. Why did things happen the way they did? What was God’s purpose in it all? And the explanation he gave was that God’s purpose was to ensure that the gospel progressed.
So the important thing on which Paul wanted the Philippians to focus their attention was the progress of this gospel. It was the progress of this gospel that Paul wanted to talk about and it was the progress of this gospel that Paul wanted the Philippians to understand. And what was more when he wrote to them he assumed they would be interested!
Paul loved the gospel and he employed the word nine times in this short letter. He didn’t need to explain what he meant because he fully expected his readers to know exactly what he was talking about. The Philippians knew what the gospel was and because they did Paul knew he could expect them to be as thrilled as he was to hear about its progress.
I want now to pause and to ask some questions, and this is my first:
Do you know what is meant by the gospel?
I hope you do for it is a wonderful subject that deserves our regular and repeated thought. We should never get beyond the joy and the thrill of the gospel. So let me remind you what the gospel is all about.
If we’re honest, all of us know that we have limitations and weaknesses, though these weaknesses will be expressed by different people in different ways. Men and women know they have problems but don’t understand what the underlying cause really is. Some will be aware of a lack of inner peace and are always trying to find a solution for it, others are never satisfied with their attainments and are always trying to do a bit more, others try to find their value through their relationships which leads some to be abusive and others to be manipulative. Some are fearful of the future. The problem humans have express themselves is so many ways.
And the problem that lies behind all of these varied expressions of human short-comings is the problem of sin. Now many don’t want to hear that and try to come up with a whole host of arguments but the fact remains that men and women simply fail to hit the mark that God has set and consequently don’t enjoy peace with their Creator. Some respond by trying to shut God out of their lives and to live as though he wasn’t important or even there but their problems still don’t go away. Others try to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps thinking that of course they’ll be able to please God if only they set their mind to it. And their problems don’t go away either.
And God offers his gospel to a needy humanity as a free gift. No need to do this or to do that; no need to go on pretending/hoping he doesn’t exist – simply a free gift to be received by faith. God has dealt with the fundamental underlying problem that is destroying the human race in a far more deadly way than any COVID virus will ever do. He has dealt with the problem of human sin. How did he do this? He sent Jesus into the world to be its Saviour. Jesus lives a perfect life that pleased God in every way imaginable, his life shows us what a truly human life ought to look like, but he didn’t come simply to give us an example for us to try to follow. He lived a perfect life so that he might offer it as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf, in our place, that we might be set free from sin and its consequences, its power and its stain. God offers us a Saviour that we don’t deserve and with him a new life that we could have no other way.
The biggest issue each of us has to resolve is the matter of our sin. Sin has cut us off from our Creator, it messes up our lives and left untreated will eventually destroy our eternal future. And the gospel is God’s answer. It is his response to our problem and he offers his solution freely to any who will respond and take it.
The apostle Paul had responded to this gospel when, still functioning under his pre-Christian name of Saul, he had set out on an angry mission of persecution. Despite being highly religious, Saul had found no satisfaction and peace in his religiosity but was filled with hatred for those who preached a message he did not understand. And then he met with the risen Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus! Saul suddenly understood that he had been following the wrong path and he realised he too needed a Saviour, this Saviour, Jesus. It was the beginning of a whole new life for Saul who was soon renamed Paul. He would never be the same again – and nor will anyone who puts their trust in Jesus who lies at the very heart of the gospel.
And that brings me to my second question:
Have you embraced this gospel, have you invoked Jesus to be your Saviour?
You see it is not enough to know about the gospel you must personally respond to it. The gospel doesn’t come to you and tell you to put your life in order nor does it tell you that if you try a bit harder then God will maybe look favourably on you, rather it comes and tells you that God, in Jesus Christ, as already done all that is necessary for you to have your sins forgiven and for you to enjoy the new status of a child of God, for you to be made a member of his family both now and forever.
You must respond to this gospel offer by believing God and by calling out to him to have mercy on you the sinner who needs saving. Going to church won’t save you if you refuse to personally engage with God through repentance and faith. Being a good person and resolving to be kind to others won’t save you either – you must have a Saviour and Jesus is the only Saviour there is. Amazingly he can be yours freely for he has paid the price that you could never afford to pay.
Have you embraced him in this way? If you haven’t then why not put the sermon on pause and pray to God right this very moment to ask him to save you. You know enough to do so – you know you are a sinner and you know Jesus died to be the Saviour of the World – call on him now!
Well, if you did pause and pray then let us know and we’ll rejoice with you.
Most of you will already have put your faith in Jesus so let me now ask you another question:
And are you thrilled to hear of its progress in the lives of others?
This is challenging isn’t it? Was so often taken up with ourselves that we fail to be interested in anything that doesn’t involve was in one way or another. When the progress of the gospel concerns some place far off from us we can be left totally unmoved – but it shouldn’t be like that and Paul didn’t want the Philippians to react that way either.
The Progress of the Gospel
In speaking about the progress the gospel was making, Paul chose his words carefully and employed one which would definitely make the Philippians stop and think. Let me tell you about it.
The word he used is translated in our Bibles as either progress, advancement or furtherance and in Paul’s day it was a word used in primarily two different contexts. When Paul used it, though, he gave it an interesting twist which would have challenged his readers who would have been expecting something rather different to follow.
On one hand it was a word used by stoïc philosophers to speak about moral progress and this might have led to the expectation that Paul would expand upon personal moral progress he had made as a result of the experiences that have come his way. But Paul was more interested in the progress of the gospel.
The word was also used to speak of the growth and spread of the Roman empire. For Paul to speak about the spread and growth instead of the gospel would be to present it as a rival to Rome and how important that it had been to Phillippi, that "little Rome", of a Roman colony.
But how was it that Paul could look at the various details of his life and in particular to his present circumstances and assert so confidently that God had actually used them all to promote the progress on the gospel? Well we’ll conclude our studies this morning by investigating the explanation Paul gave.
You might have thought that the arrest of an evangelist would only serve to hinder the progress of the gospel. How could the gospel make progress when the main agent of its spread was locked away and kept under lock and key?
Well there was one member of the congregation in Philippi who could have supplied a ready answer. Paul had once been locked up in the jail in Philippi but had that stopped the gospel from making headway? The retired centurion who was the gaoler at the time knew from personal experience didn’t he? I wonder if he smiled when Paul spoke about the word spreading among the soldiers guarding Paul that their prisoner was there because he was serving Jesus Christ? How many hymns did they hear him singing? was a question that might have crossed his mind.
Have you ever wondered what those bored soldiers made of it all? They had probably expected to be on more exciting duties when they were appointed to the elite regiment of the Praetorian guard and there they were chained to this prisoner who received so many visitors and who spent so much time writing letters. What did they think? Did they ask Paul any questions about what he was in prison for? What he was guilty of? And do you really think that a man like Paul would have kept quiet? Don’t you think it more likely that he took every opportunity that came his way to speak to the succession of men he was chained to?
And the result? Everyone in the imperial guard knew why he was there. This man was a servant of Christ and Christ hadn’t abandoned the apostle now he was in prison – right there in prison Paul was in Christ and continuing about his master’s business.
The word spread further too among the unbelieving community. It wasn’t just the soldiers who knew why he was there – with exuberant joy Paul declared that everyone else did so too!
God had his plans to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and if getting that news to the heart of Caesar’s elite forces meant Paul needed to spend some time in prison then in prison Paul would spend some time.
A second perhaps rather surprising result also occurred among the Christian believers in Rome. You might think that when a well known Christian is arrested and kept under house arrest that other Christian would deduce that it really was a good time to keep your head down and to avoid drawing attention to themselves. But, you know what, the complete opposite took place!
News of the effects of Paul’s imprisonment filtered out to the Christian community that was already serious about spreading the good news. When they understood what was happening, how Paul wasn’t silenced and how the message was spreading, then these believers were encouraged to redouble their own efforts and they became even more confident than they had been before. Fear? No, they weren’t afraid, they had a great message to share and share it they did fearlessly!
And so in these two ways the gospel was making progress precisely because of Paul’s current circumstances and predicament. That’s why Paul didn’t moan and complain but rejoiced in the progress that the gospel was making. His God didn’t make mistakes and Paul trusted him.
Can the same be said about your God ? And can you trust him? Do you trust him?
And are you interested in hearing about the progress of the gospel? As a church congregation we support four main missionary enterprises and information is regularly made available concerning them. Do you devour it with interest? Do you thank God for the progress that is made? Do you pray for these things? In our bulletin Sunnyhill Stays Together we have recently include some news about what the Lord is doing with SASRA – did you read it with interest or just push it to one side? I know that not everyone’s interest is going to be exactly the same – one might be interested in Europe while another by Africa for example but surely the Christian is going to be interested to learn something of the progress of the gospel.