Suffering is a great challenge to our faith in our walk with God. We see in the book of Job that Satan uses suffering to tempt us to forfeit our faith and turn away from our Lord. No one is immune from suffering. Everyone has trials. Everyone has difficulties. The apostle Paul was not immune from suffering in this life. Paul writes this letter from prison, likely during his imprisonment that we read about at the end of the book of Acts. So here is the great apostle Paul, who has been imprisoned for over two years in Caesarea and now, after a horrible journey to Rome that included a shipwreck, he is imprisoned in Rome awaiting his trial before Caesar. With this in mind, read Philippians 1:12-26 and listen to what Paul says about his circumstances.
Joy in the Advancing Gospel (1:12-18)
Notice that Paul says that his imprisonment has turned out for good because his suffering has served to advance the gospel. Paul describes two ways that the gospel has advanced. First, the gospel has advanced among unbelievers. The whole imperial guard knows that Paul is imprisoned for the cause of Christ. The imperial guard served under the direct command of the emperor and were elite Roman soldiers. Not only this, anyone who has heard about Paul knows that he is in imprisoned in Rome for Christ. So the gospel is being spread in the city of Rome through his suffering and imprisonment.
Not only this, the apostle Paul declares in verse 14 that believers are becoming confident to proclaim the gospel because of his imprisonment. Other Christians have become more bold to speak because of Paul’s boldness that led to his imprisonment. Paul’s suffering has emboldened others to suffer well.
Consider what the apostle Paul has done. He is not angry about his imprisonment. He is not wallowing in self pity over his circumstances. It is not the end of the world. It is not the worst thing that has ever happened in his life. He is not shaking his fist at God that he is imprisoned because he is proclaiming the gospel. Paul is able to see the positive in the circumstances he has in his life. Paul is in prison and yet he says that this is advancing the gospel for the believers and unbelievers.
Not only this, Paul describes another situation that is occurring in verses 15-18. Some are preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry (1:15). Some are preaching from selfish ambition (1:17). Some are even preaching thinking that what they are doing is going to afflict Paul (1:17). They are trying to hurt Paul by what they are doing. We are not told how these teachers think they are afflicting Paul by what they are doing, but Paul says that such is their motive. Even though these people are teaching from the wrong motives, desiring to harm Paul, Paul rejoices because Christ is proclaimed. Again, Paul turns the negative that people are trying to do against him as a positive worthy of rejoicing because Christ is proclaimed. We should note that Paul is not speaking of those who teach a false gospel. We see Paul stand against proclaiming a false gospel in Galatians 1 and those who do so are accursed. These teachers are preaching the truth of the gospel but they do so with impure motives and selfish ambition. You may have encountered such teachers and preachers who proclaim the truth but out of envy, rivalry, jealousy, or selfish ambition. You may have seen people preach and teach in such a way to try to hurt other Christians, as it seems Paul is experiencing. Yet Paul’s joy is that the gospel is being proclaimed and the message of Jesus is being spread.
What we learn is the need to evaluate our lives through the lens of the progress of the gospel, not by our personal comfort. Joy is rooted in the proclamation of the gospel, not personal circumstances as we so often evaluate our lives. We can have joy in suffering because Christ and the gospel is being benefited through our turmoil. Therefore, we must put the advance of the gospel at the center of our aspirations. As Christians, our aspirations cannot be wealth, marriage, children, travel, career, retirement, or anything other than the advancement of the gospel. Our trials and suffering must be used for the advancing of the gospel and not be wasted by forgetting our purpose to proclaim the glory of God.
Joy in Deliverance (1:19)
Paul is also able to rejoice in suffering because he knows that this will turn out for his deliverance (1:19). Paul has joy because he is able to rely on the prayers of these Christians and the help of the Spirit of Christ. Paul is trusting in the power of prayer and the trusting in the help of the Lord. Now, we need to consider what exactly these Christians are praying for and what help Paul expects from the Lord. It is tempting to read this thinking that Paul is anxious to get out of prison and expects his deliverance from prison because of their prayers and because of the power of the Lord.
However, there are many reasons why we should not read the text this way. First, this word translated “deliverance” by most translations can be used to refer to spiritual deliverance or physical deliverance. However, in the seventeen other times that Paul uses this particular Greek word, he always used it to refer to spiritual deliverance/salvation. Second, you will notice that Paul does not know what the outcome will be of this imprisonment and trial. In verse 20 all that he knows is that Christ will be honored in his body whether he lives or whether he dies. Third, the apostle appears to be quoting Job 13:16.
Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. (Job 13:15–16 ESV) When Job says these words, he is also speaking about his spiritual salvation, not physical.
This makes the thrust of what Paul is saying far more powerful. Paul’s faith will be vindicated no matter how his trial turns out. He knows that through the prayers of these Christians and through the strength that comes from the Spirit of Jesus Christ all of this will be for his spiritual salvation. This point that Paul makes is the same point the whole New Testament makes that trials and suffering refine our faith and mold us into what God wants us to be so that we will be faithful to the Lord till we die. Listen to how Peter said this:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7 ESV)
Paul is applying this to himself, noting how their prayers and the help of the Lord will accomplish his salvation so that his faith is found to result in praise, glory, and honor when Christ comes. You see this in verse 20 of Philippians 1. Paul eagerly expects that he will not be put to shame during this imprisonment. Why? Because Paul has completely faith and courage that whatever the outcome, Christ will be honor whether by life or by death. Paul will not be put to shame but his faith will be vindicated whether he lives or dies. This is the second reason we have joy in suffering and how we do not waste our suffering. We see what is happening to us as another way that our faith is strengthen so that it is found to result in praise, honor, and glory. This leads to the third reason for joy in suffering.
Joy in Perseverance (1:20-26)
No matter what, Paul’s view of life is that Christ must be honored in his body. No matter what happens to him, Christ will be honored. If that means continuing to live, then Christ will continue to be honored. If that means dying, then he will die so that Christ is honored. This is our liberation during suffering! Our purpose is to make Christ look great, honored, and worthy. How do we make Christ look worthy and honorable? By trading everything, even life, to gain Christ. Christ is seen larger in my life or in my death. Therefore, we are free to pursue Jesus regardless of the cost to us because all that matters is that Christ is glorified in whatever happens to us.
God is glorified when we cherish Christ above life or death. The value of gaining Christ is worth the loss of all things, even life itself. This is what it means for living to be Christ and to die to be gain. This is how we treasure Christ in our lives. The preservation and extension of physical life is not the highest end or goal. The life given to us when Christ comes is all that matters. God expects His Son to be glorified visibly in our bodies. Friends, please consider: what can you do to a Christian whose view of life is that to live is Christ and to die is gain? If you threw Paul is prison, he was rejoicing because his suffering could be used for the advancing of the gospel and refinement of his faith for his salvation. If you killed Paul, he said that this would be the ultimate gain because he would now be able to be with Christ for eternity. Paul saw death as the fulfillment of all his labors in life. Death is the glorious possession of Christ. Life was bearing fruit for Christ. Christians are the only ones who have this perspective of life and death. Our whole perspective of life changes. Death is the goal, not that we hasten death’s arrival. But life is about Christ and death is the fulfillment of all we are looking forward to. Death is not loss, but gain. Friends, the message is not that to live is Christ and to die is loss. Too often we look at life this way. Death is to depart and be with the Lord, which is what we have been laboring for from the moment God saved us.
Paul is not at all proclaiming his desire to be with the Lord because he has a hatred of life. Paul’s attitude is not an escape from the pain of this life. That is not the idea. Rather, Paul has an understanding of life’s goal. Life is ultimately about being with Christ. Paul’s point is that he is ready to serve Christ regardless of the outcome because living is Christ (to serve these Christians further in the gospel) and to die is gain (to be with Christ). Either outcome is self-sacrifice. He has a deep longing for heaven yet a work needs to be done for the Lord on earth. Because he knows that God has a work for him to continue in the advancing of the gospel, Paul is convinced that he will remain and continue the work given to him (1:25).
But again, Paul’s evaluation is not for himself. He is not about saving himself and wanting to live longer for selfish reasons. Notice even in verses 25-26 Paul is convinced he will continue for the progress and joy in the faith for these Christians. His goal is that they will have ample cause to glory in Jesus because that is what life is all about! Paul’s evaluation is not for self, but for the spiritual well-being of other believers. Therefore, we do not evaluate our life alternatives based on what is best for us, but what is best for the kingdom of God, for God’s people locally and globally. Paul put other Christians at the center of his suffering, sacrifice, and self-denial. By doing so, we would not waste his suffering and trials.
Let us not waste our suffering and waste our trials. Use your trials to honor Christ. Use your suffering to advance the gospel. Use your difficulties to encourage other Christians to be courageous in the Lord. Use your pain to grow your faith toward the salvation of your soul. Whatever your circumstances, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Honor Jesus in all things to the world and to one another. Christ is the center of your relationships, the center of your aspirations, the center of your desires, and the center of your self-denial.