Moving on in this quick trip through Philippians, we come to a section entitled Paul’s Chains Advance the Gospel in the NIV, Phil. 1:12-26. Although Paul is writing a letter which is a connected text in which one thought flows into the next, we can more or less break this passage into two sections somewhere around verse 18 or 19. The first one looks at the impact of Paul’s imprisonment on the spread of the Gospel and the second section considers Paul’s state of mind.
As we sit in lockdown, it is worth recalling Paul’s situation as he wrote Philippians. He was in prison, probably in Rome and probably under house arrest, rather than tied up in a dungeon. However, whatever the actual conditions were, this must have seemed an absolute disaster for a man who had been accustomed to making long journeys preaching the gospel as he went. The itinerant evangelist was itinerant no more. But Paul doesn’t seem to have been as downhearted as we might expect:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.Phil. 1:12-14
Rather than bemoaning his current situation, Paul sees that God has used it to to help the spread of the Gospel. He goes on to say that even though some people are preaching out of very mixed motives, he rejoices. Being in prison must have been hard for a man accustomed to the freedom to make long journeys. He would have missed his travelling companions, nights spent by the campfire, sharing stories and praying together and all of the joys and hardships of his missionary life. But he doesn’t focus on this, he concentrates on what God is doing through the current situation.
There is a lesson for us in this. Lockdown is tough (though, I suspect it’s not as tough as what Paul was going through), but God is doing some remarkable things. There have been a number of reports that more people are praying during the current situation and folks who would not darken the doors of a physical church building are tuning in to online services (some of these reports are listed here). We don’t have to enjoy lockdown, we can feel disappointed at not seeing friends and family – but like Paul, we can rejoice at what God is doing. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open to see signs of him at work.
The second section of this passage revolves around one of Paul’s most famous utterances:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.Phil. 1:21
I’ve heard this passage preached on numerous times. Invariably at some point in the sermon, the preacher will ask if this passage is true for us and equally invariably I will feel guilty inside because I know that my attitudes don’t measure up to Paul’s. However, rather than feeling guilty, it is worth spending some time thinking about who Paul was and what he had gone through. He’d met Jesus on the road to Damascus and seen his life radically transformed, in his life as a travelling evangelist, he had been shipwrecked, stoned and beaten and now he is writing from prison. All of those experiences would have shaped his life. His declaration, for me to live is Christ and to die is gain, is inspiring, but it was also hard-won. To be honest, I can’t measure up to Paul, I wish I could, but equally, I’ve not lived through is experiences and I’m rather glad that that’s the case.
However, I should expect that this experience of lockdown would change my perspective about life and my relationship to God. Being cut off from some of the material supports that I rely on to get through life, should help me focus more on God as the real source of my strength and hope. Of course, this implies intentionally thinking through how God is at work in our lives and not simply taking things for granted and adjusting to a new normal.
One final thought, if all of this sounds a bit super-spiritual; Paul works out his statement about living and dying in the life of the community.
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, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.Phil. 1:25-26
It’s all about Jesus, but it finds its expression in the life of the church.