Making the Best Out of the Worst, part 1 (Philippians 1:12-14)

They say that two things are certain—death and taxes.  But for the Christian there is one thing that we can depend upon—we will go through difficult times.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation…” (John 16:33).  James doesn’t say “count it all joy IF you go through various trials” but “when you go through various trials” (James 1:2).  Paul was careful to remind his disciples “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22)

Of course, the reason Paul said this was because he went through many trials himself.  He had “been there and done that.”  Yet, through it all, he maintained his joy.  Listen to his words to the Philippians in Philippians 1:12-18…

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,

You’ve heard of Murphy’s law?  It has been formulated in a variety of ways:

  • Nothing is as easy as it looks.
  • Everything takes longer than you think.
  • If anything can go wrong, it will.
  • If everything seems to be going well, you’ve obviously overlooked something.
  • It is impossible to make everything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.

Well, Paul might have adopted Murphy as his last name, because in almost every town he entered, he encountered trouble.  Many lesser men would have become soured and scared, and would have quit.

But, you see, one of the surest measures of a Christian’s spiritual maturity is what it takes to rob him or her or their Spirit-bestowed joy.  For many, it doesn’t take much—long lines, whiny kids, being underappreciated or unappreciated.

Yet Satan’s ploy is to destroy our joy.  Why?  Because he knows that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.”

He brings trouble into our lives to try to keep us from maintaining our confidence that God is for us.  He wants to destroy our joy.  Yet, it is vital that you keep your joy.

In this passage, even though Paul was in prison and going through some tough times, he says, “I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice…”

Let’s review just a few basic facts about joy.

First, the joyful Christian is the most attractive witness for Christ.  We have “good news of great joy” to declare.  How can we be “bad news believers” when we have such “good news” to share?

Second, when we truly know Jesus Christ as our Savior and His work for us, joy is a natural (or should I say supernatural) by-product.  In fact, it is called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22).  Thus, it should mark us as believers.

Finally, joy is a matter of obedience.  The Bible commands us to rejoice and to “serve the Lord with gladness.”  C. S. Lewis believed that this command to rejoice was the most disobeyed command in the Bible.  A persistently sad saint is a disobedient disciple.

So “joy up cowboy!”

Here is what Paul will teach us in this passage, and it is a very important lesson.  Paul teaches us here that “joy is a matter of perspective.”  It is a matter of how we view things.

Joy is the settled conviction that God is for us and sovereignly works all things together for my good and His glory.  All things!

The issue that determines our happiness, therefore, is not so much what happens to us as in how we interpret what happens to us.

If we can view every circumstance, no matter how tragic or troublesome, from the settled conviction that God is for us and working everything for our good, then we can breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice.

Joy is a choice, regardless of circumstances.  And joy comes from choosing to rejoice in difficult circumstances.

The key to making the best out of the worst is by focusing on what really matters—the greater realities of God and His love for me, His goodness and control over all things in my life, and eternal rewards.

Now, Philippians 1:12-26 is all one section.  The focus is on the present troubles Paul was experiencing.  It is common in epistolary literature of the time, to follow an introduction (such as vv. 1-11) with a description of what was going on in the reader’s life.

Philippians 1:12-26 tells the Philippians that Paul was still in prison awaiting trial, still somewhat unsure whether he would live or die.  The passage begins and ends with the signal word prokopeo, which means “progress” or “advancement” (Phil. 1:12, 25).  This signal word not only shows the boundaries of this section of Philippians, but also points out Paul’s key concern.

Paul was joyful because the gospel was advancing (1:12-18) and because he might potentially advance into Christ’s presence (1:19-26).

Today and next week we’re going to focus on vv. 12-18—where Paul is describing his imprisonment.  The amazing thing is that Paul’s real focus is less about him and more about the gospel—how it was advancing despite the fact that he was standing still.

In this section, Paul faces two problems—the trouble of chains and the trouble of competition.

The Trouble of Chains

The bad news was that Paul was still in prison.  He had spent 2 years in prison in Caesarea and now nearly 2 years in Rome.  He had been in jail for four years, unable to move around the churches he had planted, OR plant churches in new areas.

The good news, however, is that although Paul was stationary, the gospel was advancing into unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

Gerald Hawthorne in his commentary to the Philippians says it well:

“When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21) and shut away in prison in Caesarea (Acts 23, 24), one could easily imagine that this was the end of his ministry, especially as his imprisonment dragged on month after month (Acts 24:27). But in the providence of God the place of his imprisonment, the Praetorium of Herod (Acts 23:35), and the length of his imprisonment, both served to thrust the gospel up into higher levels of Roman society than it had ever reached before.” (Word Biblical Commentary)

Mike Leake then comments:

What I really love about this story is that Paul is dying to get to Rome—and in the wisdom of God he sends Paul to Rome as a prisoner.  As we are going to learn in the coming days Paul was able to minister to people and places that had he not been a prisoner he probably would have never won an audience.

We so often base our happiness on getting what we wanted…now.  But God in His wisdom and goodness plans other ways to give us our greater joy and it brings Him greater glory.

Now, notice that Paul is not talking so much about his imprisonment.  That is old news and the Philippians were already aware of that.  Rather, he is focusing on the opportunities that this imprisonment was bringing.

Homer Kent suggests

Perhaps Paul had been moved from his hired house (Acts 28:30) to the Praetorian camp or to some place more accessible to the trial scene.

Satan will stop our plans in an effort to spark frustration so that we will gripe and complain rather than rejoice.

But good news shines brightest in bad news situations.

John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress (which probably wouldn’t have been written if he had not been jailed), Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching the gospel.  He was allowed to preach to his inmates, but when crowds started gathering outside the prison walls, they put a stop to that.  In solitary confinement he penned Pilgrim’s Progress, a treasure to us still today.

Here was Paul’s situation: Although he was still imprisoned and didn’t know whether he would be released, what has happened “has really served to advance the gospel.”  The word “really” or “rather” in some versions, serves to announce that something unexpected has happened!

Far from hindering the spread of the gospel, Paul’s imprisonment was actually helping it; instead of slowing it down, it was actually speeding it up!

Instead of impeding or stopping the spread of the gospel, God was using Paul’s bad circumstances to “advance” the gospel.

Now that word “advance,” which, as we mentioned, comes from prokopos, is a word-picture of pioneers cutting a path before a marching army.

History has shown that “chains” (sometimes even people dying for their faith) has served to advance the gospel. In fact an early Christian writer Tertullian proclaimed that, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The story of Jim Elliot and 4 other missionaries to the Auca Indians portrays this beautifully:

“In the Autumn of 1955, missionary pilot Nate Saint spotted an Auca village.  During the ensuing months, Elliot and several fellow missionaries dropped gifts from a plane, attempting to befriend the hostile tribe.  In January of 1956, Elliot and four companions landed on a beach of the Curaray River in eastern Ecuador.  They had several friendly contacts with the fierce tribe that had previously killed several Shell Oil company employees.  Two days later, on January 8, 1956, all five men were speared and hacked to death by warriors from the Auca tribe.” (Taken from http://www.intouch.org/myintouch/mighty/portraits/jim_elliot_213678.html)

These men never had the opportunity to share Christ with the Auca tribes—at least not with their lips.  What is really interesting to note is that a few years after Jim Eliot was martyred his wife, Elisabeth, among many of the other missionary wives were able to make contact with the Auca Indians and many where led to Christ; in fact it is told that Elisabeth had the opportunity to lead the Indian who had killed her husband to faith in Jesus Christ.  Jim Elliot and those 4 other missionaries where much like the Apostle Paul—pioneers cutting a way before the gospel could march through.

Jim Elliot’s now famous quote sums up well the motivation of those who give their lives (whether in life or death) to the cause of Christ.  In a journal entry a few years before he ultimately gave his life Elliot wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

  • Ask yourself today am I giving my life for what I cannot keep?  Or am I giving my life to gain what I cannot lose?  To put that another way—are you living for eternity or for the fleeting pleasures of today?
  • In what areas of your life is God calling you to be a “path cutter”?
  • In what areas of your life is God calling you to advance the gospel after those who have already “cut a path”?

The key to Paul’s joy is that he kept a kingdom perspective.  Instead of focusing only upon himself, he was more concerned about the spread of the gospel.  His joy derived from seeing this and being committed to placing the salvation of others ahead of his own comfort and convenience, indeed ahead of his very own life.  In other words, he made the best out of the worst by remembering what was most important.

Paul then explains in v. 13 how this “advancement” had taken place.

First, the gospel was being declared more broadly.

Paul was chained to a member of the palace guard, and I’m sure they rotated in and out.  This palace guard were the Navy Seals of their day.  They not only had a major influence within the military, but also in political issues.  Also, these very men would be sent out (as missionaries!) throughout the Roman empire to take care of problems and secure goals.

In Paul’s mind, he wasn’t chained to these guards, they were chained to him!  He had a captive audience for several hours a day.  With the potential of 8-hour shifts, Paul could have potentially met with as many as 2,200 of these elite soldiers during the past two years!

Many of them had come to faith in Christ.  We know this because of Paul’s greeting to the disciples at Philippi in 4:22, where Paul says “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”

Now, this may well be another group of people that Paul had an opportunity to witness to, the very members of Caesar’s household, certainly servants and possibly family members.

This was literally a “chain reaction!”

Wiersbe notes:

“Little did the Romans realize that the chains they affixed to his wrists would release Paul instead of bind him!  Even as he wrote during a later imprisonment, “I suffer trouble, as an evildoer (not because he was an evildoer, but as an evildoer would), even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9)

The result is that it had “become clear,” an adjective expressing the idea “known for what it really is” and expresses the notion that Paul’s imprisonment might have appeared at first glance to be truly defeating and miserable, but on closer inspection it had been a gold mine for evangelism.

What we need to do when we go through trials and troubles is to ask God to make it “clear” to us what He is trying to accomplish through it.  Like James encourages, “ask for wisdom” (James 1:5).  The clearer we are on what God is trying to accomplish, the greater our ability to fight for joy.

Paul wanted the Philippians (and us) to develop this same ability to see clearly and to be amazed at how God can use negative circumstances for a greater good.

Throughout history God has been using trials and troubles to advance the gospel.

By Tertullian’s day (about 150 years later) there were so many Christians in the Roman Empire that it was causing problems for Rome and their pagan way of life.

Secondly, we see that the gospel was advancing in that it was now being declared more boldly by others.

Paul says that others had been emboldened by Paul’s imprisonment and his continued urgency to preach the gospel, that “most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (1:15).

People were being challenged by Paul’s example.  If he could do it, they reasoned that they could do it.

The word “speak” here is not “preach,” but rather in their everyday conversation.  Maybe the Roman citizens knew of Paul’s case and the Christians were using this opportunity to direct them to the good news.

Paul was clearly rejoicing in the fact that neither he nor these people were letting anything stop them from sharing the good news with others.  May you and I be emboldened as well.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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