Making the Best Out of the Worst, part 2 (Philippians 1:15-18)

Philippians has been called the epistle of joy.  Joy is certainly a dominant theme of this book and reflect Paul’s own attitude as well.  He is writing this epistle from a Roman prison.  Including his imprisonment in Caesarea, Paul has now spent close to four years in prison.  For a man who had spent much of the previous decade moving from city to city preaching the gospel and planting churches, this would have seemed to have stymied Paul’s ministry.

But in this section of Philippians 1 we find that instead his imprisonment had only served to advance the gospel.  It was claiming new ground.  Two things were causing Paul problems.  First was his chains, which would seem to limit him, but instead had only given him greater opportunity and had emboldened others to share the gospel as well.  This was an external, physical trial that God was using for good.

In vv. 15-18 we read of the second trouble that Paul faced—competition from other preachers.  But what again might seem a loss was proving to be gain, as they, too, were sharing the gospel.  This internal, emotional trial God was also using for good.

And the reason Paul could rejoice is that he placed greater value on the spread of the gospel than his own comfort and convenience.  In vv. 15-18 of Philippians 1 we read…

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.

All was not well in the Roman church despite the fact that the vast majority had the courage to speak the word.  There were actually two groups of preachers in the church who proclaimed Christ but from different motives: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will” (v. 15).

Apparently there were some who were preaching “out of rivalry” with Paul, thinking that their gain meant his loss, their success meant his failure.

The identity of those here who preach Christ from envy and rivalry is difficult to determine. They are clearly antagonistic to Paul, and thus one could imagine they are the same “Judaizing” people mentioned in ch. 3. But it is hard to see how Paul could rejoice in the proclamation of something (namely, a return to the old covenant) which he saw as a betrayal of the good news (see esp. the letter to the Galatians). It seems more likely that these were other Christians who preached a generally sound gospel but were personally at odds with Paul. (ESV Study Bible)

Paul contrasts between two groups here:  Both groups were preaching Christ, but Paul’s friends were doing it with “good will,” “out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.”  The others were doing it “out of envy and rivalry,” “not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.”

One might wonder why Paul even brought this up.  I can think of two reasons.  First, Paul acknowledges that there are people like this who exist within Christian circles—people who desire to build a kingdom to themselves.  Second, I believe that Paul wanted to model how to move beyond the hurt and rejection in ministry to a deeper joy.  After all, they were “preaching Christ.”

Sometimes, we pastors can get envious of our more gifted brothers who have larger followings.  Whether through giftedness or opportunity they seem to prosper more than we do.  But as long as they “preach Christ” we should rejoice.

Envy is an insidious poison in our hearts.  Envy is annoyance at the success of others so much so that we want to deprive them of it rather than gain it ourselves.

Paul had come to Rome with a long list of ministerial successes to his credit. Notwithstanding his unimpressive appearance, the gifts Paul possessed were immense, unique apostolic endowments.  He had taken the gospel to Asia Minor and on into Europe, fighting Judaizers and heretics all the way — and had won.  When Paul arrived in Rome, the focus of the church turned naturally to the apostle, and some of the leadership turned green with envy and began a contentious gospel rivalry.

On the other hand, the majority preached Christ “from good will.”  And Paul explains of them, “The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (v. 16).  They understood that Paul was under orders issued by God and that his captivity was part of his defense of the gospel.  So those in the majority were motivated to preach Christ by their love for God and their love for his apostle.

John Claypool said in his 1979 Yale Lecture on Preaching that even while in seminary he experienced jealous jockeying for position and that his experience in the parish ministry had not been much different.  He writes:

I can still recall going to state and national conventions in our denomination and coming home feeling drained and unclean, because most of the conversation in the hotel rooms and the halls was characterized either by envy of those who were doing well or scarcely concealed delight for those who were doing poorly.  For did that not mean that someone was about to fall, and thus create an opening higher up the ladder? (John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event (Waco, TX: Word, 1980), p. 68)

But whatever these preachers were saying about Paul, he was most more concerned with what they were saying about Christ, and in that case they were “preaching Christ.”  Paul was thus more concerned about the content of their preaching than their method of preaching.

What we must focus on is not our brothers’ successes or failures, but whether the gospel is being preached and whether the church is life giving.  If so, then we need to rejoice in their success and be glad that they are here.

We’re not sure all they were saying to try to cause Paul harm.  Perhaps they were casting doubt on his apostolic credentials, or saying that his sufferings meant his message was insufficient, or possibly that his sufferings meant their was sin in his life.  Maybe they were disappointed that Paul was advocating his own release, believing that it was more spiritual to die as a martyr.  Whatever it was, it was focused on Paul.

Yet, Jesus Christ was preached as well, and in that Paul rejoiced.

At the end of the day, after all their efforts to oppose Paul, they only succeeded in doing the thing that was most important to his heart and that his friends were also doing—preaching Christ and seeing people saved.

Joy, it’s a matter of perspective.

Our perspective in life is directly related to what we think about.  Your brain is like a bank.  What you put into it determines what you will be able to draw out of it.

Do you remember the old computer term GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.  That meant that you couldn’t expect good results from poor coding.

So what do you put into your mind, your brain bank?  Paul will counsel the Philippians later  “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

If you plant the truths of God’s Word in your heart, those truths will guide your thinking, which is especially helpful when your world is crumbling around you, when all outside “data” seems to tell you that God isn’t good, isn’t wise and isn’t on your side.

What is the orientation of your thinking?  If our orientation is primarily about ourselves, then we will naturally get unhappy and angry when things don’t turn out our way.  But if our orientation is towards God and the gospel and about eternal things, then we can maintain our joy because we know that God can brings gains out of chains and advances out of adversity.

Again, the key to making the best out of the worst is to focus on how even our worst circumstances could be advancing the kingdom of God.

Because Christ was being preached, Paul said, “I rejoice.”  He had learned not to get sidetracked by the small stuff.  Even though Paul was in chains, the gospel was not.  Even though some meant to hurt Paul, he was still rejoicing.

The Apostle Paul had ample reason to feel down.  He was the missionary general of the early church, a type A personality if there ever was one.  Confinement was tough on his activist soul.  He knew the gospel as did no other.  He was the preeminent theologian of the apostolic church.  He had more knowledge in his little finger than his detractors had in their combined IQs.  He had the right stuff.  He could take a beating like no one else.  No one could gainsay his experience.  But Paul refused to have a pity party.  There was no “Why me?” from Paul.

Rather, Paul voiced an astonishing attitude: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (v. 18).

Paul was so gospel-intoxicated, so centered on getting the good news of Christ out to the lost in Rome, that his feelings and aspirations were subsumed and subject to the gospel.

Don Carson writes:

Paul’s example is impressive and clear: Put the advance of the gospel at the center of your aspirations.  Our own comfort, our bruised feelings, our reputations, our misunderstood motives — all of these are insignificant in comparison with the advance and splendor of the gospel.  As Christians, we are called upon to put the advance of the gospel at the very center of our aspirations.

What are your aspirations?  To make money?  To get married?  To travel? To see your grandchildren grow up?  To find a new job?  To retire early?  None of these is inadmissible; none is to be despised.  The question is whether these aspirations become so devouring that the Christian’s central aspiration is squeezed to the periphery or choked out of existence entirely (D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), p. 25, 26).

It’s like John Piper said in his address to the Passion 2000 students entitled, “You Have Only One Life, Don’t Waste It.”  In that address he pled with these young people to chose to make a difference with their lives.  He said…

You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world.  But you do have to know the few great things that matter, and then be willing to live for them and die for them.  The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by a few great things.

If you want your life to count, if you want the ripple effect of the pebbles you drop to become waves that reach the ends of the earth and roll on for centuries and into eternity, you don’t have to have a high IQ or a high EQ.  You don’t have to have good looks or riches.  You don’t have to come from a fine family or a fine school.  You just have to know a few great, majestic, unchanging, obvious, simple, glorious things, and be set on fire by them.

But I know that not everybody in this crowd wants their life to make a difference.  There are hundreds of you — you don’t care whether you make a lasting difference for something great, you just want people to like you.  If people would just like you, you’d be satisfied.  Or if you could just have a good job with a good wife and a couple good kids and a nice car and long weekends and a few good friends, a fun retirement, and quick and easy death and no hell — if you could have that, you’d be satisfied even without God.

That is a tragedy in the making.

Three weeks ago, we got word at our church that Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards had both been killed in Cameroon.  Ruby was over eighty.  Single all her life, she poured it out for one great thing: to make Jesus Christ known among the unreached, the poor, and the sick.  Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, pushing eighty years old, and serving at Ruby’s side in Cameroon.

The brakes give way, over the cliff they go, and they’re gone — killed instantly.

And I asked my people: was that a tragedy?  Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.  No.  That is not a tragedy.  That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is.  I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51.  Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy.  And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream.  And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it.  With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream.  The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection!  And I’ve got a nice swing, and look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

The reason Paul was the apostle of joy is that he gave his life to the things that mattered.  He didn’t let petty people or hurtful people steal his joy, as long as Christ was being preached.

He didn’t waste his life on the things that really won’t matter in eternity.

Paul was concerned about the gospel, about defending the gospel.  As long as Christ was preached and the gospel being proclaimed, he would rejoice.

One other thing, notice the connection between those who love Paul and their knowledge of the fact that he was defending the gospel.  He had prayed that their love would be a smart, discerning love back in vv. 9-11 and here is an example of the fact that they did have a discerning love.

Paul had been “put here” for the defense of the gospel.  Why this word?  Maybe he had in mind the words of Jesus to his apostles in Luke 21:

12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness.

Far from being threatened to remain silent, far from being cowed into silence, Paul saw his imprisonment as the very opportunity he had to defend the gospel.  Not himself, but the gospel.

So what was Paul trying to do in this portion of Philippians?

First, he was trying to encourage them by his own example of how to focus his perspective in time of hardship.  He will get back to this in vv. 27-30.

Second, he wanted the Philippians to know that God works not merely in spite of but through our troubles.  God is able to work ALL THINGS, both good AND bad, towards a good ending.

Finally, Paul wanted to remind them that they must connect their joy to the right things—neither personal conveniences or public approval—but on the advancement of God’s glory through the gospel.

So, how do you make the best out of the worst?  By choosing to focus your mind on the advancement of God’s glory rather than your own convenience and comfort, your own applause or approval ratings.  Then you will rejoice and have great joy.

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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