This week we will be moving from our old church building of 20 years to a newer building, just a few blocks away. We have been planning on this move for more than a year, but in spite of all of our good intentions and preparations, some of our plans are going to change. This past week, I received a moving plan which was titled, “The Final Plan.” There was a note attached which indicated that these plans were now fixed and would not change. The announcement ended with the statement, “God is sovereign.” I had to snicker to myself because I thought, “That’s exactly the point. God is sovereign, and that probably means that He will be sure to remind us of this fact by changing our final plans at least once.”
Even the Apostle Paul’s plans changed. I believe that part of Paul’s reason for writing this letter to the Philippians was to explain to them how God had changed his plans for His glory, and the advancement of the gospel. Let’s briefly review Paul’s original plans, and then take note of how God changed them. We will do so by looking at his Epistle to the Romans (chapters 1 and 15) and the Book of Acts.17
8 First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the whole world. 9 For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the gospel of his Son, is my witness that I continuously remember you 10 and I always ask in my prayers, if perhaps now at last I may succeed in visiting you in the will of God. 11 For I long to see you, so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, 12 that is, that we may be mutually comforted by one another’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I often intended to come to you (and was prevented until now), so that I may have even some fruit among you, just as I already have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 Thus I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome (Romans 1:8-15).
14 But I myself am fully convinced about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. 15 But I have written more boldly to you on some points so as to remind you, because of the grace given to me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. I serve the gospel of God like a priest, so that the offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 So I boast in Christ Jesus about the things that pertain to God. 18 For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in order to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles, by word and deed, 19 in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem even as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. 20 And in this way I desire to preach where Christ has not been named, so as not to build on another person’s foundation, 21 but as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” 22 This is the reason I was often hindered from coming to you. 23 But now there is nothing more to keep me in these regions, and I have for many years desired to come to you 24 when I go to Spain. For I hope to visit you when I pass through and that you will help me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 But now I go to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia are pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do this, and indeed they are indebted to the Jerusalem saints. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are obligated also to minister to them in material things. 28 Therefore after I have completed this and have safely delivered this bounty to them, I will set out for Spain by way of you, 29 and I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of Christ’s blessing. 30 Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, through our Lord Jesus Christ and through the love of the Spirit, to join fervently with me in prayer to God on my behalf. 31 Pray that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea and that my ministry in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, 32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. 33 Now may the God of peace be with all of you. Amen (Romans 15:14-33).
When Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, he wrote to saints who lived in a place Paul had never yet visited, and thus where he had never preached. He wrote with apostolic authority to a church that he did not establish. From the final chapter of Romans, it is clear, however, that Paul was well acquainted with a number of people who lived there at the time of its writing. These were people for whom Paul prayed individually and frequently, in addition to his prayers for the church corporately. Paul informed these folks that he greatly rejoiced over their salvation and subsequent growth in the faith. He told them that he had wanted to come visit them for some time, but had not yet been able to do so.
Paul had a plan in mind, a plan that God was soon to revise. His plan, as stated in Romans 15, was to proceed to Jerusalem, where he would present the contribution from the Gentile churches to the (Jewish) leaders of the church in Jerusalem. He then intended to make his way to Rome, where he would spend some time with them, before being sent on his way by them to Spain. He asked the saints in Rome to pray that his ministry to those in Jerusalem might be well received, that he might be delivered from those who opposed him and the gospel, and that he might come to them to be refreshed by them.
Paul’s travel plans remind me of the vacation plans my family had when I was in my teens. We were going to take a trip to Montana, where we would camp in Glacier National Park using a tent and equipment borrowed from my aunt. From Glacier Park, we planned to proceed to visit some of our relatives in Montana. I still have the picture of our family, posing in front of our tent, joyful and optimistic, ready for our first night of camping. A few hours later, it became a very different scene. A mountain storm blew in, with lightning and rain. No one had told us about facing our tent in the right direction, or about pitching it on high ground. And so when the rains poured down, they came in the tent door, and as the water gathered, we found ourselves in an inch or more of water. Our sleeping bags were soaking wet, and we were all wet and muddy. My brother sang Jesus Loves Me at the top of his lungs, and although this gave us comfort, it did not make us warm or dry. Hurriedly, we wadded up the tent and our sleeping bags and stuffed them into the trunk of our car. We made our way to a motel, where we cleaned up and spent the remainder of the night. When we arrived at our relatives’ home, it was not the way we had expected. We were a mess!
That’s rather the way it was with Paul’s trip to Rome. He had hoped for a warm welcome in Jerusalem and then a leisurely trip to Rome. He looked forward to a time of fellowship and refreshment there in Rome, before he set out for Spain. He was eager to preach the gospel in Rome, as well as to minister to the saints who were there. He anticipated being refreshed as they ministered to him as well. Paul did get to Rome, but in a very different way. His trip to Rome was anything but peaceful and enjoyable.
All of this did not come as a complete surprise. When Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, it was revealed to him through Ananias that he would preach to many, including kings, but this would involve considerable suffering for him as well. “15 But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name’” (Acts 9:15-16).
During Paul’s stay at Ephesus, he determined to press on to Jerusalem, and from there to make his way toward Rome: “Now after all these things had taken place, Paul resolved to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. He said, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome’” (Acts 19:21). It was not long, however, before the Holy Spirit began to reveal to Paul and to others what this trip to Jerusalem would entail:
22 And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem without knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit warns me in town after town that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. 24 But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace (Acts 20:22-24).
10 While we remained there for a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He came to us, took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be tied up, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 Because he could not be persuaded, we said no more except, “The Lord’s will be done” (Acts 21:10-14; see also verse 4).
When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem welcomed him. Paul reported to them how God had brought many Gentiles to faith in Jesus. They reminded Paul about the multitude of Jews who had come to faith, and that these believers were still committed to keeping the law. These Jewish brethren had been told that Paul was teaching the Jews who lived among the Gentiles to forsake the law. In order to preserve peace and unity, the elders of the church in Jerusalem proposed a plan of action, which would show those who were skeptical that he had not forsaken his Jewish roots. They counseled Paul to take four of the Jewish young men who were under a vow, and to purify himself and offer sacrifices, along with them, paying their expenses as well as his own. This way, they reasoned, all would see that Paul was still a “practicing Jew,” while at the same time knowing that Gentiles were not obliged to do so (see Acts 17:21-25).
It was not a bad idea. In theory, it would accomplish what they hoped for—it would put to rest the fears that Paul was completely forsaking his Jewish roots. But God had other plans. When Paul accompanied these men to the temple, some Asian Jews who had come there to worship saw Paul and recognized him. Apparently these men had come to know Paul while he, and they, were in Asia. I am assuming that these folks were unbelievers, who were opposed to Paul and to the gospel he preached. When they saw Paul in the temple, they hastily jumped to a false conclusion. Having seen Trophimus the Ephesian (a Gentile) with Paul in the city of Jerusalem, they assumed that he was also with Paul in the temple. From the false assumption that Paul had taken Trophimus with him into the temple, they went on to announce to their Jewish brethren that Paul was seeking to turn Jews from Judaism. Ironically, the false charges they made against Paul were very similar to those made against our Lord (Luke 23:2-5) and against Stephen (Acts 6:12-14).
The Jews were convinced that Paul had desecrated the temple and began to beat him, fully intending to kill him. Had someone not summoned the Roman soldiers, Paul would have been killed. When the Roman troops brought the crowds under control, Paul asked the commander if he could address the mob that had gathered. When he shared the testimony of his conversion, the people listened intently until he spoke these words:
21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” 22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:21-22).
The Roman commander decided to let the Jewish religious leaders handle this situation, and so Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin. It did not take Paul very long to determine that he would receive no justice from this body, and so he cried out that he was a Pharisee who believed in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6). This divided the Sanhedrin, which was made up of Pharisees, who also believed in the resurrection of the dead, and Sadducees, who did not (23:7-9). A great debate brought this distinguished body to blows, so that the commander had to rescue Paul from their grasp and place him in the barracks for safekeeping.
That night Paul was visited by the Lord in a vision: “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome’” (Acts 23:11).
Surely this was a divine assurance that Paul’s life would not be taken in Jerusalem, and that he would surely journey on to Rome, where he would testify to the saving grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ. I take it also from the “just as” of this assurance that Paul is being informed that his ministry in Rome will be resisted, just as he was opposed in Jerusalem. He will testify of Jesus Christ in Rome, but accompanied by suffering.
Providentially, Paul’s nephew learned of a plot to kill his uncle. This plot was reported to the Roman commanding officer who, acting promptly and decisively, sent Paul under heavy guard by night to Caesarea. Here, Paul was to remain two years before he was finally sent on to Rome. It is possible that Paul’s correspondence with the Philippians was actually penned during this time, but I am still more inclined to think that it was from Rome that Paul wrote Philippians. Here in Caesarea, Paul had the opportunity to proclaim the gospel to Felix, and to Festus, his successor. Both men sought to avoid pronouncing a verdict, wishing to appease the Jewish leaders, and in the case of Felix, hoping to receive a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26). When Festus sought to persuade Paul to return to Jerusalem, to stand trial there, Paul felt he was forced to appeal to Caesar. He knew all too well that the Jews in Jerusalem intended to kill him on his way back to Jerusalem.
Festus had no choice but to grant Paul’s appeal. He had one very serious problem, however—he had no formal charge against Paul. How could he possibly send Paul to stand trial before Caesar without specifying any charge against him? Festus was greatly relieved when King (Herod) Agrippa and his wife Bernice arrived in Caesarea. They knew more about Jewish law and culture; surely they could help him arrive at some kind of charge. It was yet another opportunity for Paul to give his testimony and to proclaim the gospel.
Finally, Paul was sent to Rome, but this journey was not without its difficulties. Paul was taken aboard a ship that was carrying a number of other prisoners. The centurion in charge was named Junius, and over time, he came to respect Paul’s judgment. The storm season was approaching as they came to a place called Fair Havens. Paul urged the captain of the ship and the centurion to winter there and not to attempt sailing any farther. He warned that pressing on might very well bring about great loss and perhaps even the loss of life. The ship’s captain wanted to go on a little farther, to a port better suited for wintering, and he managed to persuade the centurion to press on to the next port. As there was a moderate wind at the moment, going on did not seem that dangerous, and so they put out to sea, hugging the shore of Crete.
A great storm rushed down on the ship, and they were completely powerless. They simply allowed the storm to blow them where it would, casting cargo and even hardware overboard to lighten the ship and keep it afloat. Everyone but Paul had lost hope of surviving this storm. Paul informed his shipmates that God had assured him that he would stand before Caesar, and so everyone on board would be saved, though the ship would be lost. Paul urged everyone to eat to gain strength for what was ahead. Then, the ship ran aground, but in the end all were saved. Not only was Paul the hero of the day for his courage and leadership at this time of danger, he also survived a deadly snake bite and healed many on the island of Malta where they had run aground. By the time Paul reached Rome, he was both a prisoner and a hero. His plans to visit Rome had been realized, but in a way that he would never have imagined.
For some (in Rome, and elsewhere), this change in plans might have raised questions about Paul and about his qualifications for ministry. Were some embarrassed by the fact that Paul was a prisoner, waiting to stand trial before Caesar? Were some tempted to keep a low profile so far as proclaiming the gospel was concerned? Did some conclude that Paul’s imprisonment was a serious blow to the advance of the gospel? Our text in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians lays such fears to rest. Indeed, his circumstances did not hinder the gospel at all; his circumstances served to advance the cause of Christ. In the early verses of Philippians, Paul tells us how this came about.
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has actually turned out to advance the gospel.
We must admit that being arrested does not usually enhance the status of a person, and particularly a preacher. His situation in Rome might have shaken the faith of some who had become believers in Christ through Paul’s preaching, or who had been taught by the apostle. His enemies and the enemies of the gospel would surely use this to oppose Paul and the gospel he declared and defended. Even some who were jealous of Paul might have used his incarceration to discredit him and to enhance their own status. Verses 12-18 set the record straight. They inform us how Paul’s situation actually enhanced the cause of the gospel. They also inform us of Paul’s response to adversity and abuse, even when it came from fellow believers.
The results of this are that the whole imperial guard and everyone else knows that I am in prison for the sake of Christ.
I can tell you from a number of years of experience in prison ministry that there is no one more cynical about a prisoner’s innocence than a prison guard. In their experience, almost no one on the inside thinks they deserve to be there. They also watch inmates “using” religion for self-serving reasons. They “meet Jesus at the gate,” and they leave Him there “at the gate” when they leave. And even during their time in prison, many “talk the talk” in chapel, and fail to “walk the walk” in their cell. I’ve watched a prison guard explode, shaking his finger in an inmate’s face, telling him what a hypocrite he is.18
Paul tells the Philippians that even the most cynical and hardened group—the imperial guard and many others19—has come to realize that Paul is no “hardened criminal” or “revolutionary,” as he was charged by the Jewish religious leaders. Surely word of Paul’s conduct—in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and on board the ill-fated ship—had circulated widely among the imperial guard. They must have taken note of Paul’s prayer life in prison and of those who came to visit him. If his confinement was anything like prison life today, all of his correspondence would have been read. From Paul’s words here, we know that most of the guards realized the charges against him were trumped up and that the issue was really a religious one. From Paul’s later words, we also know that some of those who had contact with Paul in prison came to faith in Christ: “Give greetings to all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers with me here send greetings. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those from the emperor’s household” (Philippians 4:21-22).
Certainly Paul’s “good reputation” among the imperial guard and by those who dealt with him enhanced his stature, and thus enhanced the gospel that he proclaimed. Paul’s imprisonment had not damaged his testimony among those who did not believe in Christ; Paul’s imprisonment enhanced his standing in the eyes of unbelievers, and paved the way for the proclamation of the gospel to them.
And that most of the brothers, having confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment,20 now more than ever dare to speak the word without fear.
After I graduated from college, I was a schoolteacher. The way I responded to one student had a great impact on the rest. If a student failed to give a good answer to a question, I could have responded with some very critical and harsh words of rebuke. But if I did, I can tell you that very few hands would have been raised when I asked additional questions. On the other hand, if I responded to a student’s remarks in a very encouraging manner, the other members of the class would be encouraged to attempt to answer my next question.
It is very easy to see how Paul’s incarceration could have silenced some saints. And even those who persisted in speaking openly of their faith might have been tempted to choose their words more carefully, so as not to be as direct in their declaration of the gospel. Paul’s courage in the midst of his suffering for Christ and the gospel encouraged other saints to be bold in their faith as well.
15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 The latter do so from love because they know that I am placed here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, because they think they can cause trouble for me in my imprisonment. 18 What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.
Paul has given us a very general picture of the outcome of his incarceration: (1) the unbelievers with whom he has come in contact have discerned that Paul is not a criminal, and that the issues are religious, not legal; and, (2) that by and large the believers who have been affected by his incarceration have been encouraged to proclaim the gospel more boldly. When one gets into the details of this second outcome, the picture is not quite as pretty as we might wish. Paul divides the second category of true believers into two further categories: (a) those who preach Christ out of love and goodwill toward Paul; and, (b) those who preach the gospel but are motivated by envy and rivalry toward Paul.
Those in the first group genuinely love and appreciate Paul. A number of them may have come to faith in Christ through Paul’s ministry to them. If this were so, they, like many of those at Philippi, would proudly embrace and endorse Paul, not “in spite of his status” but because he was a “prisoner for Christ.” They understood that the charges against Paul came from unbelieving Jews who hated the gospel and Paul, and that the real issue here was Paul’s freedom as a Roman citizen to proclaim the gospel.
Paul’s actions in his day would be something like appealing his case to the Supreme Court in our own times. Suppose, for example, that enemies of the gospel were able to pass a law that forbade preaching the gospel in any public meeting (this would include preaching the gospel in church on a Sunday morning). Paul would undoubtedly have preached the gospel in a very public way, and then would have been arrested for breaking this law. Paul would have appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of the gospel. In this way, the law forbidding the preaching of the gospel would be tested by the high court, and hopefully it would be declared unconstitutional.
We should remember that when Paul was illegally beaten and thrown into prison in Philippi, the Philippian jailor and his family came to faith, perhaps along with others. But when the authorities sent word the next morning that Paul and Silas were to be released, Paul refused to leave prison without the authorities coming to the prison in person, acknowledging that they had broken the law by the way they had dealt with Paul and Silas. This was not a petty matter of pride on Paul’s part; it was his way of protecting the freedom of others to preach the gospel in Philippi.
Paul’s appeal to Caesar was rightly understood by many of the saints as Paul’s way of defending the gospel. In my opinion, he was not defending the purity of the gospel (as he was in his Epistle to the Galatians, for example), but rather he was defending the freedom to proclaim the gospel. Those who loved Paul were encouraged by his boldness and courage, and prompted to proclaim Christ with greater boldness.
There were others, however, who were not so noble minded. It is primarily these folks whom Paul has in mind in verses 15-18. I believe it is this group of folks who are most misunderstood by Christians today. We need to carefully define this group and to distinguish them from others, with whom they might be confused. Let me begin by pointing out what these folks are not: (a) They are not unbelievers. Unbelievers were dealt with in verse 13. These are “brothers” (verse 14). (b) They are not those who are accused of twisting or perverting the gospel. These are not said to be Judaisers or those who are diluting the gospel. They are said to “proclaim Christ” (verse 17).
These are folks who “preach Christ,” but from impure motivation. They are hostile toward Paul, and they seek to add to his grief while in prison. They hope to gain at his expense, by accusing him of wrongdoing, adding to the number of those who follow them. I fear that they are seeking to regain some of their authority and prominence at Paul’s expense.
I think I have misunderstood this text for a long time, and I’m just now beginning to understand why. Let me suggest two ways that the meaning of this text can be missed.
First, we will err if we assume that the only motivation of these “preachers” is their “envy and rivalry” toward Paul. It has taken me a good while to see this, but I’m convinced that although Paul chooses to focus only on the sinful attitudes of these folks, they have other motivations that are much more noble. It may be easier to make this point by calling your attention first to those who preach Christ from a pure motivation. These folks, Paul has written, preach “from goodwill” (verse 15), “because they know that I am placed here for the defense of the gospel” (verse 16). Paul speaks only of the attitudes of these “godly preachers” toward Paul. Surely we would agree that in addition to their goodwill toward Paul, these folks preached Christ because of their love for Christ, and their love for the lost.
I am trying to say that very few of us act on the basis of a single motive. When we do most anything, we do it for a mixture of motives. For example, I am inclined to believe that Ananias and Sapphira were believers, and that they wanted to obey Christ by giving to the poor. They just did not want to give all of the proceeds of the sale of their land to the Lord. Thus, they were motivated, perhaps, by love for God and for man, but also by greed. Elsewhere Paul writes that the one who gives must do so “with sincerity” (Romans 12:8). The KJV renders these words, “with simplicity.” A number of the translations emphasize generosity, and I think that is part of what Paul is saying. But I also think that the apostle is encouraging saints to act with a simplicity of motivation and not to act with mixed motives. How easy it is to give out of a genuine concern for the poor and a love for God, and the desire to be seen and recognized by others as generous.
My point in all this is that I believe those who are preaching Christ from envy and rivalry are also preaching Christ because they love God and desire to see the lost saved. I am willing to believe that they wanted to be obedient to the Great Commission. In other words, their “envy and rivalry” was definitely a part of their motivation—the bad part!—but it was not their only motivation. It would be very difficult for me to think of anything I have ever done that was “purely” out of love for Christ, or out of a desire to obey His Word. Acting, no doubt, with a certain measure of godly motivation, these “preachers” have also acted out of ungodly motives. We might say that they have preached Christ “in the flesh.”
Second, many Christians err in assuming that those who are in “full-time Christian ministry” cease to have fleshly desires and motivations. I believe that those to whom Paul referred were Christian leaders who were once threatened by Paul’s popularity and influence from a distance, but who are now intimidated by his presence. Many Christians seem to think that this is not possible. As one who has been involved in full-time Christian ministry for a number of years, I am here to tell you that Christians who are “in the ministry” are just as selfish, just as jealous, and just as manipulative as Christians who are not paid for their ministry. Indeed, some Christians in the ministry are more jealous and power hungry than some unbelievers I know.
Over the years, I have watched young people in search of a “significant ministry.” Very often these folks look for employment in churches, in Christian educational institutions, and in parachurch ministries. And more often than I would wish to admit, these folks are badly disillusioned by their experience with such ministries. Until they saw it with their own eyes, they would never have believed that Christian leaders could be so jealous of others in ministry, so threatened by the success of others, and so manipulative and vindictive. Two nationally known speakers at a Bible conference may find it almost impossible to get along with each other, because of rivalry and competition. One speaker may lose his credibility, not because of his speaking, but because he can’t lose on the tennis courts or the golf course. Those of you who are in Christian ministry know that I am not exaggerating, and that what I am saying is true. Some of the most disillusioned people I know are those who were badly “burned” by Christian ministry, or by those in Christian ministry.
Let me be painfully blunt by using a very specific illustration. In the recent past, it became known that Chuck Swindoll had consented to serve as the next president of Dallas Theological Seminary. It was obvious that in order to maintain his excellent radio ministry he would have to continue preaching on a regular basis. Finally, it was announced that Chuck Swindoll would plant a church in the Dallas area. (To his credit, I believe that he did everything possible to avoid sheep-stealing and doing damage to existing churches and their ministries. He chose to start a church as far removed as possible from existing Bible churches, and in a rapidly growing suburb as far to the north of Dallas as possible.) We would be nave to think that every pastor in the Dallas area responded like this:
“Praise God! A wonderfully gifted preacher is coming to Dallas. What a blessing it will be to our city. How grateful to God I am that he is coming! I’m going to pray for Chuck, for his health, for physical strength, and for many new converts through his ministry.”
I am sure that there are many noble-minded pastors in Dallas who responded this way, but I am just as convinced that a disturbing number did not. If one is jealous of or threatened by Chuck Swindoll’s success, it will almost never be couched in honest terms like this: “I’m jealous of Chuck Swindoll and his success, and I regret his decision to come to Dallas. Indeed, I’m going to do all I can to discredit him and his ministry.” Instead, it will be “pietized,” so that our jealous criticism is camouflaged as “concern for pure doctrine,” or “contending for the faith.” We will look for failures in his personal life, in his ministry, or in his methods. We will listen for rumors, and accept them as true. And when we hear of anything negative, we will be sure to let others know, “for their edification,” or as “a matter for prayer,” of course.
I have to say that as I look back over my own ministry, I wonder how much of my criticism of other men and of other ministries was motivated (at least in part) by my own jealousy and ambition. I wonder how many church splits and how many doctrinal battles were really a matter of men’s egos, rather than of a love for the truth. It’s a sobering thought, but if we believe that the heart of man “is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), it should not surprise us.
What I have said above paves the way for my understanding of Paul’s words in our text and of the circumstances he is describing. The church at Rome had been established through the preaching of men other than Paul, men who are not even named in the New Testament. From many miles away, Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, the definitive and authoritative declaration of the gospel, with special emphasis on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the gospel. Paul mentions his desire to come to Rome and to have a successful ministry there.
Surely some of those who had established themselves as leaders in the church at Rome were threatened by Paul’s announcement that he was planning on coming to Rome. If these men were those who first preached the gospel in Rome, and also the ones who founded the church in Rome, then they would have been tempted to feel that they “owned” this church. They would have been tempted to look on Paul as an intruder. They knew that when he came, many of the Roman saints would seek his counsel and would ask his opinion on matters of importance. These were some of the very ones who used to rely heavily on the advice and counsel of the church’s founding fathers. It would take great humility for them to welcome Paul and to be willing to step aside from their dominant role, at least for the time that Paul was in Rome. And now, to add insult to injury, Paul was a “jail bird.” The one to whom many would turn for leadership was actually awaiting trial, in a Roman prison (or at least in the custody of Rome).
How opportune it was for such folks that Paul’s arrival came about in a very different way. He did not arrive after a very effective ministry in Jerusalem. He did not come to Rome with an impressive entourage, received by Roman officials as an honored guest. He came as a prisoner to Rome, where he lived under house arrest for two years (Acts 28:16, 30-31). He could not attend their church services nor fellowship with them in their homes. Can’t you see how those who were jealous of Paul and threatened by him could put a “spin” on Paul’s circumstances to make Paul look bad and to make themselves look good? “Well,” they might say with a pained expression, “I wanted to believe the best about Paul, but now that it has come out that he is a trouble-maker, I think it is probably best for the church here to keep its distance from him. We don’t want our testimony to be tainted by such a fellow.”
I would not be surprised at all if some of those who turned against Paul in this way were men to whom Paul had entrusted himself and had invested in them by discipling them. I wonder if any of these folks had actually come to faith through Paul’s ministry? Those who have invested deeply in the lives of Christians who later turn against them can identify with the pain Paul must have suffered from such folks.
How does Paul respond to this underhanded attack from those who know Christ, and who successfully preach Christ? Most of us would be greatly distressed, and perhaps even depressed by this kind of betrayal and opposition. We would probably spend a great deal of time and effort defending ourselves and exposing our opponents. Paul is not disposed to do this. He rejoices. He knows that God is in control. He knows that God will not allow the gospel to be defeated, whether that be by unbelievers who oppose it (for example, the unbelieving Jews who charged Paul with treason against Rome) or by those who profess and proclaim it (such as those who preached Christ with impure motives). He knew that while these folks “meant it for evil,” God “meant it for good” (see Genesis 50:20). Unbelievers were not deceived; they knew that the issue behind Paul’s imprisonment was really the gospel. And regardless of their motivation, the gospel of Jesus Christ was being vigorously proclaimed. Paul was resolved to rejoice in the success of the gospel, even if it was at his expense.
I wish to conclude by pointing out three lessons: a lesson about man, a lesson about Paul, and a lesson about God.
First, let us learn that redeemed men, even those who powerfully preach the gospel, are never completely free from fleshly and impure motivations. No one really wants to admit that when a classmate from seminary publishes a book that is widely acclaimed and becomes a best seller, he feels envious of his brother’s success. He should rejoice in his brother’s victory as his own, because both are members of Christ’s body, the church. But instead, there is—at least for a fraction of a moment—a jealous thought.
Too many Christians are disillusioned when they learn, much to their dismay, that even Christian leaders are prideful and arrogant, jealous, greedy, lustful, or manipulative. It is as though we wish to believe that Christian leaders have reached a plateau of spirituality that places them above the sinful lusts of the flesh. I am here to tell you that Christian leaders have no claim to sinless perfection. There are some Christian leaders who encourage others to think of them as living on a higher spiritual plane, and thus they do not wish to acknowledge their struggle with sin, and they do not wish to make themselves accountable to others. To be viewed (even though falsely) as more spiritual is to have power over others, who know they are not as spiritual as they ought to be.
It isn’t all the fault of those in leadership, either. We want to “idolize” our leaders, but this is wrong. Leaders are to be honored and respected, but not idolized. They are to be imitated, to the degree that they follow Christ; but they are not to be blindly followed, as though they were infallible. This is why the New Testament church was (and is to be) led by a plurality of elders, rather than by one man. This is why every elder is to be subject to the other elders. Let us not be deceived as to the fallibility of those in positions of Christian leadership.
I must say one more thing about leaders and their struggles with the flesh. Just because I have said we should expect leaders to struggle with sin, I have not in any way implied that we should accept sin in the life of a leader, or anyone else. No leader should be exempt from being accountable to others or be considered above rebuke. I have known of too many cases of blatant sin in the lives of leaders which were not dealt with because it was assumed that leaders are untouchable, so far as rebuke and correction are concerned. The Bible does lay down very clear guidelines regarding accusations against leaders (see 1 Timothy 5:19-20), but this is to make sure that leaders are not frivolously accused of wrongdoing.
Second, let us learn from our text that Paul did not allow adversity to rob him of his joy in the Lord. There are times in my own life when I realize that I am “down in the dumps,” discouraged or depressed. And when I seek to discover the source of my lack of joy, I often find that it is caused by some rather trivial matter. In Paul’s case, it was no trivial matter that brought about his incarceration; he was falsely accused by his unbelieving Jewish opponents, and even by fellow-saints. One might think that Paul had good reason to be discouraged, but he was not! Paul was deeply joyful and resolutely determined to continue to be so. He would not allow his circumstances to rob him of his joy.
How can this be? How can Paul remain joyful in such adversity? It all boils down to Paul’s priorities. What is it that Paul most desires, and in which he finds his delight? It is the advance of the gospel, even if that requires sacrifice and suffering on his part. Paul’s joy is not in being popular and being considered a great leader; it is in the proclamation of the gospel, the salvation of lost souls, and the growth of Christians.
The secret to Paul’s joy was having the right goal. Let me illustrate. Suppose that a man plays a game of golf with his friends, and after 18 holes of golf learns that this round of golf resulted in the worst score of his life. If this man’s goal was “winning,” then he would go home discouraged and disappointed, because he failed to achieve his goal. But suppose that this man’s goal was to enjoy the companionship of his golfing partners or to share the gospel with them. If this man achieved his goal, then it would not matter to him whether he won or lost the game. In fact, if doing poorly provided an opening for him to share his faith, he would rejoice in his failure.
This is the way it was with Paul. His goal was not to be admired by everyone or to achieve great fame. He goal was not to live a life of freedom and self-indulgence. His goal was to proclaim the gospel to as many lost sinners as possible. His goal, as indicated by God at the time of his conversion, was to preach the gospel to Gentile kings, as well as to the Jews (see Acts 9:15). That goal was being achieved at the expense of his ease and freedom and self-indulgence, but it was being achieved. Paul was filled with joy in our text because the gospel was being proclaimed, and lost sinners were being saved. Paul gladly sacrificed his “image” as well as his comfort for the cause of the gospel.
Put differently, Paul would not be robbed of his joy because he looked at his life and ministry as his Savior did. In short, Paul had “the mind of Christ.” As we shall soon read in Philippians 2, our Lord was willing to set aside the pleasures of living in the presence of His Father in heaven, so that lost sinners might be saved. As our Lord was willing to suffer, that men might be saved, so was the Apostle Paul. And as the salvation of lost sinners brings joy to our Lord, even though it was at great personal sacrifice to the Savior, so it was with Paul.
Thanks to a friend, I came across this quotation by Jean Nicolas Grou (1731-1803): “The chief pang of most trials is not so much the actual suffering itself as our own spirit of resistance to it.”21
I believe it would be proper to turn this excellent statement around, in a way that would explain the joy of the apostle Paul: “The Christian’s joy in the midst of trials is not to be found in the suffering itself (which would be mere masochism), but in the privilege of taking part in the good ends God has foreordained to come about through these trials.”
In our day, when self-indulgence is rampant, what are you and I willing to joyfully forsake for the sake of the gospel?
Third, our text instructs us that in the outworking of His purposes, God is not limited to the rightly-motivated, perfectly-executed acts of sinless saints. I cannot number the times I have heard it said or implied that God can only use people with pure hearts and godly lives to achieve His purposes. It is assumed that those who are most successful in ministry are those who are most spiritual. This is very similar to the legalistic assumption of the Jews of Jesus’ day that those who are rich are the most spiritual, and that those who suffer most are the greatest sinners (see Luke 13:1-5; 16:14-31; John 9:1-3). It is the same mindset that we see in the Corinthian church, where the possession or practice of certain spiritual gifts was viewed as proof of greater piety. Let me remind you that God brought great glory to Himself through the opposition of Pharaoh, the heathen king of Egypt, who refused to heed the words of God through Moses to let the Israelites leave Egypt (see Romans 9:17). It was through the cruel betrayal of Joseph by his brothers that God’s purposes for Israel were furthered (see Genesis 50:20). God can use what wicked men intend for “evil” to accomplish “good.” It was partly through the disobedience of Jonah that salvation came to the sailors on board that ship headed for Tarshish (Jonah 1), and to the people of Nineveh. It was through Balaam that God blessed Israel and revealed the prophecy of the coming of Messiah (Numbers 22-24). It was through the opposition of the Jews to our Lord that God brought about the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.
I am so grateful that God’s purposes are not thwarted by my failures, and that God can use even my failures to bring about good, in my life, and for others. In no way should this be misinterpreted to mean that it doesn’t matter whether one sins or not. There are serious and painful consequences for sin; there is a price to be paid for disobedience. But my sin will not prevent even one of God’s promises from being fulfilled. God is glorified not only by the obedience of His saints, but also by the ways He sovereignly transforms our failures to fulfill His purposes. David committed two great sins in his life: (1) he committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed Uriah her husband (2 Samuel 11); and, (2) he numbered the people of Israel against God’s instructions (1 Chronicles 21). These were terrible sins, and both David and the nation suffered because of them. But in spite of this, God turned these “evils” into good. It was through Bathsheba that the Davidic (and thus the messianic) line would continue.22 It was due to the numbering of the Israelites that the land on which the temple was built was purchased (2 Samuel 24).
Praise God that we serve a God Who is greater than all our sins. He is never thwarted by our sins, and often God glorifies Himself and brings about our “good” by using the “evil” of men to achieve His purposes. How foolish it is to resist Him. What joy there is in serving Him! Have you trusted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? I pray that you have, and if you have not, I pray that you will acknowledge your sin, and your desperate need for His forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, which brings the forgiveness of sins and the certainty of eternal life with Him.
17 The reader should recognize that I am assuming that Paul was imprisoned in Rome, as many students of the Bible do. There are those who think Paul was imprisoned elsewhere (Caesarea, Ephesus, or even Corinth), but I don’t find their arguments for this view to be compelling. The next most likely place of writing other than Rome would be Caesarea, the place where Paul was imprisoned for two years before he appealed to Caesar (see Acts 24:27).
18 Gratefully, there are also those who have truly come to faith in prison, and their lives are different. At the beginning of an in-prison seminar, I’ve seen men who would not lift their eyes to meet yours. As some of these men come to grasp the grace of God in Jesus Christ, their eyes lift, and they look you in the face with joy and gratitude. For those who have never experienced serving Christ in prison ministry, I would encourage you to consider this wonderful opportunity to serve our Lord “on the inside.”
The NASB differs here, rendering instead, “trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment.” If this is the right rendering, then Paul is indicating that those who love and support him are also those who have come to faith through his imprisonment. Either way, while Paul is indicating that some saints, from pure motives, are preaching Christ more boldly, his main emphasis falls on those who are preaching from less than noble motives.
21 Jean Nicolas Grou, The Hidden Life of the Soul, cited by Christian Quotations of the Day, April 1, 2000, http://www.gospelcom.net/cqod/cqod0004.htm.