Providence, circumstances, and the gospel (Phil. 1:12-18)

INTRODUCTION. A Bible study from Philippians 1:12-18 showing how God’s providence works through all our circumstances for the greater progress of the gospel.

The book of Philippians was written by the apostle Paul from prison. Despite his circumstances, Paul writes to his beloved Philippians with joy, thanksgiving, confidence, and hope as he instructs them how to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27).

As I was reading the section from Phil. 1:12-18, several ideas occurred to me related to God’s providence and the spread of the gospel, so I want to take a few minutes to consider these thoughts.

UNFAVORABLE CIRCUMSTANCES

Phil. 1:12. This verse begins the body of the letter. Paul announces that, in this one instance, his “circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” This by itself is fairly remarkable when we consider his circumstances. Paul has been taken out of his role of proclaiming the gospel “from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum” (Romans 15:19-20) and has been imprisoned with the praetorian guard, who would seem to be pretty “hard ground” for the gospel. Also, now that he is out of the spotlight as proclaimer of the gospel, lesser preachers have taken his place, and some of them are selfishly ambitious. So, these circumstances seem anything but favorable for the gospel.

NOT DEPENDENT ON PAUL

But we need to remember is that the progress of the gospel is not dependent on the apostle Paul. Yes, Paul is a chosen instrument of the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 9:15) and he is a man who is fully committed to the service of Christ (consider Phil. 1:21), but the greater progress of the gospel is guaranteed by God and so cannot be prevented by the adverse circumstances of anyone. The progress of the gospel is guaranteed by Jesus Himself (see Matthew 16:18 – “I will build My church”). Not only that, but the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), so the gospel’s greater progress does not depend on the gifts of the proclaimer. The power is in the message proclaimed, not in the one who proclaims. So, the progress of the gospel is not dependent on any human instrument, but is irresistible because God has determined that the gospel will progress until all the elect have been gathered in.

THIS ONE INSTANCE IMPLIES ALL

There is, however, another point to notice here. Paul announces that, in this one instance, his “circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” Next Paul describes to the Philippians how, in this one instance, God’s providence has brought about the spread of the gospel despite Paul’s “bad” circumstances. But from this one instance with Paul we can confidently extrapolate to all instances and all circumstances. That is, we can confidently assert that God, through His providence, is always causing the greater progress of the gospel. In our “good” circumstances and “bad,” when we can see His hand at work and when we cannot, God sovereignly causes all things to turn out for the greater progress of the gospel so that Christ will be glorified.

As we go into the rest of the passage, we see the details of how God used circumstances for the greater progress of the gospel.

Phil. 1:13. Because of his imprisonment, Paul has been taken out of the spotlight of boldly proclaiming the gospel to crowds and he no longer is “reasoning in the market place every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Now he does not get to choose those to whom he will proclaim Christ, but he is limited to those to whom he is (probably) chained. Now Paul can only witness to the praetorian guard (1:13).

But let’s consider this for a moment. These men, who otherwise would never have known anything about Christ or the gospel, are now assigned to watch their prisoner, the chosen instrument of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul. And so these men, who would otherwise have perished, now hear an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ proclaim the gospel all day long. This is God’s providence as He arranges circumstances for the greater progress of the gospel.

Consider also that Paul needed to be faithful in this assignment. Paul was a bondservant of Christ and, as such, he did not get to choose his duties, but was required to do what the Master commanded. God’s providence had placed Paul in this prison at this time with these men and therefore Paul was to discharge his duties as an evangelist. Paul was faithful in this humble assignment because it was his Master’s assignment. The slave does the Master’s bidding without grumbling or complaining. APPLICATION: The believer is to be faithful to the Master whether He entrusts the believer with little or much.

Even though there is nothing in the text about this, it is interesting to speculate about the strategic significance of Paul’s evangelism among the praetorian guard. To me, it is not clear from this epistle where Paul is imprisoned. Most commentators opt for Rome, but I tend to think it was somewhere else, maybe in the governor’s palace in Caesarea. This could be supported by Acts 23-26 (see 23:35). Regardless of where Paul was imprisoned, he was closely acquainted with the elite soldiers of the praetorian guard and thus may have had access to officials. Could this have even allowed him to testify before kings or even before the emperor himself? If so, this would have been another instance of God’s providence.

Phil. 1:14. While Paul is fulfilling his assignment with the soldiers, “most of the brethren” are out “speaking the word of God without fear.” When Paul was on the scene, these brothers were content to let Paul preach. They sat back while Paul caught the heat. But now, with Paul at least temporarily taken off the field, these men have stepped into the void and begun to proclaim Christ.

Consider the effects of God’s providence here. New preachers are raised up to proclaim the gospel. These new preachers gain skills in proclaiming and they proclaim to new people. Once they have been raised up, perhaps they will continue to proclaim for years, maybe going far afield to new lands as they live for Christ. All this because Paul is providentially sidelined.

ENVY, STRIFE, AND SELFISH AMBITION

Phil. 1:15, 17. Here we encounter those preachers who “preach Christ out of envy and strife” (1:15) and who “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, thinking to cause [Paul] distress” (1:17). I am not sure exactly what was going on here, but it seems that there were some preachers who were jealous of Paul or who did not like him for some reason (maybe these were Jewish evangelists who did not like the fact that Paul did not make the Gentiles keep the Law of Moses (Acts 21:20-22)), so when Paul was providentially taken out of the picture, they began to gain attention by preaching Christ, thinking that Paul would be “distressed” that they were stealing his preaching ministry.

But what actually occurs? Paul is delighted that they have stepped up into the breach. Paul was probably saying, “Finally! Let Christ be proclaimed by whoever will proclaim His name!” “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed. In this I rejoice” (1:18). More preachers means Christ will more loudly be proclaimed. Amen!

PURE GOSPEL, BUT WRONG MOTIVES

It is important to observe about these other preachers that they were not preaching error or heresy. Each time they are mentioned, their message appears to be true. They “speak the word of God” (1:14). They “are preaching Christ” (1:15). They “proclaim Christ.” Paul does not mention or even hint that their message is false, but rather that their motive for preaching is amiss. As I read this, I observe that their message is true, but their motive is impure. If their gospel had been false, Paul would not have stood for it for a moment (see Galatians 2:11-14) but would have exposed their error (see Galatians 1:7-10). But Paul ignores their personal attacks on him and, instead, celebrates the fact that there are more voices proclaiming Christ. “In this I rejoice” (1:18).

SUMMARY OF THE PASSAGE

It is fascinating to see how the simple act of putting Paul in prison (God’s providence) produces so much progress for the gospel. Many would see the imprisonment of the apostle Paul right at the peak of his ministry as being a severe blow, but God, whose “sovereignty rules over all” (Psalm 103:19) and “who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), has ordained that this “bad” circumstance would advance the gospel (consider Gen. 50:20). Paul evangelizes the praetorian guard while other preachers are raised up who speak the word of God, who are preaching Christ, and who proclaim Christ so that Christ is proclaimed.

SDG                 rmb                 5/18/2022                   #532

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