In 60-62 AD, while in a Roman prison, Paul writes a letter to the church in Philippi, a group for which he had much affection. He is thankful not only for the support they have provided him over the years but also for their continued faith and progress in Christ. In this letter he encourages them to continue in this growth pattern and provides them with six examples of Christian maturity that they can emulate in order to achieve the spiritual fullness he so desires for them.
Before getting to this section, however, Paul will inform them of his own present condition and circumstances.
Paul's Condition — Philippians 1:12-26
Regarding His Ministry (verses 12-20)
12Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel
Here, Paul describes both the bad and good of his situation. He states the bad and the good in general terms at first.
He assumes that his readers are aware of the circumstances of his imprisonment and its injustice: arrested for no cause, kept in prison without charges, transferred to Rome as a criminal, an additional two year wait in a Roman prison for his hearing. All of this he refers to as his "condition."
Despite what could have limited the progress of the gospel (the jailing of the main proponent of the gospel message to the Gentiles), the gospel prospered nevertheless.
13so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else,
While under house-arrest in rented quarters, Paul had only one guard (Acts 28:16) which changed daily. Some believe that as the time for his trial drew near, he was transferred to a cell at the Praetorian guard station which was located in the emperor's palace where the courtroom was also situated. This would explain his contact with and influence on the Praetorian guard (as well as individual servants of Caesar's household) as they witnessed the discussions, prayers and teachings that Paul shared with those who visited and stayed with him. These things were then talked about among the soldiers and servants themselves.
The fact that Paul was to appear in what Lenski (p. 725, The Interpretation of Paul's Epistle to the Philippians) calls the Supreme Court of the world to explain and defend the gospel and his role in preaching it, had been foretold by Jesus Himself:
When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say;
- Luke 12:11
12 "But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name's sake. 13 It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.
- Luke 21:12-13
13But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name." 15But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake."
- Acts 9:13-16
Nothing like this or a man like Paul had ever appeared before Caesar, this was to be an event and had those involved talking about what would happen.
These included the Praetorian Guard:
- They were the Emperor's Guard or Imperial Guard.
- They consisted of nine cohorts with 1000 men in each (Tacitus).
- Each man hand-picked, all of Italian birth.
- They received double pay and special privileges.
- Each solider ranked as a Centurion when serving with regular Legions.
- They wielded great influence in the state.
Through the guard's involvement and interest, the information about Paul and the gospel spread throughout this elite section of the Roman military and beyond to the citizens of Rome. This is the progress that Paul speaks of and, as he will mention later, rejoices in.
14and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
His continued proclamation of the gospel despite his imprisonment, along with the interest in his case (by no less than the elite Praetorian guard) emboldened others to speak out. It seems that as the day of the trial approached, Paul's vindication and freedom appeared to be assured. The fact that Paul would be released and the gospel not outlawed as a result gave the many Christians in Rome the courage to proclaim the gospel without the fear that they would be arrested for their boldness. If Paul pled his case for the gospel successfully before Caesar and was then freed, they could confidently begin to preach publicly without fear of persecution from this same Roman government.
15Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.
Paul turns his attention from the guards and the trial he believes will go in his favor, to the reaction of believers and how his imprisonment is affecting them. He describes two groups who are involved in similar pursuits but with different motives.
One group (mentioned in verse 14) has been inspired by Paul's imprisonment and the interest in the gospel it has caused, to become more courageous in preaching to their neighbors and others in the city. They are motivated by their love for Paul as their teacher and the example they have in Christ. Their motives are pure (preaching from good will) in that the reason they preach is to save souls and not to acquire money or power. They see the situation through the eyes of faith. Paul is not just another prisoner, but is part of God's greater plan to bring the gospel to the entire world.
The other group he refers to is also preaching the gospel but has a different motivation and goal in mind. The driving forces here are envy and strife. Envy of Paul's success and renown despite his imprisonment. The motivation should be the love of lost souls or the desire to serve God, but these men want to compete with Paul in order to get into the limelight. It seems that their objective was not to convert the lost but somehow create envy, jealousy and division in Paul's heart. They thought that Paul would react to their success as they were reacting to his. Paul does not denounce or even rebuke them for this. He simply describes their true actions: they are motivated by selfish ambition (caring only for oneself without regard for others). Their envy of Paul's success causes them to desire his failure and suffering. They want the gospel to succeed and souls converted to Christ, but they want the credit and renown for this success to come to them, not Paul or even the Lord for that matter.
18What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,
Paul explains that what could be a very discouraging situation (some believers are preaching the gospel in order to provoke him to jealousy while he is in prison), has to be seen through the eyes of faith.
Through the lens of faith, therefore, what seems like disorder and acting with improper motives becomes an opportunity to rejoice because whenever the gospel is proclaimed it never returns empty (Isaiah 55:11), regardless of the one who plants or proclaims. God is responsible for the increase (I Corinthians 3:7), not the planter or proclaimer, no matter how good or bad the motives. Paul understood this so that through the eyes of faith he could and did rejoice despite his circumstances.
19for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ,
Paul also considers his upcoming trial through the eyes of faith. He is confident that he will not be condemned but rather set free. He is confident of this outcome for two reasons:
- He depends on their prayers on his behalf.
- He is confident that the Lord will provide him with the words, explanations and proper responses as well as the clear-mindedness and confidence he will need to face this highest court in the empire. He trusts that Jesus will deliver on the promise made to all the Apostles for the times when they would appear before kings and judges (Matthew 10:19-20).
20according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
His goal in facing the judges in court is not simply to be set free from prison. Whether he is set free or not, his higher goal (seen through the eyes of faith) is that he not say or do anything that will undermine the gospel or dishonor Christ. Whether he is set free or found guilty and sent to his death, in either case, the higher purpose is that Jesus will be exalted, honored and recognized. This higher ideal, above living or dying, can only be seen through the eyes of faith.
Now that Paul has updated the Philippians about the condition of his ministry, he will move on to describe the dilemma he faces because of the condition he finds himself in.
Regarding His Dilemma (verses 21-26)
Although these two verses are usually separated by some kind of header in most Bibles, these two verses go together to form one thought.
21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
In verse 20, Paul states that whether he lives or dies, he wants to honor Christ. In verse 21 he completes the thought by declaring that remaining alive continues his complete devotion to Christ, and dying sends him to his reward in Christ. In either situation Christ will be the main focus of his existence, in service or reward. This realization, however, presents Paul with a dilemma which he goes on to explain.
22But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
Despite his dire circumstances (four years imprisonment, possible execution) he sees his situation in a totally positive light no matter what happens.
If he is freed, he looks forward to being active in ministry. He will be in the capital of the world, Rome, where there has been great interest in the gospel, even at the highest levels (Caesar's household, Philippians 4:22) and among the military elite (Praetorian Guard, Philippians 1:13). In addition to these, there are the many Jews who have been converted when he first arrived (Acts 28:24), not to mention the many Christians already in Rome (Acts 28:13-15). This is speculation on my part, but after having been imprisoned for four years he may have been anxious to minister directly to churches instead of writing them brief letters. He was aware of the opportunities and challenges in ministry that awaited him should he be released from prison, and as an Apostle would naturally be excited about the potential for growth as a result.
He then mentions the other option possibly facing him: execution. However, he does not refer to it in negative or gruesome terms (death by crucifixion, wild animals or some other painful method to kill someone publicly). His reference to execution simply states its results, again seen from the eyes of faith. Should Paul be executed it would mean a different kind of freedom, his spirit would be released from the prison of his flesh to be eternally with Christ in heaven. This, he says, would be his personal desire because it would be better for him. Actually he says that it would be very much better.
This is the dilemma: his desire to remain and continue his apostolic ministry or to be with Christ in heaven. He acknowledges that he desires to do both, with his departure to be with Christ being the greater of the two options.
He then describes the way he has settled the matter in his own heart. Being with Christ in heaven would serve him best. The end of work, suffering and the demands of ministry. Remaining would serve the church best and, he knew in his heart, that this was necessary.
25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.
Paul says that he is convinced that remaining and ministering to them to grow and encourage their faith is more necessary and thus will take place. This is not a prophecy. Paul is merely stating that when regarding the two options, he is convinced (as far as a faithful and experienced Apostle can be sure) that remaining to serve the church is the better option for now.
He even looks ahead and describes the situation when he would finally be released and physically among them once again. His presence will strengthen their faith. His presence will bring joy to them. His presence will enable them to be even bolder in proclaiming the gospel.
Paul describes his present condition and future hope of release to encourage the Philippians to envision a time when he will once again be with them and the positive spiritual impact that this will have as a result.
In the following verses Paul will begin the major thrust of this epistle: an encouragement for the Philippians to pursue greater maturity in Christ. Before we begin that, however, here are some practical lessons from the passages we have looked at so far.
1. Christians Must See Life Through the Eyes of Faith
Paul saw his situation through the eyes of faith and in doing so could understand what was really happening. Without faith his condition made no sense and was discouraging: in jail without formal charges, did everything right and was succeeding in his work and yet all of this interrupted by false accusations and corrupt politicians. Through the eyes of faith, however, Paul could see God working through his situation to make progress he himself could not have imagined (evangelizing the Praetorian guard, proclaiming the gospel to the Emperor at the Supreme Court of the Roman Empire).
One prayer we often neglect to make when things do not go our way or we suffer setbacks and obstacles is the one asking God to help us see things with the eyes of faith. This view, from God's perspective, may not change the situation itself but it can change us, and usually brings with it a sense of peace and courage. If we see what God sees then we are in line with His vision and will. This knowledge is what enables us to persevere with a peaceful and confident spirit.
2. How Christians Choose Between Right and Right
Choosing between right and wrong is not always easy because knowing the right thing and doing the right thing is not the same. Fortunately we have many ways to discern right from wrong even though our flesh is sometimes weak at following through.
In these passages, however, Paul was deliberating between two right things (serving the church in the name of Christ or being with Christ). These were two spiritually good and right things. The measure he used to decide which he should do, if the decision and power were his was the following: in both options where did he rank?
Paul's answer to that was simple. Leaving to be with Christ served him first and foremost. Remaining to minister served Christ first, the church second, the lost third and Paul last (in that he would rejoice with the ones he ministered to and be comforted by the One in whose name he served).
This example is not the only way to help us decide between two seemingly right or good things, but it does need to be considered first. Understanding where we rank in the choices we are considering is one way of seeing things through the eyes of faith.
Good things that seek the kingdom, serve those we love, position us where we have to rely on God are options usually seen through the eyes of faith.
Options that put us first, mainly serve our own interests and lessen our ability to seek the kingdom usually appeal to our flesh and in most cases have not been viewed through the eyes of faith. They may offer clear advantages, but are not necessarily the best options for Christians.