Paul wrote his epistle to the Philippians against the backdrop of the church’s concern for Paul as he awaited his trial before Nero in his first Roman imprisonment. How was Paul holding up? Was this imprisonment discouraging him? Would he be released? Could he return to Philippi to help them with their lack of unity (cf. Phil 4:2) and to strengthen them amidst the threats of persecution and false teaching (cf. 1:28–30; 3:2)? Or would he die in Rome, and their sweet partnership in the ministry die with him? And perhaps most importantly of all: How has this loss of freedom affected the spread of the Gospel? Have Paul’s adverse circumstances in prison dealt a blow to his ministry of the Gospel to Gentiles?
After his customary thanksgiving (Phil 1:3–8), and prayer (Phil 1:9–11) Paul begins the body of his letter, in verses 12 to 18, by reassuring them—right off the bat—that far from being a hindrance to the Gospel, this opposition, this imprisonment, has actually served to advance the Gospel.
How? I’m glad you asked.
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else.
The praetorian guard was a company of 9,000 elite soldiers that were particularly tasked to protect the emperor and his interests. And it seems that this subversive preacher Paul was a high priority case for Nero, because he was being guarded around the clock by the imperial elite. The “chain” he wore (cf. Acts 28:20; Eph 6:20) was an 18-inch long chain that attached at one end to a handcuff on Paul’s wrist and at the other end to a handcuff on the wrist of the Roman guard. There wasn’t an hour of the day when Paul wasn’t 18 inches away from a Roman soldier of the imperial guard.
But it wasn’t the same guard all day every day. The soldiers took shifts of six hours at a time. That means that for nearly two years, Paul had come into contact with four different imperial soldiers each day, and had them at his disposal for six hours at a time. Talk about a captive audience!
So what do you think Paul talked about? Do you think he said things like,
- “This isn’t fair!”
- “What injustice!”
- “I’ve been waiting two years!”
- “This is not a quick and speedy trial!”
- “I’m a Roman citizen!”
How would you have reacted? Would you have complained about the lack of privacy? Would you have blamed God for your unjust imprisonment? Paul didn’t do any of those things. Paul knew a captive audience when he saw one, and he saw this as an opportunity to preach the Gospel.
And that’s exactly what he did. You could imagine the guard would ask, “So what are you in for?” And Paul would respond: “I am in these chains because I serve the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the One, True and Living God—God made flesh in the person of a Jewish Carpenter. And in further humility and obedience to the will of God, He died for sinners on a Roman cross under Roman authority in Israel 30 years ago. He was buried and laid in a tomb with Roman soldiers keeping it secure. But three days later He rose from that grave, demonstrating His triumph over death. After remaining with His disciples for 40 days, He ascended into Heaven right before their eyes and is, this very moment, enthroned in power at the right hand of God as the Lord of the whole world.
“Not long after His ascension, while I was persecuting His followers for corrupting the Jewish religion—putting them into chains like these, and even approving of their murder—this resurrected Jesus Himself appeared to me in a blazing light! He knocked me to the ground and struck me blind, and told me that I was to be His messenger, to preach His Gospel and strengthen the church that I once tried to destroy! And since that day I have given every waking moment of my life to preaching the Good News that because of His life, death, and resurrection, those who simply turn from their own self-righteousness and trust in Him can be forgiven of their sins, can escape the punishment of God, and can be reconciled to Him. And one day soon, this same Jesus is going to break through the clouds, return to the earth, and set up His kingdom over all nations!”
And as they spoke with him, and heard this Gospel, and observed his character, they learned that he was not in prison as a criminal, but because he was faithfully preaching the Lordship of Jesus.
This is the word that spread throughout the whole guard. They would talk with each other, and wonder with each other, “This man hasn’t broken any laws. All he has to do to be released is to recant his teachings about this Jesus of Nazareth, and he’d be free to go. But he won’t do it! He’d rather lose his head than stop preaching this message!”
And as they heard this Gospel, and observed the virtue and consistent devotion of Paul’s life—that his behavior matched his message—they began to believe. God began to grant them repentance and faith in the Gospel, one by one. So much so that Paul could close the letter to the Philippians, chapter 4 verse 22, by saying: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” Four different guards, six hours at a time, every day, for the last two years, all hearing the Gospel. The messenger might have been in chains, but the word of God is not imprisoned (2 Tim 2:9). And the result, by God’s sovereign, providential work, was that many in the household of Caesar himself were beciming more sincere followers of Jesus than they ever were of Nero.
What Can We Learn?
The Lord used circumstances that anyone would have supposed would have hindered Paul’s ministry to further it. And in such circumstances of adversity, his response was not to complain, to blame God, or to sink into discontentment and depression. Instead, he rejoiced (Phi 1:18). In what? In pleasant circumstances, an easy life, or a good reputation? No. Paul’s joy was found in the advance of the Gospel. He could endure opposition from both friends and enemies, he could decrease into insignificance and obscurity, he could suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:3)—because his ministry wasn’t driven by a thirst for prominence, but by the advance of the Gospel.
We need to learn to receive life’s trials from the hand of God Himself—as opportunities sent directly from Him to advance the Gospel. We shouldn’t try to cut the legs out from under the sovereignty of God by suggesting that God just passively allows our trials, or makes the best out of a bad situation. When confronted with suffering, we should see that the Sovereign Lord is purposefully giving us an opportunity to make much of Him and His Gospel by responding in a way that makes plain that comfort, freedom from conflict, and an easy life are not what we love most, but that Christ is.
We also need to take advantage of our captive audiences. We may not be chained to a Roman soldier, but we each have our obligations that keep us “captive.” Maybe you’re chained to a desk in the workplace. Maybe you’re chained to a kitchen sink and a couple of young children. Maybe you’re chained to a hospital bed, unable to move about freely. You need to see each of these “chains” as an opportunity to proclaim Christ from exactly where you are. You can be a witness to your co-workers, to your kids, or to your nurse and doctors. The messenger might be in chains, but the word of God is not imprisoned (2 Tim 2:9).