This section of the epistle is a divine commentary on the practical realities of Romans 8:28. In his earlier epistle Paul had written, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.” Here in Philippians he is showing his readers how God has used his imprisonment experiences to “work together” with the other “things” in his life so as to result in the furtherance of the gospel. Humanly speaking, his imprisonment sounded like the end of his usefulness in preaching the Word, but God worked things out so it really served to advance the gospel. He assures his readers that what has happened to him is a manifestation of God’s providence.
A. In the Spread of His Message (1:12-13)
Paul expresses an ardent desire for them to become aware that the circumstances which seemed to be such a hindrance to his ministry had resulted in a greater advance of the good news of God’s grace. The word translated “furtherance” comes from a word meaning, “to cut before.” Wuest tells us it is thought to have been used of a large company of wood cutters in ancient times who would precede the regular army clearing out impenetrable forests, thus preparing the way for their advancement.
Paul used his prison cell as a pulpit. We who love the message of grace and the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery can, in retrospect, thank God for this prison ministry of the Apostle. Through it we have the full revelation of our position, our hope and our calling as members of the Body of Christ.
In all probability Paul was chained to his guards; this was the Roman custom. As each new guard came on duty he would hear Paul’s testimony of the saving grace of God. Some of them became believers and were the saints in Caesar’s household who greeted the Philippians in this letter. Paul could never have witnessed to these men had he remained free. Therefore the providence of God is evident.
B. In the Sharing of His Message (1:14-17)
Not only did Paul’s imprisonment result in a pioneer advance of the gospel throughout Caesar’s household, but there was a revival of preaching throughout the entire city of Rome. The New International Version states, “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (1:14).
The word translated “many” in our King James Version is literally “the most.” Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost remarks that a second result of Paul’s imprisonment was “timid brethren were emboldened to preach.” These brethren were not preaching as long as Paul was free, but his imprisonment and bold witness in his cell motivated them to preach the Word. To pinpoint the matter, it was not the actual circumstances of his incarceration, but his response to the situation that spurred these believers on to a more consistent preaching of the Word. Is there not a lesson here for us?
After having stated most of the brethren were now preaching the Word boldly, Paul lets it be known the preachers were divided into two groups. These groups had different motives for their preaching. Some were preaching Christ, not of love for the Lord and His Word, but simply to add to Paul’s problems. They had, for various reasons, turned away from the Apostle Paul and were actually trying to make his afflictions more severe. The other group loved Paul and the message God had given him. They preached out of love for the Lord Jesus Christ and for His prisoner.
While it is possible (and this writer once thought it probable) that Paul is referring to the Judaizers who were propagating their legalistic message, it is difficult, in the light of his Galatian letter for example, to imagine Paul saying he rejoiced over that message being preached! On the contrary, he branded this as “another gospel” and pronounced an anathema on those who were preaching it. So it seems it was not the MESSAGE these folk preached which was wrong, but rather their MOTIVE in preaching. He seems to be saying their motives were improper. Nevertheless, he can still rejoice in the fact Christ is being proclaimed.
Perhaps there is a parallel today. It is always possible a pastor or evangelist might be in the ministry not because of a divine call and not because of his love for the Lord and His Word, but for money, prestige, attention, or any one of many other reasons. Still, if he is really preaching the message of grace, we can rejoice that Christ is being preached, while leaving the judgment of the man’s motives to the Lord.
In a similar vein, we know there are denominations which preach salvation by grace and point men and women to the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on Calvary as the only means of salvation. When their hearers accept the Lord Jesus as Savior and unite with the denomination, they find themselves thereafter enmeshed and bound by all kinds of ceremonies and human traditions. This grieves the heart of the believer who is taught the doctrine of his completeness in Christ. Surely, we could wish the excess baggage of churchanity, traditions and ritual could be thrown overboard and replaced with Bible study and right division of the Word. But we have to say, “Thank God, they do preach Christ as Savior.” Even the imperfect message and wrong motives are better than no message at all.
We must make it very clear that we are not suggesting we ought to thank God for the message of the cultists who deny salvation by grace, the deity of Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures. We must not have fellowship with any who proclaim these false doctrines; we are not even to invite them into our homes, nor to encourage them in any way. If we do, in the eyes of God, we are partakers with them in their evil message (See 2 John 10,11).
C. In the Stand for the Message (1:17-18)
Paul says his imprisonment and his response to it have been used of the Lord to prove his stand for the gospel. He is set, or appointed for the defense of the gospel. The word “defense” means “a word for, or in behalf of.” Does the gospel need us to defend it? In one sense, it does not, for it is a part of God’s Word and will stand forever. However, in the sense Paul meant, it does indeed need our defense today. In this age in which the real message of grace is so rarely given, there is a tremendous need to “speak a word” for the good news of God’s grace.
We need to tell those with whom we come in contact that Christ has died for their sins, the just one for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. We need to tell them we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work. We must make it plain that this salvation is by faith and faith alone as far as our part is concerned. It is not “by grace through faith PLUS church membership, plus good works, plus baptism, plus walking down a church aisle and shaking hands with a preacher.” It is BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH we are saved and continue to be saved! We need to “plead the cause for the good news,” as the Twentieth Century New Testament puts it.
We could wish the majority of the church from its early days would have accepted the message of Paul. This is not the case. The vast majority turned away from Paul and grace to the yoke of legalism and works religion. Today, believers who proclaim the message Paul preached in his prison cell are surely in the minority. Let us be faithful in DEFENDING the Gospel. Let us stand without compromise, without fear or favor. But let us never become so self-centered as to think we are the only ones preaching Christ. May we, like Paul, rejoice when Christ is preached, regardless of the motive of the preacher. They will have to answer for their motive and we for ours. Praise the Lord for every message which gives Christ the place of preeminence!