When Paul wrote the Corinthians, he mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11.24–28 the many things he had endured in his efforts to serve Christ. Keep in mind that this list was written before Paul went to Jerusalem, was arrested, and spent probably 4–5 years in prison in Caesarea and Rome, not to mention the shipwreck in between.
In fact, while Paul was in prison, he wrote at least four letters that we know of: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Of all of them, perhaps the most perplexing is the book of Philippians. We might expect someone spending an indeterminate period of time waiting to be heard by Caesar for a crime he isn’t guilty of to be depressed about his situation, but we see quite the opposite when read the Philippian letter. The book of Philippians is often called the “Letter of Joy” because of the number of times joy and rejoicing are mentioned.
While Paul couldn’t physical break out of his Roman imprisonment, he didn’t let it stop him from serving God to the best of his abilities. We have things that are holding us back from fulfilling our service to God. The writer of Hebrews told his readers in Hebrews 12.1, “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” We will be looking at two of Paul’s “prison epistles,” Philippians and Colossians, over the next few weeks and looking at things that we need to break free from as we strive to serve God.
Many of us deal with physical circumstances that prevent us from serving God as we might desire. Some have ongoing health conditions. Some may be fighting financial situations. All of us are getting older, and that comes with its own set of consequences. And while none of us in this building may be dealing with this, there may be some who are going through the exact same difficulty Paul had: being physically imprisoned.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: are we going to be victims of our circumstances or are we going to serve God in spite of the circumstances?
- Our Circumstances Provide Unique Opportunities (1.12–18)
- Consider what Paul had been doing for perhaps the last 10–15 years of his life. He had devoted a significant portion of his life to going to various places, setting up various congregations, and strengthening disciples everywhere.
- Now, as a prisoner in Rome, he couldn’t do any of that. Instead, he could only talk to those who came to visit him.
- Most of us would likely mourn the loss of being able to reach large numbers of people; many would decide that because they couldn’t do what they had already done, there was nothing left for them to do.
- Paul didn’t do that. Instead, he said that “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” He wasn’t going everywhere preaching the word, but the gospel was still being spread. How?
- The entire imperial guard and others (including some connected with Caesar’s household, 4.22) had heard the gospel.
- Other Christians had been emboldened to preach without fear.
- Christ was being proclaimed. Note also here that Paul has no ill feeling toward those who are able to do what he cannot, even if they are doing it to spite him.
- We can make this point at both the individual level and the congregational level: when we find ourselves in adverse physical conditions, we cannot allow ourselves to spend all our time dwelling on all the things that we used to do but can no longer do. Rather, we need to search out the opportunities that we now have.
- Ways that we can spend time that we might not have had.
- New contacts that we may not have otherwise had.
- People we can encourage because we are going through the same hardships they are.
- One of the greatest dangers we face is to get so fixated on doing what we used to do (and if we can get back to doing it, then great) that we blind ourselves to new opportunities that God may be putting in our path through this circumstance. More on this in chapter 3.
- There is work that all of us can do, regardless of what our physical circumstance may be. None of us have an excuse for idleness.
- Our Circumstances Make Us Aware of Our Blessings (1.3–11)
- When something is taken away from us, we can either dwell on what we’ve lost, or appreciate what we still have. Even when our physical circumstances deprive us of things, there are still spiritual blessings that we can count. Paul mentions a couple particularly in these verses.
- Our fellowship with other Christians
- Paul gave thanks for how the Philippians had shared in his work in the gospel. We see examples in Epaphroditus (2.25–30) and their support of his ministry (4.14–16)
- His circumstance caused him to “yearn” for his brethren, and to wish the best for them in their growth in Christ.
- We tend to look at our physical limitations as our inability to do things, but it makes us more aware of the support we receive from other disciples.
- As physical things are denied to us, we are better able to appreciate and desire the spiritual things we have, including one another.
- The salvation we have in Jesus
- While Paul seemed fairly certain of his continued life and eventual release (cf. 25), he was particularly focused on the grace that he had received in Christ, and the gospel that he preached.
- Even if we find ourselves completely incapacitated, isolated, or otherwise deprived of what we’ve enjoyed physically, we can still take comfort in the salvation that Jesus Christ gives us.
- Our Circumstances Encourage Others (1.14)
- Imprisonment is often used to instill fear in a group of people; throw the ringleader in jail, and the others will scatter. The problem that the Jews and the Romans had was that Paul—in spite of his visibility—was not the “ringleader” of the Christians. Instead, Paul’s imprisonment had the effect of giving the others confidence to proclaim the gospel.
- There are few things more encouraging as Christians than seeing a fellow disciple serving Christ in spite of their physical hardships.
- Those who come to the assembly whenever they are able, despite ongoing serious medical issues.
- Those who constantly ask to pray for others when she herself needs prayers as they deal with their medical needs.
- Preachers who “settle down” and serve a congregation as an elder when it is no longer practical for them to work as a full-time evangelist or engage in extensive “gospel meeting work.”
- Christians who go to places without a lot of other disciples and start working to expand the Lord’s kingdom in that area.
- Christians who, like Paul, find themselves imprisoned (or who become Christians while in prison) and work to spread the gospel where they are.
- We can’t encourage others to serve the Lord if we aren’t serving Him.
- Our Circumstances Give Perspective (1.15–18)
- In mentioning the fact that others were proclaiming Christ, Paul noted that there were different motivations: some genuinely wanted to preach Christ, while others seemed to be doing it as if to spite Paul’s inability to do the work himself.
- What did Paul make of these things? “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1.18). While I don’t think Paul had a problem with this when he was able to travel freely, his circumstances certainly helped him to see that the spread of the gospel wasn’t about him.
- Our physical circumstances can help us to see things that we might miss if we weren’t in those circumstances.
- Those of us who have all of our senses can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to see or hear, but one late brother in Christ mentioned that he wasn’t sure he would want to be able to see because of the temptations that sight presents.
- While we understand that each person is important in the body of Christ (cf. Eph 4.16), it is easy for us to think ourselves indispensable to the work. When we can’t do what we used to be able to do, we are deprived of that notion.
- We can recognize that there is other work for us to do. Paul knew that by staying on this earth, there was good he could still do for the brethren, and our change in physical circumstance can help us to realize needs in other areas that we may have been previously ignorant of.
- It is in adverse physical circumstances that people realize their need for Christ. As one hymn says, “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
- Our Circumstances Help Us Long for Christ (1.19–26)
- In fact, our circumstances can help us to seek all the more for Christ, and to be free of this life
- Paul had very much this thought: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (1.23).
- While we are in ideal physical circumstances, it is very easy for us to get caught up in them, and in what this world can offer. As adversity sets in, this world has less and less to offer us. As another song says, “And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
Throughout this series, we have to make a choice: are we going to let something—anything—keep us from heaven, or will we break free from what is holding us back so that we may win the prize that awaits us.
For those who may be going through difficult physical circumstances—whatever they are—it is critical that we maintain our faith in God. It is also important that we focus on serving God to the best of our current ability, rather than longing for what was and what may never be again so much that we do nothing at all.
For those who aren’t dealing with great physical adversity: glorify God. Do not let your blessing be a cause for pride (more on that in the next lesson).
For all of us, we must focus on our service to the Lord, above all others.