By Dr. David Nelson
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul shared how his sufferings resulted in the advance of the gospel. He wrote to exhort the church to solve their internal problems so that they could bond together as one man for the advance of the gospel. Churches today need to work together for the advance of the gospel even in the midst of suffering and hardships.
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Philippians 1:12-16 (ESV)
Paul, Timothy and Silas started the church in Philippi around a.d. 51. When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians, it was the year a.d. 62 and the church was 11 years old. There were divisions in the church due to false teachers who imposed circumcision for salvation (3:1-11). Two ladies who had served with Paul could not work together (4:2-3) and needed reconciliation. Paul prayed for spiritual growth of the church (1:3-11) and exhorted them to humble themselves in obedience to God just as Christ had humbled himself in obedience to God (2:1-11). Here, Paul exhorts the church to focus on Christ when facing difficulties and sufferings. Believers today, too, need to focus on Christ when facing sufferings because God can use our suffering to advance His cause in the world. There are three truths we should understand about suffering and the advance of the gospel.
First, God can use your suffering to advance His message of the gospel to the world (1:12-13). With a sense of irony, Paul stated that his imprisonment actually turned out for the advance of the gospel (1:12). Notice what Paul says: “what has happened to me.” There is a difference between what we suffer due to our actions and what we suffer as a result of what others do. Here, he is not suffering because of bad decisions he has made but because he is preaching the gospel and others are not happy with that. The whole praetorian guard in Rome had come to learn that Paul was imprisoned because he was preaching the good news of Jesus (1:13). We would expect that Paul would have had more fruit in preaching the gospel had he not been in jail. He would have had opportunities to teach and preach in synagogues and market places. People in various cities would have heard the gospel and would have had the opportunity to believe. But Paul’s imprisonment also gave him the opportunity to share with many soldiers about Christ. At the end of the book, Paul passes greetings from the saints of Caesar’s household. Many had become followers of Christ.
We ordinarily think that freedom and peace are better environments for the spread of the gospel. Why then does God use our suffering? First, when most people suffer they focus on themselves. When we suffer, we are around people we ordinarily would not be around and we can share the gospel with them. Many people are grouchy and difficult to be around when they are suffering. But through the Holy Spirit, believers in Jesus can rejoice in the Lord anyways because Christ is in their lives and through the power of the Holy Spirit, they can share the gospel with people in those situations. Second, in the midst of suffering, people come to see that we are genuine believers. Some are committed believers when everything is going well, but when suffering comes, they focus inwardly on their hardships and are difficult to be around. However, when filled with the Spirit even though we are suffering, unbelievers can see that we are genuinely following Christ with a good attitude even though we do not feel good or we are going through difficulties. Instead of complaining about his situation, Paul used his situation as a pulpit for gospel advance. Believers can do the same. We can complain about the weather, the government, the economy, our work, and other situations. But this is not what Christ has called us to do. He desires that we rejoice in the Lord in all situations and use those situations to proclaim the gospel.
Second, people will respond in different ways to our suffering (1:14-17). Other workers responded differently to Paul’s sufferings. Some were encouraged to be bolder for the Lord because they saw what Paul was going through. Some used the situation to criticize Paul so that he would suffer more. They were jealous and envious of him and were glad when he suffered.
People around us will also respond differently to our suffering. Some will be encouraged because of the good example we are setting. Others will criticize us and condemn us, just like Job’s friends did. We should not be surprised that this happens. We should expect that people respond in different ways but trust in the Lord anyways and rejoice.
Third, we should understand the proper response when facing suffering (1:18). The proper response is to rejoice because the gospel is proclaimed. Even though Paul suffered more because of the different responses of other workers, he rejoiced that the gospel was proclaimed. We should decide to do the same as well. Joy is a decision we make based upon God’s sovereign work through our lives for the advance of the gospel for His glory. God is at work and we must look above our problems and sufferings and trust God that He is working out His purposes in our lives for His glory.
Pastor Mark (not real name but real story) was only 32 years old but was facing cancer treatments. As he entered the cancer ward, people were depressed and discouraged due to the suffering they had encountered. The nurses and doctors were discouraged also because the patients were hard to work with. However, Pastor Mark looked at his cancer as an opportunity to show the love of God to people in need. He prayed for other patients. He encouraged them to look to the Lord and believe in His promises. He encouraged the nurses and doctors. He rejoiced in the Lord in spite of his difficulties. Everyone was uplifted as a result of his attitude and his choice to serve others instead of thinking of himself only.
Brothers and sisters, let me encourage you to embrace your sufferings and difficulties as an opportunity to show God’s love and grace. It is easy to be a follower of Jesus when everything is going well, when the economy is good and the government allows freedom of religion. But when we face opposition, how do we respond? Do we rejoice in the Lord? Do we share Christ or do we collapse in fear? When we respond in love and grace through the Holy Spirit, God will enable us to step above our sufferings and make a difference in the world for the glory of God.
© 2017 Dr. David Nelson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED