Gospel priorities - Philippians 1:12-26
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Once, when Winston Churchill was on holiday staying with friends in the south of France, he came into the house on a chilly evening, sat down by the fireplace, and stared silently into the flames. Resin-filled pine logs were crackling. Hissing and spitting as they burned. Suddenly his familiar voice growled, 'I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.'
The plain fact is human beings consume and are consumed by a whole variety of things- food, drink, possessions, ambitions, love, ideologies, to name but a few. Quite a number of those things debase us, some enrich us. But you know, in a great person with a great cause, that consuming force can become just the obsession which can change a world.
Let's think a bit more of Churchill. There is no doubt that he was consumed by an extraordinary sense of providence and personal destiny- leading a nation and championing the cause of freedom against overwhelming odds. On the night of May 10th 1940, Churchill was invited by King George VI to form a government against the forces of Nazi tyranny which threatened the entire free world. Later Churchill rencountered: 'I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.'
Well, let me tell you about another man who was consumed with a passion. He too felt as if the whole of his life had been one long preparation, not by destiny but by God in order to lead a counter resistance movement to set men and women free from an oppression for more tyranical and far more encompassing than National Socialism- the oppressive forces of sin, death and the devil. He was a man of one thing. It was his food, his drink, his life. It filled his dreams at night and occupied every waking moment during the day. For this one thing he was willing to be beaten, ridiculed and even killed. The man was, of course, the apostle Paul. And the one thing which consumed him was the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was simply a man possessed. Just look at the frequency with which he refers to the Gospel or preaching Christ, or the word of God which amount to the same thing, in our passage: So we read of the advance of the gospel- v12, speaking the word of God, v14; the defence of the gospel- v16; preaching Christ -v17; preaching Christ-v18; the exaltation of Christ-v20; to live is Christ-v21; the gospel of Christ-v27; the faith of the gospel-v27; suffering for Christ-v29 Do you not notice a pattern here? In the best possible sense, there is a Christ fixation isn't there?
And so we should not be surprised that the world was turned upside down by this man and others like him. And you will find that throughout Christian history, the times when the cause of the Gospel has been promoted most vigorously and societies have been changed most drastically have been times when men and women have become men and women of this one thing- the Gospel.
So tonight let us take a look at the difference it makes when you put the Gospel at the centre of everything and let's see how we measure up.
First of all, we have circumstances and the Gospel-vv 12-14. Look at verse 12, 'Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.' Do you see what matters to Paul? Not his personal comfort, but the proclamation of Christ. If we are honest, we tend to blame circumstances and use them as an excuse for not sharing the faith. 'My friends are unresponsive if only I were at another school or in another job that would be so much easier.' And so we descend into self pity. But Paul doesn't do that. He is in prison, probably in Rome. He is in chains-but the gospel isn't. Paul believes, you see, in the sovereignty of God. That there is no such thing as coincidences, only God-incidences- he is exactly where God wants him as you are were God wants you. And so what some would see as problems, being locked away, he sees as an opportunity. It is all a matter of having what I call the David and Goliath perspective. Think for a moment of David and Goliath. David could have taken one look at this giant and said, 'Cor, he's big, I'm off.' or 'Cor, he's big, I can't miss!' Is Paul being too heavenly minded here, engaging in a bit of wishful thinking? I don't think so because he gives two reasons why his circumstances are serving the cause of the Gospel.
First, the full Praetorian Guard has come to hear that he has been arrested for the sake of Christ, which means he must have been sharing with them the Gospel message - v13, '...it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.' Do you realise how extraordinary this is? What would you consider to be a successful student mission here in Hull? To get have, say, 300, 500 students hear the Gospel? That would be pretty good wouldn't it? Well, when up to full strength the palace guard numbered 9,000 soldiers. You see, Paul proved to be such an extraordinary prisoner, such a compelling witness that news about him spread like wildfire throughout the ranks, they had never come across anyone like him. He didn't curse the soldiers as many would. He wasn't a political prisoner. He wasn't insisting that they became Jews. His whole demeanor was such that he was justHe spoke to them about this Galilean carpenter who died on a cross so that people could become rightly related to the one true and living God. That this man Jesus was actually alive, he had met him and was changed by him and one day he was going to come back and judge the world so we had better be ready. This was news to them. There was nothing in their Roman pantheon which even began to match this life transforming message that Paul was telling them about. Here is God working everything to the good for those who love him. Paul doesn't whinge, he witnesses.
But Paul gives a second reason why his incarceration is a blessing in disguise- v14 'Because of these chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.' Let me ask: what sort of things hold you back from letting people know that you are a Christian? Isn't the main reason because you might be thought of as odd, that you will be excluded, treated not so nicely-the butt of the joke, the snigger, the sneer? What will enable you to overcome these fears we all have? It will be when you see someone who inspite of the jibes, despite of the taunts, does it anyway and cheerfully, and God blesses them in a way that you simply don't know. That is what was happening here. People were encouraged by Paul's model. It was the dopey generals of the First World War who were giving orders from a chateau, 50 miles behind the lines while the ordinary Tommy was being mowed down in there thousands. What sort of example is that? Leaders need to be out there leading so others can follow. Like Paul we are to lead by example.
But Paul is realistic enough to know that this doesn't mean that it will always be a smooth ride for him, hence the second point- that of competitiveness and the Gospel- vv 15-18a. 'Some' he says, 'preach Christ out of envy and rivalryout of selfish ambition ,not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.' What is all that about? Well, these Gospel workers are true Gospel workers. They are not heretics-they do preach Christ, that is the Christ of the Bible. So their message is not the issue for Paul. What is the issue is their motive. They probably lie behind the defence Paul has to make in v12 that his imprisonment has actually proved to serve the Gospel. Why does he have to say that? Well, presumably because some people were saying the opposite that Paul had somehow let the side down. If only he had taken a more softly, softly approach to evangelism, then he wouldn't have wound up in prison and his ministry might have been a bit more successful, like theirs! So they are trying to make Paul out to be a failure.
And it is no good us being self-righteous about these guys because we all fall for the same temptation. It can be rather embarrassing having an enthusiast in the group, not least because it puts us in a bit of a spot. What do we do? Become as enthusiastic and so risk ending up being as ill thought of as they, or in prison like Paul? Or do we hold back and risk the embarrassment and shame of being shown up for being somewhat lukewarm as a Christian, especially when our friends say to us, 'Well, so and so doesn't mind nailing her colours to the mast, I gather you are a member of St John's or the CU , what do you believe then, why aren't you out there with her?' What do we do? Well, then it is much easier to denigrate what that brother or sister is doing and justifying that our way is more reasonable and successful. We are 'seeker friendly', we are 'culturally sensitive.' 'We like to build bridges' whilst forgetting that the point of building bridges is that one day you will cross them. Sure, we mustn't be crass, and culturally insensitive, and yes we must be able to relate well to people-Paul did. But let us not use this as an excuse to attack our more evangelistically enthusiastic brothers and sisters and excusing our inactivity.
But supposing we are on the receiving end of the 'put down' from fellow Christians. How are we to respond to that? Well, look at the example of Paul to find out.
Paul does not allow self-pity to get in the way of proclamation. Sure, Paul has feelings like the rest of us and nothing hurts more than being wounded by fellow Christians, I can tell you. But for the apostle our personal feelings are not what matters most. What matters most? You've guessed it-the gospel- v 18 'What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.' And he adds, 'Because of this I rejoice.' He doesn't look at someone else's ministry which is flourishing and say, ' Oh well, one day they will come a cropper, especially after they way they have spoken about me'. Not at all, he is actually pleased. How they treat him is an irrelevance, provided that the Lord Jesus Christ is being proclaimed-what the heck.
Have you noticed that we not only live in the age of 'rights' but in the age of 'hurts' even amongst Christians? Far too often good Gospel initiatives have been held back because of the risk of someone being 'hurt'- they might feel left out, undervalued or threatened or whatever. Now of course Christians need to be sensitive to fellow Christians and we are not to go trampling over other people's feelings, we should be thoughtful and considerate. But on the other hand, let us not be over sensitive either. We shouldn't be asking 'Will this hurt me?' But 'will this promote the Gospel?' and if I happen to feel a bit grieved by it, then I need to be mature enough by God's grace to handle that-the main thing is for people to hear about the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Which is really what the CU and St John's are all about isn't it? Yes we need to build each other up and equip each other for that task, which is what we are doing tonight, but with Paul we must put the Gospel at the centre of all that we do-not asking what will please me? But, what will help get the Gospel out?
Which brings us to our third point- concern and the Gospel- vv 18b-26. Notice, Paul is rejoicing, 'And because of this I rejoice.' You see, like Augustine Paul is a 'hallelujah from head to toe.' What a striking characteristic of a Christian-one who is said to 'rejoice.' But the Gospel does that to you. And, notice, he continues to rejoice because of the prayers of his brothers and sisters which he is sure will result in his 'deliverance'- v19. In the context this is probably referring not to his release from prison, but his ultimate vindication by God, whether in life or death. He wants to remain faithful- v20-so that he will 'in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life of death.' Do you see what matters to Paul? Not personal comfort by Christ's personal commendation. He wants to hear that 'Blessed, well done' from his Master. That is what he has his sights fixed on. Not the problems of the here and now, but the blessings of the there and then-heaven.
The wonderful thing is that Paul knows that as such he is in a 'no lose' situation. If he lives the ministry goes on and Christ is exalted in that. But then again, if he dies, he goes to be with Christ in glory and Christ is exalted in that too-' For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.' And he feels the tension of this as we see in vv23-24. Do you realise what tremendous freedom such an outlook gives to a Christian? We are so concerned aren't we with what other people think about us, what they might do to us? Hence, the tyranny of fashion. But the man or woman who lives for Christ is free from such concerns.
Let me give you an example of the liberating effects of such a view. It is the great 19th century Christian, General Gordon. This is what he once wrote of himself: ' The more one sees of life, the more one feels, in order to keep it from shipwreck, the necessity of steering by the Polar star- in a word leave to God alone, and never pay attention to the favours or smile of man; if He smiles on you, neither the smile or frown of man can affect you.' Eventually of course, he was left to die in the siege of Khartoum, but what enabled him to do so with calm and dignity was the Gospel centredness he had cultivated throughout his life. So in an earlier incident the cruel King John of Abyssinia brought Gordon before him and said: 'Do you know that I could kill you on the spot if I liked?' 'I am perfectly well aware of it your majesty' Gordon replied. 'Do so at once if it is your royal pleasure. I am ready.' 'What, ready to be killed?' said the King. 'Certainly, I am always ready to die..' countered Gordon. 'Then my power has no terrors for you?' the King gasped. 'None whatever!' Gordon answered, and the king left him, amazed. After Gordon's death John Bonner a Scottish friend wrote to Gordon's brother and said this: 'What at once and always struck me was the way in which his oneness with God ruled all his actions, and his mode of seeing things. I never knew one who seemed to live with God and for God.' Can I ask whether that can be said of you? At least it should be something we should be aspiring to.
Now you may say, 'Well, Paul is being a little too preoccupied with himself at this point- all "this I am torn in two, to be with Christ is better by far."' But look at what he goes on to say in v24-25: 'But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ will overflow on account of me.' Who is Paul concerned about? Himself? Hardly. It is the spiritual welfare of other Christians. You see, when you have be gripped by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, you become less self-centred and more other centred in your thoughts and actions. You are for ever asking,' What will benefit my brothers and sisters, what will be for their good leading them to a greater joy in Christ and what can I do to promote that?' That doesn't necessarily mean giving people what they want-we are naturally sinful and will tend to want things which God doesn't want. It is a matter of giving people what they need to become more and more mature in Christ.
So let me ask: are you a person of one thing? Are you consumed by the Gospel? What is it that lies at the centre of all your aspirations, what excites you, what do you live for? The boyfriend, the girlfriend? Getting that good degree, the good job, the big car and the even bigger mortgage? I don't see any of those things here do you? The plain fact is, you and I have a most wonderful Saviour and one day we will see him. Would it not be a tragedy if he asks us, 'So what did you do with your life that I gave you and the new life for which I redeemed you?' And we were to say, 'Well, to be honest Lord, apart from going to church once on a Sunday, I really didn't live that much differently from my non-Christian friends. Sure, I didn't get drunk like they did or swear like them, but my lifestyle and aspirations were really not that much different.' Personally, I am not too keen on saying that myself. The Gospel we have been given saves us and it is meant to change us, being at the heart of everything that we stand for. And that is what the Lord Jesus wants for us, because he loves us. Then we will know what true rejoicing is, true worship is, for then we will be able to say, 'For me to live is Christ, to die- well that's gain.'
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