12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice. [NASB ‘77]
After explaining to the Philippians how he prays for them, Paul seeks to reassure them about his imprisonment. Far from being discouraged or hopeless, he amazingly expresses joy over the effect of his circumstances on the spread of the gospel. As long as the gospel goes forward – and his imprisonment is actually spurring its spread – he’s happy. In telling the Philippians his perspective Paul gives us an example for how we should see our own lives. If we – like him – view our mission in life as being for the defense and progress of the gospel, it affects how we see and respond to our own sometimes dire circumstances.
Paul writes this letter as a response to a gift the Philippians sent to him (4:18). He knows they’re likely worried about him – he’s imprisoned with no timetable for release and with the very real possibility of execution – so he owes them a report about how he’s doing. Now that he’s greeted them and explained how he prays for them, he gets right to the report and seeks to set their minds at ease and also instruct them.
In verse 12 he makes a profound statement that acts as a topic sentence for this whole section. He says, “…my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” This is the bottom line for Paul. How he looks at where he is and all that’s happened to him is boiled down to this thought. Nothing else about his situation is more important than this one fact.
Notice the expression have turned out. He makes it clear that what’s happened is the opposite of what any reasonable person would expect. He’s imprisoned, he can’t travel, and his ministry is seemingly derailed, yet the gospel goes out even stronger than before. His horrible and unjust circumstances have been a boon to his goal of spreading the gospel. His ministry may be interrupted but the goal of that ministry thrives.
In verses 13 & 14 he explains how the gospel goes out even while he’s in chains. Two things are happening as a result of his situation. First, he’s getting the chance to proclaim the gospel to men in the Praetorian Guard and to everyone else associated with his incarceration. He doesn’t explain how this works, but it could be that he’s chained to different soldiers every day and those soldiers get an earful of the gospel every time they’re with him. As they hear and presumably believe, they go back to their families or units or others and tell them as well. Thus the gospel goes to people who probably would never hear it apart from this exposure to Paul.
The second result of his circumstance is that others have become bolder in their witness. Believers who see that his imprisonment hasn’t stopped him from proclaiming the truth gain courage to proclaim it wherever they are also. They see how God strengthens Paul even in prison (trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment) and so trust God to be with them as they courageously preach Christ (perhaps throughout Rome if that’s where Paul is).
There IS a dark side to this second effect of Paul’s imprisonment, however. Along with those who preach the gospel because they’re encouraged by Paul’s example, there’s another group that wants to take advantage of his helplessness and make him look bad by preaching in his stead. It’s not clear how this hurts Paul, but they somehow preach the true gospel and do it in a way to injure Paul’s reputation. They preach the truth out of envy, strife, and selfish ambition, thinking to cause Paul distress in his imprisonment. Why? We don’t know as Paul doesn’t explain (it’s not important to him). We just know there’s a group of men emboldened for all the wrong reasons to preach the gospel. [This is an amazing commentary on human nature, isn’t it? We can do the noblest things with the worst motives. We can disobediently obey and unrighteously practice righteousness. We can preach the truth deceitfully. It’s for this reason that Paul will later tell the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (2:12)]
Paul makes a second amazing statement in verse 16 that explains why he focuses on the progress of the gospel as the only notable thing about his imprisonment. He says – while pointing out that the people who preach the gospel as a result of his example do it out of love – that he is appointed for the defense of the gospel. Here’s Paul’s take on his purpose in life. This is his mission statement – he’s here for the defense of the gospel.
And since he’s here for the defense of the gospel he looks at his current situation only through that lens. That’s why the first thing he points out to his readers isn’t disappointment over leaving his missionary travels or the injustice that put him in prison in the first place. It’s why he doesn’t take any time to detail his current hardships or complain about suffering. He makes only one comment about his circumstances and it’s that they’ve provided for the greater progress of the gospel. Verse 12 only makes sense in light of verse 16. If his whole focus in life is the gospel, then giving a report about his imprisonment’s effect on the gospel is the most reasonable thing in the world.
Paul’s mission statement reaches its glorious and logical conclusion in verse 18. Because he’s appointed for the defense of the gospel, and because his imprisonment is causing the gospel to go forth even more strongly – even by those who preach it for the wrong motives – he’s happy! He rejoices as he proclaims the gospel in prison and as he hears about the gospel being proclaimed outside of prison. It’s all about the gospel and the gospel is thriving – thus it doesn’t matter that he faces hardship and danger.
Don’t miss what he rejoices in the midst of. He’s not only unjustly imprisoned, he’s unjustly imprisoned with absolutely no idea if he’ll live to see freedom again. On top of that, he knows there are men who are preaching the gospel – his job – purely out of spite for him and to make him look bad. He’s out of the game, he’s helpless, his life is in danger, and his reputation is getting smeared. And yet he rejoices.
It’s interesting to compare Paul’s rejoicing over the message of the selfish teachers he mentions here with his reaction to those who preached a false gospel (perhaps with sincere motives) to the Galatians. Paul told the Galatians that anyone who preached a different gospel than his own was to be accursed (Gal 1:6-9). He shows by these two reactions that he’s sincere when he says it’s all about the gospel. In the case of the false teachers in Galatia, they weren’t personally attacking Paul but were preaching a distorted gospel and he cursed them. In the case of the envious and spiteful preachers referenced in this letter, they are personally attacking Paul but preaching the truth. In this case he rejoices because of their message. For Paul it’s not personal, it’s not about his comfort, it’s not about his reputation or his future or his standing or even the success of his personal work (note that he rejoices over people getting to do what he no longer gets to do). IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GOSPEL. If that weren’t true he couldn’t rejoice.
You know another reason he can rejoice? Because he knows 1:6 is true. The circumstances he’s in are from God and are part of God’s process of perfecting him until the day of Christ Jesus (he’ll elaborate on this in vss 19-20). Thus he gets to see the tangible benefit of the gospel going forth as a result of his condition, and he has confidence in the unseen – for right now – benefit of God making him more useful and prepared for the coming day as he goes through it.
When we’re in difficult and/or discouraging circumstances that we perhaps don’t understand, do we think in terms of their effect on the greater progress of the gospel or do we focus on their effect on the greater progress of our comfort? Do we live as if we’re here for the defense of the gospel or for the defense of our right to happiness?
If we can incorporate Paul’s perspective into our lives it will absolutely revolutionize how we see and respond to everything. Living for Christ and His gospel inoculates us against bitterness, discouragement and self-absorption, and ultimately provides for a supernatural contentment in the midst of anything. Imagine what our lives would be like if our immediate response to every discouragement was, “How will this affect the progress of the gospel?” Does that sound idealistic? It apparently wasn’t for Paul. [Note: thinking this way about trials is best applied personally. We aren’t called to bludgeon each other with the club of Philippians 1:12 when one of us faces difficult times (“Why don’t you think a little less about your amputated arm, Bob, and think a little more about its effect on the gospel!”). Better to bludgeon ourselves and use it to adjust our own thinking in the midst of tough circumstances.]
Do we want to see difficulties through God’s eyes? Do we want to fear others less and encourage them more? Do we want to be more sensitive to others’ pain and less to their criticism? Do we want to be ready to forgive and hard to offend? Do we want to be unfamiliar with bitterness? Do we want to boldly witness? Then we must live for the defense and progress of the gospel.
Do we want to live for the defense and progress of the gospel? Then we must saturate ourselves in the word, meditate on the gospel continually, and pray, pray, pray.