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 here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, 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 1.12-18a (ESV)
Paul is describing his time of imprisonment as a blessing for the advancement of the Gospel. Some background would be appropriate here concerning the circumstances in which Paul finds himself as he is writing this letter. Most scholars believe that Paul was writing this letter from Rome around the year 62. He was arrested in Jerusalem following his third missionary journey around 57, and from there spent the next several years in Roman custody while he went through various trials. Paul eventually appealed to Caesar, and was transported to Rome for a trial before Nero.
This was not exactly the plan Paul had for his life and ministry. Reading through Acts and his other epistles, you can see that he had great plans for more missionary journeys, namely a trip to Spain which he discusses in his letter to the Romans. Paul had spent the last 12 years of his life traveling throughout Asia and Greece, planting churches and discipling Gentiles. His intention was to continue this ministry. But instead, Paul finds himself arrested in Jerusalem and then imprisoned in Caesarea for two years before being transferred to Rome for another two years of house arrest. It is during his time of imprisonment in Rome that this letter is written.
Paul shows us how to respond when things in life do not go our way. This divine change of plans in Paul’s life led me to think about how I respond when my carefully developed plans go by the wayside. If you had met Paul just after his conversion, I’m certain that the plans he had for his life did not include an extended time in prison and a group of people competing with him for power in ministry. In the same way, if you had asked me ten or twelve years ago what I thought I would be doing in ministry today, I would not have said that I would still be single and in school preparing to “begin” ministry.
Each of us has some experience in which life has not worked out the way we planned it. Often, my first reaction is to complain. I don’t understand the reasons, I think my plan was perfectly acceptable, and if God really loved me, he would agree with me. Changes of plan tend to freeze us in our tracks. Instead of seeing setbacks and frustrations as God’s unique opportunity to share the Gospel in an unplanned place, we see them as stumbling blocks on the road to our own happiness.
Paul responded to this event in his life in the exact opposite manner. Instead of shutting down, instead of questioning his calling from God in light of his circumstances, Paul continued to answer his call as a missionary regardless of his location. This is an important thing for us to remember. Our calling to serve God and share the Gospel is not dependent upon our circumstances, situation or location. Sometimes the calling we have on our lives does not materialize in the manner we envision. When I answered a call to full time ministry in January of 1997, I was convinced of the fact that I would be a missionary in a foreign country using sports as my platform for working with teens. While the call to serve God with my life has not changed in the last twelve years, the specifics of how that calling has taken shape is vastly different from what I originally thought God was going to do with my life.
Planning is not the problem. Having a goal to work toward is a good thing! Our plans become bad, though, when they become our focus instead of the Gospel being our focus. It is good to have plans and to be intentional in the way we live our lives. But when we become upset when those plans are changed, we need to check our hearts and make sure that those plans have not become idols in our lives.
What are the plans you have for your life? Do they consist only of family or career or ministry? Or do your plans focus on living out the Gospel and sharing the Gospel with others regardless of your circumstances? Paul identified himself as a servant of God and messenger of the Gospel, and that identity can never be taken from us, even when our circumstances change. It was ok with Paul that his traveling had been cut short by his arrest. Instead of going to the Gentiles, God was allowing the Gentiles to come to him! Every four hours, four new guards were posted around Paul, and he then had four hours to talk with them about Christ. Through his faithful sharing of the Gospel, Paul says that the Gospel had been shared with the entire imperial guard. Paul wanted to go to Rome, and God provided a way for him to get there—and Roman government paid for the journey! The church was in a time of persecution. Many believers were losing jobs and homes and their lives. When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, he was there delivering an offering he had collected from Gentile churches to help the persecuted believers in Jerusalem. There was a shortage of funds to pay for missionary work—at least there was a shortage from man’s point of view. An economic crisis followed by the arrest of a prominent leader would seem to be two heavy blows to the work of the early church. But Paul declares that the exact opposite is the case. The two hardships he has faced—imprisonment and opposition from fellow ministers—have actually served to further the spread of the Gospel. And for Paul, that is more important that any plan he may have had for ministry.
Joseph had a word concerning this very idea when he spoke to his brothers in Egypt in Genesis 50. 19-20: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to being it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Our plans can be destroyed. Jobs are lost. Health is compromised. Fellow believers sin against us and cause frustration and hurt. But if we keep our focus on Christ and His work, we will find ways to fulfill God’s will for our lives regardless of the setbacks we face.
So, how will you view frustrations and setbacks? How will you react to persecution, bad news, or the effects on your life of the sins of others? Will you have an identity crisis and lose faith, or will you remember that your calling is higher than your job or location or situation? Will you see the good opportunity God has placed in your life through the evil of a fallen world or will you focus on the negative circumstance and allow it to rule over you and keep you in bondage? Paul was literally in bondage, chained to two men 24 hours a day. But the closing verses of Acts tell us that during this time, Paul was free because he was “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28. 31). Our freedom is found in Christ and his Gospel, and no circumstance in this world can take that away from us.