Paul’s Letter to the Philippians – 05 (“God is Above Our Circumstances”)

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians – 05 (“God is Above Our Circumstances”)

[Message: Kobus van der Walt (Three Rivers Baptist Church – 28 April 2019)]


Phil.1:12-20 ~“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death.”  


Paul has ended his prayer for the believers in Philippi and now wants to convey news about his own circumstances (1:12–30). Significantly, however, this section of the letter tells more about the progress of the Gospel in the midst of Paul’s circumstances than about the details of his health, the conditions of his imprisonment, or his strategy for defending himself at trial. He does this by expanding on three headings:

  • Paul’s Appointment(1:12-14);
  • Paul’s Focus (1:15-18);
  • Paul’s Confidence (1:19).

3.1      Paul’s Appointment (vv. 12-14):

To believers outside Paul’s current “accommodation” (remember he is under house arrest in Rome)it must have been a terrible disappointment that Paul was not available to spread the Gospel and to visit his brothers and sisters in churches all over Asia Minor, in fact Paul was facing a possible death sentence for proclaiming the Gospel. However, as someone once said, Paul removed the prefix in the word “disappointment”and came to recognise his imprisonment ashis“appointment!”Instead of focusing on what looked like disappointmentto the saints at Philippi, he set his mind on the things above. He was enabled by the Spirit to recognise his appointment!Paul’s, Christ centred and Gospel centred mindset allowed him to turn a potentially bad and depressing situation, into an excellent Gospel opportunity! 

Paul gives us a wonderful example to follow. It reminds us of his words in Phil.3:17 ~ “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”  We need, like Paul, to be continually filled with the Spirit who enables us to maintain an eternal perspectiveby keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus ~ “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 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, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God”(Hebr.12:1-2). We need to note that Paul’s approach to his adverse circumstances is to focus on God’s sovereign will. He could have easily cried “Woe is me!”His letter to the Philippians could have gone on and on about how bad the prison food was, how the chains rubbed on his wrists, how horrible it was to be chained to a Roman soldier so despised by the Jews, and so on. But not Paul! Instead of fixating on his adversity, he makes a Spirit filled, conscious choice to focus on Christ and the Good News about His salvation by grace, through faith

Paul took a divine perspective and so he encourages the church at Philippi that their prayers and contributions were still yielding eternal dividends by telling them that his imprisonment is helping rather than hindering the advancement of the Gospel. 

The Greek word for “advance” [προκοπή(prŏkŏpē)] literally means a gradual improvement, or growth, or development of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What Paul is therefore saying, is that it does not matter whether he is in jail or not, because the Gospel is still advancing.

In the Roman world, imprisonment was rarely a long-term punishment. Most prisoners were awaiting either trial or execution. The length of imprisonment depended on the swiftness of a trial. Conditions of imprisonment were closely linked to the status of the prisoner. Non-Roman citizens, even of high status, were often harshly treated. In contrast, house arrest was typically for Roman citizens and more comfortable for the prisoner, who was usually physically chained to a guard but could still host visitors. 

Because Paul was a Roman citizen, he was under house arrest. He was a respected prisoner and allowed to stay by himself ~ “And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him”(Acts 28:16). Paul’s Roman citizenship also meant that he was eligible for a daily food allowance, but Paul depended on his friends and fellow believers to supply this food. While under house arrest, Paul was guarded around the clock by soldiers of the elite Praetorian Guard. 

While in house arrest, many beloved brothers visited Paul on a regular basis – men like e.g. 

  • Luke (author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts); 
  • Aristarchuswho was a Jewish convert from Thessalonica (Acts 27:2; Col. 4:10-11). He joined Paul on the apostle’s third missionary journey and afterwards he was a regular traveling companion for Paul.
  • Timothy (who was probably closer to Paul than any other person on earth).
  • Epaphraswas from Colossae and church planter – churches like Colossae (Col. 1:7), and perhaps Laodicea and Hierapolis as well (Col. 4:13).
  • And many others.

Just imagine for a moment. What would the conversations entail between Paul and these brothers – they would definitely not discuss the previous Saturday’s games in the Colosseum and how big the bears and lions were that killed the Christians, or how scared anyone was of Nero’s rule over the empire and what he was capable of doing to them as Christians. No, they would’ve discussed the Gospel and the advancing of the Kingdom of God and all this happened while Paul was chained to a Roman soldier. Guess who was the actual prisoner? 

We can also be sure of the fact that Paul witnessed personally to the soldiers that he was chained too. At least four soldiers per day had to listen to him, because of the six hourly shift changes by the guards. Imagine yourself as one of those soldiers, chained to a man who prayed “without ceasing,” who was constantly interviewing people about their spiritual condition, and who was repeatedly writing letters to Christians and churches throughout the Empire! It was not long before some of these soldiers put their faith in Christ. Paul was able to get the Gospel into the elite Praetorian Guard, something he could not have done had he been a free man. These conversations and the Gospel specifically, became known… ~ “…throughout the whole imperial guard…(Phil.1:13). 

One of the more amazing circumstances reflected in the book of Acts is the manner in which Paul endeared himself to a wide variety of Roman officials. Almost without exception, these dignitaries came to respect God’s ambassador to the Gentiles.

While Paul was under house arrest, the Gospel still penetrated deep into the heart of Rome and its people. Through Paul’s example, the majority of the Roman Christians were… ~“…much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil. 1:14). What exciting times these must have been.

3.2      Paul’s Focus (1:15-18):

While under house arrest, there were however, also disappointments. Unfortunately, some members of the Roman congregation apparently did not like the notoriety (Afrikaans: “bekendheid”) Paul had generated. They were characterised by envy – a feeling of displeasure caused by the success of Paul. As a result, they stirred up “strife” through their selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15). These were not heretics, like those in Corinth whom Paul severely denounced; nor were they Judaizers, like those of Galatia who preached another gospel. These were third-rate preachers who, out of sheer jealousy and enmity, took advantage of Paul’s imprisonment to draw attention to themselves.

Fuelled by these sinful attitudes, this renegade group went forth “preaching Christ.” The content of their message was not the true Gospel and it was their intention to elicit (Afrikaans: “ontlok”) Paul’s rebuke. They were insincere and pretentious.

But what was their goal? Incredibly, they hoped “to raise up affliction”for the already-burdened Paul. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario. They might have proclaimed that Jesus Christ is “King” – a point very sensitive to the Roman authorities. This was something that was against the law of the day, because the only one to be worshiped was Caesar (Acts 17:7). 

When interrogated by the officials, these antagonists might well have suggested, “You can take this matter up with Paul, the prisoner. He is the most prominent leader of our movement.” Can anything more wicked be imagined?

These people were driven by jealousy and envy. Envy [φθόνος(phthŏnŏs, fthon´-os)]“describes pain felt and malignity conceived at the sight of excellence or happiness.” It means not just wanting what another person has, but also resenting that person for having it. It is an attitude of ill-will that leads to division and strife and even murder. When we envy, we cannot bear to see the prosperity of others, because we ourselves feel continually wretched. The English word “envy” is interesting, as it is derived from the Latin in = against and video = to look, “to look with ill-will,”etc., toward another, and obviously is an evil strongly condemned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

To “envy”is to feel a grudging discontent aroused by the possessions, achievements, or qualities of another along with the desire to have for oneself something possessed by another. To “envy” another is to show spiteful malice and resentment over another’s advantage. 

To “envy” is to possess a discontented feeling that arises in one’s selfish heart in view of the superiority of another, and being nearly tantamount/equivalent (Afrikaans: “gelykstaande”)to the expression of jealousy. The one who envies possesses a malignant passion that sees in another qualities that it covets, and can even degenerate into hatred for their possessor. When we feel “envy” towards others our basic desire is to degrade them, not so much because we aspire after elevation, but because we delight in obscuring of those who are more deserving. It follows that “envying” while seemingly just an “innocent” sin is in fact one of the most odious and detestable of all vices.

According to Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary on Envy – Sin of jealousy over the blessings and achievements of others, especially the spiritual enjoyment and advance of the kingdom of Christ freely and graciously bestowed upon the people of God. Old Testament examples of the sin of jealousy include the rivalry of Joseph’s brothers over the favour that Joseph received at the hand of God (Gen.37:12-36; Acts 7:9), and Saul’s animosity toward David for his physical and spiritual prowess (1 Sam.18). Envy inevitably leads to personal harm and debilitation, affecting one’s physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being (Job 5:2; Prov.14:30). Unchecked, it gradually leads to a destructive and remorseful way of life (Prov.27:4), and ultimately, to estrangement from God (Rom.1:28-32). 

In spite of all this heartache, however, Paul could still sing and rejoice and we see that in Phil.4:4 when he writes ~ “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.”As unpleasant as his circumstances sometimes were, he could affirm that the things which had happened to him had worked for the progress of the Gospel (Phil. 1:12).

In spite of these opponents of Paul and their sinful attitudes and motives, Paul is still confident that God will even use their message to advance the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. In Afrikaans we say: “God slaan reguit houe met kromstokke,”meaning that God will and can use any way and any “crooked man”to accomplish His will. That’s because, as the Hebrew writes says in Hebr.4:12~ “…For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”The Word is alive, and when it is quoted, it accomplishes its work – to bring faith to the hearer ~ “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Paul’s attitude was one that says, “It makes no difference what happens to me, just as long as Christ is glorified and the Gospel shared with others.”Paul rejoiced in spite of his circumstances, because his circumstancespromoted the furtherance of the Gospel and in that, he rejoiced.

3.3     Paul’s Confidence (1:19-20):

Looking at Paul’s situation, he could easily become distressed and depressed, but Paul had the same attitude as that of Corrie Ten Boom (author of the book: “The Hiding Place”)many years later ~ “Look around and be distressed. Look inside and be depressed. Look at Jesus (our Joy)and be at rest.” In fact, as we’ve already seen, Paul is rejoicing. Why does he rejoice? It is because Paul sees worldly obstacles, like his imprisonment, as divine opportunities.

Paul also knows that he will eventually be delivered. The question is whether Paul is referring to a physical or spiritual deliverance.The word he uses here for “deliverance”is σωτηρία (sōtēria), which is generally translated “salvation”and usually refers to the final deliverance of believers at the last judgment when they stand vindicated before God. Paul was confident of this ultimate deliverance, whatever Caesar decided to do with him. The same confidence was expressed from prison by Paul to Timothy at the end of his second letter to his young assistant ~ “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom”(2 Tim.4:18). 

But, whether Paul referred to a physical or spiritual deliverance, he knew that one way or another, either temporally or eternally, God would deliver him. Why?  Because God delivers the righteous.  That’s an Old Testament principle.  Job knew it because it was the truth about God, even before the Old Testament was written.  Paul knew it, and Paul is identifying with Job, who is a righteous man going through very difficult times who also said, “I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance.”And Paul quotes Job because he takes security in the precepts of the Lord, the truth of the Word of God. Thus Paul was entirely confident in his ultimate deliverance… ~ ...whether by life or by death”as 1:20 says. 


Is Christ dear to you? Do you live for Him? Is the one passion and aim and purpose of your nature to glorify Him? Can you say: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain?”

God is telling us – through His servant Paul – that we must work toward experiencing prevailing joy in life. We must set our thinking on the right things in a time of trial. We must raise our attention above the mere circumstances of our trial, or even above how that trial is making us feel; and set our thinking instead on the sovereign God who is above our circumstances, and on the ways that He is working through our trial to bring about His good purposes.

We must do what Paul did, and have our theology right. We must think Biblically about our trials in the light of sound doctrine. We must fight the natural course of our thinking in a time of trial; and affirm, as Paul did in Romans 8:28 ~ “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

One of the consistent themes of Scripture is that when life turns ugly, God is still good! Consider the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. His brothers intended to harm him, but God used it for good to accomplish the saving of many people. The same was true for Paul. The same is true for us. The chaos of our lives can be used for God’s Gospel good. Always!

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