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 1:12-18 (ESV)
So far, Paul has opened his letter by thanking God for their partnership in the gospel. As partakers with him of the grace of Christ, Paul expressed his affections for them and his confidence that Christ would continue to preserve them in the faith. Finally, Paul concluded his greeting with a prayer for their love to abound more and more.
The apostle now shifts topics by addressing the fruits of his imprisonment. Learning that Paul was imprisoned could easily have shaken the faith of the Philippians, yet Paul desires the opposite. He assures them that, by God’s providence, his confinement was actually advancing the gospel by making Christ known to the imperial guard and encouraging other Christians to be bold in speaking the Word.
THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL // VERSES 12-14
Paul now begins to describe to the Philippians his present circumstances, which of course was being in prison. Paul’s imprisonment must have been quite a trying time for the early church. After all, Paul was the most prominent missionary of the first generation of believers. His contributions to Christianity have been said to only be second to Christ; however, we must be wary of elevating Paul’s importance too high. As Paul clearly understood, he was simply a servant of Christ. He was merely a living offering and testament to the magnificent graces our Lord. Christianity was not built upon Paul, but upon the Savior that he preached! And with such a great Savior, how could the gospel ever cease its advance! Thus, for the sake of Christ’s glory, Paul reassures the believers that the gospel continued to advance in the midst of Paul’s present circumstances.
Indeed, the advancement of the gospel is Paul’s primary desire. As we remember, although Paul once persecuted the Body of Christ, Jesus revealed Himself as the risen Lord to Paul and making him an apostle alongside the eleven remaining disciples. Thus, he who ravaged the church (Acts 8:3) was given marvelous grace in Christ. The gospel, therefore, was not an intellectual concept for Paul; instead, it was the very “power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The apostle was more than willing to live or die for this message of good news, and its advancement was his highest priority. O’ that we might also have such desires! Too often are we like one who “is driven and tossed by the wind… a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8). At times, the gospel is our most precious treasure, while at other times, we elevate our will as more important than the will of God. May God make us more like Paul so that every desire we have is secondary to our desire to see the gospel advance.
In fact, Paul’s hope in his imprisonment is rooted in its service to the gospel’s advancement. While the word “served” is not present in the Greek (the NASB’s phrasing, “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” is more literal), the idea is still doctrinally sound. God, in His providence, takes our trials, tribulations, and sufferings and uses them as servants for the advancement of the gospel.
Such providential workings of God can be seen clearly in the life of Joseph, who experienced slavery in Egypt in order that he would rise to second-in-command and save Egypt and his own family from a severe famine. He confessed God’s providence to his brothers after Jacob’s death: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Belief in God’s providence means placing our confidence in God’s promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Martin Luther believed suffering’s key role in God’s providence to be an essential truth not just for daily life but also for the studying of Scripture. John Piper quotes Luther as giving his three rules for studying theology:
“I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself… here you will find the three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm  and runs thus: Oratio, meditation, tentatio (prayer, meditation, tribulation)… [These rules] teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is: it is wisdom supreme.” (21 Servants, 86)
God providentially brings good out of suffering. We can rest in the comfort of that truth, so long as we remember what “good” God is doing. For Luther, God used his sufferings to give him deeper comfort in the Word of God. For Joseph, God used his sufferings to rescue many from famine, including his brother Judah from whose lineage Jesus would come. For Ruth and Esther, God also used their sufferings to preserve Jesus’ ancestry. For Paul, God used his imprisonment to advance the gospel.
God, therefore, promises to use our suffering for good, but if our idea of good does not align with God’s idea of good, then how can we hope to be comforted? If our heart is set on things other than the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), we will often be sorely disappointed as God advances His own kingdom rather than ours. Yet if our heart is in heaven with God, who is our treasure (Matthew 6:21), we can then find great comfort that God would use us as instruments for the advancing of His kingdom.
To many, this may sound petty, as if God is merely using our trials and sufferings for His own gain. However, what better use could there be of our sufferings? What higher good could be brought from our tribulations? What greater purpose might be gleaned from our hardships? If we recall that suffering comes as a result of sin’s entrance into the world via the Fall, we would behold this for the grace that it is. Our rebellion, both of Adam and Eve and us today, rightfully earns our trials within this broken world. In fact, we do not deserve how peaceful and ordered the world presently is. We deserve to feel the effects of our cosmic treason against the Creator, both directly and indirectly. The miracle, however, is that God would, first, save us from our sins at the cost of His own blood and, second, would thereafter ensure that all of our hardships and sufferings serve the greatest goal imaginable, God’s glory.
If we indeed love God and His purpose, we can trust that He is working out everything for His good, and in that, we will rejoice.
Verse 12 presents the thesis of our text, that Paul’s imprisonment is advancing the gospel. Within verses 13-14, Paul provides two examples of how this is occurring: first, the whole imperial guard is now aware that his imprisonment is for Christ and second, many of the brothers have been further emboldened to preach without fear.
The Whole Praetorium
Paul’s first example of how the gospel is advancing through his imprisonment is that the whole imperial guard now knows that he is imprisoned for Christ. Who are the imperial guard, and why are they a big deal?
The word here for imperial guard is praitorion, which could refer to a ruler’s palace or to the Roman Emperor’s private soldiers, the Praetorian Guard. If Paul wrote this letter from anywhere other than Rome (such as Caesarea, which is the second most common thought), he would obviously then be referencing the local governor’s palace. However, if Paul is writing from Rome, he would then be speaking of the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorians were originally used to protect prominent Roman generals, but Augustus, the first emperor, transformed them into his personal bodyguards. Within a few decades, the Praetorians became a dominant political force in Roman, assassinating Emperor Caligula and inaugurating Claudius only fifteen or so years before Paul wrote this letter. They would continue such patterns until they were disbanded by Constantine in 312 AD. Furthermore, the prefect of the guard would often act as second-in-command to the emperor. Fee offers insight on why Paul’s message reaching these soldiers would give him such pleasure:
One should not miss Paul’s obvious delight in this mild “triumph” regarding his arrest, the same kind one senses at the end of the letter when he sends greetings from “all the saints, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (4:22). While this might be interpreted as a kind of “one-upmanship,” Paul’s concern would be to encourage the Philippians in their own current suffering, resulting in part from their lack of loyalty to the emperor. To the world—and especially to the citizens of a Roman colony—Caesar may be “lord”; but to Paul and to the believers in Philippi, only Jesus is Lord (2:11), and his lordship over Caesar is already making itself felt through the penetration of the gospel into the heart of Roman political life. (114)
The second effect of Paul’s imprisonment is that it emboldened other Christians to speak the Word without fear. Obviously, the Roman officials and Jewish authorities were hoping for the exact opposite results, that Paul’s imprisonment would discourage other Christians from spreading the gospel. Unfortunately for Christianity’s opponents, history reveals time and time again the truth of Tertullian’s words: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology, L). Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, warned the Sanhedrin of this very problem in Acts 5. He recalls two examples of leaders whose revolutionary movements dissipated after their deaths, and he advised that if Jesus was merely a man, His followers would disband as well. Yet Jesus’ disciples only became bolder after His death (because of His resurrection), and the church continued to spread even as the apostles were each imprisoned and martyred. Just as Gamaliel feared, Christianity was not formed around a cult of personality but around the divinity of Christ. The church continued to survive the sufferings and deaths of its leaders because Jesus ultimately is the builder of His church, which He guides by His Word and empowers by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the imprisonment of Paul only emboldened the Christians in Rome. His life displayed what Jesus promised would happen: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17-18). Yet throughout his sufferings, Paul repeatedly modeled the power of God in enabling him to bear through such torments. In other words, Paul’s joy throughout his trials was evidence to the believers watching him that eternal life in Christ is worth facing the greatest horrors of this world.
In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the church of Smyrna notes that this is the blessed witness of all the martyrs:
…when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. (II)
God’s grace in preserving our brothers and sisters through suffering also serves as a reminder to us that His grace will also preserve us when our time comes. May we, therefore, become emboldened to speak the Word without fear whenever we see the Lord standing beside and communing with those who are suffering.
PREACHING CHRIST // VERSES 15-18
These three verses expound upon the effect of Paul’s imprisonment in verse 14. Unfortunately, even though Paul’s sufferings did embolden the other believers to proclaim Christ, not everyone did so from pure motives. Paul explains that some were preaching Christ from love and good will, knowing that Paul’s trial is really all about defending the gospel. Yet there were others who proclaimed Christ from envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition.
That last group can be quite puzzling, especially since proclaiming Christ meant placing a target on one’s back for persecution. We may, therefore, be tempted to wonder what made them envious of Paul’s imprisonment and how they were preaching Christ from selfish ambition. The answer, unfortunately, provides us a further glimpse of the human heart’s depravity.
These verses are the only details we have of why Christ was being preached insincerely. Paul is obviously not placing these people in the same grouping as the Philippians’ opponents (1:28). Since we are left to our own deductions, I would assume that these people had a pharisaical mindset. Just as religious hypocrites would look gloomy and disfigure their faces to get attention while fasting (Matthew 6:16), so this group is probably attempting to appear bolder and more spiritual than Paul. In other words, they may have been jealous of the attention Paul was getting in prison. In essence, this group seems willing to embrace the suffering that might arise from proclaiming Christ, not for God’s glory, but for the elevation of their own name.
If this sounds a bit difficult to believe, simply consider those who sought martyrdom in the early church. While many Christians in the Roman Empire lived in near constant fear of the next wave of persecution, some Christians actually looked to be martyred. Some desired martyrdom because they viewed it as a guaranteed way of entering heaven, which more resembles the Islamic doctrine of jihad than the assurance of salvation in Christ. Others faced martyrdom with the hope of being remembered for their bravery and holiness. Such a mentality is probably why the Polycarp (the martyr mentioned above) was praised by his church for not seeking martyrdom but also not fleeing either.
But does such selfish ambition make these people false teachers?
Technically yes, but certainly not in the ordinary sense. Typically, false teachers are thought of proclaiming false doctrine. Since Paul rejoices that Christ is still proclaimed, their teaching must be orthodox. The problem lies in their hearts, not their words. They are declaring biblical truth, yet they are still false teachers in the sense that their teaching comes from false motives. They may be proclaiming the supremacy of Christ, but they are seeking their own glory in doing so.
We must carefully guard against such a subtle and secret sin.
As a preacher of the Word, this reminds me that I can preach truth for others and still lose my own soul. I can get the technical details of the gospel correct while citing beautiful quotes from godly men throughout history, but if I do so out of selfish ambition, then I don’t truly understand the gospel nor the glory of God. As Thomas Boston laments, “There are many that know the doctrine of the gospel, the history of the gospel, that are mere strangers to the secrets of the gospel.”
But we who labor in preaching and teaching are not the only ones warned. The people to whom Paul refers were likely ordinary Christians, who were proclaiming Christ to whomever they encountered. Acts 8:4 shows us that following the martyrdom of Stephen, many Christians fled Jerusalem and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Justo Gonzalez writes that these everyday Christians were also responsible for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire:
The missionary task itself was undertaken, not by Paul and others whose names are known—Barnabas, Mark, et al.—but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. But mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message. (35)
Most Christians will never proclaim Christ in a sermon from a pulpit, but each of us is called to preach Christ to the dying world around us, to our friends, family, and neighbors. Evangelism, therefore, like the preaching of a sermon, can be done technically correct, while arising from impure motives. This sharing may even yield fruit, but such fruit comes from the grace of God and is not necessarily indicative of our motivations. We certainly can do good works from a sinful heart. Let us regularly examine ourselves then, that we will repent of doing anything for God out of pretense.
And yet another great indictment lies upon many of us today. Such a warning to preach Christ from truth rather than pretense may ring hollow for us because we fail to proclaim Christ at all. The primary cause of this failure is lack of understanding of and/or meditation upon the gospel. If we truly believe that eternal life is only found in Christ and apart from Him is only eternal death, then the good news that Jesus rescues sinners from the eternal consequences of sin is the greatest message imaginable. The gospel proclaims that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), but no one can call without first believing. And no one can believe without first hearing. And no one can hear unless someone first preaches the gospel to them (Romans 10:14). To understand the gospel means also understanding that others need the gospel. We should all, therefore, cry out with Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)! Repent of silence and proclaim Christ with all boldness.
In spite of some preaching Christ from selfish ambition and because of his passion for the gospel, Paul still rejoices in the proclamation of Christ. This returns us to Paul’s original hope and desire for the advancement of the gospel. The gospel advances wherever Christ is preached. In fact, the gospel cannot progress without the proclamation of Christ. The gospel is good news, and news must be delivered in words, whether spoken or written. Paul, therefore, rejoices in the proclamation of Christ (even when done in pretense) because the gospel is advancing. And if the gospel advances, so too does the glory of God.
May we rejoice as well in the glory of God through the progress of the gospel and the proclamation of Christ.