Summary: Paul rejoices in his difficult circumstances because they have become a means for the progress of the gospel
Introduction: Understanding Paul’s circumstances
What if I told you that Billy Graham, while traveling overseas for one of his Crusades, had been arrested by a Middle Eastern government hostile to Christianity and was now in prison awaiting trial for converting Muslims, a crime punishable by death. Even though I’ve never met Dr. Graham, I would be very upset and worried about him, as I expect many of you would be, also. I’d want to know how he was doing: was he OK physically? How was he handling it emotionally?
Thankfully, no such fate has befallen Dr. Graham. But maybe thinking about such an awful possibility can help us understand something of what the Philippians felt about Paul. They wanted to know how their friend and former pastor was doing under just these circumstances.
How would you be doing, if you had been a prisoner for almost four years? And what if you had committed no crime, but had just faithfully used your gifts to serve God?
In our passage this morning, we get to hear Paul’s view of his circumstances, and we’ll see why he sees himself in a win-win situation.
What are Paul’s circumstances?
Paul describes himself as “in chains” in Rome
But while he is a prisoner, he is not in prison. Acts 28 tells us that Paul was able to rent and live in his own home. But he was chained to a Roman soldier 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These soldiers were members of Caesar’s own palace guard – the cream of the crop.
He is awaiting a trial that could cost him his life
The Roman Empire had conquered most of the known world. Rome’s rule extended not only to a vast expanse of territory, but also over a vast number of people from countless ethnic groups. Most of these groups had their own religion. In an effort to bring some unity, Rome only allowed certain religions to be practiced. The practice of a religion not sanctioned by Rome could result in a death sentence.
Judaism had been accepted by Rome as a legitimate religion. Christianity began as an outgrowth of Judaism and was considered just a faction within the Jewish religion. As long as that association held, Christians had some degree of protection, at least from Rome.
But as Paul and others continued to reach farther outside of Israel with the good news of the gospel, and as more Gentiles became believers, the question arose: was Christianity just a Jewish sect? Or was it a new religion entirely? Was it a religion which Rome could tolerate or not? This was the crux of the reason that Paul was going on trial. A trial that could well end in his death.
(Earlier I said that Paul saw himself in a win-win situation. How could these circumstances possibly be positive? It’s one thing to try to have a good attitude in the midst of bad times – but Paul says he is joyful not just in the midst of, but BECAUSE of this terrible state of affairs. How can that possibly be?
Paul tells the Philippians that what has happened to him has actually helped the progress of the gospel. I suspect that what the church in Philippi wanted to hear was whether or not Paul had enough to eat and was well treated by the soldiers. But Paul is going to let Epaphroditus tell them that kind of stuff. Epaphroditus was sent by the Philippians to bring Paul their monetary gift and was the one who carried this letter back to Philippi.