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Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Philippians 1:12-14

The Advance of the Gospel

12 I want you to know, brothers,[a] 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[b] 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[c] without fear.


Last week’s post introduced Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a book characterised by the Apostle’s joy at being Christ’s bondservant, even in the most troubling of circumstances, i.e. imprisonment.

That post also explains what being a bondservant involved. In short, it was a slave who wanted to be with his master because he admired him so deeply.

After Paul’s introductory verses, which was a benediction to the Philippians, he offered thanksgiving and prayer:

Thanksgiving and Prayer

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace,[d] both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

John MacArthur introduces today’s verses and the rest of the chapter as follows (emphases mine):

We’re going to launch into a brand new paragraph of thought in Paul’s writing, verses 12-26 We could call this section “The Joy of Ministry” because that really is its theme Verse 18, which is set in the middle of the section, is really the keynote At the end of the verse he says, “I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice.”  And that statement is set against Paul’s apparent difficult, almost disastrous, circumstance.  He will rejoice.  He will continue to rejoice in the ministry God has given to him in spite of the difficulties.

It’s going to take us a few weeks to move through these verses because they are so rich and so instructive.  And I confess to you that I have rejoiced in my own heart at the timing of the Lord, who is taking me through this section at a time when trials are coming in my life. And I am in great need of learning the things that the apostle Paul has to teach by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – the joy of ministry.

Perhaps some reading this might be in a time of trial themselves.

MacArthur gives us advice on joy and trials:

There should be no point in the life of a believer where joy is forfeited to sullenness, bitterness, negativism because of some things that aren’t the way we’d like them to be There’s only one justification for the loss of joy, and that is sin. And when you have fallen into sin, you will need to cry out with the psalmist, “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation.”  But nothing short of sin should steal our joy, certainly not circumstances.  And yet typically – I mean typically for everyone – a sudden change in conditions, a sudden change in circumstances in our lives, great difficulties – confusion, trials, hard times, attacks, disagreements, unfulfilled ambitions, unmet desires, conflicts, strained relationships, unrealistic expectations unmet – all of these things can throw us off balance and joy is forfeited and bitterness takes its place.

Now we need to know, to begin with, that we ought to expect trouble and we ought to expect difficult circumstances Jesus said “in the world you’ll have trouble” (John 16:33) – expect itJames said that trouble comes in order to make you perfect It has a divine purpose, so expect it and expect that God has a purpose for it which is good He has profound purposes in our affliction, profound purposes in our trials and difficulties, and one of them is not to take our joy.  Now obviously the key to maintaining joy is to have perspective, to understand what’s going on, and to yield to the Spirit of God and not be overtaken by the difficulty.

Paul becomes for us a larger-than-life model of this because he is a man whose joy knew no breaking point There was never a time that I can find in the New Testament when the circumstances in Paul’s life impacted his joy.  In fact, it seems to us that he has almost a fighting-back mentality – the greater the struggle, the greater the trial, the more insistent he is to articulate his joy He is indeed larger than life as a living illustration of the perfect combination of severe affliction mingled with supreme joy.

This is why it is essential to read the Bible — the New Testament, in particular — regularly.

The Book of Acts has the story of Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem and Caesarea, which eventually led to his transfer to Rome, via a shipwreck. If you go to my Essential Bible Verses page, you can find the story there from Acts 22 through Acts 29.

While imprisoned in Rome, Paul wrote four letters, referred to as his ‘prison epistles’: Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon.

MacArthur gives us more on Paul’s situation in Rome under the emperor Nero:

So after a first hearing he is kept prisoner until Nero makes up his mind, and months and months are passing by while he waits to hear whether Nero is going to call for his execution or his release.

The conditions of his imprisonment are quite interesting And although he is definitely a prisoner, he has some unusual circumstances in his imprisonment.  For those let me ask you to turn to the twenty-eighth chapter of Acts.  And you have in this final section of this great book insight into Paul’s circumstance.  Verse 16 of Acts 28 says, “And when we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself with the soldier who was guarding him.”  He was not put in a common prison with the rest of the prisoners I imagine that would have been a little bit difficult to do since there seemed to be no crime which he had committed – no real legal issue was facing him.  And not wanting, perhaps, to throw him in with criminals since there was no real criminal charge, but at the same time wanting to adjudicate the matter before they made any decision to release him, they let him be a private prisoner with a soldier by himself And where was this?  Follow down to verse 20, “For this reason, therefore,” he says, “I requested to see you and speak with you, for I am wearing this chain for the sake of the hope of Israel.”  He was not only a prisoner in a private situation with a guard, but that guard was chained to him He was chained to a guard.  In fact, he was chained to a guard twenty-four hours a day According to the Roman custom, the guards would change every six hours.  So he would have four different men chained to him over a period of a day, at all times, so he could not escape.

You will notice also in verse 23 that we get a little more insight into his condition It says that the people who came to him – a group of Jews – “came to him at his lodging,” “at his lodging.”  He was given a private house in which he could stay, chained to a Roman soldier And there he would have at least the freedom of people coming to him, if indeed he could not go to them, so that he might preach and teach You will notice down in verse 30 it tells us further that “he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”  Chained to a soldier, but unhindered in preaching.  A prisoner and yet a prisoner in a rented house so that people had access to him.  That is his condition.

It’s an unimaginable thing to think of in one sense.  The wonderful freedom that he had known, the journeys that he had taken, the ability to go and found churches and go back and strengthen churches, the ability to train leaders, to be on the move, to carry that apostolic commission to its fullest was now at an end.  He did not even have the solitude that a man of God so craves in which he can find his solace in the private presence of the One he loves and serves.  Even the little tasks of life he knew no privacy in, for he was forever and always chained to a Roman soldier He slept chained to a Roman soldier.  He wrote chained to a Roman soldier.  He ate chained to a Roman soldier, ever and always.

MacArthur says that the Philippians had not heard from Paul for four years and were worried about him once they finally received news of his imprisonment. This is the background to his letter to them:

So in order to find out they send a man by the name of Epaphroditus, who was from their congregation, and he goes to Rome to find Paul to learn two things: “What is your condition, and what is the condition of the gospel?  How are you doing and how is the gospel doing?”  Those were the two things that burdened their hearts.

They send him, with Epaphroditus, a gift of moneyThe money was for his support, and Epaphroditus was to be his friend They wanted him to have a companion, and they wanted him to have resources so he could continue to live.  But they also wanted word back on how he was doing because their hearts were grieving over his condition and the condition of the gospel and the fear that it was being hindered because of his imprisonment.

So Philippians is written, then, in response to that It is sent back to the Christians at Philippi to inform them of Paul’s condition and the condition of the gospel.  And the theme is joy.  He wants them to know that in spite of the circumstances, he rejoices.  He experiences joy.  Why?  Because though his conditions are not what they would perhaps want them to be, nor what he would want them to be, the gospel is going forward.  The letter, then, is intended really to confirm joy in the ministry – joy in the ministry, in spite of great affliction.  Tremendously helpful, helpful theme, and it becomes to us, then, a marvelous testimony of how this man is able in the midst of great trial to deal with his trial in joy.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that Paul wanted to confirm that, despite his suffering, he is undaunted because the Word of God is the true doctrine:

They might be tempted to think, If this doctrine were indeed of God, God would not suffer one who was so active and instrumental in preaching and propagating it to be thrown by as a despised broken vessel. They might be shy of owning this doctrine, lest they should be involved in the same trouble themselves. Now to take off the offence of the cross, he expounds this dark and hard chapter of his sufferings, and makes it very easy and intelligible, and reconcilable to the wisdom and goodness of God who employed him.

Addressing them as ‘brothers’, Paul tells the Philippians that his imprisonment has served to increase the furthering of the Gospel message (verse 12).

MacArthur gives us this analysis:

He begins by saying, “Now I want you to know,” and that’s just a little formula that’s used often in ancient letters; it’s even used in modern letters.  You might use it in a letter you write.  You might say to someone, “I want you to get this, or I want you to know this, or I want you to understand this.”  What you’re saying is, “This is very important.”  And you’re also saying it might be misunderstood So I’m sort of affirming to you – carefully go through this section because this may be different than you might have thought.  It is the flip side of another phrase that Paul likes to use when he says, “I would not have you to be ignorant.”

This is the positive side of that negative approach.  It addresses something that’s important, something that might be a bit surprising, something not obvious that needs to be understood.  The assumption would be: “Paul’s a prisoner; Paul’s incarcerated; he’s chained; woe is me.  The gospel is shut down. The ministry is debilitated. The preaching is limited.” And he says, “Now, I don’t want you to think that. I want you to understand this, that just the opposite is true.”

Now by the way, he calls them “brethren,” a term of endearment which he uses three other times in this epistle, 3:1 and 13, and chapter 4, verse 1.  It just brings a tone of intimacy and fellowship and oneness They are dear friends bonded in love to each other as children of God So he speaks to them on that intimate, loving term.  And then he says this, “I want you to know that this is the issue, that my circumstances.”  He uses that same little phrase in Ephesians 6:21 and Colossians 4:7, and he means by that “the condition I’m in, this whole deal of being a prisoner, being chained to a soldier, waiting to hear if I’m going to live or die, a very difficult situation, my circumstances,” he says – I love this – “have turned out rather for the progress of the gospel.”

You know what he’s saying?  God had a better plan than even I had Instead of this thing shutting down the ministry, this has expanded the ministry.  The good news is this has all turned out for the progress of the gospel.  Now the New American Standard says, “for the greater progress,” mallon, which they would translate “greater,” I think would be better translated “rather,” which is a proper way to translate it also. So that he is saying, “It’s turned out rather for the progress of the gospel than what you might assume it would have caused.”  I mean, when you’re free to preach and all of a sudden you become a prisoner, you would assume that that would shut down the progress.  Not so; not so at all.  It has rather led to the progress of the gospel.

Some translations use ‘progress’ rather than ‘advance’. MacArthur explains the Greek:

The word “progress” is a word we ought to look at, prokop.  It’s an interesting word.  It’s not just a word that means progress in the sense that something “moves along.”  It has inherent in it the idea that something is “moving along in spite of obstacles, danger, distraction.”  In other words, inherent in the very word is “resistance.”  It is moving in spite of resistance That word is used, for example, in extra-biblical usages to speak of an army or an expedition that is “moving along.”  The verb form, prokoptain, means literally “to cut down in advance.” And it pictures those who would go before an army, cutting down trees and hacking their way through undergrowth to make a path for the army to follow.  So it is “progress against resistance, progress against opposition, progress against those things which would hinder the advance.”

So he says the gospel is advancing against obstacles.  And the chief obstacle was his imprisonment.  The chief obstacle was the hostility of Rome against the gospel.  But far from binding the gospel and halting it, the gospel was advancing against these circumstances The gospel means simply “the message of salvation.”  Paul refers to it in verse 5, verse 7, verse 12, and once again in verse 27.  So he refers to it here over and over again.  The gospel is on his heart. It is his heart. It is his passion, and he lived to preach it, and he lived to advance it.  And even though he was a prisoner, it was still being advanced.  Opposition never stopped him, never.

Paul goes on to say that the whole Imperial — Praetorian — Guard and everyone else knows that his imprisonment is for Christ (verse 13).

Henry says that was highly influential and advantageous to conversion:

Observe, (1.) Paul’s sufferings made him known at court, where perhaps he would never have otherwise been known; and this might lead some of them to enquire after the gospel for which he suffered, which they might otherwise have never heard of. (2.) When his bonds were manifest in the palace, they were manifest in all other places. The sentiments of the court have a great influence on the sentiments of all people—Regis ad exemplum totus componitur orbis.

MacArthur has more on this amazing opportunity to evangelise:

How did it get “well known”?  “Throughout the whole praetorian guard.”  Why?  Because those were the guys who were chained to him Now you have to understand it’s one thing for Paul to be chained to a soldier, and it’s a whole other point of view to realize that a soldier was chained to Paul Have you ever tried to evangelize someone who wanted to get away?  Imagine being chained to Paul six hours That could get a little heavy-duty Boy, what an incredible, incredible missionary opportunity I’m sure there were Christians in the Roman church praying, “O God, help us somehow to reach Caesar’s household.  Help us somehow to reach the elite corps of the praetorian guard.  Help us to get the gospel into the high places.  Help us to reach these people.”  And there was no way in.  And so the Lord in His wonderful wisdom made the whole praetorian guard captive to Paul at six-hour intervals while he evangelized them all.

The results were very predictable Can you imagine what the topic of conversation was?  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine, would it?  They would see his character, his graciousness, his patience, his love, his wisdom, his conviction And the result was that the praetorian guard became the second line of local evangelism, going out telling everybody about this man who was a prisoner for preaching Christ It became “well known” or “manifest.” And it was widely understood that he was a prisoner because of his message, because of his zeal to preach Christ. And the praetorian guard were being converted.  You say, “How do you know that?”  Look at chapter 4, verse 22, when he closes the letter almost tongue-in-cheek; in verse 22 he says, “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.”  Little by little, the conversion of Caesar’s household is taking place.

So, this confinement for being a gospel preacher gained him great attention.  Great fame – his fame spread through the whole city Multitudes were coming to him.  Acts 28 says a multitude of Jews came. Some of them believed And for the whole two years, Acts 28:30-31 says, “Crowds were coming and coming and coming and he was preaching the gospel.”  People were being converted But the message was spread most effectively by those that were closest to him, the whole praetorian guard.

Now if you have an Authorized Version it probably says, and I’m sure it does, that it was well known throughout “the whole palace.”  The term “praetorian” can refer either to a place or a group of people.  The problem with translating it “palace” is that Paul was not in a palace; he was in a private house Almost all commentators use it as it is most commonly used, and that is to refer to a body of people. And the praetorian was a group of soldiers They were associated with the palace because they were the imperial guard for the emperor Originally the word “praetorian” referred to “the commander’s headquarters,” “the general’s residence,” “the emperor’s house.”  It then came to mean any house of any famous, wealthy person of notoriety.

But none of those really fit this situation because he was in a hired house, not the palace.  But it was also a word used to refer to the imperial guard that were responsible for guarding the palace and caring for the interest of the emperor, the imperial guard of Rome.  Boy, they were an elite group, and I want to tell you a little bit about them so you’ll understand what was going on here.

The “praetorian guard,” or the “palace guard,” the “imperial guard” of Rome had been originally instituted by Caesar Augustus You remember, he was Caesar at the time of the birth of Christ.  They were a body of about ten thousand hand-picked troops.  They were the first-rate men in the Roman army.  Augustus had kept them dispersed throughout the city of Rome because they were the leaders of his presence there, responsible for keeping the peace and for marshalling strength against any opposition.  Tiberius had concentrated them in Rome in a specially built and fortified camp, so they had high profile presence in Rome.  They were a threat to any insurrection, any rebellion.  And, of course, there was always the potential of a slave rebellion.

Vitellius had increased their number from the original nine or ten thousand to sixteen thousand By the end of their term – which ran about twelve years early and ultimately sixteen years – by the end of their term they were granted all the highest privileges of citizenship and also a large sum of money.  They became so powerful that they ultimately became the bodyguard of the emperor himself. And after that, they became so powerful that they literally became the king makers of Rome, and every emperor was the choice of the praetorian guard Why?  Because they were the power, they were the power. They could impose their will by force on the populace or on the leadership.  And so they chose all the emperors – tremendously powerful men.

When Paul then arrived as a prisoner to Rome, he was put in charge of the prefect of the praetorian guard.  And it was under the praetorian guard that he was kept prisoner And so he was chained to one after another of these elite soldiers of Rome What an impact.  What an incredible opportunity …

And they knew his life was on the line. And they knew he could lay his head on a block and have an axe chop it off his body, if Nero so decided.  And he knew it too, and they knew he knew it And they must have been in awe of the man I mean, we know there was no argument they could give that he could not answer.  We know there was no characteristic that they would have looked for that he didn’t demonstrate.  And all of it out of suffering – his message was so believable. And the impact was that Caesar’s household was starting to fill up with saints.

MacArthur explains Paul’s mention of ‘to all the rest’, which is ‘everyone else’ in some translations:

“Everybody else” certainly in the palace; “everybody else” in Caesar’s household; but “everybody else” in Rome.  Rome wasn’t so big that the word wouldn’t spread.  I mean, you’d know it. You’d know it if it started to happen in our country, something like that.  I mean, if a revival, for example, hit the FBI, we’d know.  The word would spread, and it spread.  “Everyone else.”  And people were coming to him then in crowds, and he was preaching and teaching.  And here what looked like a disaster turns out for the progress of the gospel.  And that’s how God used him to evangelize Rome.

And Paul says that, because he was emboldened to preach the Gospel to them as a prisoner, ‘most of’ them became emboldened to speak the word of God without fear (verse 14).

Henry explains how what the Praetorian Guard and others saw and heard from Paul affected their own response to the Gospel. God’s grace and Paul’s example removed their fear:

The expectation of trouble for their religion, in general, perhaps disheartened and discouraged them; but, when they saw Paul imprisoned for Christ, they were so far from being deterred from preaching Christ and praising his name, that it made them the more bold; for they could gladly suffer in Paul’s company. If they should be hurried from the pulpit to the prison, they could be reconciled to it, because they would be there in such good company. Besides, the comfort which Paul had in his sufferings, his extraordinary consolations received from Christ in a suffering state, greatly encouraged them. They saw that those who served Christ served a good Master, who could both bear them up and bear them out, in their sufferings for him. Waxing confident by my bonds. Pepoithotas. They were more fully satisfied and persuaded by what they saw. Observe the power of divine grace; that which was intended by the enemy to discourage the preachers of the gospel was overruled for their encouragement. And are much more bold to speak the word without fear; they see the worst of it, and therefore are not afraid to venture. Their confidence gave them courage, and their courage preserved them from the power of fear.

MacArthur thinks that, before Paul’s arrival, the church in Rome had become somewhat timid, an understandable reaction, but the Apostle and those around him reversed that trend:

The impact of Paul in his imprisonment was touching the church in this way, “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.”  Now the implication here is that before Paul’s imprisonment the church was lacking a little bit of courage Maybe they had a small amount of courage, but now they have far more courage I can understand why they’d be a little hesitant.  There was a growing hostility against Christianity.  There was an antagonism against the gospel of Christ Paul was living proof of that because he was a prisoner for preaching.  And you can imagine that the church preachers were saying, “We want to be very careful because we don’t want to end up in jail.  We want to keep our freedom, so we don’t want to say too much.”  So they lacked great courage and great boldness and that forthright, confrontive attitude that should belong to the prophet of God.  And their general trend was to face that hostility with a little bit of fear and shyness, fearing that imprisonment might end their effectiveness, imprisonment might halt the progress of the gospel …

But, when they began to see Paul and his ministry and God providing for him and sustaining him and supporting him and keeping him and giving him this incredible outreach, and he was evangelizing Caesar’s house and the Praetorian Guard, and the whole city knew about it and Rome was coming to him, and people were being saved, it says, verse 14, “most of the brethren.”  Pleionas means “majority,” not just many, but “the majority” of the brethren trusting. Or a better way to translate pepoitha is “having confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment now have far more courage.”

And that’s exactly what happened.  They began to see the effectiveness of Paul.  They began to see how God protected him.  They began to see how God was using him in tremendous ways to evangelize Jews and Gentiles And their courage was renewed and their zeal was increased and their boldness was strengthened by his brave example and the results of his ministry And so, “they were trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment,” he says. “They were confident” – the verb means “to be certain, to be sure, to be confident, to trust.”  And they believe that if God could minister through him in that condition, He could minister through them as well.  And so his strength became their strength.  What a tremendous truth.  The example of his life touched them all.  The impact of one life revolutionizing one whole church.  And all these other brethren, all these other preachers began to be strengthened with “far more courage.”  The Greek word here, “the abundance of courage to speak the Word of God,” which means “the divine revelation,” which is the gospel, and to do it “without fear,” “without fear” – fearlessly.

MacArthur concludes with more advice on living life according to God’s plan through faith in Jesus Christ and reliance on the Holy Spirit. This is especially important in our post-pandemic world which we are told is rife with mental health issues:

As you look at your own life, is your joy that sort of ebbing and flowing tide of earthly things?  Does your joy rise and fall on your pleasure?  On your possessions? On your prominence, your prestige, your reputation, your comfort, your fulfilled ambitions?  Your almost unrealistic fantasies being realized?  Is that where your joy is?  If it is, you’re going to ride the crest and sink to the depths You’re going to ebb and flow with the times of life, the changing times, the shifting sands.

But if your joy is tied to the progress of the gospel, and your life is committed to that end, then your joy is ever, ever undiminished That’s certainly my prayer for my own life and yours as well Don’t get caught on that roller coaster, that up and down of exhilaration and depression where you ride the crest of joy one minute and sink to the depths of despair the next, because everything is predicated on the shifting things of life.  Fix your heart on the progress of the gospel, and it doesn’t matter what happens to you as long as you can see God’s kingdom being extended And of course you have to be part of that extension in your prayers and in your efforts And if that’s what you live for, then that’s what you rejoice in.

What is that passion of your life?  What do you live for?  If you live for that, if that’s your passion, as you pour your life and your time and your energy and your money into the extension of the gospel, you’re going to find your joy is there, too.  Undiminished no matter what happens to you.  That’s how Paul had joy in ministry in the midst of very, very difficult circumstances.

Paul’s joy continues unbounded, as we will see next week.

Next time — Philippians 1:15-18

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