Paul the Prisoner for Christ
Philippians 1 : 12 - 30
Philippi was in northern Greece (Macedonia) and had been founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip in 368BC. It was situated where Asia and Europe meet and so was very strategically placed. Anthony defeated Brutus and Cassius there in 43 BC in the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Paul had first visited Philippi in 52 AD. How he got on there is told in Acts 16. It was an eventful and confrontational Christian ministry and he was forced to leave. But he founded a Church there and in this letter was corresponding with his erstwhile charge. Because now Paul was nearing then end of his life, probably in 64AD. Not that he was ill or very old but that he was about to become a Christian martyr, in Rome, towards the end of the reign of the mad emperor Nero (54 - 68 AD) who unleashed a fierce persecution of Christians. Paul was under house arrest because he had appealed to the emperor to decide the case brought against him by the authorities in Jerusalem.
In verse 12 Paul witnesses to the fact that his imprisonment had not restricted or curtailed his missionary effectiveness. He is confessing Jesus Christ to all and sundry, to the soldiers who guard him, to visitors and to passers-by as well as to Christian people who cared for him and provided for him.
The words “palace guard” in verse 13 suggest that Paul is being kept in part of or very near a soldiers’ barracks. These soldiers were probably like the Queen’s Guards with their quarters near Buckingham Palace. They were specially chosen and were a kind of special protection unit for the emperor’s safety. They were called the Praetorian Guard. They were influential and powerful in Roman society. It is to them that Paul ceaselessly witnesses for Jesus Christ.
He says “I am in chains for Christ” (verse 14). Although Paul’s treatment was humane, he still was chained to a soldier lest he escape. This was not unlike what we see when prisoners are being transported to and from court. They are often handcuffed to a prison guard or escort. This must have been irksome for Paul although it is likely that he was given some consideration in order to write and communicate and receive his visitors. He would have had a rota of guards and over his two years in Rome many must have guarded him. Imagine being chained to St Paul! Remember the occasion when he preached such a long sermon that a young man fell asleep and fell off the window ledge and down on to the street! Roman soldiers would probably have joked with each other about who was next to be Paul’s guard. It is likely that some became Christians. This was the finest regiment in the Roman army at the top of Roman society and one by one, each soldier was given the opportunity to hear the Christian Gospel from the lips of the great St Paul. That is how Christianity works. You can’t keep it down and you can’t kill it off. Many have tried and failed. It is no different today. Paul’s imprisonment inspired and emboldened other Christians. His testimony was tolerated and so they gained courage to witness for Christ.
All was not perfect however among the Christians in Rome. Paul honestly distinguishes two kinds of Christian evangelist. The first were those who preached out of love for the Lord and respect for Paul. If Paul was restricted and his fate unknown, these people were willing to make the best use of the circumstances and opportunities presented. But there were others whose motives and conduct was not so honourable. They were in it for themselves rather than for Jesus Christ. They were difficult, argumentative and competitive. They wanted their own way. They may well have tried to undermine Paul’s position and apostolic authority. Why did they do this? It is human nature. Churches have always had such people. No-one really knows why they come to Church and get involved but in the end they are seen to be for themselves. Often they can cause great trouble and they hinder and damage the life and work of congregations. Within congregations, some get above themselves and some think they own the Church and can do what they like in it. Why have some very fine people in this congregation not been made elders in past years? Did their faces not fit?
Paul took a pragmatic view. If the Gospel was being preached then despite the varying quality of the witness and example, some good was being done. It is not always true that to be an effective Christian you must be all things to all people. Jesus had a sharp tongue on occasions. To succeed in anything in this human life you need a bit of drive and steel. Christian leadership can be the same. The more demanding a Christian leader is the more success for Jesus Christ he or she may win. Being weak towards everyone may not produce fruit that will last or build a strong congregation of Christian people. It is sometimes said that much could be accomplished if no-one minded who got the credit for it. That was Paul’s way with difficult people.
And so Paul was able to relax and to rejoice. In verse 19 there is a suggestion that Paul is thinking he might be acquitted and freed. Maybe this was wishful thinking. He knew the chances were slim. He was facing death every day. He perhaps allowed himself the dream of freedom and the resumption of his apostolic calling. He may also have been thinking of how he might die and like any mortal not looking forward to the process even if the end result was heavenly salvation.
But he might just have been meaning that very thing. He could be happy because he knew he would find salvation through Jesus Christ. He was being faithful to the end and he was still effective as an ambassador for Christ. He might also have been meaning his sense of welfare and well-being amidst his difficulties. He was psychologically strong. He was not depressed. He was not down, he was not defeated. I suppose he could have meant all three things. Under house arrest in Rome, Paul was able to be happy and consider future freedom in this life or salvation in eternal life and peace of spirit and emotional and physical well being on a daily basis. That is the Christian victory over adversity and circumstance. That should be your testimony and mine. Do we show it?
“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain”. This is one of the great texts of the whole Bible. Paul is second only to Jesus in greatness of influence in the history of the world. He lived an extreme Christian life although many others without his status have also been profoundly devoted to Jesus Christ to the exclusion of other people, matters and things. He was in the end game and the tensions and issues were great and these enlivened and inspired him. So - he reached the heights of Christian possibility and experience. That is something that we see in ordinary things in daily life. Things come to a head and have to be dealt with. No-one knows how they will turn out. There is excitement and apprehension. Paul’s Christianity was on a high. There was no going back. He could not lose. Christ was with him day by day confirming his calling. That was wonderful enough. If his life was to end - he would meet His Lord face to face. That was even better. So if he was asked which he’d prefer, he was not able to chose absolutely between the two. He did not have to because his destiny was out of his hands anyway, both in God’s and in the hands of the Roman emperor.
None of us here is St Paul. But as Christians we should be able to share in his testimony “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” at the very least to the extent that we should not be afraid of death or even of dying. Our faith should work for us at the end of our lives even more than it has during our lives. We should have comfort and peace of mind. It is not what we have been or what we have done that governs our eternal destiny but simply whether we accept Jesus Christ in our hearts as Saviour. I think people may be able to say that to themselves but would find it hard to say to one another. And there are those who have known the love of God in some clear way at some stage of their life, but they have never moved on through prayer and receiving a teaching ministry from where they once were.
Maybe you can’t in all honesty say that you live each day for Jesus Christ but you might be able to say that you believe and gladly accept the gift of eternal life and salvation from Jesus and - even - that you look forward to that happening. So that even in weakness and decline you are strengthened from within and from above.
Paul says “it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this I know that I will remain”. Here there is just a suggestion that Paul thinks he is indispensable. How will they get on without me? he asks. Paul was always concerned that his work as an apostle would fall apart after he left or that enemies would destroy what he had built up. Jesus told his disciples that he had to leave so that they could become fulfilled in his service. Paul saw all the dangers that surrounded the newly formed Christian communities and he wanted to be there to protect, guide and help. It was not to be. He was taken. Christians did suffer. And thereafter Christianity spread rapidly throughout the ancient world. We cannot decide the future but we have to be faithful in the present. The Church is in the providential care of the living Lord. It is His.
It would not be Paul without some admonition about personal behaviour and conduct as Christians. So in verses 27 - 30 Paul connects Christian hope and salvation with conduct worthy of such grace and calling. These gifts having been given to us, we have to demonstrate certain qualities of life, especially in the way we treat others. That, most unfortunately, can often be lacking in the conduct of some church members.
But Paul also connects being a good Christian witness with showing acceptable personal conduct. Christians had enemies and he told them that if they lived properly and well they would not become afraid or paranoid. Often if there is something wrong with us inside we show that in fear and paranoia. We create demons which do not actually exist. Our judgment of others is wrong. We isolate ourselves and retreat from contact. A forgiven conscience allows us to be compassionate and gracious to others even when they do us wrong. Lastly Paul asks those who will receive his letter to understand that suffering for Christ may indeed be part of their lot and destiny. For sure many of us suffer in this life. But we have to be honest. Do we suffer for Jesus Christ or just for ourselves? Do we suffer for the members of our families? Do we suffer as a result of folly, bad judgments and wrong decisions? If we indeed suffer anything for Jesus Christ it will be repaid an hundred fold. Not that we look for rewards but it is a logical consequence. Paul surely spends eternity in the company of His Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus, after his pain on Calvary is alive for evermore, the Lord of all. As a Christian it is inevitable that you will rise again to receive the blessings and love of the living God for ever.