What We Learn from Paul


A good part of the way that God transforms us is by placing good examples around.  I am grateful for Ken Keltner, John Lahoud, my parents and parents -in-law, my brothers and brothers-in-law, Brent Fleming, the Broadworths, Heike in Germany, Coach Byrd…just to name a few – – people around me since my childhood to whom I could safely follow because they followed Christ.  

And I’m grateful for more examples in people I’ve never met except through biographies and their own writings.  C.S. Lewis.  Adolf Schlatter.  Martyn Lloyd Jones.  J.C. Ryle.  John Webster.  Andrew Klavan.  And countless others.  

To our letter: Philippi is in Europe, far away from Antioch in Asia (Turkey today) and farther away from Judea.  That is, away from Christian headquarters and thus the examples of mature Christians.  

Also, I think there are clues that there weren’t many Jewish people living in that city.  Which would mean, the fledgling church didn’t have the great support of knowing much about the Old Testament Scriptures.  And one thing that those Scriptures give you – and that the Philippians presumably missed, is a host of examples for living the righteous life.  

So, this infant church filled with new Christians at the far frontier of the gospel’s spread needed examples of how to think and behave like a Christian.  I think that’s one of the reasons Paul wrote this letter, to provide them with some examples and urge them to look around for other examples.  We’ll demonstrate that in weeks ahead.  

One of the examples for his readers to emulate that Paul offers is…himself.  In this letter he is specifically showing the Philippians how a mature Christian thinks.  We have much to learn too.    

Philippians 1:12-18a

12 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 defense 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 pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

What example is Paul offering the Philippians?  What kind of person is he?  What kind of person should I be?

  • Paul is a gospel man

There are a lot of different ways Paul could have finished the sentence that begins our section, I want you to know brothers…. I want you to know how unfair it is that I’m in prison.  I want you to know how little food I have or how big the rats.  I want you to know how Christians – self-professed brothers in Christ – have let me down.  

And Paul’s readers – both the first readers, the Philippian church, and the readers of this letter since then – are also eager to know more.  We’re lacking details.  We’re not even sure where Paul is imprisoned, Rome or Ephesus.  From reading history, we know in Rome at this time  that prisoners weren’t treated uniformly across prisons – some enjoyed a comfortable though restricted existence.  But some had to endure miserable conditions; were surrounded by rats, excrement…once interned were as likely as not to catch sick and die.  So what kind of prison experience was Paul having?  

Paul, tell us what you’re experiencing.  Tell us how you’re feeling.  Make some sad noises about what you’re going through, what you’ve gone through.  Give us some fodder for our documentary.

…what has happened to me…” – oh yes, here we go.  We’re ready to be interested, to be moved.  

But he never tells us what happened.  He only tells us what it resulted in.  Here’s how his sentence ends:

…has really served to advance the gospel… – that’s where Paul was going, that’s what interested Paul.  Since we hear of nothing else, we could say, that’s probably all that interested Paul.  The progress of the gospel.  Paul is a gospel man.

OK, review: What is the gospel?  When I meet with people and I don’t know their background, one of my go-to diagnostic questions is: what is your understanding of the gospel?  If they don’t know what the gospel is, I figure that I’ll need to go back to Christianity 101 with them.  

So what is the gospel

There are a few summaries of this message of the gospel scattered throughout the New Testament.  Probably the cleanest and most complete is in 1 Corinthians 15: 1-8: 

15 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Christ died for our sins as the Old Testament writings had prepared us for.  We were sinners, responsible before God for our sins.  And Christ took the responsibility for bearing the penalty for our sins upon himself.  Our transgressions were laid on him, and he died in our place, as our representative.  Now what’s possible – FORGIVENESS!  HALLELUJAH

And three days after that representative death, the King rose from death, thereby launching a new thing in this world, a new kind of life.  And in this resurrection life He was still representing sinners… us, and so we share in this life, and someday that life will overspread our whole soul and body and all the cosmos.  

And, Paul insists, this is no fairy tale, but something that happened at a particular time and place, and some regular joes saw Jesus after His resurrection, and you can go look into all that if you want.

So, this gospel is an account of something that has happened in history that had the effect of removing our sin.  And it’s in this account we discover the only way out from death.  From eventually being pulled down by our guilt.  From the demonic powers winning.  From escaping the lies of the world.  From all the forces of chaos.  

In ways we’ll have to explain in future sermons, at His cross Christ faced all these uglies and defeated them by taking them into the grave with him and then rose up the victor over them. Christ is the King over every power. 

Join Christ and share in that victory!  Join Christ simply through believing that He has accomplished all that God says He did. 

Join Christ!  Be baptized into the name of this God who is the Father sending the Son in the power of the Spirit.  

Christ’s death as your death.  His resurrection, your life.  That gospel message became Paul’s life’s work.  He saw more clearly than anyone…probably ever… that the gospel is where heaven, earth, truth, justice, love, humanitarianism, God’s glory, deep victory, creation’s purpose – –  all come together.  

So, do you understand why Paul paid scant or no attention to his circumstances?  This gospel is the avenue by which God will wisely and powerfully end up overturning everything wrong in this world.  And next to that, my current circumstances simply. don’t. matter. 

And any suffering that this gospel involves me in is temporary – next to the endless life coming through the gospel it’s simply not worth talking about.  

So Paul doesn’t.  

  • Paul is Christ’s man

What I mean is that Paul believes that Jesus is the Christ, the world’s Lord, and that he – Paul – is Christ’s servant.  He really believes both of those things, and that colors his interpretation of his circumstances.

Paul wants the Philippian church to know that his imprisonment has advanced the gospel.   The evidence of the gospel’s advance is that the imperial guard – a group of elite soldiers, perhaps the very ones guarding him – and all the rest understand that Paul’s imprisonment is for Christ.  

Everyone around Paul understands that he doesn’t chalk up his imprisonment to Rome’s might or Christ’s weakness.  

No!  Paul believed, and he communicated this to others, that his imprisonment was for Christ, that is, to benefit Christ.  Commissioned by Christ.  

His imprisonment was not an indication that Caesar or any other authority was the prevailing power.  Rather, his imprisonment indicated what Christ was up to, where the King was invading next!

Ok, it’s time to spring some of the imperial guard – let’s get a Christian soldier with a double-barreled gospel to them.  That’s what was happening!

All authority has been given to Jesus Christ.  Repeat that with me: All authority has been given to Jesus Christ.  

And in this age the King is using His power to deploy gospel workers equipped with that crucial message: Christ died for our sins and rose again.  

Christ doesn’t care at all if, for the time being, it appears that there are other powers running the show, setting the scene.  He’ll use weakness, captivity, sickness, jars of clay, stutterers, thorns in the flesh, the apparently foolish etc to get His powerful gospel just where He wants it.

That’s what we mean by saying Paul is Christ’s man.  He always interprets his current situation in light of fact that he is a gospel-proclaiming servant of the risen Christ…the King who’s been given all authority.  

So this where the King has me serving…ok.  And that’s not just a private thought he kept to himself: he let people know.  I know it looks like I’m just a guy having a rough time, but actually the world’s Lord has sent me to you:  Hey, Special Forces Soldiers: God is offering you complete forgiveness.

  • Paul is one man

Paul was gifted and trained – 100%.  He was probably almost always the smartest guy in the room.  And his background of reading and rigor prepared him for his apostleship.  

But I think the genius of Paul is that he believed this gospel he was proclaiming.  It’s a true message about what has truly happened in this world, to this world…and Paul just believed it better than anybody. 

Paul’s just one man, yes.  Yet through his believing the gospel so…thoroughly, wonderfully – everywhere he went there was this striking effect.  Wherever this one man goes, people are changed.  The whole scene changes!

We see some of that here.  He explains to the Philippians that everyone around him in the prison has come to associate his being there with… Christ.  They’ve come to realize: there’s something strange about this man, some subversive power is behind this.  

And, Paul reports, Christians outside the prison have been galvanized, re-energized through watching what is happening to Paul.  Seeing Paul has given them new courage to give out the gospel. 

They are more bold to speak the word without fear.  Who is they?  Most of the brothers.  There was this widespread revival that came out of Paul’s hardship. 

I was reminded this week about the five missionaries who were killed by the Auca Indians in 1950, Jim Eliot being the most well-known.  And in the wake of that slaughter hundreds of missionaries, especially from Wheaton College where Jim Elliot had attended, were called into the field.      

Just think about those hundreds of missionaries going off, and they’re introducing people to the gospel, and then those people….  Out from five men who believed the gospel, thousands of people have been rescued from eternal death, from dwelling forever in demon haunts.  

Paul is one man in a restricted circumstance.  But he believes!  He knows what God has done and trusts that God is at work through him even now!  

And so, in him the gospel finds this channel to work so powerfully.  Of course, the power flowing through him didn’t always yield positive results.  He says in 2 Corinthians that he’s the fragrance of life leading to life and the fragrance of death leading to death.  Yet, the point remains: around Paul the servant of Christ, people didn’t stay the same! 

It only takes one person who believes!

I recall two quotations.  D.L. Moody was a Christian evangelist who in one of his sermons quoted someone saying: “The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him….”  

And in my high school years, a song came out with a title that could function like a prayer of every generation: “Give me something to believe in.”  

Well, the gospel is something to believe in.  But not just another thing; it’s true truth.  Truth about God, about being a human being, about power, about weakness, about death, about life, about what’s wrong with the world, and how the world is being set  right.  

So you got something to believe in.  Now, believe it.  Believe it better.  Deeper.  Be fully consecrated to the gospel and the God of the gospel.

What does that mean?  Two steps:

Get rid of everything in your life that makes the gospel seem less vivid, less important, less urgent.  If your music or movies or computer habits make the gospel seem far away, harder to relate to – cut them out!

And then consecrate yourself to this gospel: knowing it better, communicating it more effectively and strategically; and to knowing the Lord at the center of the gospel.  

Work.  Focus.  Cry out.  

Brother…Sister – you’re just one person, and there’s so much wrong with this world.  Sex trafficking.  Homelessness.  Corruption in media and government and pretty much any institution you can think of, including the church.  Panic attacks.  Loneliness.  Living under the fear of heart attack, stroke, cancer.  There is so much fake-ness out there.

What can I do to help, to move the needle?  And the answer always is: go big!  Believe the gospel.  Go deeper into Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture.  Offer yourself totally in service to this gospel.  This gospel is the power of God for salvation!  

There’s so much to be done, even in my little sphere.  My boy is lukewarm and unwise.  My spouse is depressed.  My colleagues are so needy but I don’t know how to relate my Christianity to their problems.  My friends are throwing their lives away in addictions and silliness.

Well, what difference could I make?  That’s the temptation – there’s nothing to be done…I’m just me.  But look at the first few words of this letter, who does Paul think he’s writing to: τοις αγιοις – to the saints.  Christian – you’re joined to Christ – you’re the temple of God, the dwelling of the Spirit, the place where heaven and earth meet.    

You’re not constructed for entertainment consumption.  For minding your own business.  For having cool experiences or seeing cool stuff.  For pleasing yourself.  For living simply for your kids.

You’re a saint.  You’re a big-timer.  You were a sinner, but then saved to do big things – ok, maybe not normally what the world classifies as big, but doing small things in service to a big gospel. 

Oh brothers and sisters – the world is dark and lost and you’re the hope.  You, gospel carrier, are the only light.  Believe.  Believe better.  

If God would unites a person’s heart so that there is a focus… someone who cleanses him/herself from her sin and foolishness, someone who works at competency in this, who is trained by the Spirit in Scripture and theology and the history of the Spirit’s work in the world, someone  who believes the gospel, – man, it might not look dramatic…or it might.  

But one person – just one person – who believes this gospel – watch out.  

Fathers, be that person in your family!  Teenager, be that person among your friends!  

  • Paul is (in one way, at least) a simple man

We’ll close by returning to our opening point – Paul is a gospel man, and that (in at least one way) made him a simple man.  

I don’t know exactly what or who Paul is talking about in vv. 16,17.  What he says is that there are many brothers (v. 14) who by looking onto Paul’s imprisonment are newly emboldened to preach the gospel, to proclaim Christ.  So far, so good.  

But some of these brothers are proclaiming Christ with the motive of hurting Paul.  

What!?!  These brothers preached Christ from envy and rivalry…out of selfish ambition, not sincerely.  And that I don’t fully understand.  What exactly did they do in the hopes of afflicting Paul?  How exactly were they going to one-up Paul?

We’re not told exactly what they did.  We only have some ugly motives assigned to them.  Again those were envy, rivalry, selfish ambition.  They proclaimed Christ but really were interested in boosting themselves.  

They felt like they were in competition with other gospel proclaimers – who has a bigger audience?  Who is most original?  Who are the hearers responding to with the most loyalty? 

Perhaps they saw Paul’s imprisonment as an opportunity to jump ahead of Paul.  When people are going through a hard time, it’s very easy…too easy… to wonder if they’ve done something wrong, if God is punishing them. 

And these brothers probably exploited this uncertainty.  You can imagine them wondering out loud, with arched eyebrows, Maybe this is time when the Christ Paul loves to preach about needs to remind him that he’s getting too big for his britches.  

In any case, they were likely throwing Paul under the bus in the hopes of securing a larger following for themselves.  

And to that Paul responds…

Whatever.  You’re proclaiming Christ.  I’m happy with that.  

Paul’s a gospel man.  And that’s made him a simple man.  John the Baptist captures this simplicity in a phrase: Christ must increase; I must decrease.  

My ranking doesn’t matter.  If people are going away from me to this guy, who cares?  Christ must increase; my polling numbers don’t count.

But, Paul, you’ve been hurt by these Christians.  You’ve been hurt by the church.  Don’t you want to publish your memoirs detailing what’s been done to you?  Don’t you want to take a break from church because of all the hypocrites?    

And Paul says, No.  It’s not about me.  It’s not about any scorecard.  I’m not in competition with Christians.  My feelings, slights against me – – nothingburgers.

The only unhappiness would be the gospel going quiet.  And it’s not.  You ask me if I’m mad, bro.  Bro, I love, I love to see the gospel broadcast, even if I know some really ugly things about those who are broadcasting it.  

Simple.  Not easy, though.


We’ll conclude today’s investigation into Paul’s psyche – a mind that had been invaded with the gospel, that was filled with faith, that loved Christ and just wanted to know his Lord better.

We’ll conclude today’s investigation into Paul’s psyche by asking the question: who is free here?  Ok, Paul is in prison.  But he’s out of the rat race of comparing himself with other people.  He says he’s rejoicing…why would he lie about that?  He perceives that his restricted and dangerous situation is advancing the gospel, and so he approves.  Fully approves.  

Brothers and sisters, the Lord through His gospel has freed Paul from fakeness, from bitterness, from self-pity, from aimlessness.  The Lord has come and brought him out to purpose, to permanent work, to courage, to love all that there is to be loved.  We could do worse than follow Paul, even if it lands us in chains.

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