III. HOW THE PHILIPPIANS SHOULD THINK OF PAUL AT ROME.
"Now I would have you know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have fallen out rather to the progress of the gospel; so that my bonds became manifest in Christ throughout the whole prætorian guard, and to all the rest; and that most of the brethren in the Lord, being confident through my bonds, are more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: the one do it of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel: but the other proclaim Christ of faction, not sincerely, thinking to raise up affliction for me in my bonds. What then? only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and therein I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation, through your supplication and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that in nothing shall I be put to shame, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death." — Phil. i. 12-20 (R.V.).
Having poured out his feelings about those dear friends and children in the Lord at Philippi, the Apostle recognises corresponding feelings on their part towards him. These must naturally be feelings of anxiety to know how it was with him in body and spirit, and how far he had been protected and sustained amid the dangers and sorrows of a prisoner's lot. On this then he is glad to be able to give them good tidings. He can do so, because he is in the hands of a wonder-working Lord, who turns the shadow of death into the morning. Hence his history as well as theirs (ver. 11) is moving towards the glory and praise of God.
The Apostle's affairs had seemed to be full of trial to himself, all the more that they bore so discouraging an aspect towards the cause to which he was devoted. He had been for years a prisoner. The work of preaching to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ had been stopped, except as the narrow opportunities of a prisoner's life offered scant outlets for it. He had, no doubt, his own share of experiences tending to depress and embitter: for in his day philanthropy had not yet done much to secure good treatment for men situated as he was. Still more depressing to an eager soul was the discipline of delay: the slow, monotonous months passing on, consuming the remainder of his life, while the great harvest he longed to reap lay outside uncared for, with few to bring it in. Meanwhile even the work done in Christ's name was largely taking a wrong direction: those who under the Christian name preached another gospel, and perverted the gospel of Christ, had a freer hand to do their work. Paul, at least, had no longer the power to cross their path. Ground on which he might have worked, minds which he might have approached, seemed to be falling under their perverting influence. All this seemed adverse — adverse to Paul, and adverse to the cause for which he lived — fitted therefore to awaken legitimate concern: fitted to raise the question why God's providence should thus depress the heart and waste the life of an agent so carefully prepared and so incomparably efficient.
Most likely these things had tried the faith of Paul himself, and they might distress and perplex his loving friends at Philippi. It was right to feel that these providences were trying; but one might be tempted also to conclude that they were in every sense to be lamented. So much the better it was, therefore, that the Apostle could testify how here also all things were working for good, and in particular were turning out to be for the furtherance of the gospel. This was taking place in two ways at least.
First, Paul's imprisonment had become the means of bringing to the knowledge of the gospel many who were not likely ever to hear of it in any other way; for his bonds had become manifest in Christ in the Prætorium, and in all other places. The precise meaning of the several words here used has become matter of discussion; but the general result is much the same whatever view is taken of the matters debated. The word translated "palace" in the Authorised Version (Marg. Cæsar's Court) may perhaps refer to the quarters of the guard, in the immediate neighbourhood of the palace. Prisoners whose cases were in a special manner reserved to the Emperor were sometimes confined there. And Paul, whether actually confined there or not, must have come into contact with the troops stationed there, for we know he had been delivered to the captain of the guard (Acts xxviii. 16<). Then the "all others" (Marg. of A.V.) may probably mean the rest of the Emperor's household (comp. ch. iv. 22), and would naturally be connected with it in the minds of men, so that a mere indication like this was enough. For, in a military system such as that of the Empire was, the soldiers and officers of the guard formed an important part of the household. That household, however, was an immense affair, including hundreds or even thousands of persons — mostly freedmen or slaves, performing all sorts of functions.
Paul, then, in charge of the guard, coming in contact with individuals belonging to the various reliefs which successively had him in custody, spoken of as one reserved to the judgment of the Emperor himself, became known throughout the quarters of the guard, and to persons of the household of every rank and class. In point of fact we know and can prove from evidence external to the Bible that a few years later than this (perhaps even earlier than this) there were members of the household who were Christians. Before the end of the century a branch of the family which then occupied the imperial throne seems to have joined the Church, perhaps through the influence of a Christian nurse, who is commemorated in an inscription still preserved.
But how did his bonds "become manifest in Christ"? The words no doubt mean that he became known extensively as a man whose bonds, whose imprisonment, was for his adherence to the name and doctrine of Jesus Christ. Let us consider how this would come about.
There might, at first, be universal indifference with reference to the cause of this prisoner's confinement. When his character and statements led to some curiosity about him, men might find it difficult to understand what the real nature of this mysterious case could be. For while the charge, whatever form it took, was not yet a common one, we may be very sure that the man struck people as profoundly different from ordinary prisoners. For ordinary prisoners the one thing desirable was release; and they employed every artifice, and exhausted every form of influence and intrigue, and were prepared to sacrifice every scruple, if only they could get free. Here was a man who pleaded for truth; his own freedom seemed to be quite secondary and subordinate. So at last men come to an understanding, more or less, of the real cause of his bonds. They were bonds for Christ. They were the result of his adherence to the faith of Christ's resurrection, and to the truths which that great event sealed. They were connected with a testifying for Christ which had brought him into collision with the authorities of his own nation, which had set on Jews "everywhere" to "speak against" him (Acts xxviii. 22). And in his imprisonment he did not lay down his testimony, but preached with all his heart to every man who would hear him. This state of things dawned upon men's minds, so far as they thought about him at all; it became clear; it was "manifest in the Prætorium, and to all the others."
One influence was at work which would at least direct attention to the case. There were certainly Jews in the household; there were also Jews in Rome who made it their business, for their worldly interest, to establish connections in the household; and about this time Jewish influence rose to the person nearest to Nero himself. There was therefore a class of persons in the household likely to feel an interest in the case. And on these most likely the influence of Jewish religious authorities would be exerted to produce an unfavourable opinion of Paul. It would be felt desirable that the Jews of the household should think of Paul as no loyal Jew, as a seditious person, and of his opinions as not legitimately pertaining to Jewish religion — as a religious belief and practice which Judaism repudiated and denounced. Thus, while Paul's case might begin to influence the guard, because members of it were personally in contact with him, in the rest of the household there was a class of persons who would feel an interest in discussing his case. One way or another, some impression as to the peculiar character of it was acquired.
Now think how much was done when some view of the real nature of Paul's bonds had been lodged in the minds of these men. Think what an event that was in the mental history of some of these heathens of the old world. Paul was, in the first place, a man very unlike the ordinary type of movers of sedition. It seemed that his offence stood only in religious opinions or persuasions; and that itself, precisely in Nero's days, was a little singular to figure as the ground of political imprisonment. He was persecuted and endangered for his faith, and he neither denied nor disguised that faith, but spent all possible pains in proclaiming it. This was new. He had a faith, resting professedly on recent facts, which he proclaimed as indispensably necessary to be received by all men. This was new. He seriously told men, any man and every man, that their welfare must be attained through their being individually transformed to a type of character of the unworldliest type; he could press that alike on sordid Jews and joy young officers. This was new. He was a man who, in place of the ordinary anxieties and importunities of a prisoner, was ever ready to speak and plead in behalf of Christ, that singular young Jew who had died thirty years before, but whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And in all this, however it might strike one as foolish or odd, there were tokens of an honesty, a sanity, and a purity that could not be explained away. All this struck men who stood near the centre of a world falling many ways into moral ruin, as something strange and new. Paul's own explanation of it was in the one word "Christ." So his bonds were manifest in Christ.
A few of them might have heard previously of Christianity as a new and a malignant superstition. But another conception of it reached them through the bonds of Paul. This imprisoned man was a fact to be accounted for, and a problem to be solved. In him was an influence not wholly to be escaped, an instance that needed a new interpretation. Many of them did not obey the truth, some did; but at least something had become manifest that could not easily be got rid of again, — the beginning, in their case, of that leaven which was eventually to revolutionise the thinking and feeling of the world. Remember also that most of these were men to whom Paul at liberty, speaking in synagogues and the like, would have found no access, nor would he have come near the circles to which their influence extended. But now, being imprisoned, his bonds became manifest in Christ.
Thus does it often transpire that what seems adverse, proves to be on our side. Fruit is not always borne most freely when the visible opportunities of labouring are most plentiful. Rather the question is, how the opportunities given are employed, and how far the life of the labourer bears witness of the presence and power of Christ.
But besides the direct impression on those who were outside, arising from the fact of Paul's imprisonment, it became the means of stimulating and reinforcing the labours of other Christians (ver. 14). It is not hard to see how this might be. From Paul's bonds, and from the manner and spirit in which they were borne, these brethren received a new impression as to what should be done and what should be borne in the service of Christ. They were infected with the contagion of Paul's heroism. The sources of Paul's consecration and of his comfort became more real to them; and no discouragement arising from pain or danger could hold its ground against these forces. So they waxed confident. While dangers that threaten Christians are still only impending, are still only looming out of the unknown future, men are apt to tremble at them, to look with a shrinking eye, to approach with a reluctant step. Now here in the midst of those Roman Christians was Paul, in whom were embodied the trouble accepted and the danger defied. At once Christian hearts became inspired with a more magnanimous and generous spirit. Wherever dangers and hardships are endured, even apart from Christianity, we know how prompt the impulse is to rush in, to give help, and to share burdens. How much more might it be so here.
Not that the impulse to evangelistic earnestness, arising from Paul's presence in Rome, was all of this kind. It was not so. Some preached out of goodwill, in full sympathy with the spirit that animated Paul's own labours and sustained him in his trials. But some preached Christ out of envy and spite, and supposed to add affliction to his bonds. How are we to fit this into our notions of the Primitive Church?
The truth is that, ever since the gospel began to be preached, unworthy motives have combined with worthier in the administration and professed service of it. Mixture of motive has haunted the work even of those who strove to keep their motives pure. And men in whom lower motive and worse motive had a strong influence have struck into the work alongside of the nobler and purer labourers. So it has pleased God to permit; that even in this sacred field men might be tried and manifested before the judgment of the great day; and that it might be the more plain that the effectual blessing and the true increase come from Himself.
More especially have these influences become apparent in connection with the divisions of judgment about Christian doctrine and practice, and with the formation of parties. The personal and the party feelings have readily allied themselves, in too many men, with a self-regarding zeal and with envy or spite. And where these feelings exist they come out in other forms besides their own proper colours and their direct manifestation. More often they find vent in the way of becoming the motive power of work that claims to be Christian — of work that ought to be inspired by a purer aim.
There were, as we all know, in the Church of those days powerful sections of professed believers, who contested Paul's apostleship, questioned his teaching, and wholly disliked the effects of his work. Perhaps by this time the strain of that conflict had become a little less severe, but it had not wholly passed away. We call these persons the Judaisers. They were men who looked to Jesus Christ as the Messiah, who owned the authority of His teaching, and claimed interest in His promises. But they insisted on linking Christianity to Jewish forms, and rules, and conditions of law-keeping, which were on various grounds dear and sacred to them. They apprehended feebly the spirituality and Divineness of Christ's religion; and what they did apprehend they wished to enslave, for themselves and others, in a carnal system of rules and ritual that tended to stifle and to bury the truth. With this there went a feeling towards Paul of wrath fear, and antipathy. Such men there were in Rome. Possibly there might even be a Christian congregation in the city in which this type prevailed. At any rate, they were found there. Before Paul's coming no very remarkable nor very successful efforts to spread abroad the gospel in that great community had been going on. But Paul's arrival made men solicitous and watchful. And when it was seen that his presence and the enthusiasm that gathered round him were beginning to give impulse and effect to the speaking of the word, then this party too bestirred itself. It would not — could not — oppose the carrying of the message of Christ to men. But it could try to be first in the field; it could become active, energetic, dexterous, in laying hold of inquiring and susceptible persons, before the other side could do so; it could subject Paul to the mortification, the deserved mortification, of failure or defeat, so far as these would be implied in his seeing the converts going to the side which was not his side. Evangelistic zeal awoke on these terms, and bestirred itself. And sheaves that in other circumstances might have lain untended long enough, were gathered now.
This very same spirit, this poor and questionable zeal for Christ, still works, and does so plentifully. The activities of Churches, the alertness of Mission societies and agencies, still partake, in far too many instances, of this sinister inspiration. We ought to watch against it in ourselves, that we may overcome the evil and grow into a nobler temper. As regards others, we may, in special cases, see the working of such motives clearly enough, as Paul saw them at Rome. But usually we shall do well, when we can, to impute the work of others to the better side of their character: and we may do so reasonably; for as Christian work is far from being all of it so pure and high as we might desire, on the other hand, the lowly and loving temper of Christ's true followers is very often present and operative when it is not easy for us to see it. Let us believe it, because we believe in Him who works all in all.
Now the Apostle, looking at this, is glad of it. He is not glad that any men, professing Christ, give way to evil and unchristian tempers. But he is glad that Christ is preached. There were cases in which he vehemently contended with such persons — when they strove to poison and pervert Christians who had learned the better way. But now he is thinking of the outside world; and it was good that the making known of Christ should gather strength, and volume, and extension. And the Apostle knew that the Lord could bless His own message, imperfectly delivered perhaps, to bring thirsty souls to Himself, and would not fail in His unsearchable wisdom to care for those who came, and to lead them in the ways He thought best. Let Christ be preached. The converts do not belong to the denominations, but first of all to Christ. Neither is it appointed that the denominations shall permanently hold those whom they bring in; but Christ can hold them, and can order their future in ways we cannot foretell.
It is not true that the preaching of Christ serves no purpose and yields no fruit, in cases where it is not carried on in the right, or the best spirit. Indeed, God honours the pure, loving, lowly hearts, which He has Himself cleansed; they are appropriate agents for His work, and often receive a special blessing in connection with it. But God is not tied up to give no success to men acting under wrong motives: at least, if we are not to say He gives the success to them, yet in connection with them He is well able to take success to Himself. Through strange channels He can send blessings to souls, whatever He gives or denies to the unworthy workmen. But perhaps the success which attends such preachers is not remarkable nor very long continued. Souls truly gathered in will soon get beyond their teaching. At any rate, it is a poor business to be serving Christ upon the devil's principles. It cannot be good for us — whatever good may sometimes come thereby to others. Let us purge ourselves from such filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit.
"Christ is preached." How glad the Apostle was to think of it! How he longed to see more of it, and rejoiced in all of it that he saw! One wonders how far the thoughts and feelings associated with these words in Paul's mind, find any echo in ours. Christ is preached. The meaning for men of that message, as Paul conceived it, grew out of the anguish and the wonder of those early days at Damascus, and had been growing ever since. What might Christ be for men? — Christ their righteousness, Christ their life, Christ their hope; God in Christ, peace in Christ, inheritance in Christ; a new creature, a new world; joy, victory — above all, the love of Christ, the love which passes knowledge and fills us with the fulness of God. Therefore also this was the burning conviction in Paul's soul — that Christ must be preached; by all means, on all accounts, Christ must be preached. The unsearchable riches of Christ must be proclaimed. Certainly, whoever might do or not do, he must do it. He was to live for nothing else. "I Paul am made a minister of it." "Woe is to me if I preach not the gospel."
Lastly, as to this, not only does he rejoice that Christ is announced to men, but he has an assurance that this shall have a happy issue and influence towards himself also. What is so good for others shall also be found to contribute an added element of good to his own salvation; so good and rich is God, who, in working wide results of Divine beneficence, does not overlook the special case and interest of His own servant. This work, from which the workmen would shut Paul out, shall prove to pertain to him in spite of them; and he, as reaper, shall receive here also his wages, gathering fruit to life eternal.
For it is characteristic of this Epistle (ii. 17; iv. 10, 18) that the Apostle reveals to his Philippian friends not only his thoughts concerning the great objects of the gospel, but also the desires and hopes he had about his own experience of deliverance and well-being in connection with the turns and changes of progressive providences. Here, it is as if he said: "I confess I am covetous, not a little covetous, to have many children in Christ: I would fain be a link in many a chain of influences, by which all sorts of persons are reached and blessed in Christ. And here where I sit confined, and am also the object of envy and strife that are solicitous to baffle me, I can descry ties forming between my influence in my prison and results elsewhere with which I seem to have little to do. I can claim a something of mine, granted me by my Lord, in the Christianity of those who are kept far from me, and taught perhaps to doubt and dislike me. If I in my prison experience can but live Christ, then all sorts of effects and reactions, upon all sorts of minds, will have something in them that accrues as fruit to Christ — and something also that accrues as my Lord's loving recognition of me. Only do you pray — for this is a great and high calling — pray, you who love me, and let the Lord in answer plentifully give His Spirit; and then, while I lie here in the imprisonment which my Lord has assigned to me, and in which He vitalises me, oh how fruitful and successful shall my life be, what gain and wealth of salvation shall be mine! There shall be fruit for an Apostle still, coming in ways I cannot follow; and in it, and with it, the confirmation and deepening of my own eternal life. It shall turn to my salvation."
So the eager Apostle, caged and cabined, triumphed still in Christ, assured that there was a way of dealing with his Lord's will, discouraging as that might seem, in which it would reveal both enlargement for the Kingdom and the most loving enrichment also for himself.
This is a commonplace of Christianity. Christians trust in Christ to cause all to work for good. They know He can impart His most precious gifts through what seem adverse providences. But it is a memorable embodiment of this conviction that meets us in the Apostle's confidence, that when Christ's providence outwardly stops his work, it not the less pertains to Christ's wisdom to continue and extend his usefulness. The applications of the same principle to various cases in which Christians are trained through disappointment are innumerable. But mostly, even when, in a way, we are open to the lesson, we take it too easily. We forget that here also it is Christlike life and life in Christ that proves so fruitful and so happy. We do not apprehend how great a thing it is — what prayer it asks — what supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. For the Apostle, as we learn from what presently follows, this blessing came in the line of "earnest expectation and hope." It was not an exceptional effort of faith which awoke in him so firm a confidence about his circumstances at Rome, and was rewarded so manifestly. His whole life was set on the same key. He applied to that Roman experience the same mode of view which he strove to apply to every experience. This was his expectation — he was on the outlook for it — and this his hope, that not only in one great crisis, but all along his pilgrimage, his life should eventuate one way — should shape into glory to Christ. His whole life must turn out to be a loving, believing, effectual manifestation of the greatness and goodness of Christ. This was what rose before his mind as Success in Life. His thoughts, his prayers turned this way. As some men's minds turn spontaneously to money, and some to family prosperity, and some to fame, and some to various lines of recreation or of accomplishment, so Paul's turned to this. And in this world of failure and disappointment, success welcomed him and gladdened him. His would have been the nobler life even if its expectation had been disappointed. But this is the life which cannot fail, because God is in it.
There is a great admonition here for all of us who profess to be followers of Christ. Our line of service may not be so emphatically marked out for distinction, for special and exceptional eminence of doing and suffering, as Paul's was. But for every believer the path of service opens, however commonplace and undistinguished its scenery may be. And in some of its stages it takes, for all of us, the peculiar character, it assumes the distinguishing features which mark it out as Christian. Here, in Paul, we see the spirit that should inspire service, should make the strength, the peculiarity, the success of it, should be the quickening and gladdening influence of its efforts and its prayers. This ought to be for us also the longing outlook and the hope.
Let us note also, before we pass on, that the Lord's personal kindness to ourselves is matter of legitimate rejoicing and legitimate desire. That may be gathered from almost every verse. There have been persons who conceived that a true Christian is to be so occupied with the thought of God's glory and will, or so occupied with the weal of others, as to have no personal desires or interests at all. This is a mistake. One of the most intimate and special channels in which the glory of God and the revelation of it are secured, is in the expression of His goodwill to His child's own heart. This is the privilege of faith, to cherish the expectation that His glory and our good are to agree well together. Only, as to the latter, let us leave it to Him how it is to come to pass; and then it will come divinely and wonderfully. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
Reach for the Calling Creator
To the Philippians - R. Rainy
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.