Paul wrote his epistle to the Philippians against the backdrop of the church’s concern for Paul, during his first Roman imprisonment, as he awaited his trial before Nero.
The believers in Philippi must have wondered how Paul was holding up. Was this imprisonment discouraging him? Would he be released? Could he return to Philippi to help them with their lack of unity (cf. Phil 4:2) and to strengthen them amidst the threats of persecution and false teaching (cf. 1:28–30; 3:2)? Or would he die in Rome, and their sweet partnership in the ministry die with him?
And perhaps most importantly of all: How had this loss of freedom affected the spread of the gospel? Had Paul’s adverse circumstances in prison dealt a blow to his ministry of the gospel to Gentiles?
After his customary thanksgiving (Phil 1:3–8) and prayer (Phil 1:9–11), Paul begins the body of his letter, in verses 12 to 18, by reassuring the Philippians that far from being a hindrance to the Gospel, his imprisonment had actually served to advance the Gospel.
As he explains:
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else.
The praetorian guard was a company of 9,000 elite soldiers that were particularly tasked to protect the emperor and his interests. Apparently, Paul's case was a high priority for Nero, because the incarcerated apostle was being guarded around the clock by the imperial elite. The “chain” he wore (cf. Acts 28:20; Eph 6:20) was an 18-inch long chain that connected a handcuff on Paul’s wrist to a handcuff on the wrist of the Roman guard. There wasn’t an hour of the day when Paul wasn’t 18 inches away from a Roman soldier of the imperial guard.
But it wasn’t the same guard all day, every day. The soldiers took shifts of six hours at a time. That means that for nearly two years, Paul came into contact with several different imperial soldiers each day, and had them at his disposal for six hours at a time.
What most prisoners would have viewed as a negative intrusion, Paul saw as a God-ordained opportunity. He knew a captive audience when he saw one, and he recognized that his situation provided a unique opportunity to preach the Gospel.
You can imagine a guard asking, “So what are you in for?”
And Paul would respond something along these lines:
I am in these chains because I serve the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son who was made flesh and born in Bethlehem of Judea. In humility and obedience to the will of God, He died for sinners on a Roman cross under Roman authority in Israel 30 years ago.
He was buried and laid in a tomb with Roman soldiers keeping it secure. But three days later He rose from the grave, demonstrating His triumph over death. After remaining with His disciples for 40 days, He ascended into heaven right before their eyes and is, this very moment, enthroned in power at the right hand of God as the Lord of the whole world.
Not long after His ascension, while I was persecuting His followers for corrupting the Jewish religion—putting them into chains like these, and even approving of their murder—this resurrected Jesus Himself appeared to me in a blazing light! He knocked me to the ground and struck me blind, and told me that I was to be His messenger, to preach His Gospel and strengthen the church that I once tried to destroy.
And since that day I have given every waking moment of my life to preaching the Good News that because of His life, death, and resurrection, those who turn from their own self-righteousness and trust in Him can be forgiven of their sins. Through Christ, they can escape the punishment of God and be reconciled to Him. And one day soon, this same Jesus is going to break through the clouds, return to the earth, and set up His kingdom over all nations.
And as the soldiers spoke with Paul, observed his character, and heard him speak, they learned that he was not in prison as a criminal, but because he was faithfully preaching the lordship of Jesus.
This is the word that spread throughout the whole guard. They would talk with each other, and wonder with one another, “This man hasn’t broken any laws. All he has to do to be released is to recant his teachings about this Jesus of Nazareth, and he’d be free to go. But incredibly, he won’t do it. He would rather lose his head than stop preaching this message!”
Over time, an amazing thing started to happen. God began to grant these soldiers repentance and faith in Christ, one by one. So much so that Paul could close the letter to the Philippians, in chapter 4 verse 22, by saying: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” A multitude of guards, six hours at a time for the last two years, all heard the gospel. The messenger might have been in chains, but the word of God could not be imprisoned (2 Tim 2:9). And the result, by God’s sovereign, providential work, was that many in the household of Caesar himself were becoming followers of Jesus.
What Can We Learn?
The Lord worked through circumstances that most would have seen as a hindrance to Paul’s ministry, in order to advance it. And in such circumstances of adversity, his response was not to complain, to blame God, or to sink into discontentment and depression.
Instead, he rejoiced (Phi 1:18). In what? In pleasant circumstances, an easy life, or a good reputation? No. Paul’s joy was found in the advancement of the gospel. He could endure opposition from both friends and enemies, and suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:3)—because his ministry wasn’t driven by a thirst for prominence, but by a desire to please the Lord and serve Him faithfully.
Like Paul, we need to learn to receive life’s trials from the hand of God Himself—as opportunities sent directly from Him to advance the gospel. When confronted with suffering, we should see that the Sovereign Lord is purposefully giving us an opportunity to make much of Him and His salvation by responding in a way that makes it plain that comfort, freedom from conflict, and an easy life are not what we love most. Rather, we love Christ.
We also need to encourage our people to take advantage of the evangelistic opportunities with the "captive audiences" in their lives. They may not be chained to a Roman soldier, but they each have obligations and routines that bring them into repeated contact with unbelievers. They need to view these as opportunities to proclaim Christ—with neighbors, co-workers, unsaved family members, and so on.
Finally, Paul's example reminds us of the effectiveness of the gospel, which has the power to save even in the midst of seemingly adverse circumstances. The messenger might be in chains, but the Word of God cannot be imprisoned (2 Tim 2:9).