"The Gospel is Not Threatened" - Sermon based on Philippians 1:12-26 - by Joe Ellis - Sept. 26, 2021
We know how things turn out for Christianity up to our point in history — enormously well. We know that what began as a small little fledgling sect of Judaism had an unprecedented, phenomenal advance. We know this by experience. Two thousand years after Jesus, in our small community in Central British Columbia, we have ten churches. Ten churches that adhere to the teachings of a sect of Judiasm that began in the middle east, in the middle part of the first century. It's quite strange to think about — but this attests to the phenomenal growth of Christianity. Many of us probably know enough about the history of Christianity to know of the incredibly rapid pace the Gospel advanced — by 150 A.D., there were about 40,000 Christians. One hundred years later, there were 1.17 million Christians, and by the end of the fourth century, half the Roman Empire would claim to be Christians — the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be declared the official religion of Rome by the Emperor himself. The growth is exponential. So, when we hear Paul’s words, saying, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel” — we don’t bat an eye. It's believable! Yes! We know it has. It doesn’t take much faith to believe that Paul’s imprisonment, forthcoming trial, the possibility of his being sentenced to death in that trial — all were part of the advance of the Gospel.
You’ve probably heard Tertullian’s famous quote: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” From Tertullian's vantage point, living 200 years after Paul, and having seen the church grow twenty times its size over his lifetime — he was most likely just looking at the evidence — persecution of Christians has not squelched Christianity, but has done precisely the opposite. For him, he would not be surprised by Paul’s words in this passage. Because of the success of Christianity, we can easily miss the absurdity of Paul’s words in this passage. We can so easily miss the foolishness, the boldness, the brazenness of what Paul is saying because we know that Christianity has become the largest religion in the world, making up 31% of the population. This was not Paul’s context. And in his context it may have looked hugely unlikely that the Gospel would flourish. It is in that context of uncertainty that we need to hear Paul this morning. That he could frame his imprisonment, his forthcoming trial, the possibility of his being sentenced to death — all as a victory for the Gospel, would have been enough to make his contemporaries shake their head and laugh — we don’t dare do that because we know the rest of the story.
To get an idea of the absurdity of Paul’s words, we need to remind ourselves of what a Gospel is. This word has so much history that we need to peel off many layers to get at one of the central meanings of the word Gospel. Remember, Paul is writing from his jail cell in the capital of the Roman Empire. We need to hear the word Gospel in that context. This is what Gospel meant in that place: In the Roman Empire, before a new emperor came to the throne, there was a time of deep uncertainty. The previous emperor had just died, and now the whole population was wondering what would happen. Who will take the previous emperor’s place? Will the change be good? Will society collapse? Will will we have enough to eat? Will bandits take over the seas and roads. Will we have prosperity, and freedom, and peace? After the new emperor takes his throne, he sends out messengers to proclaim his gospel. His gospel message goes something like this: “Good news! Emperor Augustus (or whatever his name was).., The Emperor is Lord. He rules the empire! Under his rule there will be justice, and peace and prosperity! Hear the Gospel of the Emperor!” For those in the Roman Empire, Gospel was a political word announcing to one and all who they owed their loyalty, their service, their obedience and their lives to the Roman Emperor. The Gospel declared who ruled the land.
So, when Paul talks “the Gospel”, we need to hear it in that context, because you can be sure that is the only context his Roman captors understood when they heard Paul talk about Gospel. For Paul, the gospel is the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. That means that Jesus has fulfilled the promises of the Hebrew Scripture. That means that as Messiah, Jesus is not only Lord of Israel, but Lord of the world.” When Paul talks about the Gospel of Jesus, he is making a bold statement about who Jesus is — He is Messiah! He is King! He is Saviour! — His rule extends to the ends of the earth! He brings peace and justice to the world. All these are claims made by the Roman Emperor. Paul says, “No. Jesus alone is Lord.”
Now, look at Paul’s situation and answer the question — who’s gospel is true? You have the Roman Emperor, Nero, who presided over the the largest Empire in the history of the world. The Roman Empire’s border extended from the Middle East, North Africa and into Europe. The Roman Empire was referred to as “Empire Without End”, expressing the faith that neither time nor space limited the empire. The power of the emperor was so immense that Emperors were able to command the people to worship them as gods — and the people did! By Paul’s time, the primary titles for the emperor were Kyrios and Soter — Lord and Saviour. Few people questioned the gospel of the emperor, and if they did, they quickly found themselves in prison, if not nailed to a cross. Any challenger was quickly put in their place.
There we find Paul, imprisoned for defending the true gospel: that Jesus is Lord and Saviour. That at the name of Jesus, every knee shall someday bow. That the One who was sentenced to death by a Roman court, has risen from the dead and rules at the right hand of God. That his is the Kingdom without end. This is the Gospel for which Paul is in chains.
If you lived in that time, who would you believe had the more compelling gospel: The Emperor or Paul? By every measure it is the emperor — after all, Paul is the one who is chained to the emperor’s most elite solders? Paul is the one awaiting trial. Paul is the one anticipating that he may be sentenced to death.
Now let’s think about the church in Philippi for a moment. Paul is writing this letter to a group of believers in Philippi, which was a city known for its unique devotion to the emperor. The city was fiercely loyal to the emperor. The church in Philippi was likely also getting squeezed, pressured, even persecuted for the very same reasons Paul was in prison. They were living by another Gospel that proclaimed Jesus is Lord. How likely do you think it is that they were looking at their friend Paul and wondering, “Has the Gospel failed? Will this be the end? If Jesus is Lord, why is Paul in prison? If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, why is Paul about to be sentenced to death?"
Paul himself wrestled with these very questions — they are heavy questions. Reflecting on this experience, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.” In that passage, Paul talks about distress, sufferings, troubles, pressure, and despair related to his trial and the likeliness that he was about to be sentenced to death. Has the Gospel failed? If Jesus is Lord why does it seem that the Gospel is at risk of being snuffed out like a flickering candle?
Yet Paul bounces back from the despair in a blaze of glory. Paul writes to the church in Philippi: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel!” Perhaps, we can now hear the absurd optimism of this statement — the foolishness, the sheer and utter faith that Paul had for the Gospel, even while in prison. Instead of quashing the Gospel, his imprisonment has advanced the Gospel. Paul’s guards and Caesar’s household all know that He is in chains for Jesus, the true King. Imagine Paul sharing the Gospel with his guards, “You know, there is another King, a true King. There is a King who will bring true justice, true peace, true prosperity. There is a King who is extending his rule to the very ends of the earth. There is a King who rules from the right hand of God, and at his name every knee shall bow. This King has died for the sins of the world, for your sins, so that you might be washed clean, be made whole, and be raised with him in the final resurrection. There is a King who shall one day renew the earth and all things shall be made new. You see me in these chains — but just you wait. Our King will act, and one day all servants of this King will be vindicated, shown to be in the right. You serve Nero, you think he has power, but he has no power. You have not met the true King — His name is Jesus!” Paul knows very well that the message of a crucified King is utter foolishness to his captors — but he is convinced that through this Crucified King God has put his power and wisdom on magnificent display. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
So, in his captivity Paul glories in his weakness because it is the power of God! He encourages the church in Philippi saying, “I want you to know brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel." Jesus is King! Our brothers and sisters here in Rome are preaching the Gospel more courageously, more boldly, without fear! It is true that some preach with mixed motives, what does that matter? What matters is that the King is announced and proclaimed! Because of this, I rejoice!
And so Paul goes on rejoicing in his letter because the Gospel is advancing in the most unlikely situations —such as his forthcoming trial — he does not see the trial as an opportunity for the emperor to gloat, whereby he will stand as one ashamed. No, he will not stand embarrassed, humiliated, defeated, crushed, vanquished — He will not concede defeat. No, he will hold fast to the Gospel, he will hold fast to the proclamation that Jesus is King. Jesus is Lord and Saviour. There is no other. He knows this is foolishness to his captors, he very well knows — but this foolishness is the power of God who can raise the dead. So he trusts in this foolishness, trusting that the King shall indeed be exalted in his witness, whether the witness ends in his life or in his death.
Paul acknowledges to his church in Philippi, the imminent reality of his death. Yet even this, he says is not defeat of the Gospel. The Gospel cannot lose. Nothing, he says, can dethrone Jesus, the King. For Paul, says, to live is for the King, to die is gain. If Caesar decides to execute Paul, this is not a defeat of the Gospel. For Paul, it is the very opposite. Paul is certain of what awaits him after death— he will be with his King. The Gospel is no less true in death as it is in life. Death is not the end. Death is not a defeat. Death is the consummation of that which Paul dedicated his life. Paul anticipates the resurrection of all God’s people and the renewal of all Creation. That King Jesus will finally return and the Gospel rule of our King is consummated throughout the Earth. For Paul, death is not the defeat of the Gospel — just the opposite.
Yet Paul knows that his death will not ultimately serve the Gospel at this time. His death will not at this time help the advance of the Gospel — he says, “it is more necessary for you, church, that I remain in the body.” He knows that if he goes on living, he gets to continue serving his King and build up the King’s people. Paul knows this is the will of Jesus, which is why Paul says, “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in King Jesus will abound because of me.” Note that Paul is convinced he will be released. The reason he knows he will be released is not because he thinks the emperor will have pity on him; it’s not because he has a good lawyer; it’s not because he can read the political climate. Paul is convinced that he will be released because he knows that this is the will of King Jesus. Paul knows Proverbs 21:1 all too well: “The emperor's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord that he channels toward all who please him.” Paul declares — if I am released, it is because it is the will of King Jesus that I be released. If I am released it is because King Jesus will advance the Gospel through his release. Paul has unwavering faith in the Gospel despite appearances so much to the contrary.
Let me conclude by saying how much easier it is to have faith about what God has done in the past than it is to have faith about what God will do in the future. It is far easier to have faith about what God has done in the past — that’s why we can read a passage like this and think, “Oh yeah, of course he said that, just look at church history.” In doing so, we forget that in the height of the Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world has ever seen, Paul was a leader of a fledgling sect of Judaism that looked like it didn’t have a prayer. It is in that context that he had the the faith and audacity to proclaim, there is one King, One Lord, One Saviour and his name is not Caeasar. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. The one that your Government crucified, God raised him from the dead and seated Him in the Highest place and has given him the name above all names. The Kingdom of God is not in trouble. The Gospel message of King Jesus will advance to the ends of the Earth no matter what the most powerful do in opposition.
The Kingdom of God is not in trouble, but sometimes that is difficult to believe in the present. It is so much easier to despair about what God will do the future, than it is to have faith in what God has done in the past. The world is undergoing a massive shift. Communities have fractured. Our very foundations seem to be shaken. The role and place of the church in our western world seems to be teetering on the brink of obsolescence. What the world will look like in the next five, ten, fifteen or fifty years is anybody’s guess — but the Gospel message of King Jesus is not threatened. Jesus reigns. How will we live out our faith in this moment? With the prayers of the saints, and God’s supply of the Spirit of King Jesus — the Gospel will be proclaimed, and we will together continue in our progress and joy in the faith. He will be faithful still.