Over the last few years, I’ve heard numerous reports of people I know who struggled with health issues, some directly related to COVID, some indirectly, and some not at all. No doubt, so have you. If we care about these people, we want to know what’s going on. We pray for them; we drop them a note; we message them. How are you doing? we ask. Are you okay? We want to know, and we’re eager to hear.
The believers in Philippi loved Paul. Think, for example, of Lydia; think of the astonished jailer. They had history with Paul and owed their salvation to his witness. When they heard that Paul was in prison the Philippians sent Epaphroditus to him with some tangible gift of support (Phil 4:18). They would be waiting anxiously to hear news of Paul’s situation.
Paul knew that Epaphroditus would return to give them a full update. There was no need to write a letter saying, “Really, my friends, I’m fine. Don’t worry.” Rather, he wanted to write a letter that would not only say “Thanks for the gift!” but also give them whatever spiritual and moral instruction he thought was needed.
He had already told them that he prayed for their love to grow in wisdom, so that they could orient themselves toward “what really matters” (1:10, NRSVUE). And now, as Paul continues the letter and tells them how things are going, he emphasizes what really matters to him:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually resulted in the progress of the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ, and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. (Phil 1:12-14, NRSVUE)
The phrase “I want you to know” is another letter-writing convention; it signals that the writer is moving on from the initial greeting to the important matters at hand. I imagine that Epaphroditus, on delivering the gift, told Paul, “The people back home are worried sick about you.” Paul’s response was not, “Yeah, it’s pretty hard being chained and cooped up like this.” To the Philippians, his response may have been a little surprising: “Well, actually…”
Because what matters to Paul, what always matters to Paul, is not his own personal comfort but the progress of the gospel.
It starts with the men guarding him. If, as many believe (and I agree), Paul was under house arrest in Rome, he would have spent his days chained between two Roman soldiers. The soldiers would work in shifts, making it possible that quite a good number of the men would have rotated through that duty. Picture it: what do you think would have happened to the incessant parade of soldiers who spent hours chained to the apostle to the Gentiles?
Whether they became believers or not, one thing is certain: as Paul himself says, it had become obvious to everyone in the Praetorian guard — and perhaps to everyone involved in Paul’s situation — that the apostle wasn’t just another prisoner, but in chains “for Christ.”
Interestingly, what Paul says here, translated literally, is that he is in chains “in Christ.” Translators, sensibly, render this as “for” Christ, meaning because of or for the sake of Christ. But we shouldn’t miss the possible significance of Paul phrasing things in this way, especially since the idea of union with Christ (e.g., Rom 6:1-11), of our being in Christ and Christ being in us, is one of Paul’s favorites. Here, he may be suggesting that he has, in the eyes of the empire, become something of a figurehead for the entire Christian movement.
Put differently, it’s not just Paul on trial in Rome; it is Christianity itself.
Remember, Paul was the one who appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11) as he was being interrogated by Governor Festus in Caesarea. At that point, he had already been in captivity for a long time. Festus was ready to send Paul back to Jerusalem, but Paul knew he would be ambushed by his enemies along the way (25:3). He also knew he was destined to bear witness in Rome (23:11). All of this would have helped him keep his Roman imprisonment in perspective; it was a path he had chosen, in obedience to God.
Being in Rome gave Paul a new opportunity to share the gospel — albeit in an unusual way! — right there in the heart of the empire. And like spiritual ripples in a political pond, the effects of his imprisonment spread outward, as the Christians in Rome were emboldened to join in sharing the gospel. In this, Paul rejoiced, for the gospel mattered more to him than anything.
The progress of the gospel meant so much to Paul that he could even rejoice when people preached it out of wrong motives. How could that be? We’ll have a look at Paul’s surprising words in the next post.