Paul had a special relationship with the church at Philippi. He expressed it in Philippians 1:7, when he said, “I have you in my heart.” Imprisoned in Rome, Paul was encouraged by a visit from a church member named Epaphroditus and the “love gift” he brought to Paul on behalf of the church. The book of Philippians is Paul’s thank you letter to the church. In this letter, Paul also gave the church of Philippi an update on his Roman imprisonment and ministry activities.
Introduction: Paul’s special love for and appreciation of the church of Philippi and the church’s special care for Paul during his time of confinement.
Challenge: What Paul accomplished as a prisoner inspires us to expect God to use us in our “seasons of confinement.”
Have you ever felt confined or imprisoned by circumstances that threatened to shackle you and impede your effectiveness?
The back-story for the book of Philippians finds the apostle Paul in just this kind of setting. He was in prison in Rome and unable to go and do as he pleased. Because of this, he was forced to communicate to churches and ministry colleagues via letters. Many of the churches Paul planted would sent him gifts, and he corresponded with them by letter. These letters and gifts were transported by church members who came to Rome to care for Paul during his imprisonment.
The church of Philippi was one such group. Paul had tender feelings for this company of believers, and he expressed them in his opening greeting: “I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace” (1:7 nkjv).
This special affection was likely connected to the fact that his friends at Philippi faithfully stood by him during those dark and lonely days of imprisonment. The church had already sent him two “love gifts” (4:14-16). And then Epaphroditus, who risked his life in a sea voyage, brought a third gift (2:25-30). Epaphroditus stayed for a while ministering to Paul, but eventually the time came for him to travel home. So Paul got out his quill and parchment and wrote a thank you letter. But it was more than just a simple thank you. It was a heartfelt and intimate ministry and life update.
As we read this letter, all the talk of chains might give the impression that the great apostle had his “wings clipped” and his ministry was curtailed. But to think this would be to miss the point. Even though Paul’s circumstances included a prison cell, this letter to the church of Philippi tells us that his influence for Christ continued in at least three ways:
Let’s see how God used Paul in a season of confinement.
1. More Converts (1:13; 4:22)
Paul began his summary with the words: “The things which happened to me” (1:12). What Paul included in six words, Luke described in seven chapters in Acts (21–27). Luke records the following things happening to Paul:
But Paul’s purpose was not to belabor how tough the adversity was but rather to share how God’s amazing hand of providence was at work in his circumstances, especially prison, to shape Paul into who God wanted him to be. One Greek word summarizes the purpose of these happenings: prokope. The word means “to cut a way forward.” Picture a virgin jungle and sweaty men with sharp machetes chopping a path through the tangled forest. The new path makes a way for a new advance. Paul’s imprisonment gave him a new way forward—a new ministry, one that reached all the way into Caesar’s palace.
The Imperial Guard included 9,000 carefully selected soldiers, many of whom were chosen to guard Paul on a rotating shift. What did they experience on their shift? They witnessed a number of godly visitors and a prisoner who was a prolific letter writer to churches and friends. Their curiosity must have been aroused: How did Paul wind up in prison? What did he mean when he wrote, “My chains are in Christ”? These questions apparently led to some stimulating conversations about the gospel, which then led to some conversions in the Imperial Guard. This led to these converts talking in the barracks and with their families. What an uplifting experience for Paul to close his letter with these words: “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.”
2. Greater Courage (1:14)
“Most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are more bold to speak the word without fear.” It seems odd to say, but the imprisonment of Paul actually served to bolster the courage of those around him. Paul included the words, “without fear” for a special reason. Fear was an issue in Philippi. Their preaching of the gospel led to a terrible beating for Paul and Silas. And this beating was followed by jail time. So the church knew what it meant to suffer for the gospel. They had counted the cost of discipleship and were encouraged that Paul was enduring hardship.
This is why Paul included the admonition to “stand fast” and went on to tell the church to “not in any way [be] terrified by your adversaries” (1:27-28). Paul’s courage in prison and his urgent pleas for the believers to remain courageous on the streets were designed to give the followers of Jesus in Philippi backbone. If Paul could be used in such a powerful way while a prisoner in Rome, they should feel empowered as free men and women to spread the gospel on the streets of Philippi.
3. Continuation of Mission (1:16-18)
In this passage, Paul dealt with many problems that continue to plague our 21st-century churches:
These were Paul’s concern as he wrote in the first century, and they continue to be a struggle in the church today. Paul was very direct and honest as he wrote about church life in the city of Rome. He knew what was going on even though he was chained and housebound.
Some viewed Paul’s arrest and confinement as a time for them to gain in popularity. These competitive, envious, and jealous teachers sought to exploit Paul’s imprisonment for their own gain. They longed to make a name for themselves by discrediting Paul (1:15). But even though their motives were impure, Paul still praised God that the gospel was being preached (1:18).
Prisons, guards, chains, and confinement—all these words make us feel uncomfortable. But what Paul accomplished in his confinement through Christ teaches us that God can have redemptive purposes for our own seasons of confinement. John Bunyan gave us Pilgrim’s Progress while confined to jail, and Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship while in prison.
You might think to yourself, But I’ve never been in a prison like Paul or Bunyan or Bonhoeffer.
Even if you’ve never had to endure the horrors of prison confinement, it does not mean you don’t suffer in prisons of different sorts.
* Confined to a bed
In my first pastorate, I made weekly calls on George. As a young man, George had been involved in an automobile accident in which he rolled out of a moving car and fell 25 feet to the railroad tracks below. He lost the use of both legs for the rest of his life and now was confined to a bed. My visits to George’s room were remarkable. I came to minister to George but always left feeling ministered to. Whenever I visited, George asked, “Who in the church is struggling?”
I would then share the nonconfidential needs of those in the church, such as health problems, parents worried about their teenagers, money problems, and those struggling with spiritual issues. That week each of these strugglers would receive an encouraging letter from George. He did not allow his physical confinement to limit his ministry.
* Confined to a retirement center
The commercials paint a picture of a worry-free setting of friends, fun, and freedom. But the TV commercials don’t give the whole story. The family doesn’t visit as often as residents hoped they would. The meals aren’t always good. The days can seem monotonous. Can anything good come out of this season of confinement? My friend Viola showed that it can. She gathered a list of everyone’s birthday in her retirement home and then organized birthday parties once a month for everyone with a birthday that month. It was a gigantic undertaking, but it gave her a wonderful opportunity to show the love of God to her fellow residents.
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