The Epistle of Joy and A Theology of Suffering

In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians there is an interesting dichotomy developing. Paul gave thanks for what God was doing in his life and in the life of the believers in Philippi. He then turns his attention to what is happening to him. And what is that? He is in prison because of his preaching of the Gospel. He is doing exactly what God wants him to do and he gets thrown in jail.

There is no easy road to evangelism. It is paved with the rough stones of adversity. There is no beautiful scenery. There is only the destruction of sin and the carnage of willful disobedience. Jesus never promised that the task of communicating the message of salvation was going to be easy. Whenever we grumble that it isn’t we have not paid attention to what Jesus taught us on the matter.

There are several passages in the first chapter that truly reveal this paradox of faith. How can Paul write such encouragement when he is shackled to a wall or guard all day long? How can he rejoice because of his situation? I just doesn’t make sense. What are we missing that Paul seems to have understood?

Here are a few samples of what I mean.

It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel… 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

These three verses are Paul’s introduction to what he believed about his current state. He did not see being in jail and suffering as a concern. He was actually pleased at the effect that it was having on those around him. The entire guard had heard the Gospel, and many of the believers outside had been stirred to action as well. It really does challenge our modern, American sensibilities to think that going to jail for our faith is a good thing. But, Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes and says the following.

15  Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Paul knew that there are some people preaching the Gospel for the wrong reasons. They were out there for profit, for acclaim or, as Paul writes, to make it more difficult on Paul! Can you image that. You are sitting in prison and someone dislikes you so much that they are intentionally trying to make things worse. And yet, Paul looks past all of that and says that the reason is irrelevant to him because the truth is being proclaimed. Now, those preaching for the wrong reason will be held accountable, but God is so good that he will even use these wrong motives to accomplish his ultimate purpose.

But again, this is not the end of what Paul said. He continues.

19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 

Really?! It is hard for you to decide whether you want to stay on earth or go to heaven? I sometimes wonder why we don’t talk like this? And then I realize that many of us are not willing to go where Paul went. Paul knew and understood something that many in the Western church have not learned to even acknowledge. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I believe that Paul’s commitment to the proclamation and spread of the Gospel had a lot to do with it. The power of evangelism to motivate and refocus the believer is largely lost in our day.

Here is Paul’s final salvo in the chapter 1.

29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Paul really does lay out for us his theology here on the subject of suffering and the Gospel. There is a mysterious way in which our faith in Jesus will lead to some form of suffering. If we are not making any effort to spread the Gospel to those whom God sends along our journey, we will find no resistance. The intentional advancement of the Good News of Jesus is what causes friction between what we believe as followers of Jesus and what the world is leaning towards. We are not merely interested in propagating a religion. We want to produce fruit because of a relationship with Jesus the Savior.

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