Why Things Happen

Philippians 1:12-14

Members of the armed forces, whether soldiers or veterans, understand a concept called “military (or tactical) advantage.” When applied, this concept enables soldiers to assess the big-picture, long-range value of various actions, engagements, missions, and strategies, looking beyond individual wins and losses, being willing to accept some potential disadvantages or setbacks if doing so will gain a superior tactical advantage or improve their chance at ultimate success and victory in the end. Though eliminating and reducing potential fatality and loss – esp. of life, whether enlisted or civilian – is always in view, military tactics often require some potential loss to achieve necessary objectives.

This principle of military advantage also applies to playing chess. Though it is technically possible to win a game of chess without surrendering a piece to your opponent, such wins are quite rare and more theoretical than realistic. To win a chess match, you must be willing to lose pieces, only you must do so in a smart way. You must be willing to lose less valuable pieces if doing so will gain you a more advantageous position on the board.

This concept of military or tactical advantage helps us understand what Paul explains in Phil 1:12-14 – that difficult circumstances in life can be a blessing in disguise. This is especially true when we are living for the gospel.

Difficult circumstances can be blessings in disguise.
But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel

This phrase “blessing in disguise” is a common English idiom, which was first introduced in 1746, nearly 300 yrs. ago, by a pastor named James Hervey in a hymn he wrote entitled “Reflections on a Flower Garden.” In it, he wrote the following:

Since all the downward tracts of time
God's watchful eye surveys,
O who so wise to choose our lot
Or to appoint our ways?
Good when He gives, supremely good,
Nor less when He denies;
Ev'n crosses from His sovereign hand
Are blessings in disguise.
Why should we doubt a Father's love,
So constant and so kind?
To His unerring, gracious will
Be every wish resigned.

This phrase, “blessings in disguise,” reappears in various ways. A Chinese folktale uses this phrase to explain how an injury to a soldier removed him from the battle, preventing him from dying in a skirmish. A political cartoon with this title appeared in 1865 illustrating how the loss of various Confederate cities in the Civil War would actually help the Confederate cause by preventing them from spreading their armies too thin.

Such a strategic setback – a “blessing in disguise” – is portrayed for us here by Paul. The connecting word but may also be translated now. It shifts the topic from explaining how he prays for them to explaining how they should view his present circumstances.

As you may know, Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell in Rome. Such cells were highly unpleasant and uncomfortable by all human standards. He was chained at the ankle to a Roman guard, and he was awaiting trial before Emperor Nero, who was well-known for his barbaric and horrible treatment of Christians. Have you experienced anything so bad?

Word of Paul’s imprisonment had somehow made it back to the church at Philippi approx. 1,000 mi. away. When they heard this news, they sent a member from their congregation, Epaphroditus, to provide Paul will some financial assistance from them and to serve as his personal assistant for a while.

Though Paul was eventually released, he was in this scenario for approx. 1 year. Remember, also, that he had been beaten and similarly imprisoned for a brief while in Philippi as he was planting that church. He would also be imprisoned in Rome at least one more time in the future, only then would he be finally executed by beheading.

Knowing Paul’s situation, we see that the believers in the church at Philippi were concerned for his welfare. Their rising anxiety had increased in part due to knowing of his imprisonment. That’s why he said what he said here. He wanted them to view what seemed to be a disadvantage and setback for him as a tactical advantage. He wanted them to view his situation as a cause for increased joy not anxiety.

Notice how he describes his imprisonment using general terms as “the things which happened to me.” He did not belabor the details in a dramatic, self-pitying way. He acknowledged them without dramatizing them.

Furthermore, he acknowledges that these were circumstances outside his control which God had allowed. They were things which had “happened to him,” not things which had caused or could have prevented. So, what exactly happened to cause this imprisonment? Further Bible study, esp. in Acts 21-28, will reveal the following:

  • A prophet and church elders in Ephesus had warned Paul that if he traveled to Jerusalem, he would likely be imprisoned. In reply, Paul said, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
  • In Jerusalem, the Jewish religious leaders staged a large-scale protest against him, demanding his execution.
  • Regional Roman government officials rescued him and imprisoned him for two years as he awaited a trial.
  • After his trial, in which he would have been acquitted, he requested a trial before Caesar in Rome because to be released would have placed him at the mercy of the Jewish people in Jerusalem who wanted to kill him.
  • On his journey to Rome as a prisoner, he endured a harrowing shipwreck that nearly killed him.
  • Now he was awaiting trial before Nero of Rome, with execution as a possible outcome.

By saying “I want you to know,” Paul indicates that he wanted to reveal some information that would change the mindset and correct the perspective of the believers in Rome. From what we can tell, they were experiencing rising anxiety over his situation, and he wanted them to experience joy instead.

  • What is anxiety? It is a whole-person response to stressful information and experiences, whether real or imagined. It manifests itself through fearful emotions, apprehensive thoughts, and sensations of pain and duress.
  • What is joy? It is a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life that’s centered on Christ.

Consider, for a moment, how you feel when you hear what seems to be bad news for someone else whom you appreciate in a prayer group chat, or in a missionary email, or through an unexpected phone call. Does your anxiety rise, or do you experience the calm, confident joy of Christ?

About Paul’s harrowing, painful, traumatic experiences, he explains that there was a better way to view what he was enduring. He says those things “have actually turned out,” meaning that rather than leading to undesirable outcomes his suffering was producing desirable outcomes instead. His suffering was a blessing in disguise! But in what way?

“For the furtherance of the gospel.” In other words, Paul reveals that what seemed to be major setbacks for him personally, physically, and professionally had actually turned out to be major strategic advantages for him instead – and in a very special and specific way, for the progress of the gospel.

This reminds me of how Joseph, in the OT, suffered tremendously. He was hated by his 10 brothers, who plotted his murder then sold him into slavery in a foreign country instead. Though he worked very hard and lived a life of tremendous integrity, he was falsely accused by his manager’s wife and imprisoned. Then in prison, he was forgotten and neglected for many years, until in the end he was promoted by Pharaoh himself to rule over Egypt. In this role, he made choices which saved millions of people from death by famine. Here’s what he told his brothers, who had sold him into slavery in the first place (Gen 50:19-21):

“Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid...”
Now, what is the gospel? It is something that provides salvation even more significant than salvation from a famine.

I’ll answer this question in two ways. From the prophet Isaiah (Isa 52:7) and from Paul’s own teaching, which he connected to Isaiah’s teaching (Rom 10:9-12).

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isa 52:7)

These words (“beautiful feet”) may bring funny thoughts to your mind, but they brought exhilarating thoughts to the minds of an OT Israelite.

They describe that climactic moment at the end of a battle or siege when a blood stained, sword-scarred, war-torn solider ran on adrenaline from the valley below to announce to his people that their army had won the battle.

“We won! The battle is over, we’re victorious and we’re free!” In this case, Isaiah referred to a future day when God would deliver or save his chosen people from their enemies and reign with them over all.

Centuries later, Paul connected this teaching to what Jesus Christ did when he died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later.

How shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom 10:15)

He said this in connection with preaching the good news of salvation from sin and self-righteousness just verses before.

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Rom 10:9-13)

Here he points out that Christ defeated our greatest enemy, our sinful nature, when he died in our place on the cross and resurrected for us three days later. By this resurrection, he conquered the power of sin and death over us and freed us to live for God. Have you believed on Christ for this salvation?

Have you received the good news of his triumph over your sin and death at the cross and his resurrection which provides you with new and everlasting life?

Now that Christ has provided salvation, he has called all who follow him to bring this message of total triumph over evil to people throughout the world. Doing so is not really an option, it is a mandate which love for God and others should motivate us to do, yet doing this is not necessarily convenient. It requires stepping out of our comfort zones, making sacrificial adjustments to our priorities and schedules, making new relationships, making generous investments, and doing things we are not naturally inclined to do.

To advance the gospel is like a chess match or a military campaign. It requires deliberate, intentional, strategic choices on a daily, weekly basis, as Paul demonstrated in his own life, making decisions for your life and your family around what sort of impact they may have for the gospel. Paul did this when he chose to go to Jerusalem despite the likely imprisonment he would face there and when he requested to go to Rome rather than be handed over to the Jewish mob.

The problem today is that too many believers are playing checkers rather than chess when it comes to making a gospel impact for Christ. We somehow believe that we either become full-time missionaries and pastors or we live an ordinary, unimpactful life instead. This is a wrong perspective. I would have you know that every believer has an opportunity to live for Christ and advance the gospel with chess-like skill.

At the same time, you must know that part of the strategy for advancing the gospel requires a willingness to make strategic losses, which are generally uncomfortable. We may take losses to our reputations, personal net worth, close relationships, physical health, and more. Are you okay with this?

We should be okay with this, because the gospel itself is a message and true story of the most strategic loss ever, when Christ himself because a human being who would live a perfect life yet be humiliated, tortured, and crucified in a most horrific way. Even in his earthly life, Christ experienced the loss of his stepfather Joseph at a young age, rejection by his stepbrothers and sisters, and a nomadic lifestyle without a home of his own. Yet he did this all to provide the good news of salvation for me and you.

Were there casualties along the way for Christ to bring salvation to the world? Yes, there definitely were. If his strategy were a chess match, then he certainly surrendered many pieces and it seemed, at one point, that he had lost the match entirely, yet it was through this experience of casualty and loss that our sin was ultimately defeated, and the King of Kings triumphed over Satan once and for all.

This reminds me of what Paul teaches us in Rom 8:28:
We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

The challenge for us today as followers of Christ is to evaluate whether we are willing to suffer strategic losses for the cause of Christ, or will we insist on living self-protective lifestyles instead that do very little, attempt very little, and risk very little to advance the gospel. In this way, we may seem to keep the majority of our chess pieces on the board, but we end up losing the game in the end.

How can difficult life circumstances advance the cause of the gospel in the world? Paul explains two ways that this happened through his imprisonment.

They can bring nonbelievers into contact with the gospel.
so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ

“So that is has become” tells us the outcome and result of his imprisonment. “Evident” means “to shine” and describes something in glowing terms as though whatever it is becomes bright and obvious to see. It’s as though you are in a dark room and know nothing about what is there, then someone turns on the light and you see that display room filled with many pieces of exquisite, expensive, world-famous art.

What had become bright and clear for Paul? He says that the entire palace (or Praetorian) guard had become aware that his imprisonment was because of Christ. The military force in Rome consisted of nine elite cohorts, each consisting of 480 specially trained soldiers.

These would have been assigned to various rotating military duties, including cycling through the prison system to monitor high-profile prisoners such as Paul. They would have been assigned to him in ones or twos, being chained to him during their shifts in his cell. As they rotated through, Paul would have spoken with them about Christ, and they would have seen how he and his visitors behaved in a Christlike way.

Paul does not say that any of the guard became followers of Christ, though it is likely that some surely did. Instead, he simply focused on the fact that his suffering had strategically put him in a place that exposed the elite Roman military troops to the gospel, along with “all the rest” – which may include additional soldiers but likely refers to many other government officials throughout the emperor’s government and to any other nonbelievers who had come into contact with Paul throughout his imprisonment whom he would otherwise have never met. Commentator Paul Keown makes this excellent observation:

“This verse, then, is ironic. Paul is in the heart of the Roman Empire, in the emperor’s own camp, a prisoner of war seemingly held captive to the might of Rome. However, in effect, he is a kind of Trojan horse (Houlden, 58), working from the inside out, with the emperor’s own men turning to the God he proclaims. He is like a computer virus in the Roman Empire’s mainframe, “infecting” it from the inside out, the kingdom of God working its redemption in the heart of the empire.”

You may not be imprisoned for the gospel, but do you consider the difficult places where God has put you in life – such as a difficult home, workplace, or neighborhood – as strategic placements to advance the cause of Christ? Rather than complain and look for a way out, perhaps you should rejoice and look for a way to spread the gospel within?

They can encourage believers to be more confident in the gospel.
and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear

Here is another way that the gospel made progress through Paul’s imprisonment. As other believers observed Paul’s suffering, they were encouraged to live more evangelistic lives themselves.

  • “Becoming confident” speaks of renewed courage and enthusiasm.
  • “Being much more bold” speaks of renewed bravery and resolve in the face of danger, opposition, problems, and risks.

Of this increased boldness, Paul uses this word eight times in the NT.

  • of a person daring to die for a good person, i.e., Christ’s courage to die for humanity (Rom 5:7)
  • negatively of the daring of the Corinthians to take each other to court (1 Cor 6:1)
  • of Paul’s desire not to have to dare to challenge them when he comes (2 Cor 10:2) and of daring to boast (2 Cor 10:12; 11:21).
  • it is used as here in the context of evangelism, of Paul’s insistence on speaking of nothing except what God has accomplished among the Gentiles through him (Rom 15:18)

So, Paul’s suffering and witness for Christ was motivating many other believers to be courageous in their own gospel efforts and willingness to suffer as a result. A joyful, evangelistic attitude in suffering is compelling, contagious, and convicting!

How were they being courageous? Not just in living nicely and politely for Christ, but by speaking the word, which means we like those many believers should be prepared to speak to people about Christ, explain and announcing to them the message of triumph over sin, like the messenger boy on the hills after battle.

We learned earlier that the idiom “blessings in disguise” originated from a hymn written by a pastor in England in 1746. This same idiom appears as the theme of a song written in 2011 by Christian songwriter Laura Story, a song called “Blessings,” which says:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand
To ease our suffering
And all the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

We pray for wisdom, Your voice to hear
And we cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt Your goodness, we doubt Your love
As if every promise from Your word is not enough
And all the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we'd have faith to believe

'Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
And what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near?
And what if trials of this life
Are Your mercies in disguise?

When friends betray us
And when darkness seems to win, we know
The pain reminds this heart
That this is not, this is not our home
It's not our home

As followers of Christ, may we learn to view our hardships and suffering as strategic opportunities to expose more people with the good news of salvation in Christ and to encourage others to live more joyful, enthusiastic, confident lives for Christ as well. When we view and respond to our hardships in life this way, our anxiety decreases and our joy rises.

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