"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Prison Perspectives on Progress

"Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear."
- Philippians 1:12-14

Paul sat in a prison in Rome for charges fantastically conceived and untenably forwarded.  In subsequent verses, he would describe how some of his fellow workers for the Lord, blinded by their thirst for power and seeking to take advantage of Paul's lamentable absence, had taken to haunting the church, effectively seeking to fill the vacuum Paul had left.  They proclaimed gospel truth, but did so in a bid to rob Paul of his influence - incredible!  This is the situation with which we, the eager readers, are met in this passage. 

If we know Paul at all, then it is no surprise that he did not draft a tally of his sorrows for the Philippians to feast upon - there were far, far more important considerations at hand.  How went the work of the Lord?  Was the gospel progressing in the world?  It was far better for Paul to focus on this at the expense of his own sorrows, and it was far better for the Philippians to receive this lasting example of the Savior's pre-eminence in all things. 

Paul turns to his present circumstance, then, and describes how the gospel is prospering.  In so doing, he delivers to the church three points which demonstrate some of the means by which the gospel progresses, and which indeed may serve to refine our definition of  "gospel progress."

1.  It progresses in proclamation.  Paul equates spreading the knowledge of his "imprisonment for the cause of Christ" with the progress of the gospel.  For the present, he says nothing of conversions or responses, but merely that he has been able to acquaint everyone around him with the circumstances of his imprisonment, and, in the process, to proclaim the salvation of his excellent and unique Savior.  Certainly, salvation is a clear indicator of the gospel's movement; however, we see here that the Spirit-filled proclamation of salvation is, in itself, gospel progress.

This is a healthy attitude to adopt, for we do not always see the results of evangelism.  While we cannot discern how a person will respond to gospel truth, it being the province of the Lord to grant growth unto salvation where he sees fit (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6), we know that faith never comes apart from knowledge of the gospel (Rom. 10:9-17).  The gospel is the seed of salvation; it must be planted before precious life can erupt from dead soil.  So indeed may we reckon the proclamation of the gospel to be progress for the gospel, even if salvation is not immediately evident.  In disclosing saving truth to partakers of unbelief and death, we are working to advance the gospel, regardless of the visible results.  This is encouragement to those who preach good news to their fellows with often very little sign of spiritual life or concern.

2.  It progresses in preparation.  Paul's travails, he writes, have served to encourage his brethren to fearlessly proclaim Christ.  This too, says Paul, is gospel progress.  If we are fitted with stronger courage, or with fuller understanding of truth, or with a greater heart for sinners not so unlike ourselves, then we are better fitted for kingdom work.  This sort of growth constitutes an advancement of the gospel which should by all means endure upon this earth, and even continue to grow, for as long as the will of the Lord binds us to our earthly stations.  It becomes but another avenue by which we may continually work for the gospel, even in solitude - by striving to grow in Christlikeness.

Time spent on our knees, or with scripture in our hands, grants us a greater gospel strength and serves to further the gospel.  Does this spark a flame of conviction in our hearts?  There is always more we can do to gird ourselves as soldiers for our Lord.  There is certainly more that I can do, I know, whether I am with unbelievers, other believers, or by myself.

3.  It progresses in persecution.  Paul labored under, but was not conquered by, persecution here.  The world had struck at him with a substantial brutality, and in the midst of this, opportunistic believers came in like vultures seeking to feast on him, so that hatred piled atop hatred.  And yet in both of these cases, in both of these hardships, somehow the gospel not only prevailed, but shone through all the brighter.  Persecution birthed unique opportunity and movement for the gospel!

On one hand, Paul was thrust into the thick of Roman society, even into the very highest levels (Phil. 4:22), with fresh ears all around him to receive gospel truth.  He was propelled into this arena due to the hatred of his countrymen.  On the other hand, his fellow believers were strengthened by his testimony in difficulties to proclaim the name of the Lord more strongly!  Some loved Paul, and others certainly did not, but whatever the case, believers were opening their mouths and bringing forth the truth of the Savior!  We do well if, in the midst of calamity, we can look about us to see either how we might use our circumstances for God's kingdom, or else how God has already begun to work for His kingdom through our plight.  Do not squander your trials, Christian!  Who can fathom what riches of grace the Lord has made ready to unleash in the grimmest crucibles of your hardships?

The gospel has a divinely-imparted buoyancy, dear friends. and it progresses easily in the hands of our Lord.  What more fitting work is there than to devote ourselves to its spreading?  It is grace to sinners, joy to saints, and glory to our God!


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