Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of four letters that have come down to us from times when he was imprisoned, or as he more commonly expresses it, “in chains.” Along with the Philippians correspondence there are the letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, and to Philemon. These latter three letters are contemporaneous. We note these indications in each:
- Ephesians 4:1 - I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called...; 6:19-20, to make known the mystery of the Gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains...
- Colossians 4:3 - Pray for us as well that God will open to a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison...
- Philemon 1:10 - I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
In these three letters, Paul’s imprisonment is in the background. In Philippians, though, his chains are front and center. His chains provide an opportunity to encourage the Philippians by witnessing to the providence of God who “causes all things to work together for good for those who love him.” (Romans 8:28) So the message today is along the theme of “Prison’s Upside.”
As we begin to explore this theme, I want to first mention blessings that have come to the church through imprisonments beyond those that Paul specifically mentions. These could be generally classed under the gift of time and perspective for prayer and theological reflection: This is not to suggest for a minute that prison is ever like a sabbatical for those who experience it. However, we can note that it became an occasion for St. Paul to reflect deeply on the ways of God in Christ and, through his correspondence with the churches, to pass along much of his understanding of Christian doctrine.
This has held true also in modern times. One need only think, for example, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison or of the works of Solzhenitzen. One of the more famous documents in the history of the US civil rights movements came from prison and has express links with Philippians. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail.” King wrote this letter to fellow pastors who criticized his coming to Birmingham, Alabama as an instance of “outside agitation.” King defended himself against this, pointing out that he had been invited to Birmingham by Christian leaders in that city. He continued:
“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
Of course, Philippi was the first city in Macedonia that Paul and his missionary team visited in response to the Macedonian call for aid on his second missionary journey. Thus, Paul’s experience as a prisoner continues to provide a pattern of courage and commitment down through the ages.
Over the past several years we, along with many others, prayed constantly for Andrew Brunson’s release from prison in Turkey. His recently granted freedom is a gracious gift of God. We have yet to hear whether Andrew will someday share more widely the way imprisonment impacted his faith. Members of his family shared a few things with the church during the days of his imprisonment. It is not something that we should automatically assume or expect. Not all imprisonments are alike. Not all prisoners for Christ talk about their experiences. All I intend to point out by way of introduction is that some great treasures have come to the church as a result of the imprisonment of her leaders and that God, in his providence, has often turned this hardship into great good.
In our passage from Philippians 1, Paul shares two straightforward reasons why the things that have happened to him have served the progress of the Gospel. The first is that he has found a unique “mission field” in prison. The second is that more people are out preaching the Gospel because of his imprisonment.
In 1:13 the Apostle says, “It has become manifest to the whole Praetorium and to all the rest that my chains are in Christ.” Now a Praetorium is a residence for a governing official. Jesus was taken to the Praetorium in Jerusalem so that Pilate could order his crucifixion. The Praetorium was Pilate’s residence. If we assume that Paul is in Rome when he writes Philippians, then the Praetorium would refer to Caesar’s residence and, most likely, by extension to the Imperial Guard. Whatever the precise reference of “Praetorium” in 1:13, it is clear that Paul has found a “captive” mission field of sorts among those whose lives revolve around the Imperial Palace.
They know that this Roman citizen, a Jew of Tarsus, this man Paul is “in chains” because of his devotion to someone known as the Christ, the Messiah. This lays the groundwork for people to learn more. It creates questions to be answered. What does it mean to be in chains for this Messiah? Who is this Christ? What is the nature of Paul’s connection and devotion to him? A missionary door is certainly opened to the curious. Moreover, we can be confident that the bold Apostle did not wait until the curious came forward with questions to share his story with the Imperial soldiers or staff.
I noted at the outset that Paul asked the Colossians to pray for his missionary team in this way: “Pray for us as well that God will open to a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison.” He was always seeking a door for the word. One had opened in the Praetorium, so he assures the Philippians that there was an upside to his chains: They served the progress of the Gospel.
In 1:14-18 Paul reports that, because of his chains, more people are preaching the gospel. This is the second providential “upside” that he identifies to his imprisonment. This obviously serves the progress of the Gospel by virtue of multiplication. We can observe a similar phenomenon in the early days of the Gospel in Judea. Luke tells us in Acts 8:1-4 of a “severe persecution” that arose against the church in Jerusalem in which none other than Saul himself was “ravaging the church.” The result of this persecution was that all the Christians “except the Apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” The consequence, though, was that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. The isolation of the leaders resulted in the rank and file becoming bolder missionaries, even in their flight from persecution! St. Paul observes the same phenomenon happening in Rome and among the churches with who he is in communication. More people are bearing witness to the word. Not all do so with honorable motives, but for Paul, this does not diminish the greater outcome—Christ is preached!
We should not think, though, that the progress of the Gospel is simply one of the multiplying of mission fields or missionaries. The progress of the Gospel is also in its impact on those who have embraced it. Part of the upside of his chains, for Paul, was that God used his hardship to awaken courage in the hearts of other Christians. Perhaps that should be a question we should ask ourselves in the aftermath of our years of praying for Andrew Brunson’s release. “Did his imprisonment in any way make us bolder in our witness for Christ?” Or as we contemplate the price our brothers and sisters around the globe pay for bearing the name of Christ, do we take greater courage to identify with Christ, or merely give deeper thanks that we are still free to live as Christians?
Our pragmatic bent as North Americans inclines us to see life’s challenges—even spiritual challenges—as problems to be solved. Almost all of the North American church’s responses to the steady decline of Christianity since the late 1960’s have been technical. The OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, who for most of his career taught at the PCUSA’s Columbia Theological Seminary, once remarked that American culture gave the church it’s “pink slip” in the second half of the 20th Century. Protestantism, broadly speaking, saw itself as the “chaplain” to the nation’s conscience and spiritual aspirations. But, sometime in the 1960’s, our society said, “Thank you very much. You are no longer needed.” Ever since then, the church, for the most part has been working on strategies and techniques to either reverse, or at least salvage something from, this dislocation. Paul’s comments on the boldness that others had discovered through his chains remind us that technique and strategy have their limits. There is no technique to learn courage. That is learned through the school of suffering, directly or vicariously.
Calvin’s commentary on Philippians 1:14 is so instructive in this regard. He writes:
“By this instance we are taught that the tortures of the saints, endured by them in behalf of the gospel, are a ground of confidence to us. It were indeed a dreadful spectacle, and such as might tend rather to dishearten us, did we see nothing but the cruelty and rage of the persecutors. When, however, we see at the same time the hand of the Lord, which makes his people unconquerable, under the infirmity of the Cross, and causes them to triumph, relying upon this, we ought to venture farther than we had been accustomed, having now a pledge of our victory in the persons of our brethren. The knowledge of this ought to overcome our fears that we may speak boldly in the midst of dangers.”
Calvin’s phrase “venture farther than we had been accustomed” points to what we all know deep in our hearts. There is no technique to learning boldness. Instead, boldness begins with a first step—a step outside of our normal comfort zone. Providence may sometimes demand steps that seem more like leaps than baby steps, but, in the normal course of life, we can all be aware of the lines of our fears and timidity and take first steps to push beyond them. This step could be as small as offering to pray for a non-Christian friend or associate who is going through some crisis or difficult circumstance. Anything that lets people know we hold our faith in Christ with “universal intent” and genuine love for others can be a bold step in our pluralist society.
In the sufferings of our Savior, in the hardships of missionaries recounted from the New Testament onward, and in the gift of getting to know Christians of extraordinary boldness, we have a Spirit-given source to awaken courage that may be sleeping in our hearts. Whether we will see Christianity revived in North America, or something of the legacy of “Christendom” salvaged in our lifetime, who can say? But, the kingdom is not in doubt and when his people find their courage, Christ will be proclaimed. And in that, we can rejoice! Amen.