This sermon is part of the sermon series "Harmony and Humility in the Church". See series.
A poet once complained to a friend, "Life's not fair. A banker can write a bad poem, and nobody says anything about it. But if a poet writes a bad check, everybody gets upset."
Former President Jimmy Carter once famously responded to a reporter, who was complaining about something, with the simple statement, "Life is not fair."
There are times when we feel that way. Something happens to us, and we say, This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?
We seem to be stuck in the same job. Other people get promotions or leave for better jobs in other companies. We work hard, we do good work, we get along with people, but for some reason, others who were hired after us seem to advance, and we don't. And we think, "This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?"
We try out for the high school basketball team. We're still in the running coming up to the last cut—from 20 down to 15. As we compare our ability to others, we expect to make it into the final 15. But to our surprise, we're cut. We know we're better than a couple of the others who made it, and we think, This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?
We have difficulty conceiving a child. Other people get married and seem to have one child after another with no difficulty. But then, as we watch them raise their kids, they're not very good parents. We're not the only ones who think this; others feel that way too. And we know that we would be good parents. We think, This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?
There was a time when the apostle Paul looked back at what had happened to him. Looking back over the past several years of his life, he, too, could have been tempted to say, "This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?"
Five years earlier he was worshiping with friends in the temple in Jerusalem. Some Jews who hate him see him there with his friends and start a rumor that Paul has brought a detested Gentile into the sacred Jewish temple.
The false rumor spreads outside the temple and into the city. People believe it and get agitated. Some hotheads decide to do something about it. They instigate a mob and rush into the temple. They drag Paul out of the sanctuary and begin to beat him in the courtyard. They intend to beat him to death.
The Roman commander who's responsible for keeping order in the city hears about the riot. He rushes to the courtyard with some soldiers and gets there just in time to rescue a bloody Paul. He assumes Paul has done something wrong to inflame the crowd, so he arrests him on the spot. Then he tries to find out from the crowd what the problem is. Some shout one thing, and others shout something different. The commander realizes he isn't going to get a clear answer, so he takes Paul into the prison barracks. He decides that he'll have one of his men interrogate the prisoner to find out what he's done. The method of interrogation was to tie the prisoner's arms between two posts and give him a bit of the whip until his tongue loosened and he told you what you wanted to know.
As they're stretching Paul's arms out, Paul looks at the soldier in charge and says, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't been found guilty of anything?" Paul knows it isn't legal. If a man had Roman citizenship, he was protected from such abuse. If the soldiers flogged him without a trial and a verdict, they would all be court-martialed, and put in prison themselves. The soldier in charge turns white, tells the others to stop right away, runs to the commander, and tells him Paul's a Roman citizen.
Now the commander is worried, too. He's arrested a Roman citizen without any real charge against him. He needs to get a specific charge if he's going to protect his own career. So the next day he gathers the Jewish leaders of the city and brings Paul into the room and asks them, "What's the problem you have with this man?" Again, they can't agree. In fact they start arguing with each other concerning what Paul is guilty of. The commander gets frustrated, sends them away, and puts Paul back in the barracks.
That night the commander gets word that some of the Jews have a secret plot to kill Paul. Forty men have vowed that they won't eat or drink until they've killed Paul. Their plan is for the Jewish leaders to request another meeting with the commander the next day on the pretext that they finally have the information he wants. And then, as Paul is being transported to the meeting, they'll kill him.
Realizing that he has a situation that is too explosive to handle alone, the commander sends Paul off in the dead of night, protected by 500 men, to the coastal city of Caesarea about 50 miles away. Caesarea is where his boss is headquartered, the Roman governor Felix.
The commander sends along an explanatory letter to the Roman Governor: To his Excellency, Governor Felix. Greetings. This man was about to be killed by the Jews when I rescued him. He's a Roman citizen. When I attempted to find out the problem, all I could get was a lot of religious talk. They didn't seem to have any real criminal charge against him that would merit punishment or death. When I found out they intended to kill him anyway, I thought it best to send him to you. I've ordered his accusers to present their case to you.
Several days later, the accusers arrive in Caesarea. Even after more meetings, this time before Felix, still nothing is determined. But during the proceedings, Felix begins to realize that this man Paul is not an ordinary Roman citizen. He defends himself well against the accusations, and he seems to have a lot of friends on the outside. Felix begins to think maybe some of these friends would be willing to pay some money to grease the wheels for Paul's release. He keeps Paul in custody for two years, hoping there's a bribe in it somewhere for him. Paul spends two years in custody because of some corrupt official.
The thought could have occurred to Paul: This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?
But it wasn't over yet. After two years in custody, a new governor comes to replace Felix. The new governor no sooner takes up residence than the Jewish leaders try again. They appear in force before him, this time agreeing on some charges against Paul that they hope will stick. The trouble is, they can't offer any proof of their charges. The new governor thinks that perhaps if he sets up a trial in the city of Jerusalem, where the events happened, he'll be closer to the scene, and maybe he'll find more reliable witnesses and evidence. So he asks Paul: Are you willing to go to Jerusalem where we can settle this thing once and for all?
Paul knows if he goes back to Jerusalem, he'll never make it out alive. They'll find a way to kill him. So he plays the last card available to him as a Roman citizen: he appeals to Caesar. He claims his right as a Roman citizen to have his case put before Caesar himself, which is kind of like putting it before the Supreme Court. The governor has to grant him his request.
Within a few months, Paul and some other prisoners are put on a ship and sent off to Rome. Several days out, rough weather hits and slows their progress. For days the wind is against them, and they make no headway at all. By now they're nearing the start of the winter season, when sailing is dangerous. Paul has a sense from the Lord that if they keep going they'll meet disaster. He urges them to put into the nearest harbor and wait for spring, but the three leaders in charge of the ship don't want to do that. The owner of the ship wants to get his merchandise to Rome and make his profit. The Roman commander wants to turn his prisoners over to Rome and be rid of the responsibility. And the pilot of the ship, suddenly seeing that they have a few hours of a gentle breeze, agrees it's safe to continue.
After a couple more days at sea, the gentle breeze turns into a hurricane, and now the ship is absolutely helpless against its force. Driven without control, the ship crashes into rocks near an island and breaks apart. The soldiers get ready to kill all the prisoners so that none of them can swim away and escape, but the commander thinks of Paul and stops them. He orders those who can swim to head for the island and those who can't, to grab a plank or some other piece of the debris so that hopefully the tide will push them to shore.
Amazingly, everyone makes it to shore, and they spend the winter on the island. When Spring comes, another ship takes them to Rome. Paul has still not yet been officially charged with anything, so the government allows him to rent a small house. Still, he has to be chained to a guard 24/7 to ensure he doesn't disappear until his case comes before Caesar.
The Roman courts move slowly, and Paul passes another two years under house arrest in Rome. Paul is able to receive visitors in the house, but the chains never leave his wrists. Every six hours a new Roman guard takes over. Paul can't move unless the guard moves with him. When he sleeps, he has to arrange himself so that the chains don't get under his head or his body. And even though he has no source of income, he still has to pay the rent on the house, or he'll be put in a dungeon.
For two years this goes one, and the future is still very uncertain. Paul isn't sure what'll happen if and when he finally does appear before Caesar. Nero can be crazy at times. He might listen to the Jewish accusations, and think: Hey, if one man's death will make them happy and keep peace in that volatile country, no big deal. Paul knew Jerusalem would have been the end of him, but for all he knows, the same thing could happen in Rome, too.
The thought might have occurred to him: This isn't fair. Why is this happening to me?
But that isn't the thought that occurs to him. During the two years of house arrest in Rome, a totally different thought has come into his mind, a thought that brings a great grin to his face, and just plain makes him happy. And he wants to tell his dear friends from Philippi who have just sent him some money so he can afford rent for the house. From the very beginning they've been his partners in the gospel. He's so proud of them and so grateful to them. He's totally confident that God is at work in them. He prays for them all the time; that their love will grow, so that they'll make the best choices possible and become a people totally worthy of the Lord. He wants to thank them for their latest gift, but he also wants to tell them how he feels about what's happened to him, why the issue of fairness never occurred to him. So he writes to them, "I want you to know what has happened to me. And because of what's happened, I rejoice."
Paul asks a different question.
This morning when we look at what he wrote, we're going to see that the question he asked himself was not, Is what's happening to me fair? No, he asked a different question. And the answer made him very happy. The question Paul asks is: Is what's happening to me accomplishing something for God? Is what's happening to me being useful to God in some way? Is it furthering his purposes in the world?
As he looks over the past five years of his life—with the mob beating, the unjust imprisonment, the shipwreck, and now the round-the-clock chains—his concern is not "Is it fair?" but "Is it accomplishing anything for God?" Notice how this shows up in verse 12: "Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel."
He says to them: Contrary to what you'd expect, my being in prison hasn't hurt the gospel, it's actually helped it to progress. What's happened to me has really accomplished something for God.
If you asked Paul, "Is it fair, what's happened to you?" he'd say, "No." If you asked him, "Has it been fun? Has it been enjoyable? Is it something you would have chosen for your life?" he'd say, "Of course not." But in the midst of all of it, he stopped and asked himself, Is what's happening to me accomplishing something for God? And when he saw that the answer was "yes," that mattered more to him than his personal convenience or the fairness of his situation. What happened to him really accomplished something for God, and that's what counted.
Paul has shared the gospel while in chains.
Paul sees that what has happened to him has furthered God's work in two ways.
First, because of what's happened to him, people are being won to the Lord—significant people, influential people, people who in the future can have a great impact for God. Because of what's happened to him, they're being won to the Lord. That's what matters to Paul.
In his case, the significant people that are being won to the Lord are the palace guards who are chained to him 24/7. According to verses 12-13, people are hearing the gospel and believing on Christ. The whole palace guard, he says, is learning about Christ.
The palace guard was a very specialized, handpicked, military group. They were Caesar's own personal bodyguards—strong, courageous, brilliant, sophisticated young men—kind of a mixture of West Point and the Secret Service. They served in the palace guard for 12 years, protecting Caesar and guarding the prisoners that had appealed to him. After 12 years they transitioned into other influential careers. Some went on to be the commanding generals of large forces. Others went into public office and became senators or ambassadors to other countries. Still others advanced into the top echelons of business and industry. As a group, they were the movers and shakers of the future, the opinion leaders and kingmakers of the next generation. They were a powerful and strategic group of young men. If you wanted to influence the Roman Empire, you couldn't pick a better group to start with.
Every day Paul grinned to himself because for two years one of them wore the other end of his chain and for six hours had to stay within four feet of him. He wasn't chained to them; they were chained to him!
During the early months, the guards assumed Paul was like other prisoners—guilty of some crime like leading a political revolt or embezzling huge sums of money or illegally profiteering from some disaster. But as they got to know him, and as they listened in on the conversations he had with his friends, it wasn't long until it became clear that he was in chains because of someone called Christ. Over the months, as their rotations kept coming around and they put on the chain, he would talk with them about Christ. Their conversations might have gone something like this:
Markus, it's good to see you again. It's been several days. How's Claudia? Last time you were concerned, because she had been running a fever for two weeks, getting weaker, and the doctors didn't know why. I prayed for her, Markus. I asked God to heal her. How is she? Oh, good. Good! I'm glad. I'm glad for you! Oh, you're welcome, you're welcome. Markus, I think God has you especially in mind. Remember last time you asked me why the death of Christ was so important to me. Well, I got to thinking. You know, sometimes, when you're not with me, you're part of Caesar's bodyguard out in public, right? Well, suppose at some public event you're standing behind Caesar, and an assassin sneaks up behind you with a knife. He plans to swiftly stab you in the back and then get at Caesar. But just before he strikes, another bodyguard, your friend Lysias, sees what's about to happen, and quickly tries to intercept. And though Lysias gets in front of the attacker, he's enough off balance that he can't stop the thrust of the knife, and it goes into his heart instead of your back. His death would be important to you, wouldn't it, Markus? It would matter greatly to you, because his death would have saved your life. Markus, that's kind of how it is with Christ. His death has saved our lives forever.
And so it would go, guard after guard chained to Paul, guard after guard hearing about Christ, guard after guard talking to other guards about the prisoner who seemed to be in love with Christ. What happened to Paul—his chains for Christ—rippled through the whole palace guard; you could call it a chain reaction.
Paul recognizes the situation for what it is. Because of what's happened to him, people are being won to the Lord, people who in the future can have a great impact for God. And that matters more to Paul than his personal convenience or the fairness of his situation.
Is it possible that what happens to us might be God's way of really accomplishing something for himself?
We feel like we're unjustly stuck in the same job, unable to change or get promoted. Is it possible that the reason has nothing to do with our competence or our ability to do other things? Could the reason be that we're developing a friendship with one of our co-workers, and we occasionally have conversations with them about spiritual things? One week, without our knowing it, they go with their family to Saddleback Church as a result of those conversations. They hear Rick Warren talk about a project in Africa that the church is committed to next summer, and they decide to go as a family. During that month in Africa, one of their kids discovers the power and reality of God for the first time in their life, and they're forever changed. And 20 years later that kid is back in Africa, part of an evangelistic mission, winning thousands of people to the Lord each year. What happened to us really served to advance the gospel.
Or maybe you get cut from the basketball team. This means that next semester, instead of being in P.E. last period—which is when the teams start practice—you end up in P.E. at 10:30 a.m. Some new kid from Oregon transfers to your school. He doesn't know anybody, but he has P.E. the same hour as you do. You get on the same volleyball team with him. He's a good setter; you're the high jumper and spiker. The two of you have a great time together, pulverizing the other teams. You grab lunch together a few times. You know he doesn't know a lot of people, so you invite him to church, and he connects with the gang. A few months later he accepts Christ. Over Spring Break he goes to church camp. The speaker at camp challenges people to think about serving the Lord full-time with their lives. And something in him says that's what God wants him to do. After college he goes to seminary and becomes the pastor of a church that has a wide influence for Christ. And what happened to you really served to advance the gospel.
Or perhaps our difficulty in conceiving leads us into foster care. Over a period of years, scores of children come through our home. Each one learns about Christ. As they grow and marry, each one establishes a Christian home; each one raises kids to know Christ, kids who will do the same when they grow up. What happened to us really served to advance the gospel.
We must learn to say with Paul, "The question is not, 'Is what's happening to me fair?' but instead, 'Is what's happening to me accomplishing something for God? Is what's happening to me being useful to God in some way? Is it furthering his purposes in the world?'" And when we see that it is, we say, "It's all about you, Lord. It's not about me."
That's the first thing Paul has in mind when he writes, "what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel." He sees that people are being won to the Lord—people who in the future can have a great impact for God.
Paul has encouraged other pastors while in chains.
There's a second way that what happened to Paul served to advance the gospel. Other pastors in Rome were preaching more boldly than ever before. According to verse 14, other pastors in Rome saw Paul's courage, they heard the reports about his impact on the palace guard, of how significant people were responding to the gospel, and it led them to speak out more boldly and fearlessly, to hold more public meetings, to take a stand for godliness. In this way, too, what happened to Paul served to advance the gospel.
Unfortunately, some of these other pastors had mixed motives in what they were doing. To be sure, many of them had nothing but pure motives as they preached. But there were others who hoped their preaching would stick it to Paul a bit. Oh, they were preaching a good message; of course they wanted people to accept Christ. But at the same time, they kind of wanted to rub their success in Paul's face.
What bothered them was that Paul was getting too much attention. As far as they were concerned, he was just a little bit too famous—the big shot apostle who came to town as an imperial prisoner, guarded by Caesar's personal bodyguards. All the Christians in Rome were talking about him and singing his praises. Some of the local pastors got a bit envious of all the attention Paul was getting. Who was he to come into their city and get all the praise after they'd been there for years? So some of them took advantage of the situation so they, too, would become more prominent. It was kind of a rivalry with them. Their ambition was to be as noticed and esteemed as Paul. They secretly hoped that, as the attention shifted to them, the big star would get his comeuppance. Then he could see what it was like to have someone else praised while he was stuck in chains. He'll see us out there growing big churches, holding big rallies, getting a lot of press, they might have thought, while he can't go three feet without hitting the end of the chain.
Paul knew this was going on. Some had mixed motives. Others were preaching purely. In verses 14 and following, Paul makes it clear that what mattered to him was that Christ was being preached. That brought a grin to Paul's face and a lot of joy inside.
The good pastors meant him well. They had nothing but goodwill toward him, and they wanted him to see that they'd joined with him in the gospel. They knew he had been put there for the defense of the gospel. The phrase "put here" was a military term indicating a military assignment or orders. In other words, the good pastors knew that God had assigned Paul to his chains and to a courtroom appearance before Caesar; God had ordered him there to defend the gospel at the highest level in the Roman Empire. They wanted to do their part where they could.
But he was aware that there were others who had mixed motives. They felt he should get a little taste of his own medicine. They wanted him to feel chafing and resentment while they were freely moving about town and adding to their reputations. He knew their preaching was partly motivated by envy, rivalry, and ambition.
But you know what? Christ was being preached, and that's what mattered. Paul was aware that what was happening to him was really serving to advance the gospel, and that was more important than his chains and reputation. That was more important than his convenience or whether life was being fair to him or not. What matters was whether God was accomplishing something for himself.
It's not about me, Lord. It's only about you.
God doesn't promise that your circumstances will be fair. But he does promise that there will always be something in them that will serve Christ's purposes. There will always be a word to speak, a kindness to offer, a prayer to lift up. There will always be something for Christ in your circumstances. Look for it.
What happens to us can serve to advance the gospel. And the joy of life comes when we can honestly say, "It's not about me, Lord. It's only about you. It's all about you, Lord."
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.