This sermon is part of the sermon series "Philippians: Christians Are Invincible". See series.
I have a friend who has a great saying. He says, "Make your plans in pencil because God has a big eraser." That's great wisdom. I used to be pastor at a great church called Central Peninsula Church, 30 miles north of here, with a dream to eventually come down to San Jose and plant a new church. That was my plan. But God had other plans. An opportunity arose for us to plant a church in Phoenix. I never had a desire to go to Phoenix, but God was directing us there. So I preached my last sermon at my church. I stood before 2,000 people and said, "God is calling me to plant a church in Phoenix." We put our house on the market and made plans to move.
Two weeks before moving, huge red flags showed up, and we decided it was not wise to proceed. We could not trust the folks we were going to partner with down there. My plans were suddenly blown up. Taylor, my wife, was pregnant with our third son—six weeks away from delivery—and our plans completely fell through. Our house was on the market, I had a mortgage, and, for the first time in my life, I was unemployed. I thought, How am I going to do this? How am I going to pay this mortgage? We had already moved our medical insurance to Arizona. I was now faced with $2,000 monthly medical bills. I had already said good-bye to our church and to our community, so I couldn't just pop back into the church after that, and say "Hey, what's up. I'm still here." We had already said good-bye, eaten the cake and the ice cream.
I was on my knees, praying God, what are you doing? Some of you are there right now. Some of you have been there in the past. You had plans. You had dreams. Things were going to work out. But God took his big eraser and erased those plans.
Some of you have moved here from other cities. I've heard you talk with fondness of these cities you've come from. I've heard about how the state of Texas is pretty amazing. I've heard that Portland is cooler than Silicon Valley. Or Seattle is the hip spot. Or Phoenix is great. Well, you have no reason to complain, because Silicon Valley is 50 times better than any of those places. We have the best weather on the planet. In his book The Triumph of the City, Edward Glazer says, "Silicon Valley has arguably the best climate in the United States." It's true. We already knew that, but now someone put it in a published book, so it's even truer. Other than housing prices, Silicon Valley is the best place to live in America. You have no reason to complain when you look at things that other people have been through, people who still rejoice in their circumstances.
Look at what the Apostle Paul went through. Paul was a man whose life was radically changed by the gospel of Jesus. This gave him an ambition: Once his eyes were opened to what it means to really know God, he had to spread the message. In Romans 15:20, Paul says, "I make it my ambition to preach the gospel not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation." Paul had a passion to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, to go to places where the gospel had not been heard. He didn't want to build on someone else's foundation. He wanted to go and reach people who had not heard the message. He wanted to go to Silicon Valley, not the Bible belt. He talks about his dream to go to the city of Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, to proclaim the gospel there. Then he wanted to move on to Spain, continuing west to proclaim the gospel message. How did those plans work out for him?
We're moving through a series on Paul's letter to Philippians. Paul is reporting what has happened to him since the Philippians had seen him last, about six years earlier. Paul left the city of Philippi after he saw the believers there and encouraged them. Then he visited several churches in Asia, and headed toward Jerusalem. En route to Jerusalem, people told him not to journey to the city. But he went anyways. Paul arrived in the city of Jerusalem, and his own people betrayed him. He was beaten and almost lost his life. He was thrown into prison. While Paul is in prison, 40 men make a vow not to eat or drink until they've killed Paul. They want to see his life snuffed out. He remained in prison for about two years.
He wanted to go to Rome. He wanted to go to Spain. He wanted to preach the gospel, but he was in prison. Finally he got his chance: he makes an appeal to Caesar to go to Rome. So Paul got on a ship headed to Rome. Then the ship entered a horrible storm at sea. The ship was lost, but all the men were saved. They make it to the island called Malta. What's the first thing that happens to Paul on the island? The shipwreck survivors build a fire to stay warm, and a snake jumps out of the fire and bites him in the hand. It's a horrible day.
Finally, Paul made it to Rome, and he would soon stand before the Caesar of Rome, Nero. A lot of you know about Nero. He was the most brutal of all the Caesars that ruled in Rome. He would have Christians burned at night in order to light up his garden. So Paul was in prison, about to face this guy.
In the book of Philippians, we haven't yet gotten to Paul telling his story. So far he's talked about how the Philippians are doing. He's praying for them. Now Paul is going to start talking about how he is doing. The Philippians were thinking, Paul, your plans didn't work out. The last time we saw you, you wanted to go to Rome, you wanted to go to Spain, you wanted to preach the gospel. You were enjoying your freedom. But all we have heard about you are tales of prison and shipwreck. And now you're going to face Nero? We are so sorry your plans didn't work out. How can we help you?
This is Paul's report. This passage can change your life if you let it:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Phil. 1:12-18).
Paul says, "Life hasn't gone the way I thought it would these last six years. I'm in prison, but the gospel is advancing. You would think the gospel had stopped advancing, or it began to retreat. But actually the gospel is gaining ground." When Paul talks about the advance of the gospel, he uses a military term. It refers to the advance of an army nearing victory. Paul wrote these words in the first century Roman Empire world. And in that world, Caesar was worshipped as a savior, as a lord. Forty-five years before the birth of Jesus, when Julius Caesar returned from a great military victory to Rome, he was given divine status. A first century historian says this:
Then Caesar hastened to Rome. Victor of all civil wars, he was feared and celebrated like no one before him. All kinds of exaggerated honors were created and bestowed upon him, even superhuman ones, offerings, celebrations, sacrifices and statues in all temples and public places in each of the provinces for every community and for all the kings allied with Rome. The inscriptions of the statues were various. On some of them Caesar wore an oak wreath as the savior of the native country. His person was pronounced sacred and it was decreed that he could dispatch his official functions from a throne of ivory and gold. The cities annually had to celebrate the days of his victories, priests had to offer public prayers for him, and the administrators had to swear an oath not to resist any command of Caesar. To honor his birth, the month of Quintiles was renamed Julius, July. Furthermore, numerous temples were to be built to him as a god.
Forty-five years before the birth of Jesus, it was decreed that the Caesar of Rome was superhuman, that he was a lord, that he was a savior, that he was king, and his actions were unquestionable. Whenever a new man became Caesar, they announced it with the word gospel. The word gospel means good news. They'd say, "Hear the gospel, Julius is now Caesar. He is king; he rules over the world."
This gives some perspective to the staggering nature of Paul's claim. Paul is in Nero's prison in Rome. In the Roman Empire, they worship Nero as a god. And Paul says, "The gospel is advancing as I sit in this guy's prison. There is a true king, and his name is Jesus Christ. He reigns, not this Caesar here in Rome. His message is advancing."
The gospel is advancing
Paul gives two reasons for this, two evidences of how the gospel is advancing. The first reason is articulated in verse 13. Paul says, "It has become known throughout the whole Imperial Guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ." The Imperial Guard was a group of 9,000 soldiers in the city of Rome who guarded Caesar, who did Caesar's bidding. Paul says these 9,000 people are hearing the true gospel message. They're hearing about the true king. How could Paul have gotten this message out to 9,000 soldiers? He was under house arrest, and he was chained to a Roman soldier for a six-hour shift. And the soldiers he was chained to would constantly rotate. What do you think Paul was talking about during those six-hour shifts? He told them stories about the man he used to be, his encounter with Jesus Christ, how Jesus changed him. He told stories of the things he had seen Jesus do in cities throughout the Roman Empire. Not all 9,000 soldiers actually guarded Paul, but those that did heard this, and they started to spread it. So stories about Paul and his savior, his king began to spread throughout the whole Imperial Guard.
Paul gives the second reason the gospel is advancing in verse 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." This is common in church history. Persecution gives other Christians a backbone. When people are persecuted for the gospel, you'd think other Christians would retreat. You'd think they'd say, "Oh man, Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel. I better hide."
But instead it emboldens them. They say, "There is someone willing to stand up for what he believes. There is someone who believes it so much, he will suffer for it. It's in his veins. He really believes this stuff. He's not just going through the motions." So they start waking up. They start stepping up. And in Rome other Christians are preaching the gospel more boldly. Paul does talk about how some of them have bad motives. But he says, "I don't care. A lot of people have the right motives. The gospel's going out, and I'm so excited about that. My imprisonment has emboldened others with this message."
Wherever Paul went, crazy things happened. When he entered a city and proclaimed the gospel, things turned upside down. But wherever we go, they serve us pastries and coffee and we hang out. I was at a church function this week, and we had pastries, we had coffee, it was really nice and polite. Where Paul went, there were riots. God showed up, and crazy things happened.
Paul is one of my heroes. I have a couple heroes that I study, that I would like to be more like. Paul is one of them. Because whatever happens to Paul, he's free. Paul went into a city, and someone said, "Paul, you can't preach the gospel in this city. Otherwise I'm going to throw you in prison." Paul said, "Great! I'll preach to the prisoners. It doesn't matter." The guy said, "I'll throw you in solitary confinement. You can't be around the prisoners." Paul said, "Great! I'll pray for you, and I'll pray that God shakes the city and does crazy things." The guy said, "Then I'll kill you then." Paul said, "Great! I get to be with God. I don't care; kill me." You can't mess with Paul, you can't kill him, you can't discourage him, because his life is built on Jesus, it's built on the gospel.
In verse 18 Paul says, "I rejoice in all this." He's in prison, the gospel is advancing, and other people are sharing the gospel. So he rejoices. This wasn't his original plan. He wanted to go to Rome, hang out in people's homes, preach the gospel, have a good time, and then go to Spain to preach the gospel there. But God had a big eraser; God had a different plan. Paul's prison became a pulpit. He's reaching people he never could have reached with his original plan. The Imperial Guard aren't guys that would stroll into church and hear the gospel. These are rough guys. They're hearing the gospel because God placed Paul in the right spot. And Paul rejoices in that.
During the Holocaust, in one of the concentration camps, Betsy Ten Boom famously said to her sister, Corrie Ten Boom, shortly before she died: "There is no pit so deep that Christ is not deeper still." Some of you are in pits right now, you're in prisons. Life didn't turn out the way you thought it would, and you're struggling. Christ is deeper than whatever you're going through. You can't see everything he's going to do, but his wisdom is deeper, and he's deeper than your troubles.
I am put here
Verse 16 contains the four most important words in this whole passage. I underlined these words in my Bible about six years ago, and they changed my life. Paul says, "I am put here." He looks at his prison, he looks at his suffering, and he declares, "I am put here." God has greater plans for us than we have for ourselves. Do you believe that? You would think what happened to Paul was a huge barrier to the advancement of the gospel. He was locked up in a prison. But this is how God was advancing his people. He had greater plans for Paul than Paul had for himself in the city of Rome.
Martin Luther said, "We pray for silver, but God gives us gold instead." We don't realize it, but often we're praying for silver. We think it's gold, but no, God has gold for us instead. Whenever God says no to you as you craft your life plans, it's because he wants to say a greater yes to you. He has better plans, bigger plans, and you must trust him. Psalm 23, the most famous psalm in the Bible, says, "The Lord is my shepherd."
A 15-year-old girl wrote this:
I have no shepherd; I need a shepherd. I am caught in the desert, I am thirsty, and no one is telling me where to go. I am lost and no one cares. I am scared of evil because I am alone. I am the strongest thing in my life. There is no greater or more powerful being to comfort or protect me. I must be alone with my enemies with no one to help me. The cup of my life and my soul are empty and dry, I seek after goodness and mercy, but never find it. I have no home, nothing is certain.
That's how we live a lot of the time. We live as though we are our own shepherd, we're all alone, God is not there. But the Lord is your shepherd, whatever you're going through. The Lord is your shepherd, not your "sugar daddy": you're not going to get everything you want. Life isn't going to go the way you want. God's not going to give you everything you want. If God was your sugar daddy, then you would really be God, because you would be the one calling the shots, making things happen the way you want them to happen. No, God is your Shepherd, and he leads you and guides you. God is sovereign, he is wise, and he is good. He's all three of those things, and you have to hold all three of those together. He is sovereign; he has total control over Silicon Valley and over this universe. He's wise; he knows what he's doing. He's smarter than you, way smarter. And he's good. He loves you. He wants the best for you.
Isaiah 55 says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my way, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts." God's ways are higher than our ways; his thoughts are higher. He knows what he's doing, and we have to trust him.
Romans 8:28 says, "And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." This is staggering. All things that happen to you, that you have done, God works together for good. That doesn't work according to our math, according to our economy. All the bad stuff, all the hard stuff, all the shame, all the guilt, all the horror—God will work it together for good because he is God, because he loves you.
J.I. Packer says this:
What matters supremely is not the fact that I know God, but the larger fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. There is unspeakable comfort in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge about the worst about me. So that no discovery now can disillusion him about me—and the way I am so often disillusioned about myself—and quench his determination to bless me.
God is committed to us, to watching over us. He will never grow disillusioned with us.
Applying this passage
Put the gospel at the center of your life.
The Bible is about God and his action towards us, his movement of grace. As we read the Bible, we want to respond properly and take appropriate action. There are three applications we should take from this passage. First, this passage only works because the gospel is what Paul cares most about most in life. If Paul cared most about comfort, he couldn't say this. If Paul's god was comfort, this would be a very different passage, because it's not comfortable to be in prison, it's not comfortable to have your plans changed around. But Paul's god is God. The gospel is at the center of Paul's life.
So the first application is this: Put the gospel at the center of your life. Put it at the center of your thinking, at the center of your emotions, at the center of your ambitions, at the center of your dreams, at the center of what you do. Idols are going to let you down. If the god of your life is comfort or control or success or approval, you're going to get let down. But if the message of Jesus is at the center of your life, you're not going to be let down. Christians are invincible, because no matter what happens to them, they still win. If Christians are killed, they get to be with Jesus. That attitude is probably easier said than done, but it's true. So put the gospel at the center of your life.
Flourish wherever you are.
Second, flourish where God puts you. God relocated some of you to Silicon Valley. God put some of you in jobs that are not your ideal job. God put some of you in states of life that you don't want to be in, whether you're married or single. Even if you're struggling and having a hard time, you've been put there. God has put you where he wants you, and he wants you to flourish there. You can respond in two ways to your circumstances. You can become a bitter person, or you can become a better person, a healthier person, a happier person. Paul responded to his circumstances by trusting that God had a plan. The only reason Paul could say, "I am put here in a prison cell in Rome," is because, years earlier, Jesus Christ could say, "I am put here on a Roman cross in Jerusalem." When Jesus' followers first looked at that cross, they thought, The plan didn't work. The Messiah who came to rescue and redeem God's people just got killed. I just saw him take his last breath. He just died. What good can come of this?
But the resurrection came three days later, and God raised his Son from the grave. At first your struggles may look like crucifixion, but resurrection is coming. It's coming soon. Whatever happens to you, you can trust that God knows what he's doing. Little gods do little things. If you believe in a little god, it's going to do little things in your current circumstances. But if you believe in a big God, you believe that God does big things. And whatever's happening to you, whatever prison you're in, whatever your circumstances, he can do big things.
Turn your prison into a pulpit.
Third, turn your prison into a pulpit. Whatever circumstances are caging you in, whatever boundaries, whatever barriers, turn them into pulpits. Use them to spread this message. People are getting saved at our church. Last week two people came to know Jesus through people ministering and sharing the gospel. It's thrilling; it's exciting. Dead people are coming alive. We're experiencing the first tremblings of a mini revival in our church and in Silicon Valley. God is saving people as the gospel is proclaimed here on Sundays, and he is saving people as you share this message with people during the week. The gospel is a life-saving message. We have to believe this. Not sharing this message is like swimming in an ocean of drowning people with 100 life preservers, but hanging on to them while people drown all around you. This message is life-saving, and I don't know why we wouldn't share it. I don't know how another week of life could go by without sharing this message with people who haven't heard it. You probably don't understand its power. Maybe you have yet to experience its power in your life. God's calling you to share it and to spread it.
A couple hundred years ago, a ship carrying a bunch of people left England, bound for the New World to start a new life. These people had great plans, but the ship entered a huge storm, hurricane-force winds, huge waves. Everyone was in the hold of the ship, trembling and afraid and scared and sick and throwing up and tossing back and forth. One brave guy came out of the hold to see what things looked like on the deck. It was pitch black, but by little bit of light from the moon, he saw the waves and the boat tilting back and forth. Then he caught a glimpse of the captain, holding the wheel. The captain looked back at the brave guy and gave him a little smirk. Then the man went back down into the hold of the ship, and he said, "I've seen the face of the captain; he is smiling. All will be well."
I don't know what prison you're in, but I've seen the face of the Captain, and he is smiling. All will be well. As we build this church together, trust this Captain. Tell other people about this Captain, because they don't know about him. They're in the hold of the ship, and they don't know about the smiling Captain.
Justin Buzzard is founder and lead pastor of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley, California.