Before I came to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I attended a church mostly of immigrants from India. During one of our fellowship meals, a friend of mine approached me and asked me to pray for his brother. I told him that of course I would, and asked what happened. He told me that his brother needed to be moved to a better hospital—he had been beat up by some men at work who found out he was a Christian pastor and was still in critical condition. I said, “Oh, that's terrible! I’m so sorry.” He said, “Yes, it really is, but just pray that he will get better soon so he can go out and preach the gospel again."
There’s a man here in one of my church history courses who’s doing his PhD in Christian social work. He’s from a city in Nigeria where there's currently rampant persecution by Boko Haram (a fringe, but intense, group that aims to establish a Muslim state and wipe out Christians). Almost weekly, his family will post videos that are horrific: Christians weeping as bulldozers dig mass graves, because nineteen men, women, and children have been killed, and now their village has to bury them all. Yet when this man is asked “Why are you in a class that has nothing to do with your degree?” he says, “I want to go back and be a seminary professor in my city, so I have to learn everything I can.”
I don't have any way to account for the courage of these two men apart from the grace of God, and that grace is one of the prevailing themes of Philippians, which the Apostle Paul is writing as he's in prison. He's trying to explain what it looks like to faithfully undergo persecution.
In our current situation in the US, Paul’s words might feel a little bit remote. The kinds of opposition we face are incredibly mild—being blocked on social media, having an awkward conversation with your boss after sharing the gospel with a coworker. The interesting thing is that, at the time of Paul’s writing, the Philippians were in a position closer to ours than to our international brothers and sisters’.
At that point, Christians in Philippi weren't actually facing intense, systemic persecution. Resistance, if it came at all, was more from personal contexts. Some people were likely enjoying a certain level of popularity as the gospel spread like wildfire through area. So, in this moment, the Philippians were not necessarily writing to ask Paul for advice on how to withstand their terrible situation, but rather asking him, “What's happening to you?” They care about his well-being. He’s their beloved brother.
Paul gives them an answer, but he doesn't leave the focus on himself. He talks about his thankfulness for the Philippian church and their care for him—then he makes an absolute beeline to the gospel. He rejoices because that gospel is being preached no matter what persecution he personally faces. Ultimately, we’ll see through Philippians 1:12-18 that believers can rejoice amidst any persecution because the driving hope of our lives is an unstoppable gospel.
The Gospel Is Aided from Persecution from Outsiders
Paul gives us two specific, surprising circumstances in which the gospel proves itself to be unstoppable, circumstances in which we can rejoice. Firstly, we can rejoice because the gospel is aided from persecution from outsiders.
(Read Phil. 1:13-14)
In these two verses, Paul tells of three groups of people who are affected by his faithful endurance of persecution in the name of the gospel. The first is group is his actual persecutors.
As he’s writing, Paul is stuck in a place called the praetorium, which is where the Roman imperial guard would hold all the prisoners who had personally appealed to Caesar to judge their case. This was not at all a fun place to be. It was dark; there was no food provided—you had to rely on whatever your friends might provide for you. Most radically, you were stuck in chains, shackled on both wrists to two different guards—one on the right hand, one on the left—who would rotate every four hours.
It’s no wonder that we see an emphasis on chains throughout this passage. Paul says in verse 13 that his “imprisonment is for Christ.” That word, “imprisonment,” which he uses throughout the passage—in 13, 14, and 16, as well—a literal translation would be the word “chains”: “It has become known that my chains are for Christ.” The chains on his wrists are at the front of his mind—one of the most painfully concrete parts of his life in the moment. At the same time, he says they are specifically “for Christ,” because those chains were a key means of sharing the gospel with those soldiers.
Think about it, those guards are on-shift for four hours. They have little better to do than talk to their prisoners, asking, “What are you in for? What did you do?” Paul is then able to say, “I'm here because I believe that this man named Jesus is the true savior of the world, the true emperor of all people.”
Bold words like these may have even drawn a kind of grudging admiration from these soldiers, because Roman military culture was centered on loyalty, stoicism, and bravery for a set of ideals, no matter the cost. In the soldiers’ case, it was dedication to Caesar. In Paul's case, however, he has dedicated heart and soul to the advancement of this good news of the reign of Jesus.
There's a key difference, however, in the manner that Paul is expressing his loyalty for his leader versus the way that the soldiers would have expressed theirs. Roman culture held a real sense of need for vengeance—just like many non-Western cultures still do. Revenge, they thought, preserved honor—honor for yourself, honor for your family or Rome. If someone stabbed you, you stabbed them back. If you were about to face humiliating defeat where you couldn’t preserve or regain your honor, you stabbed yourself and committed suicide.
Paul is not doing that. He's not trying to win vengeance against his captors, and he's not trying to commit angry suicide—yet he’s not giving up, either. Instead, he is showing the witness of a Christian who actively loves his persecutors. He's declaring a message that he says will save them. That would be wildly confusing to those soldiers, just as it's still confusing to many persecutors today. The strangeness of the message would have made it clear to them.
In the second half of verse 13, this message would go beyond the persecutors. Paul says, “It's become known to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Who are “the rest?” Most likely, they’re the other prisoners. They get to see, as they experience the same miserable conditions as Paul, that this imprisonment is only motivating him to cling closer to Jesus. That courage can be a transformative thing to witness, even now.
I think of the case of Matthew Ayariga, a Ghanaian man who was beheaded by ISIS in 2015 along with twenty Egyptian fisherman. Each of the twenty Egyptians identified as a Coptic Christian and refused to convert to Islam when given the opportunity. Matthew wasn’t previously known to identify as a Christian whatsoever—but when these extremists asked him whether he wanted to escape death by converting, it’s been told that he said, “No. Their God is my God.” He died alongside the others.
There are dozens of examples throughout church history where bystanders, who had nothing to do with Christ, see the love and the fortitude of Christians, and they step forward to say, “Their God is my God!” Paul knows that his prison is full of potential witnesses like this.
But there’s a third group that he speaks of in verse 14. He says, “Most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” How does one believer become more confident in the Lord through another’s persecution and imprisonment? Well, it’s a powerful chance to see those who have gone before.
Remember, most of these Philippians have not yet seen what persecution from the authorities looks like. They know the example of Christ’s crucifixion, and have heard of the stories of brave men like Stephen. Some may have already faced personal backlash, but most of them are still trying to figure out, “What will persecution look like within our own church?”
Now, they see that Paul, no matter what he’s facing, is being faithful. So, they’re bold, all of a sudden: If God can sustain Paul in his troubles, he can sustain them in theirs.
This can be an encouragement to those of us in our current context here in the US. There may be some more vocal opposition against Christian orthodoxy now than there was a decade ago, whether it’s from social media, from our social circles, or from the government. But I don’t think the answer to that is for Christians to buy some cheap land in the middle of the Bible Belt and have our church members form some kind of compound and never see a non-Christian ever again. That won’t keep us safe, because that’s not true safety. Rather, we can speak of Jesus where we are, lovingly and without fear, because we have seen others do it— people who are dealing with the ugliest depths of persecution, even unto death.
The Gospel will Triumph over Opposition from ‘Insiders’
There’s another reason that we need to be careful against relying on anything except for Christ’s own gospel for our safety. Some of these insiders that we might be inclined to “bring into our compound,” as it were, are not actually preaching Christ from a faithful heart.
This brings us to our second point: Paul says that we can not only rejoice when we face persecution from outsiders, but also when we face opposition from so-called “insiders,” because the gospel will triumph, regardless of the motivation of those insiders.
(Read Philippians 1:16-17)
We see two categories of people in these verses. The first are those faithful preachers who have become bold to speak about Jesus, and they preach from love. They’re driven by the sense of worth of the God that they’re proclaiming. They love Paul, their brother, and they want to stand in the gap that’s left in his absence. If Paul is stuck in prison for the defense of the gospel, these guys want to go play on offense, and they’re no longer afraid. It’s a joy to know that wherever the gospel is preached, there will be people transformed by it, who will be willing to stand in that gap.
The other category Paul speaks of are those who preach out of a false motivation. He says that they “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” There’s some debate as to the group of people that Paul is identifying, here. The first idea is that they’re non-Christians who are just trying to wipe out the gospel entirely. I don’t believe that option makes the most sense. Paul doesn’t say that what they’re preaching is false or twisted in any way. He says that “Christ is being preached,” meaning their doctrine is sound enough to present the truth of Jesus. If anyone is attuned to the line between true and false doctrine—if anyone is passionate about that line—it’s Paul. If Paul isn’t warning against falsehood, it’s pretty safe to assume that their content is spot-on. Why would someone put in the work to understand and spread the true gospel if they wanted to make it less popular?
Rather, verse 18 says these people’s motivations are what is untrue. They want to proclaim Christ out of “selfish ambition.” So, I think it’s more likely that he’s talking about Christian-identifying people. They’re trying to take advantage of this short-term season of popularity for Christian ideas in places like the city of Philippi. They want recognition, and the more they preach, the more they’ll get that. What’s more, this scramble for recognition would serve to diminish Paul, who’s in a place where the reported spread of his message might result in harsher consequences.
You can likely think of a person you know who preaches Christ for the sake of self— sadly, it’s probably not just through podcast exposés on celebrity pastors. Almost all of us have known a pastor caught in an affair, a ministry leader caught in embezzlement. Inexcusable things, apart from the Cross. If they do not repent, by the blood of Christ, they will pay the price, most severely. Even in these cases, when it’s so painfully close to our hearts, we can be rest assured that the gospel doesn’t depend on the character of the speaker.
Paul most certainly doesn’t despair. In fact, what he says in verse 18 is “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
It says, “What then?” Another way of translating that is, “So what?” He’s saying, “So what? I don’t care. What does it matter that these people are trying to afflict me?” The reason that it doesn’t matter to Paul is that he’s simply gospel-obsessed. As Gordon Fee says, that’s his meat and potatoes. It’s the pervading motivation of his life—a complete obsession. It’s that gospel obsession that teaches us all how to handle opposition both inside and outside of the church.
Look at Paul’s humility in this situation. He doesn’t mind what happens to him as long as the gospel advances. Within the church, especially, we need to learn to operate like this; there’s good reason why Philippians 2 is so focused on the humility within the body of Christ. When someone tries to give you a slight within the church, to soil your name, or is just grumbling at you in the parking lot on a particularly cold morning, do you still see them as partners in God’s plan for advancing the gospel? Can you subsume everything to the fact that they, too, are proclaiming, or at least professing, to be a child of the living God? That partnership comes first. We must bear with one another. When there’s trouble in the church, we must act with humility and grace. In short, we must act like the church.
What about when we, as Christians, face external trouble? If the answer to internal trouble is “be the church,” the answer to external trouble is pretty much the same: act as a faithful member of the church.
I think a great example of this is the minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned for his work against the Nazis and their twisted state-run church system. He was especially well-known for the joy and good cheer he showed in his imprisonment, including his enthusiastic singing. One day, he was led outside to the prison courtyard, stripped naked, and hanged—a young life ended. Surely, it must be a courageous type of guy who would go so far as to die for his convictions like that. Yet his family and childhood friends recorded that, as a boy, Bonhoeffer was actually very quiet and easygoing. He didn’t have a Christian upbringing, and he wasn’t known for his particularly deep convictions. But he explains himself to us, in a way, when he writes, “How can one be faithful in much, if one is not faithful in little?” There was his pattern. He wanted to be faithful in whatever he was working with, so he started, as a younger minister, to be faithful in smaller things—pursuing community, defending doctrine, upholding justice. As he built that habit, it made sense to him to do the next faithful thing. He followed that habit to the grave. Faithful in little; faithful in much.
So, the question is, what are you going to do, right now, with the little that you face? Are you willing to take the risk of being blasted on Twitter? Are you willing to have a serious talk about Jesus on the chance of losing a dear friendship? Wherever we are, whether facing the horrors of bulldozed graves or the embarrassment of an awkward conversation, we’re called to stand in Christ’s name. And we can stand—what’s more, we can rejoice— amidst any persecution, because the driving hope of our lives is an unstoppable gospel.
Tori Campbell is in her final year of the MDiv program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She has written for The Gospel Coalition, David C Cook, and The Yale Logos.Find her on Twitter at @solideotoria.