As we stand on the threshold of transition from one year of challenges to another, I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a fresh sense of real hope and purpose. Something impossible, in our very broken world, without a perspective outside of my prone-to-negativity self and bleak-at-best circumstances. I am coming to realize that the only way to successfully and sweetly “turn the page” on a tough time is to realize that “the page” is a small but key part of the bigger and harmonious GOSPEL STORY! In the first chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul’s friends were apparently quite concerned about him, thinking he was discouraged and that God’s plan had gone awry. Not so, the apostle responded. In verse 19, faith-filled Paul actually declares, “I know that this SHALL TURN to my salvation through…the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” In other words, Paul wanted the believers at Philippi and us reading it today to learn an important truth: there are no accidental moments or seasons with God.
In a world reeling from a yet another tough year, how do we allow God to convince us to move forward in His grander story? It requires us, as imprisoned Paul so wisely models, allowing Gospel light to be shined on three annual challenges in our fallen world:
The Gospel on Your Chains
Ph 1:12-14 “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
First of all, we must turn the page on our chained circumstances. Paul wants the Philippians to be informed that his chains did not curtail the gospel, but actually advanced it. Paul’s challenges turned out just the reverse of what might have been expected. This word “furtherance” pictures the pioneer cutting a way before an army and thus furthering its advance. Since when does the CIRCUMSTANCES WE WOULD CHOOSE alone position us for spiritual success…in fact, the exact opposite is often true! As Tertullian reminds us from antiquity, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” By running away from or chafing under the chains of God-assigned restriction, you are missing God-enabled opportunities for the Gospel to BE UNLEASHED IN YOUR LIFE! Change your mind set where 2021 lingers/continues to “restrict you” going into the new year!
Secondly, turn the page where your expanded influence has felt chained. In verse 13, Paul states that his chains actually expanded, not diminished his apostolic witness. As Drury concludes, “The very chain which Roman discipline riveted on the prisoner’s arm secured to his side a hearer who would tell the story of patient suffering for Christ, among those who, the next day, might be in attendance on Nero himself!” At some point, you have to choose between a pursuit of an EASY LIFE and an INCREASINGLY-EVANGELISTIC LIFE. You cannot have it both ways! Paul adds in verse 14 that not only did his own witness but the witness of others was emboldened by his heaven-sanctioned chains. Large numbers of believers became bold for Christ when they saw how God was spreading the gospel through Paul. Paul’s confinement was doing what his circumstances outside of prison could never do! If it is ALL ABOUT YOU, then you will resent God-assigned chains. If it is ALL ABOUT THE EVER-EXPANDING CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST, then you rejoice in any chain that helps the leadership bench to grow much deeper! We will never inspire the next wave of leaders by pursuing personal comfort at all costs and bemoaning, with a woe-is-me mindset, the slightest ministry inconveniences. Would you choose to see our limitations and hindrances as a blessing from God to showcase resilience and grit that enlists a whole new army of gospel-centered leaders?
The Gospel on Your Haters
Ph 1:15-19 “Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”
With “the haters,” start by intentionally turning the page on their less-than-sincere motives. Notice first that in the midst of all the negative circumstances and critics, Paul took the time to notice and commend those who loved on him (15b, 17). For those who were insincere, Paul did not accuse them of presenting “another gospel,” it seems that they were believers who for some unknown reason did not love the apostle or appreciate his work. They appear to be doctrinally sound, but they promoted themselves. Though Paul could see through their motives, others, oblivious to these same motives, were benefitting…and Paul celebrated that result instead of focusing upon exposing ulterior motives!!! Only when our lives are all about the gospel of Jesus can we let go of the haters and their motives BECAUSE WE ARE CONSUMED WITH THE MISSION OF THE GOSPEL AND THE REPUTATION OF JESUS!
The second way to properly process the haters in a way that frees you up to enter the new year in a God-honoring fashion is to focus upon what He is PRODUCING through their even hate. In verse 18, Paul did not rejoice because there was a faction among members of Christ’s body, for this brought him grief. Instead, it was the preaching of Christ that brought him joy. What if 2021, with all of its haters, was the beginning of GOD’S ANSWER to our PRAYER FOR REACHING THE WHOLE WORLD “with the same problem” WITH THE GOSPEL? The means which God will use in effecting the apostle’s release, in verse 19, will be the prayer of the Philippians and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. MacDonald concludes, “Marvel here at the importance which Paul puts on the prayers of a feeble band of believers. He sees them as sufficiently powerful to thwart the purposes and the mighty power of Rome. It is true; Christians can influence the destiny of nations and change the course of history through prayer.” Ultimately our success or failure is not determined by the haters or us “getting the upper hand.” We serve a God who can use anyone and anything to accomplish His will in our lives!! Would you live in the new year with that prayerful confidence!
The Gospel on Your Vulnerabilities
Ph 1:20-26 “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again.”
Begin by turning the page on your sense of vulnerable existence. Why were 2020 and 2021 so hard? We grieved a lot of experiences, moments, and even people we lost and, as a result, felt extremely vulnerable! Paul was not sure whether he would experience release or martyrdom for his faith. He was certain of one thing though, that he wanted Christ to be exalted in his body either way. Paul’s concern was not what would happen to him but what testimony would be left for his Lord. Release would allow him to continue preaching Christ. But martyrdom would also advance the cause of Christ. Here, in a nutshell, is Paul’s philosophy of life. We do not ordinarily think of death as one of our gain, but it truly is when it is about the Gospel! Sad to say, the outlook today seems to be that “to live is earthly gain, and to die would be the end of gain.” If all we tried to do in 2021 was avoid death at all costs, we missed out on much of WHAT GOD WANTED US TO BE AND DO! What a tough year right after another tough year does is cause us to become acutely aware of how vulnerable we are to threats and how dependent we are upon the Lord. What is a better setup for a dynamic new year in the Lord?!
Lastly, we must allow the Lord to help us transition into the new year in the midst of much internal, unresolved tension that leaves us feeling vulnerable. Contemplating the possibility of either release or the sword, Paul is prevented from inclining in either direction. His personal desire is to “depart” (the word pictures a vessel weighing anchor or a soldier breaking camp) and be with Christ. The greater obligation, though, is to continue on in this present life. Personal desire gives way to spiritual need. Ultimately Paul does not venture to decide between the alternatives but will leave it with the Lord! Often we despise living with tension so much that we WOULD RATHER MAKE THE WRONG DECISION than LIVE WITH THE TENSION THAT IS A PART OF WAITING ON THE LORD! (We will never turn the page in a God-honoring way until we lose this tendency!) In verse 26, new confidence of his release appears to have come to Paul. By his release and return to them they would progress in the faith and would experience great joy. What’s the takeaway for the twenty-first century believer? We must learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable! For many reading this post the imminent rapture is used as an excuse for not owning/allowing God to redeem the life-the life filled with perpetual tensions-we are called to still live as a minister of the Gospel!
As Philip Nation wisely concludes for us standing at the crucial moment in human history, “As Christians, we should wear signs that read: The beginning (NOT THE END) is near!” With Jesus Christ in the picture, we are part of a “page turner” story that, yes, includes some tough moments, including His cross and ours-partly born in this tough year! Don’t lose hope. Let’s ask God to help us turn the page and embrace all that He intends to accomplish in and through us in 2022 AS A RESULT OF WHAT HE DID LAST YEAR! Will you ask God to help you move forward from 2021 by shining His gospel light upon your (and others) past CHAINS, HATERS, and VULNERABILITIES?