Epistle: Philippians 1:12-14 (Pentecost 17: Series A)

Reading Time: 4 mins

The Gospel is not hampered by the faithful preacher or missionary or average Christian’s circumstances. Even prison presents itself as a forum for gospel proclamation and the making of disciples.

Having concluded fourteen consecutive weeks through the epistle to the Romans, we now embark upon successive readings in each of the four chapters of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It is a solid choice for this time in the church calendar since this book also addresses matters theological and pastoral, overlapping saving doctrine with sanctified Christian practice. This is why the Church has long regarded Philippians as divinely inspired devotional literature concentrated in the celebrated Hymn of Christ (2:6-11).

The preacher will do well to note that Philippians is an epistle, not a sermon (like Hebrews) or a polemic (like 1 John). As such, he will need to construct sermons from its content as an apostolic letter to the Church. It bears all the marks of an ancient apostolic writing, including its tripartite construction (salutation, body, and farewell) and features personal, not private, content in which the intimate relationship between Paul and the Philippian Christians is laid bare. Moreover, the Apostle’s expectation was that this letter, this “Scripture,” would be read as part of the Eucharistic gathering. So, it carries within its chapters the basic confession of Christ, a hymn, doxology, prayers, and a benediction. Thus, the reading and preaching of Philippians tends to be most at home among the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.

The first of our four lessons in Philippians, stretching from the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost to the Nineteenth, omits the Apostle’s greeting and opening “berakah” (or blessing) prayer (1:1-11). Instead, it begins with three verses (1:12-14) coupled with the bulk of the chapter to its end (verses 19-30). Altogether, the text extols the central theme of “to live is Christ,” with verse 21 standing as the central thought of the chapter within the domain of Christian living or sanctification, applicable to every person baptized into Christ.

Paul signals the first major portion of the letter and alerts his listeners (and readers) to its importance with the formal opening, “I want you to know, brothers” (1:12). This unit runs through verse 26 since verse 27 shifts to different subject matter. Notwithstanding, the two units hold well together by their context: Paul’s imprisonment and its effects on the Gospel, the Church, and Paul himself. Note the key words which emphasize confidence in the effect of Christ’s Gospel and expansion of His Kingdom: “Advance” (verse 12) and “progress” (verse 25). The “advance of the Gospel” and the “progress and joy in the faith” dispel any notion that Paul, while imprisoned, sits wringing his hands, longing for better days. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit is converting hearts and minds to the truth about Christ, the reality that is Christ, through the imprisonment of Paul. The Gospel is not hampered by the faithful preacher or missionary or average Christian’s circumstances. Even prison presents itself as a forum for gospel proclamation and the making of disciples. In fact, Paul says his imprisonment has emboldened many brothers “to speak the Word without fear” (1:14).

The Gospel is not hampered by the faithful preacher or missionary or average Christian’s circumstances. Even prison presents itself as a forum for gospel proclamation and the making of disciples.

Verses 12-18 tell the story about the effort spent during Paul’s imprisonment towards proclaiming the Gospel with the result being, “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I [Paul] rejoice” (1:15). Preachers should emphasize the efficacy of God’s Word preached and proclaimed, administered and sacramented. It is the Word of the Lord and His Word accomplishes what it says. Our favorable or unfavorable circumstances neither help nor hinder the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are words well worth remembering amidst coming contentious election seasons and an ever-shifting American socio-religious landscape. Paul stands within the epistle to the Philippians as an everlasting monument to the certainty that his imprisonment has advanced the Gospel in almost unexpected ways. Religious freedom and economic prosperity are not necessary conditions for the advance of the Gospel. Even prison provides fertile soil for the work of the Lord. Western Christians would do well to note that Paul was not “Living his best life now,” but rather was living in faith for the “advance of the Gospel,” trusting in the providences of King Jesus who, as we shall see in chapter 2, “emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant... becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:7-8).

While the preceding section concentrated on the Gospel, the next section, in verses 1:19-26, more particularly concerns itself with the effect Paul’s imprisonment has had upon the church and himself. Again, incarceration contextualizes what follows when the Apostle sets forth the reminder: “Rejoice!” Verse 18 says to “rejoice” in what has already occurred (1:12-18) and “rejoice” (verse 19) looking ahead to events yet uncertain, but now discussed in 1:19-26. In other words, Paul rejoices over what has happened, but because of his confident faith in the once-crucified-and-now-resurrected-and-reigning Christ Jesus, also over what will happen. Additionally, Paul encourages them regarding their personal concern for his welfare by reaffirming his joy. Verses 29-30 apply this disposition to the Philippians as they themselves endure a similar conflict.

Preachers in the way of Christ will understand that Paul’s fate and the destiny of the Church are inextricably bound together, just as it is with any pastor/priest who loves and cares for the sheep of the Good Shepherd. The Yoke of Christ in ministry, often symbolized by the stole of ordination, comes with intense mental conflict as articulated by Paul’s soliloquy:

“I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (1:23-24).

Pending death keeps Paul’s perspective outside of the domain of Pollyanna platitudes and grounded in reality. Lost souls need salvation and the baptized need sanctification. So, the tension is resolved:

“But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (1:25-26).

The advance of the Gospel and the progress and joy in the faith of the Philippians is “necessary,” not anything else, much less Paul’s desire to be spared additional hardship in this life for the beatific vision of Christ. Would that American Christians were of the same mind, as we see so many examples of failures in this, like Christian parents who obsess over their children’s education, career, and material belongings far more than their eternal, spiritual wellbeing, and even pastors forsaking their obligations to Christ’s Kingdom, using excuses like, “Because of COVID.” Paul taps into a dimension of freedom resultant from the Gospel, as well as a prioritization of life, that imprisonment could not hinder and about which American Christianity knows very little. Preach it! Preach it boldly, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake” (1:29).


Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching Philippians 1:12-14.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!