For many of us, life seems to have been put on hold. Since there’s no travel, work projects are paused, and everything’s online until at least the end of April, life’s not as we want it to be. It feels like we’re waiting for COVID to end so that we can resume normal transmission.
The Apostle Paul must have felt similar frustrations. He was imprisoned for preaching the gospel; his church planting efforts stalled. You could easily imagine him praying, “God, why have you allowed this to happen? I was doing so much effective work for your kingdom. I’m wasting time sitting in this prison.”
But that’s not what he prays. Instead, he writes, “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” (Phil. 1:12-14).
Notice three things:
First, God is always sovereign. Paul uses the word “actually”. As he looks back on the terrible chain of events that led him to prison, Paul can see that despite appearances, God is still in control. Often when circumstances don’t go the way we want, we think, “I can’t see any good reasons why this should happen. Therefore, there are no good reasons why this should happen.” We assume that God should make things happen the same way that we would. However, Paul realises that God is always at work even when we can’t see how, and that evil circumstances have “actually” been used for God’s purposes.
Second, nothing stops the spread of the gospel. You’d think that being chained to elite praetorian guards would muzzle Paul; that he’d be subdued, suppressed, and silenced. Instead, a new context for gospel proclamation was found. The whole palace knew that Paul was in chains for Christ. Maybe we think that there are places where the gospel can’t go: the family dining table, the boardroom, the confines of isolation and social distancing, or atheist regimes. But the gospel never stops. God will have his gospel spread and uses the willingness and obedience of his people to proclaim it.
Third, is the fruitfulness of Christian suffering. Paul refuses to take the path of self-pity. He doesn’t describe the effects of the chains upon himself, but their effect upon others. Think about the discussion amongst the guards: “What makes this guy so joyful and hopeful? Who is this person Jesus that he speaks about?”. Look at the emboldening effect that Paul’s example had on other Christians: they dare to proclaim the gospel without fear.
There are lots of things that we can’t do right now. But just as Paul’s life wasn’t paused, neither is ours. God is concerned about how we use our time, talents, and opportunities for his purposes. There’s no use saying to him, “Well, I was waiting for the end of COVID”. Don’t waste this time. Let’s prayerfully commit ourselves to his service today and hereafter.