2020 was a year filled with difficulty, frustration, tension, and sorrow, to the point where people could not wait for it to be over. As we welcome in the new year, however, we realize that changing our calendars did not make the problems disappear, in fact, in some ways, 2021 so far has been worse.
The Apostle Paul, in the wake of a difficult period in his life, wrote something in his letter to the Philippians, which can help us with our outlook on times like these:
"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel" (Philippians 1:12).
This statement is particularly surprising when you consider what things Paul is referring to here that had happened to him:
What Had Happened to Paul?
When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he was being held as a prisoner in Rome.
Prior to his arrest, Paul had spent years traveling around the Roman Empire as missionary: preaching the gospel and starting churches, and training others to do the same. But then, some people who wanted to hinder Paul’s work and hinder the spread of the gospel, started spreading fake news that Paul was an anti-government revolutionary. As a result, Paul was arrested.
While under arrest, Paul was no longer able to travel the world to advance the gospel. Because of corruption in the judicial system, Paul was left in prison for several years, until he appealed his case to the Roman supreme court, which is how he came to be in Rome at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Paul was under house arrest, awaiting trial, and chained to Roman soldiers 24 hours a day.
With those details in mind, consider again what Paul wrote to the Philippians:
"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel" (Philippians 1:12)
The things which had happened to Paul were:
• The loss of his freedom
• False accusations
• Suffering at the hands of corrupt officials.
It would be easy to look at those circumstances and conclude that these things which had happened to Paul were preventing him from advancing the gospel, but Paul says, "No. Everything that has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”
Being under house arrest had obvious limitations, but it also afforded Paul some unique opportunities.
One of those opportunities was: down time, and Paul used that time to pen four letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which are now part of our New Testament canon, and for the past two millennia have been used by God to bring encouragement and instruction to those who read them.
Another unique opportunity this situation gave him, was that Paul was chained to members of Caesar Nero’s Imperial Guard for 24 hours a day, the soldiers being changed out on shifts. Rather than seeing himself as restrained, however, Paul viewed this as an evangelist’s dream! It was not that he was chained to soldiers, Paul thought, but those soldiers were chained to him! For hours at a time, he had a soldier’s undivided attention, and when their time was up, a new soldier would be brought in and chained to him. Paul viewed himself as a missionary to those people in that place. I imagine Paul’s biggest struggle must have been finding time to sleep because he was so excited to make new friends and tell them about Jesus.
Some of these guards, Paul tells us, became Christians. If Paul had not been in custody, but had rather knocked on the door of Caesar’s Palace and said, “Hi, I’m Paul, I’d like to talk to you about your sins and convert you to Christianity,” they would have slammed the door in his face, but because of what happened to him: the injustice, the slander, and the corruption, Paul now had unique opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel which he could not have had otherwise.
Paul was able to see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity, and he wanted his readers to develop that mindset as well.
Paul’s Mindset In Our Situation
The events of the past year have been difficult and uncomfortable for all of us, from the pandemic, to the racial and political tensions, the economic hardships, the isolation, and the online fatigue – and it’s not over yet. It is worth asking ourselves: How would the Apostle Paul have looked at this situation? And how would he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have encouraged us to view these circumstances? Would he not have encouraged us to view this situation through the eyes of faith, knowing that all of these difficulties have presented us with unique opportunities for the furtherance of the gospel, and that “what has happened has really served the furtherance of the gospel”?
God has placed us who are believers here for such a time as this. May we be faithful to steward this great gospel message in a world that needs it, and may we see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity for the furtherance of the gospel.