12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Bethany Hamilton was one of the brightest up and coming stars that the sport of surfing had to offer—that is until a 14-foot tiger shark attacked her off the coast of Hawaii when she was thirteen years old. Bethany lost her left arm to the attack and nearly bled to death. As she fought her way back from the attack, Bethany became an inspiration to thousands of people—many of whom were children who had also lost or been born without a limb/limbs. She was able to demonstrate perseverance, faith, and hope in the midst of an unimaginable hardship. When asked later about that fateful day, Bethany responded that she wouldn’t change what had happened because, without the attack that took her arm, she wouldn’t have been in a position to impact all those people that had found hope in her story. She would go through it all again if it meant helping others.
This is what Paul is saying: “Yes, I’m in prison, but being in prison has given me the opportunity to reach people with the Gospel that I wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. So it’s worth it.” Paul knows that every circumstance that happens in his life is an opportunity to share the Gospel, and to Paul, that is what is most important. If he’s free, he’ll travel around and share the Gospel. If he’s imprisoned, he’ll joyfully witness to the guards and the other prisoners—emboldening his brothers and sisters outside of prisoner to share the Gospel all the more confidently. If others preach the Gospel but have some hidden agenda or selfish motive, it doesn’t matter because the Gospel is being preached and God will use that to save souls. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus implores his hearers to “seek first the kingdom of heaven.” Paul embodies this. He eats, drinks, sleeps and sweats the Gospel. It is in his veins. It is what he lives for. But why?
How did Paul get to this point?
Paul didn’t always think like this. He didn’t always live like this. Before he was so radically transformed by the Gospel, Paul’s life looked a lot different. Many of you know the story. His birth name was Saul. He was a Jew. Born into the full fledges of a religious culture. He grew up studying the books of Moses and adhering strictly to Levitical law. As he grew in knowledge, he also grew in religious zeal. In his own words, he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Our first introduction to Saul comes in Acts 7 as Stephen is being stoned and it says that the witnesses laid down their garments at his feet …and Saul approved of the execution. Sort of an ominous character introduction, but it gives us an idea what type of guy Saul was. He was literally leading the charge against the early church. Acts 8 says, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Now fast forward to his prison cell in Philippi and Paul says with unwavering conviction, “What has happened to me has served to advance the Gospel and for this, I rejoice.”
This is what happened to Paul. He saw something so beautiful, so captivating, and so magnificent that it trumped everything he thought he knew. In Acts 13, Paul (Saul at the time) is on his way to Damascus, presumably to find more Christians to persecute, when all of a sudden a great light from heaven shines around him and drops him to his knees and a voice begins to speak to him saying, “Saul why are you persecuting me? Paul responds, “Lord, who are you?” To which the voice replies, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
This is what so radically altered the trajectory of his life. He saw the magnificent beauty of Christ and it transformed every aspect of his life. No longer could he value what he used to value. No longer could he see things the way the rest of the world did. Encountering Jesus literally flipped everything he thought he knew on its head. And it ought to do the same to us.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes this experience for us as Christians. Ephesians 2:1-5 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved.”
That’s it. That’s what transformed Paul’s life. That’s the Gospel. That life is found in Jesus Christ and nothing else. We were dead in our sins, chasing after meaningless “treasures.” And Jesus saved us by dying in our place—taking the penalty for our sins so that we could be in relationship with God.
Paul experienced the love of God through Jesus Christ and it taught/empowered him to love others in return. And he knew that nothing was more important for others than for them to hear the good news. So he gave his life to it. He sought first the kingdom of heaven…even if it meant prison or death.
Have you been so transformed by the beauty of Christ and God’s radical love for you that you could rejoice like Paul even in the midst of difficult circumstances? Do you recognize your own trials as an opportunity to share the Gospel with others and emboldened the faith of your brothers and sisters in the faith? Take some time today to reflect on God’s love for you and ask Him to continue to transform you by it…and that a “Paul-like” passion for reaching others with the message of that love would flow out of you.
Father God, give me the strength to endure difficult circumstances for Jesus’ glory. Transform my heart. Help me to proclaim the Gospels excellencies in all situations. Embolden me for the life of mission you have called me to, whether in the church or my home. In Jesus’ good name.