Gospel Irony: When the Gospel Prevails in Unlikely Places

from Apr 25, 2015 Category: Articles

What better symbol of Roman strength and power than the awe-inspiring Praetorian Guard. These were the Navy Seals of their day. These were the renowned Seal Team Six. So powerful were they that the Caesars feared a military coupe by them at any time. Ironic, since the Praetorian Guard was established to serve as the personal protection team for the Caesars in the first place.

If you want a symbol of Roman power and strength look no further than the Praetorian or Imperial Guard. We could take this one step further. It was this world of Roman power into which Christ came, in which the Apostles ministered, in which the New Testament authors wrote, and in which Christianity came into being. And to all of those things, Rome stood opposed, violently opposed.

How delightfully ironic, in light of all of this, are the words of Paul in Philippians 1:12-13:

But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ.

We can take this one step further still. Paul himself is a delightful gospel irony. I suspect any early Christian would shudder at the mere mention of the name Saul. In fact, they precisely did. And yet the gospel penetrated Paul’s stone-cold heart. Paul’s rage-filled eyes were opened to the truth, beauty, and joy of the gospel.

Is there a lesson in this for us today? There are ardent, veins-popping-in-their-forehead, opponents to the gospel today. They do not wear the uniform of a highly trained, elite force. But they write op-ed columns, hold forth in lecture halls, and occupy seats of power. Do we sometimes think that the gospel is not powerful enough to prevail?

It is interesting to see the ripple effects of Paul’s witness and the gospel’s inroad to the Praetorian Guard.

Philippians 4:22 references fellow believers in “Caesar’s household.” The Caesar at the time was Nero, one of the most notorious megalomaniacs ever to rule upon the earth. There in his very household were followers of Christ.

Philippians 1:16 declares, “and most of the brothers in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Paul’s boldness was contagious. These Christians were in Rome, the seat of power. They were directly under the shadow of Nero. Yet, stirred on by Paul’s example, they were bold in the preaching of the gospel.

Of course, Paul takes the time to tell the Philippians of what is happening in Rome so that the believers there in Philippi will also be emboldened to proclaim the gospel.

These are the ripple effects of Paul’s confidence in the gospel as he boldly declared it to the Praetorian Guard.

There are many who are telling us the time is coming in our American context that might very well resemble the times of the first century for the first-century church. The opposition is mounting. The foe is formidable. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe already find themselves in situations not unlike Paul and the first-century Christians. Their “Praetorian Guard” is a force to be reckoned with. Despite that, they preach the gospel.

The question then is, what about us? Will we cower? Will we think the gospel is not powerful enough, that the gospel is not able to prevail? Will we think the opposition and the persecutors don’t need, or worse, don’t deserve the gospel?

We need not even be so dramatic. We know of neighbors, family members, close friends who are seemingly impervious to the gospel. Paul’s experience with the Praetorian Guard should serve to give us hope and courage. We take courage in this: the gospel prevails in unlikely places.

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.