The Advance of the Gospel
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”- Philippians 1:12–13
Tertullian, the first of the ancient church fathers to use the term Trinitas, or “Trinity,” is often credited with saying, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Paradoxically, it often seems that the church grows most rapidly whenever the state attempts to stamp it out. From the Roman persecution of the early Christians to Bloody Mary’s crackdown during the Reformation to the current communist oppression of the church in China, God has used the suffering of His people to bear effective witness to the truth of His Word.
This was certainly true of the apostolic era as well, as today’s passage illustrates. We have seen that in writing to the Philippians, one of Paul’s chief aims was to let the church in Philippi know how he was doing while in a Roman prison. Although the Philippian Christians might have expected otherwise, the apostle’s time behind bars was not hindering his ministry but rather advancing it. The “whole imperial guard,” in fact, had become aware that his imprisonment resulted from following Jesus Christ above all other lords, including the caesar (Phil. 1:12–13).
Paul would have been supervised in four-hour shifts by different members of the imperial guard, which was the famous Praetorian Guard, tasked with protecting the emperor and other important officials in ancient Rome. The apostle was chained directly to these soldiers even though he was allowed to stay in his own residence and receive visitors (Acts 28:30–31), giving him ample opportunity to share the gospel with his guards. Word undoubtedly spread rapidly about this strange Jew from Tarsus who believed that a crucified rabble-rouser in backward Palestine was in fact the Creator and Lord of all.
Matthew Henry comments on today’s passage: “A strange chemistry of Providence this, to extract so great a good as the advance of the gospel out of so great an evil as the confinement of the apostle.” Indeed, it seems odd that God chooses what is lowly and unexpected to advance that which is glorious (1 Cor. 1:18–31), for that is certainly not how we would do things if given the chance. But the Lord delights to show Himself in our weakness so that His glory might be seen unambiguously, and we should look to advance His purposes even as we suffer for His sake.
Our suffering for the sake of Jesus is actually an occasion for great joy, not for the pain in itself but because it is at our weakest points that God decides to show Himself the strongest. As we consider those who are suffering for the gospel around the world, we should pray that the gospel would go forth in the midst of their trouble. And we should likewise ask the Lord to make us shining lights for Him when we endure scorn for His name.
Passages for Further Study
2 Timothy 2:8–9