As Paul faced his court trial in Rome, he was held under horrible conditions (see Philippians 1:13-14). He was guarded around the clock by soldiers of the Praetorian guard, his feet chained to a soldier on either side. These men were crude, hardened, cursing frequently. They’d seen it all, and to them in their line of work, every jailed man was a guilty criminal, including Paul.
Think about it: Here was a man who had been very active, loving to travel the open road and high seas to meet and fellowship with God’s people. Paul drew his greatest joy from visiting the churches he had established throughout that region of the world. But now he was chained down, literally bound to the hardest, most profane men alive.
Paul had two options in his situation. He could spin out into a morbid, sour mood, asking the same self-centered question over and over: “Why me?” He could crawl into a pit of despair, reasoning himself into a hopeless depression, completely consumed with the thought, “Here I am bound up, with my ministry shut down, while others out there enjoy a harvest of souls. Why?”
Instead, Paul chose to ask, “How is my present situation going to bring glory to Christ? How can great good come out of my trial?” This servant of God made up his mind: “Now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20).
Paul’s attitude demonstrates the only way we can be emancipated from our dark pit of unhappiness and worry. You see, it’s possible to waste all our tomorrows anxiously waiting to be delivered out of our suffering. If that becomes our focus, we’ll totally miss the miracle and joy of being emancipated in our trial.
Consider Paul’s statement: “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Paul is saying, “Don’t pity me or think I’m discouraged over my future. And please don’t say my work is finished. Yes, I’m in chains and suffering, but the gospel is being preached through it all.”
There’s a common misconception about Jesus’ famous words in John about the sheep, the shepherd and the thief. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:1,7-10, ESV).
Now normally, if we consider the thief, we think that means he’s going to tempt us, to fill our hearts with lust, greed, anger and strife. If we consider the context, though, that’s not exactly what this passage is saying. In John chapter nine, Jesus had just healed a blind man in the temple, and the religious leaders — all of the people trying to come into the kingdom of heaven through a religious, rule-keeping way — were saying that Jesus’ work was from the Devil and not of God. They really didn’t like Christ saying that he was the way, the only way, to God.
There’s a way to get back into abundant life. If you’ve wandered and you want to get back to the freedom you had in Christ, that’s a dangerous thing in the Devil’s mind.
You may be in confusion, guilt or condemnation and not living in the victory that Christ has given us. That’s when the thief comes along and says, “You want to go back? I’m going to help you return, and here’s how. We’ll find another way in. We’ll find some religious system, some law-keeping, some works of the flesh so you can come back in your own strength.”
That will kill and steal from us and destroy us. Christ is the only way, our only saving grace and we must embrace that powerful truth.
Years ago when I first planted the church in Detroit, we started a prayer meeting on a Friday night. It was two ladies who prayed, one guy who just sat there and read the Bible, a demoniac who was manifesting in the corner, and me sitting there, thinking, “This is the worst prayer meeting in the nation, and if I weren’t the pastor, I wouldn’t come.”
Now these two ladies found a man on the street who had just gotten beat up the night before and had three broken ribs. They told him, “You’re going to come to our prayer meeting, and you’re going to be healed at that prayer meeting.”
So they walk in and tell me, “Pastor, we brought a man who’s going to be healed.” I thought, “Not at this prayer meeting.” On top of that, I didn’t even feel like I was good at praying for people to be healed. I felt like so many times I would lay hands on somebody, and nothing would happen. Just to cover myself, I would throw in things like, “God, let them be healed, if it’s your will.”
Not only that but the Apostle Paul backs me up! “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, ESV, emphasis added).
So the guy with the broken ribs says, “Yeah, I want to be healed.”
I think, “Oh, great…” I lay hands on him, so do the ladies and even the Bible reading guy. He’s groaning. I say, “God, the real healing he needs is of the heart, but if it’s your will (there’s the fine print), heal him.” It wasn’t even a good prayer.
The guy suddenly pats himself down. “I’m healed.”
I say, “No, you’re not.”
He starts tearing off bandages, saying, “I’m serious. I’m healed. Punch me!”
I’m beside myself. “Oh my gosh, it works! This is amazing.”
This is why I love what William Cowper said back in the 1700s: “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon their knees.” Prayer is not an issue of us; it’s about God praying through us. The only way I fail in prayer is to not show up.
After pastoring an inner-city congregation in Detroit for thirty years, Pastor Tim served at Brooklyn Tabernacle in NYC for five years and pastored in Lafayette, Louisiana, for five years. He became Senior Pastor of Times Square Church in May of 2020.
Paul writes, “Holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain” (Philippians 2:16). Paul was picturing the day when he would stand in Christ’s presence and the secrets of redemption would be unveiled.
Scripture says that on that day our eyes will be opened, and we’ll behold the Lord’s glory without rebuke from him. Our hearts will be set on fire as he opens all the mysteries of the universe and shows us his power behind it. Suddenly, we’ll see the reality of all that had been available to us in our earthly trials: the power and resources of heaven, the protective angels, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
Then Christ will show us the Father, and what an overwhelming moment that will be. As we behold the majesty of our heavenly Father, we’ll fully realize his love and care for us.
Here is why Paul “held forth” his word about God’s faithfulness. On that glorious day, he didn’t want to stand in the Lord’s presence thinking, “How could I have been so blind? Why didn’t I fully trust my Lord’s purposes? All my worries and questions were in vain.”
Paul then sums it up with the word: “But one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Philippians 3:13). In short, he thought it was impossible to place his future into the Lord’s hands without first laying down his past.
“Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). These are Paul’s closing word to the Philippians. He wasn’t saying, “I am in prison and these chains are a blessing. I’m so happy for this pain.” I’m convinced Paul prayed daily for his release and at times cried out for strength to endure. Even Jesus, in his hour of trial and pain, cried to the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” That is our first impulse in our afflictions, to cry out, “Why?” And the Lord is patient with that cry.
But God has also made provision so that our “what ifs” and “whys” can be answered by his Word. Paul writes, “Knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel… Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:17-18). He’s telling us, in other words, “I am determined God’s Word will be validated by my reaction to this affliction. I have set my mind that I won’t disgrace the gospel or make it seem powerless.”
Here is the message that I hear through Paul: We don’t have to do something great for the Lord. We only have to trust him. Our role is to place our lives in God’s hands and believe he will care for us. If we simply do that, his gospel is being preached, no matter what our circumstances. And Christ will be revealed in us most especially in our difficult circumstances.
Sam, an elder in our church, once told me, “Pastor David, the way you respond to hard times is a testimony to me.” What Sam didn’t realize is that his life is a sermon to me. He lives with chronic pain that allows him to sleep no more than a few hours each night. Despite his constant, raging pain, his devotion to the Lord is a testimony to all of us. His life preaches Christ as powerfully as any of Paul’s sermons.
So, is Christ being preached in your present trial? Does your family see the gospel at work in you? Or do they see only panic, despair and questioning of God’s faithfulness? How are you responding to your affliction?