Restrictions and limitations are a fact of life. I am limited because I am a human and therefore, I live with certain areas of weakness that restrict me from enjoying certain freedoms.
I cannot work twenty-four hours per day. I cannot spend more money than I actually have. I can only maintain a certain amount of close relationships. My personality is wired a certain way. I do not possess the spiritual gifts or talents that others do.
I do not know everything and therefore I do not have all of the answers to life’s greatest questions. I cannot see everything and therefore I am oftentimes caught off guard by unforeseen circumstances.
I am not in control of very many things at all so therefore I sometimes experience great fear when something is out of my control. I do not have the power to make someone accept me or to listen to me and so sometimes I deal with the frustration of being rejected and ignored. I am limited by these realities and therefore I am restricted from enjoying certain things.
My limitations oftentimes show up in the forms of emotional or physical or social or spiritual shortcomings. Emotionally I can become over-sensitive. Physically I can become worn out. Socially I can become isolated. Spiritually I can become apathetic or prideful. At the end of the day, I am not God; who sees all things, knows all things, is in control of all things and is full of complete and perfect love for all of the broken things in this world.
The bottom line here is that I am limited and therefore restricted, but God is unlimited and therefore he is unrestricted. This is a gospel-saturated truth that I believe the apostle Paul held onto with every ounce of his being. If ever there was a man in all of Scripture who could have fallen into deep despair over his circumstances, I believe the apostle Paul would be at the top of the list.
A quick survey of Paul’s suffering in 1 Corinthians 11 would serve as a great pretext to establish Paul’s very difficult circumstances in life. Galatians 6:17 describes how Paul’s circumstantial suffering had marked him deeply.
In 2 Timothy 3:10 – 11 this great apostle describes three cities where he was persecuted and suffered greatly for the cause of the gospel. And again in 2 Timothy 4:9 – 18 he describes the personal pain, the emotional harm and the loneliness he experienced because of his devotion to the advancement of the gospel. Acts 16:19 – 24 describes some of the abuse that Paul endured when he first preached the gospel in Philippi.
The apostle Paul knew what it was like to be a limited man and therefore a restricted man. But he also knew that there is no limitation or restriction on the gospel.
Paul is the same apostle who wrote that the gospel is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3 – 8); that the gospel is powerful for salvation (Rom. 1:16) and that we must constantly guard our hearts against any false gospel that seeks to advance its way into our hearts and lives (Galatians).
The apostle Paul was extremely devoted to the centrality and the power and the advancement of the gospel. This is overwhelmingly obvious in our text today. Look at Philippians 1:12 – 18 with me:
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.
You can’t help but to notice how the gospel saturates these verses. The reaction of Paul’s heart to his current circumstances is saturated with the gospel. The unlimited, unrestricted gospel is advancing in the midst of Paul’s limited and restricted circumstances.
In the apostle Paul we see a man whose heart was completely captured by the crucified, risen and returning Christ. There was no other cause worthy of the devotion of Paul’s heart. There was no room in Paul’s heart for other seemingly good causes such as political causes or religious causes or even national causes.
If the heart is the heart of the matter, then in the apostle Paul, we have a picture of absolute, unwavering devotion to the gospel of the crucified, risen and returning Christ. Paul was devoted to preaching and applying the gospel to every aspect of his life because for him the gospel was more than a cute conclusion to a message; it was more than a five-step program to land an invitation to follow Jesus.
For the apostle Paul, the message of the gospel is not a closing remark to legalistic, moralistic or even ethical messages; the gospel is the content of every message for the apostle Paul. In other words, the message of Christ crucified, risen and returning, holds immense implications for all of life from the moral to the ethical in light of the eternal because the gospel is unlimited and therefore unrestricted. How do we see this principle fleshed out in Philippians 1:12 – 18?
#1: THE UNLIMITED UNRESTRICTED GOSPEL ADVANCES AMONG UNBELIEVERS (VSS. 12 – 13)
It is very easy to observe and experience all of the horrors erupting in the midst of an unbelieving world and become depressed or antagonistic. I observe and experience the pain and the horror of many things happening out there in the unbelieving world on a daily basis. It is as though the world we live in has tilted towards a mass celebration of everything that God calls evil. It makes me uncomfortable. I feel powerless. I feel helpless. I fear rejection.
The moral activist inside of me gets stirred up whenever I observe or experience the devastating effects of a culture that is sickened with sin. I want to jump up and down and scream at the top of my lungs in a picket line. I want to protest all of the sin in this sin-infected culture that I am shackled to.
But is that the heart response of the apostle Paul? Does the apostle Paul become the great social activist or political activist or national activist? If Paul is taking his cues from the crucified, risen and returning Christ, then what kind of an activist does Paul become?
Notice what Paul says in verses 12 – 13 when he says, “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.”
The limitations and the restrictions of Paul’s chains only serve to advance the unlimited unrestricted gospel among unbelievers. It is not inconceivable to think that upwards of 9,000 unbelieving Roman guards (who were known for their love of brutality) heard the gospel because they were chained to the apostle Paul on a rotating basis day and night.
In Philippians 4:21 – 22 Paul even says “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” The unlimited and unrestricted gospel was advancing among the unbelieving Roman guards despite the limitations and the restrictions of the apostle Paul’s circumstances.
Now we must remember that the apostle Paul was a Hebrew who was also a Roman citizen; similar to a Christian who is an American citizen (Phil. 3:4 – 5; Acts 22:28). In Acts 16:16 – 24 the apostle Paul does not use his rights as a Roman citizen to escape being imprisoned for preaching the gospel in Philippi.
But in Acts 22:3; 24 – 29 the apostle Paul does use his rights as a Roman citizen to escape punishment in Jerusalem which then propels him through a series of events that eventually lands him on house arrest in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).
The apostle Paul’s testimony is a story of a man whose heart was so totally captivated by the message of the crucified, risen and returning Christ that he was willing to sacrifice his rights for the sake of the advancement of the gospel among unbelievers. And at other times he leveraged his rights for the advancement of the gospel.
I pray that the Lord would give us knowledge and wisdom and discernment as to how we might also sacrifice and leverage our rights so that we might give an answer for the hope that lies within us with all gentleness and respect in this polarizing season of difficulty and suffering and bewilderment (1 Pet. 3:15).
#2: THE UNLIMITED UNRESTRICTED GOSPEL ADVANCES AMONG BELIEVERS (VS. 14)
We believers can be a weird crowd sometimes; to put it lightly. The moment that someone places their trust in Jesus is a beautiful moment.
Oftentimes the next season of a young believer’s life is a beautiful season of excitement and exploration and proclamation as the implications of the good news of the gospel of the crucified, risen and returning Christ permeate the desires of this person’s heart. The desires for power, control, safety, comfort, acceptance, etc. begin to be reshaped by the message of the crucified, risen and returning Christ.
But something weird begins to happen oftentimes in the life of a believer. The good news of the gospel of the crucified, risen and returning Christ becomes old news.
What once excited and enlivened and emboldened a young believer in the proclamation and the advancement of the gospel becomes dull and unimpressive like adults sitting in a kindergarten class bored with the material.
In these moments the message of the gospel that used to be good news, now becomes boring, childish news as new and more exciting news flashes across the airwaves of a young believer’s heart.
Sometimes this new “good news” gospel message is obviously anti-gospel to the extent that the “maturing” believer is now caught up in a health, wealth and prosperity message. Other times this new “good news” gospel message is not so obviously anti-gospel; at least from the outside looking in.
These hard-to-see anti-gospel messages range from social activism to political activism to religious activism to legalism to moralism to pragmatism. The list of anti-gospel gospels (if they can be called such) is endless.
But at the end of the day all of those false gospels promise us more satisfaction than the authentic gospel; they promise satisfaction for our desires for power, control, safety, comfort, acceptance, etc.
Paul knows that only the gospel of the crucified, risen and returning Christ will bring real satisfaction to our desires. I can only imagine what it was like for the apostle Paul to be chained to a Roman guard, thinking and praying about the issues of self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreements and division in the Philippian church (Phil. 2:3 – 4; 14 – 15; 4:2 – 3).
I feel confident in saying that Paul’s desire to exert some control or power over the Philippian believers would have probably risen up in his heart. He certainly had to have wrestled with a desire for comfort and safety in his current circumstances. He may have feared the rejection he may face if he spoke truthfully.
Where will Paul find satisfaction for these desires? The answer is that he finds satisfaction in the message of the gospel being advanced among believers. He says in verse 14 that “most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much bolder to speak the word without fear.”
In other words, Christ is being proclaimed among the believers and in verse 18 Paul says that he rejoices in this. The unlimited unrestricted gospel is advancing among unbelievers and believers alike and this brings much joy to Paul’s heart despite his own limitations and restrictions.
But the gospel doesn’t advance without some opposition.
#3: THE UNLIMITED UNRESTRICTED GOSPEL ADVANCES THROUGH OPPOSITION (VSS. 15 – 18)
In verses 15 – 18 the apostle Paul says that “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
This is a picture of the gospel advancing through opposition. But it’s also a picture of a man who is so completely captured by the gospel that he has the humility to dismiss personal pain, personal suffering and personal discomfort for the sake of the proclamation of Christ crucified, risen and returning.
Paul doesn’t castigate his opponents as heretics like he does elsewhere (Gal. 1:6 – 10) nor does he confront them for behavior that is antithetical to the gospel like he did with his friends Peter and Barnabas (Gal. 2:11 – 14). He simply speaks truthfully about their selfish and insincere motivations.
Maybe Paul’s opponents felt emboldened by the fact that he was imprisoned. Some scholars believe that his opponents were able to use Paul’s circumstances for their own political or financial gain (Hughes 2013: 49 – 51).
Either way, the apostle Paul was able to speak truthfully and dismissively of the opposition because he saw a higher principle at play here; he rejoiced at the knowledge of the proclamation of the unlimited and unrestricted gospel of the crucified, risen and returning Christ advancing through the opposition.
In conclusion, we’ve contemplated the limitations and restrictions of our frail human existence. We’ve also contemplated the unlimited and unrestricted advancement of the gospel among unbelievers and believers in the midst of opposition.
We paid some special attention to the evidence of gospel-centeredness in the life of the author who penned these words. We’ve contemplated some of the ways that a devotion to gospel-centrality may intersect with the desires of our hearts and the problem of sin both inside of us and outside of us in the world we live in.
But we must always ask what difference will this make? Why does any of this matter? How does all of this talk of gospel centrality and the unlimited, unrestricted nature of the power of the gospel really affect my day-to-day life; my interactions with my wife, my children, my friends, my coworkers and the ethical, moral problems in the world today?
What does it mean to keep the gospel central?
One author said that “Paul was so gospel intoxicated, so centered on getting the good news of Christ out to the lost in Rome, that his feelings and aspirations were subsumed and subject to the gospel” (Hughes 2013: 51).
This same author moved on to say that “Paul’s example is impressive and clear: Put the advance of the gospel at the center of your aspirations. Our own comfort, our bruised feelings, our reputations, our misunderstood motives, – all of these are insignificant in comparison with the advance and splendor of the gospel. As Christians, we are called upon to put the advance of the gospel at the very center of our aspirations. What are your aspirations? To make money? To get married? To travel? To see your grandchildren grow up? To find a new job? To retire early? None of these is inadmissible; none is to be despised. The question is whether these aspirations become so devouring that the Christian’s central aspiration is squeezed to the periphery or choked out of existence entirely” (Hughes 2013: 51 – 52).
I’ve pondered and prayed and journaled and studied this passage for a few hours this last week in preparation to preach this message. That concluding quote from a commentary that I read just a few moments ago really weighed heavy with me all week.
I survey the landscape of my own heart as best I can in these troubling times that we live in. I try to put filters up on my mind and my heart as the fury of information comes at me full speed from multiple news sources throughout the week.
I’m a person who loves truth. I look for truth. I fight for truth. I get frustrated and angry when someone posits something as objective truth that is really only their opinion or interpretation of truth. I expect there to be lots of confusion in sources that are not Christian.
But it always surprises me when solid Christian sources land on completely different ends of a social or political or national or theological issue and then attempt to silence the dissent. I love a good healthy, robust debate but my heart is grieved by the unhealthy sinful polarization we see in the church today.
My heart is grieved at how quickly I rush to judgement; how self-centered I become; how prideful I become; how much my soul grumbles and complains; how much my heart listens to fleshly arguments; how quickly I get consumed with disagreements and then live with an undivided heart. I am such a limited and restricted human being; limited and restricted by the sin that is very much alive within me!
What I think I need, and what I think the church needs, is to be recaptured by the centrality of the power of the unlimited, unrestricted advancement of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, risen and returning.
It is the message of the gospel that enables me to put on the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5 – 8).
It is the message of the gospel that enables me to work out my own salvation in Christ with fear and trembling on a daily basis (Phil. 2:12 – 13).
It is the message of the gospel that enables me to stand firm in the joy of Christ’s salvation over me when there is no joy in my circumstances (Phil. 4:1; 4 – 7).
When the world is going to hell in a handbag; when my financial investments crash; when my kids are off their rockers; when my friends reject me and don’t listen to me; when my enemies take advantage of me; when my country presses the gas pedal on the highway to hell; when death affects my loved ones; when I feel the pressure of jumping on some political bandwagon or else face the fury of the mob; when I grieve the relational losses of this life; when my marriage isn’t doing so well; when I despise getting up and going into the office; when I give in to that old sinful habit again; in these moments I need to come back to the centrality of the gospel.
I need to remember that God, in all of his unlimited and unrestricted power, love, mercy, patience and grace, sent his son Jesus to live the perfect life in my place, to die a horrifying death on a cross, to come back to life three days later, to promise eternity in Heaven in the future and to give me his Spirit to live in the present. I need to remember that I am no longer a slave to sin, but I am now a son of the best Father a person could ever have.
He sings songs of joy over me. He is delighted to spend time with me. There was never a moment in my life that he wasn’t present for. All of the riches of his kingdom are mine forever. I am the recipient of my Father’s unconditional love because Christ became the recipient of the Father’s wrath that was justly due to me. I am an heir to the kingdom of Heaven. I am adopted by an everlasting Father. My heavenly Father’s signature on my adoption papers is inerasable.
According to Romans 8, there is now therefore no condemnation for me because I am in Christ Jesus. My Father in Heaven knew me intimately from before the foundations of the earth were laid. He predestined me to become his son. He’s conforming and transforming me into the image of Jesus. He called me to himself like a wayward child and gave me the heart to hear him and to trust in him. He justified me once and for all through the shed blood of Jesus. He promised me future glorification with him in heaven.
I am a severely limited and restricted human being but the message of Christ crucified, risen and returning; the message of the gospel, is unlimited and unrestricted in its power to advance among unbelievers and believers alike in the midst of great opposition. Amen!