The writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has written a new book, called ‘The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible’, to mark the 400th anniversary of its first appearance. In an article about his experience writing that book, he says:
I wrote my book because I was first irritated and then appalled at the way the King James Bible’s profound and often beneficial effect on humanity across so many areas has been rubbed out of our history. It is one thing to lose faith in the Christian faith, it is another to amputate and take away from our past the powerful positive force the King James Bible had…
It’s true of the Book of Common Prayer as well, of course, that it has been a powerful positive force in our nation for centuries, alongside the King James Bible. Now, Melvyn Bragg himself seems to be feeling his way back to faith, albeit very tentatively. He describes himself as “a believing unbeliever”, whatever that means exactly, and he says:
… the current notion that atheistic reason marks the apotheosis of human intelligence, strikes me as being very doubtful. I’m as certain as I can be that there’s more to come.
Nonetheless he seems to sidestep, if not miss altogether, the fundamental point that it’s not, in the end, the impact of the language, style and literary merit of the King James Bible, and indeed of the Book of Common Prayer, that are the key to their profound impact over centuries. It is the reality of which they speak that’s life and world transforming.
The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer derive their power from the fact that in their pages we encounter Christ, the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world, was raised to the throne of heaven, and will one day return as Lord and Judge. They speak of Christ. They preach Christ. And if you celebrate that their language is wonderful (which it is) but ignore their message (which is Christ) then you’re cutting out their heart and missing the source of their power. Let’s not fall into that terrible trap. And the passage of the Bible that we’re looking at this evening helps us to get our priorities right.
Last week we started a new series working through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Michael Wilcock took us through 1.1-11. This evening we come to 1.12-18. My title is ‘Preaching Christ’, as you’ll see from the outline that’s on the back of the service sheet. It would be great if you could have that outline in front of you, and also have the Bibles open at this passage. It’s there on page 1178 – Philippians 1.12-18.
At the heart of Christianity is the preaching of Christ. That’s really the burden of this section, and you can see it right at the end of what the apostle Paul is saying here, in verse 18. I quote:
The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Christ is preached. That’s the key. Now let’s be clear straight away that ‘preaching’ here doesn’t only mean standing in a pulpit speaking as I am now. It means making Christ known, by any means and in any situation. Christianity is all about knowing Christ. We have to hear about him, believe in him, and respond to him. So we have to talk about him. That’s how people come to faith.
Just look at how central Christ is in the opening verses of this letter. Paul calls himself a ‘servant of Christ’ (verse 1); he describes believers as ‘the saints in Christ Jesus’ (verse 1 again); he says that Christ is Lord (verse 2); and that the ‘day of Christ’ is coming (verse 6 and again in verse 10). He says he loves the Philippians ‘with the affection of Christ’ (verse 8); and that righteousness comes through Christ (verse 11).
Paul could hardly be more emphatic that Christ is the heart of the matter. Christianity is personal. It’s all about knowing Christ. Everything else, however good and however necessary, is subordinate to knowing Christ and making him known.
And the wonderful truth that’s so central to what Paul’s driving at in our passage is that Christ is being made known. It’s happening. God is making sure of that. So we can rejoice.
This letter is shot through with joy. That’s what Michael Wilcock was drawing to our attention last week. From 1.1-11 he talked about joyful thanking, joyful knowing, joyful loving, and joyful praying. And what we have in 12-18 is more joyful knowing. Look at verse 12:
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.
And then at the end of section, in verse 18:
The important thing is that in every way… Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
He’s saying, “I want you know that Christ is being preached, and I want you to rejoice about that.” So the lesson is that we should rejoice. There are supplementary lessons too, but that’s the main one: rejoice. And we should rejoice because of what we should know. And what we should know is that, despite all obstacles and hindrances, Christ is being preached. Nothing can stop it.
So how exactly is Christ being preached? That’s what my three points are about. You can see the headings on the sheet. First, Christ is preached in unpromising situations. Secondly, Christ is preached for the wrong reasons. And thirdly, Christ is preached with courage and love. Let’s take those in turn. So:
First, CHRIST IS PREACHED IN UNPROMISING SITUATIONS
This is verses 12-13. Let me read those:
12Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.
So what has happened to Paul? Humanly speaking it couldn’t be much worse. In the run up to his current situation he’s had to escape assassination attempts, he’s been flogged, beaten, stoned, taken captive, interrogated, and shipwrecked on his way to Rome. Now he’s in Rome, in prison, in chains, awaiting trial, and potentially facing a death sentence. He doesn’t know whether he’s going to live or die. On the face of it, this is grim.
But Paul tells those young Christians in Philippi that they’ve got to get the right perspective on what’s been happening to him. He’s very aware that they could so easily get the wrong end of the stick. They could easily think that this was all a disaster, not only for Paul personally, but also for the cause of the church and of the gospel.
Maybe there were even some voices raised in criticism of how Paul had handled himself. If only he’d kept quieter, this need not have happened. His outspokenness was jeopardising not only his own safety but that of other believers. He was giving the church a bad name. Maybe there were people even within the church who regarded him as something of a firebrand and a trouble maker.
And maybe others were fully in sympathy with what he was trying to do in preaching Christ, but they were afraid that his ministry was being wrecked by this Roman imprisonment and the persecution that had brought it about.
“No”, says Paul, “the reality is quite different.” What’s actually happening is that God is using this apparent disaster to take the gospel of Christ into whole new sections of society, and influential ones at that, to which he would otherwise have had no access. Christ is being honoured.
Christ is being honoured in high places, right in the military heart of the world’s superpower. And Christ is being honoured among the general populace in the capital of the Roman world. The whole palace guard knew about him and why he was there. No doubt Paul was talking about Jesus whenever he could, to his guards and to any others who came to see him. They were hearing about Christ.
And the message was obviously getting out widely. It seems Paul was something of a media sensation at that time. Both Paul and his message were being widely talked about. Christ was being honoured both in high places and among the general populace. That was a direct result of Paul’s imprisonment and the use he was making of his opportunities.
Now all this is a profound challenge to our own response to difficult situations.
There is the challenge to our own faith, or lack of it. Do we know Christ and love him well enough that when other people see us going through tough situations they see Christ in us? If you don’t know Jesus – directly and personally – as your living Lord and Saviour, can I gently urge that now is the right time to get to know him? One simple step in that direction would be to pick up from the Welcome Desk at the back one of the red booklets entitled ‘Why Jesus?’. Take it home. Read it. Keep coming back Sunday by Sunday. And talk to a believer you know about it.
For those of us who do know Jesus, there is the challenge to our witness from the example of Paul. We’ll look further at how our brothers and sisters around Paul reacted in a minute. But we need to ask ourselves whether we take the opportunities that we get to speak about Jesus even in relatively comfortable situations, never mind in tough ones.
But these are supplementary challenges. The primary challenge of Paul’s experience, and of what he says here, is the challenge to joy. When we see believers in tough situations – for instance under persecution as here – do we have the spiritual eyes to see what God is doing? Where there is living faith, the Holy Spirit makes sure that Christ is preached. The gospel advances. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. And that should be cause for joy.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t also care for those who are suffering persecution for instance. We do. And we’ll pray that it’ll end. But we’ll also rejoice that God is using these situations in his own way to advance to gospel. For instance, Dr Hudson Taylor III (the grandson of the nineteenth century missionary to China) said:
The Chinese experience is eloquent testimony that no earthly force can eliminate God’s power. Truth burns brightest where the fire burns hottest.
I recently received news of an Iranian Christian, Rev Josef Najafkhani, who is in jail and under sentence of death by hanging as an apostate from Islam, from which he converted when he was 19. The news came with the request for earnest prayer for the protection of Christ for our brother Josef.
And pray we should. But we can add to our prayers rejoicing that God is causing the gospel to advance in Iran through that situation and many others. Christ is preached in unpromising situations. The apostle Paul, in chains and not knowing whether he will live or die, says “I rejoice”.
Secondly, CHRIST IS PREACHED FOR THE WRONG REASONS
Take a look, first, at verse 15:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will.
And then on to verse 17:
The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.
So here’s a bunch of people who are Christians, but who are hostile to Paul. They can’t be heretics or false teachers, because if they were Paul wouldn’t describe what they’re doing as ‘preaching Christ’. They would be preaching what he calls in Galatians:
… a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.
So what they’re preaching must be true. But why they’re preaching it is poisonous. They are envious. Of what? Of his apostolic calling? Of the fruitfulness of his ministry? Not, presumably, of his suffering. Their envy drives them to want to cause Paul trouble – as if he didn’t have enough. They’re eaten up by selfish ambition that makes them see Paul as a rival, not a co-worker in the cause of the gospel.
So the ministry motives of these people are seriously distorted and sinful. They are preaching Christ, says Paul “not sincerely”. In other words their words (which are true) and their lives (which are false) don’t match up. They don’t live what they teach. I’m sure if you asked them why they were preaching, they wouldn’t say, “Because we can’t stand Paul”. But that was the truth of it.
How would we react in Paul’s shoes? Again, there are supplementary lessons here.
There is a warning not to be naïve. Motives in Christian ministry can be very mixed, or even, at worst, downright wicked.
There is a challenge to our own motives for our Christian service. We need to pray that God will purge from our own lives selfish ambition, envy and rivalry that rear their ugly heads all too easily.
There is the wonderfully gracious example of Paul to follow. How we need Paul’s humble spirit under provocation.
But again the primary lesson is that, though it’s happening for the wrong reasons, even through these people God is advancing the gospel and Christ is being preached. Such is the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit and the inexorable advance of the kingdom of Christ.
Christ is preached in unpromising situations. Christ is preached for the wrong reasons. Finally and…
Thirdly, CHRIST IS PREACHED WITH COURAGE AND LOVE
Of course not all those who are reacting to Paul’s situation are hostile to him personally. There are many who are totally on his side. And Paul celebrates that. They appear in verses 14-16:
Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel.
So Paul’s chains encourage courage. And Paul’s chains draw out love. How is it that Paul’s persecution and potential execution stiffen the backbones of many of the Roman Christians?
You might think that the effect of Paul’s suffering would be just the reverse – that the prospect of being tarred with the same brush as Paul would persuade people to keep even more quiet than usual, so as to keep out of trouble.
But when the Holy Spirit is present in people’s lives, things don’t work like that. For one thing, they genuinely love Paul. They want to be an encouragement to him in his hour of need. They want him to know that his work is being continued. For another thing, they genuinely love Christ, and they want his name to be honoured. Perhaps Paul’s predicament brings home to them the urgency of the task and the seriousness of their calling.
It is one of the wonderful things about the way God works that the harder the world works at crushing the church and silencing the preaching of Christ, the more the church grows and the more the name of Christ is spread. It’s one of the fundamental works of the Holy Spirit that he imparts boldness and courage to those who would otherwise be timid and fearful.
There’s a wonderful example of this from China in the news at the moment. One of the largest unregistered churches in Beijing, with around 1000 members (like us) has been attempting to meet outdoors each Sunday, because it’s being hindered by the authorities from renting or buying a place to meet indoors.
But these outdoor services have been disrupted. Since early April, all of the church’s leadership have been under informal house arrest. Hundreds of the church’s members have been detained or put under house arrest or they’ve lost their homes and jobs. Just imagine if that were the price you might pay for turning up here this evening. In May the church issued a statement saying:
We are thankful to God that he stirs brothers’ and sisters’ hearts, so that they, despite the risk of being arrested, are determined to join the outdoor worship service at any cost.
But, wonderfully, this suffering has actually emboldened many other believers. Pastors of other unregistered churches have lodged what is described as an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘bold’ petition with the Chinese parliament calling for religious freedom and asking for a commission to investigate the events surrounding the repression of this church.
Persecution of one church has emboldened many other churches, just as Paul’s plight emboldened many other believers who cared for him and who wanted to see the name of Jesus honoured more than they wanted their own comfort.
Let’s be praying hard for them and others like them. I try to pray every day for the persecuted church around the world using the Barnabas fund prayer diary. But let’s rejoice that the gospel is advancing.
Because, in conclusion, the important thing is that Christ is preached. And that is what is happening. Verse 18:
But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
There is so much to learn by way of challenging example from this extraordinary episode. But the primary lesson is that we should be filled with this irrepressible joy – however tough our circumstances – because the name of Jesus is being lifted high, and nothing matters more than that.