Let me start by asking you to imagine something. Imagine that next week, the Government passed a new law against extremism, which said that the Bible was now classified as extreme, and anyone promoting it publically would be breaking the law. So during the week the police investigate this church, and by the end of the week, Rod and I (at least) have been arrested and are in custody facing a possible prison sentence.
Well, put yourself in our shoes. And ask yourself: how would you feel sitting there in custody? And if you were texting your closest friends, what would you say? Well, I think it would be very natural to say something like, 'This is a nightmare and I just want to get out of here.' It would be natural to see it as a wholly bad thing with no good purpose at all.
Well, you've just begun a series in the Bible book of Philippians. It's a letter from the apostle Paul to a church he started in the city of Philippi. But since starting this church, Paul had been arrested for spreading the gospel – in other words, the Christian message about Jesus – and he was in custody in Rome, awaiting trial before the Emperor. And the Philippians' natural reaction would have been the same as your natural reaction if Rod and I were arrested in my imaginary scenario. They'd have been thinking, 'This is a nightmare. This can only be bad – for Paul, and for the spread of the gospel.'
But that's not how Paul saw it. And this morning we're going to learn from his example in the next part of his letter to the Philippians – chapter 1 and verses 12 to 18. So if you look at Philippians 1, verse 12, Paul says:
Now I want you to know, brothers [which in their culture meant a 'brotherhood' or fellowship of men and women – so let me say in our culture,
"I want you to know, brothers and sisters…], that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ."
Which is an amazing attitude, isn't it? Because there he is in custody – which might have been just house arrest, but could have been full-blown prison – and he's saying, 'Look, don't feel bad for me. What matters most is that more people are hearing the gospel.'
And that's the first of two lessons from this part of the Bible:
1. What matters most is more people hearing the gospel (v12-14)
So Paul was saying, 'What matters most is not that I'm in prison, or whether or when I might get out – but that more people are hearing the gospel. Just look at verse 12 again:
"Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ."
So you can picture the scene. Each new guard looking after Paul arrives, and after a few minutes he says, 'So what are you in for?' And Paul says, 'Talking about Jesus.' And the guard says, 'Who's he?' And Paul's off, telling him the gospel. And it's a four hour shift, so the guard basically gets Christianity Explored crammed into one session – minus the DVD and drinks and nibbles. And then at change-over time, the new guard comes in and has exactly the same conversation, while the first one goes off to the canteen and says to his mates, 'I've just had the weirdest conversation in my life – wait till you hear this…' Until many more people have heard the gospel.
And for Paul, that's what mattered most. And if you'd asked him why, he'd have said, 'Because the gospel is true for everyone and needed by everyone.'
So remember: Paul was one of the eye-witnesses who actually saw Jesus risen from the dead. And from being a rabid anti-Christian, that's what convinced Paul that Jesus really is the Son of God – and that that's true for everyone.
But then, working back, he had to come to terms with why the Son of God would end up dying on a cross. And he came to see that Jesus had been taking on himself the judgement for everything we've done wrong, so that we could be forgiven without God 'fudging' his justice. And Paul was convinced that that's needed by everyone – if we're to be put right with God now, and avoid his condemnation when we meet him beyond death as our Judge.
So, the gospel is true for everyone and needed by everyone. Which means that if you haven't yet put your faith in Jesus, or you're not sure you have, what matters most is sorting that out. And if we have put our faith in Jesus, we need to take on board Paul's attitude – that what matters most is more people hearing the gospel.
And that's how we should look at our circumstances.
So just think of the Roman imperial guard. I guess it was almost impossible for your average Christian in Rome to reach any of them with the gospel. So what does God do? He plants Paul right in the middle of them as a prisoner. And Paul looks at his circumstances – even hard circumstances, that he had every reason to wish were different – and says to himself, 'God has put me here, and it's a way in for the gospel.'
And in the same way, the Lord has every Christian here uniquely planted in circumstances where you are his way in for the gospel. So for example, you might be thinking, 'I wish I wasn't the only Christian in my family or my workplace.' But God is thinking, 'You're my way in to that family or that workplace.'
And even in hard circumstances, which we wish were different, we should look and trust for how God is using them as a way in for the gospel. So for example, I have some married friends Richard and Anna. And a while back, in their early thirties, with a young family, Anna got cancer and went through serious surgery and chemo. And the treatment was successful –in the end. But for a few years her life hung in the balance. And during that time, non-Christian friend after non-Christian friend phoned up or came to visit. And Richard would say it was probably the best evangelistic time of their lives – with people who'd never responded to invitations to hear the gospel asking them all about what was keeping them going so peacefully.
And the same principle about our circumstances applies at a church level. So for example Rod mentioned to me this week that you've got over thirty babies in the creche here, and that it still feels like looking after them and all the other kids stuff here is leaving virtually no energy for outward looking evangelism. And I take it that Paul would say, 'Don't wish for those circumstances to be different. Don't think, 'What kind of evangelism could we do if we didn't have all these kids and if 50% of us weren't tired parents?' Instead think, 'What kind of evangelism does having all these kids and lots of us being young parents make uniquely possible?''
So Paul is telling us that this is how we should look at our circumstances. And by extension it's also how we should make our decisions (in other words, choose our circumstances, when we have a choice about them).
Take for example, the decision that Colin and Heather Alderson and their church made to buy this piece of land for a new church site. Or take for example, the decisions people then made to give over £1.2 million to see this church begin – including one couple I know who cancelled plans for an extension to their own house so that they could give to this. And they did it because what matters most is more people hearing the gospel.
Or take for example, the decisions that some of you made to give up a week's annual leave to do Holiday Club and get no holiday in the process yourself – especially the teachers who gave up their first weeks of freedom from kids to spend it with... kids. But you do it because what matters most is more kids hearing the gospel.
And the same principle applies right up to the biggest decisions in life. For example, 'If I were to marry this person, would it help me, or not, in trying to share the gospel for the rest of my life?' Or, 'If I were to take this job or promotion, or make this move, would it help me, or not, in trying to share the gospel and in being an active member of a gospel-sharing church?'
But Paul didn't just say that more people were hearing about Jesus through him because he was in prison. He said his example meant that other Christians were talking about Jesus more, too. Look down again to Philippians 1, verse 14, where Paul says:
"Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord [in other words, the other Christians in Rome] have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly."
Before Easter, I led a Christianity Explored group. And a couple of newish Christians in the group said they'd already been badly knocked back and discouraged by how friends and workmates had reacted to their new faith. And we talked about how, on the one hand, you want to tell people about Jesus. But on the other hand – especially once you've been knocked back – you're tempted not to, because you're worried about what they'll think or say, or how it'll affect things for you.
And that's when we need the example of Paul here, or of the many other suffering Christians – in the world today, or that you can read about in Christian biographies. For example, I remember reading a book called Vanya – about a young Russian Christian of that name who was persecuted and ultimately martyred for his faith in the former Soviet Union. And I had just come to faith at school, where there was a lot of hostility to Christians and to the Christian Union – and I was experiencing my first, mild whiff of persecution. But reading Vanya put it all into perspective – for example, reading about how he was made to stand outside in the freezing Russian night to try to break his spirit. And hearing about Paul, or Vanya, or other countless examples makes you think, 'If they were willing to suffer that much to make Jesus known, shouldn't I be willing to suffer something – or something more – myself?'
So that's lesson 1: what matters most is more people hearing the gospel. And lesson 2 is very similar – you might say, the other side fo the same coin. It's that:
2. What matters most is more Christians spreading the gospel (v15-18)
So Paul has just said that his example was making the Christians in Rome bolder in talking about Jesus. But now look down at what he says about some of those Christians, in verse 15:
"It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry [which sounds bizarre, doesn't it?], but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me [literally, 'afflict me', or 'give me grief'] while I am in chains."
Which leaves you thinking, 'What is going on here?' After all, aren't Christians supposed to be all on the same side – all playing for Jesus? But Paul says: some of them are treating him like a rival and even trying to do him down while he's in prison. Which is like Tiote tackling Mitrovic just as he's about to score the winner for Newcastle. Or like Lascelles putting the ball in his own net at St James' Park. Or like that crazy fight on the pitch between Kieran Dyer and Lee Bowyer, if you're old enough to remember that low-point of Newcastle Utd history (among the many low-points of Newcastle Utd history).
So what is going on here? Well, as far as we can see, these people were really Christians. And they were preaching the Jesus of the Bible – Paul doesn't say their message was dodgy. But probably they didn't like the way Paul had gone about his ministry, and were criticising him publically for it – maybe saying things like this: 'If Paul had just been wiser, he wouldn't have got himself arrested and damaged the reputation of the church. And if he knew particular people – especially Jewish people – would be offended by his message, well... he should have toned it down – or backed off them and stuck to evangelising others.' So this group of Christians probably had the attitude that, 'We know better. And our way of doing things is better.' And in their worst moments they might even have been privately glad that Paul was out of the way. (Because Christians can be as sinful and self-important and as that, can't they? We all can. Which is why our experience of church will always have its disappointments and disillusionments with people and their attitudes.)
So what does Paul think about these people? Well, once again, his attitude is amazing – because at this point, I guess you or I would have let rip and said something like, 'I don't think these people are really even Christians, given their behaviour. And I certainly think the church would be better off without them.' But look at what Paul actually says in 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."
In other words, if people are talking about the Jesus of the Bible, I rejoice – even if they're bad-mouthing me and criticising my ministry at the same time. Because what matters most is more Christians spreading the gospel.
Now it's vital to emphasise that it's got to be the Biblical gospel they're spreading. And there are, sadly, plenty of groups and churches calling themselves Christian which are not preaching the Jesus of the Bible. For example, they may be preaching the liberal Jesus – who's a good man and good teacher, but who's not the Son of God who died to save us. Or they may be preaching the pro-gay Jesus who says that a homosexually active lifestyle is OK. So we've got to be discerning: we can only rejoice if the real Jesus of the Bible is being preached.
But if you've been a Christian any length of time, you'll know it's so easy for different groups of Christians, who are all preaching the Jesus of the Bible, to criticise each other, and to think they're better than each other, and to behave as if they were on different sides. And we need to guard against that attitude, and have Paul's attitude instead.
So, for example, I think there were other Christians in this part of Gateshead who felt that the planting of this church was an indirect criticism of other churches, or that it was trying to compete with them. But that isn't the case. Because the big reason for planting this church was to take new opportunities – not least, the opportunity of all the new development around here.
So this church wasn't started out of rivalry with other churches. And we're to rejoice that Christ is being preached faithfully in other churches. We're to be glad that they're there, and glad they're doing what they're doing – not least because different kinds of churches often reach and help different kinds of people.
So Christians who are all preaching the Jesus of the Bible need to look at one another's churches and say, 'I might not do it that way, or I might not think that way about something secondary, or I might not emphasise that so much – and so maybe I wouldn't choose to belong to that church myself. But I rejoice that your church is there and is making Jesus known.'
And the re-vamping of St George's Gateshead, just up the road, is a case in point. It'll certainly differ from HTG in style and emphases. But if the Jesus of the Bible is preached there, we should rejoice that they've come and rejoice when they see growth – without feeling threatened or competitive or defensive. Because that's the attitude here, isn't it?
And here's a test of whether we really have that attitude. I guess we've all got neighbours and friends and colleagues whom we're trying to invite along here. But then imagine another Christian invites them along to another church – and they go. And the test is: will you rejoice that someone is telling them the gospel – even if that someone isn't you? Because that's what Paul would do isn't it? End of verse 18 – he'd say:
Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
So those are the two lessons from this bit of Philippians.
• What matters most is more people hearing the gospel; and
• What matters most is more Christians spreading the gospel.
In other words, what matters most is the gospel. And if this church is united around that attitude, it'll make it both a blessing to the community around, and an encouragement to the other churches as well.