Making the Most of Opportunities
April 17, 2005 | Brian Bill
I’d like to begin with an informal survey. What do you think are the most pressing challenges facing the local church today? Go ahead and just shout out what you think. In a recent survey of over 1300 ministry leaders from Europe, North America and elsewhere, ten top issues emerged (for a full report, see www.lifeway.com/top10).
In the recent issue of Leadership Journal (Spring 2005, page 9), a columnist points out that every church has a culture, or ethos, that is not always clearly stated but is firmly felt. She writes that the ethos at her first church was, “Don’t rock the boat.” Other common ones include:
- We can find something wrong with anything.
- Saved by grace but living under the law.
- Visitors are welcome to come back, if they really want to.
By the way, one of the reasons I’m so completely committed to the hiring of an Executive Pastor is so we can do a better job living out the Great Commandment and fulfilling the Great Commission. As we continue in our Philippians series today, it strikes me that this letter explicitly addresses at least five of these top ten issues. Last week we looked at prayer, the number one need of the church today. We learned that when we pray we should boldly ask for:
- Limitless Love
- Deep Discernment
- Sweet Sincerity
- Filling with Fruitfulness
- God’s Glory
Two weeks ago, we described the process of discipleship, the number two issue, pointing out that Christians are under construction and that we will be completed on the day of Christ. This morning, we’re going to focus on another top need: evangelism.
Please turn in your Bibles to Philippians 1:12-18 where we will get a sense of Paul’s ethos. By way of background, remember that Paul is writing this letter from a prison in Rome. He wants the Philippians to focus on four truths as they journey towards joy.
1. God’s purposes are often accomplished through our problems (12).
The believers in Philippi are eager to hear how Paul is doing. Perhaps they even skimmed quickly through the first section of this letter just to get to the part about his personal news. It’s striking to me that Paul does not focus on his problems; instead, he holds up God’s purposes. Look at verse 12: “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” What he really wants them to know is not his personal news but how the gospel is spreading; he doesn’t want to talk about how he’s doing but rather how the gospel is doing. Paul introduces what he’s going to say with some pretty strong words because he doesn’t want them to miss the truth that God’s purposes are accomplished through our problems. He then refers to them as “brothers,” which is a term of endearment, but even more than that, it is a reference and reminder that believers are part of the same spiritual family. Paul uses this term four times in this brief letter.
Paul is really good at understating his difficulties. Instead of listing all his woes, as most of us are apt to do, he simply summarizes all that he has been through with this phrase: “that what has happened to me.” The Philippians were well aware of his trials so Paul didn’t need to enumerate them, but we may need a refresher course. Here’s a Reader’s Digest version of the final chapters of the Book of Acts, beginning in chapter 21. Some people started some rumors that Paul had taken a Gentile into the holy part of the Temple, and Jerusalem was up in arms, causing Paul to be beaten and almost killed. The authorities stepped in and arrested Paul, thus saving his life. Paul was then taken to Caesarea, where he was held in prison for two years, awaiting trial. He appeared before Governors Felix and Festus, and eventually before King Agrippa, giving gripping testimony about his faith in Christ. Because Paul appealed his case to Caesar, he was then sent to Italy by ship. After a terrible shipwreck, he was finally brought in chains to Rome where he was kept under house arrest for two years, as he waited for his trial before Caesar.
As Paul thinks about all that has happened to him, he quickly concludes that everything “…has really served to advance the gospel.” The word “advance” is a military term that means “to strike forward” and was used to refer to an army of wood cutters that went ahead of the regular army to cut a road through a forest. These pioneers paved the way. In a similar sense, our problems can prepare the way for God’s purposes to be accomplished. We don’t usually think this way. For many of us, we see our trials and difficulties as impediments. Not so with Paul. His imprisonment, and everything else that has happened to him, is actually an avenue for the gospel to be presented in previously impenetrable areas. The NIV Application Commentary brings it home for each of us: “When difficult, even life-threatening circumstances face us, we should take Paul as our example and look for how God might be working in such circumstances to advance the gospel either in our lives or in the lives of others” (Philippians, page 64).
A classic illustration of how problems and even persecution can be used to bring about God’s purposes is found in Acts 8:1. The church had very clear marching orders to take the gospel outside Jerusalem in Acts 1:8, but it wasn’t until believers were forced to scatter that this command was actually fulfilled: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Acts 8:4 adds, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” If you read through the New Testament, you’ll find that Paul was passionate about preaching the gospel in Rome. Romans 1:15 says it this way: “That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” But Paul’s plans were not God’s plans – he eventually got to Rome, but not in the way he had planned.
God wants us to see everything in light of his purposes by looking at life through the glasses of the gospel
Friend, nothing ever just “happens” without a reason. God wants us to see everything in light of his purposes by looking at life through the glasses of the gospel. We could call this the fortune of misfortune. And in Paul’s mind, the ultimate purpose is the “advance of the gospel.” He was able to interpret everything in light of being the light of the world. It may be helpful for us to ask this question: “How will this trial or difficulty that I’m going through right now position me to present the gospel to someone?” That’s a pretty radical thought, isn’t it? This is really the doctrine of God’s providence. God orders all things, the good and the bad, for our ultimate good and for His untarnished glory. Instead of focusing on your problems, lock into God’s purposes.
2. The sharing of the gospel should always be our goal (13).
Our ultimate purpose is to give out the gospel to those around us, no matter what situation we are in. Paul judged everything by Kingdom Priorities and found his purpose at the other end of his chain: “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” According to Acts 28:30-31, while Paul was chained to a guard at all times, he did make the most of his opportunities to share the gospel: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” His goal was to present the gospel. This is very clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 9:16: “…I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
The “palace guard” was made up of elite, hand-chosen highly-trained soldiers. They were like a cross between Caesar’s Secret Service and the Army Special Forces. They received double what other soldiers were paid and only had to serve from 12 to 16 years before they could retire. With time they became a powerful political force in Rome, with some serving in the Roman Senate. If you think about it, how else could Paul reach this group of people? Paul was chained to a guard 24 hours a day. Since they changed guards every six hours, Paul would be able to share with a different soldier four times a day, 28 times a week, and reach almost 3000 of these guys in two years. Imagine yourself as one of those soldiers as you watched Paul pray “without ceasing,” meet with people, write letters, and speak to you about Christ. That’s why Paul could say that it had “become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.”
And, according to Philippians 4:22, a number of these men got saved.
Let me ask a few questions. To what or whom do you feel chained to right now? Is it your job? You can chafe under the conditions or you can be a change agent for Christ and make it your goal to share the gospel with everyone you come in contact with. Maybe you feel chained to your spouse and you can’t wait to break free. Instead of running to freedom, find the freedom that comes from forgiveness and servanthood. Maybe you feel chained to your children and instead of complaining it’s time to communicate God’s love to them. Live before your kids in such a way that you make the gospel believable. Perhaps you feel chained to your past as you replay all the bad things you’ve done. It’s time to allow God to use those experiences to help someone else. Or, maybe you feel chained to this church and find yourself complaining that things aren’t better or wonder why things aren’t different.
In his book called RealLivePreacher.com, Gordon Atkinson writes: “I keep getting emails from people who say, ‘Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that.’ Listen to how he responds: “Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children and worship in meaningful ways…A church where the hunger for truth is honored and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos. Where people are committed to ‘The Christ Life’ – and it shows in the fabulous and creative ways they love the world.” He continues: “That what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand. Here are some tips to help you in your search: You won’t find that church…Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children, prone to mistakes, blunders and misjudgments” (Quoted by Marshall Shelley, Leadership Spring 2005, page 3).
After a short time, it became very clear that Paul wasn’t chained to the guards; they were chained to him. His incarceration gave him opportunities for bold evangelism. One pastor referred to this as a “chain reaction” that spread like wildfire through this elite group of men. Paul was in chains but according to 2 Timothy 2:9, “…God’s word is not chained.”
3. Take courage from the examples of other Christians (14).
It’s tough to find someone who is really courageous today. That reminds me of the woman and her husband who had to interrupt their vacation to go to a dentist. The wife was in a hurry and said to the dentist: “I want a tooth pulled, and I don’t want Novocain because I’m in a big hurry. Just extract the tooth as quickly as possible, and we’ll be on our way.” The dentist was very impressed and said, “You’re certainly a courageous woman. Which tooth is it?” The woman turned to her husband and said, “Show him your tooth, dear.” It’s easy to expect others to be courageous, as long as we don’t have to be.
Instead of singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” some of us should change the words to something like this: “Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight; with the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight. Christ our rightful master, stands against the foe; onward into battle, we seem afraid to go.”
When the believers in Rome heard how Paul viewed his problems as part of God’s purpose and how he made the sharing of the gospel his goal, they became more courageous: “Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” Discouragement spreads with deadly swiftness but courage is also contagious, isn’t it? By giving the gospel to the guards, fellow Christians gained courage. If Paul could do it, why couldn’t they?
The word “speak” here is not the word for “preach.” Pastor Jeff put a scare into the student ministry this past Sunday night when he passed out tracts to everyone and told them that they were all going to go to the Wal-Mart parking lot to share their faith. The fear in the room was palpable. Some were getting ready to go but most were looking for a place to hide. After scaring them, he then told them how to share their faith naturally with those they already know.
Paul uses the word that means ordinary, regular everyday conversation, where we just converse naturally about what Christ has done on the cross and what He has done in our lives. All we have to do is tell His story and our story. I like how the Living Bible paraphrases 1 Corinthians 9:22: “Yes, whatever a person is like, I try to find common ground with him so that he will let me tell him about Christ and let Christ save him.” Because Paul took advantage of the opportunities he had, the gospel penetrated the palace guard and it also was proclaimed to ordinary people throughout Rome by emboldened Christians.
4. The message of Christ is all that matters (15-18).
Paul had the ability to see everything in light of that which is most important. He could look at his problems as part of God’s purpose for him to share the gospel and encourage other believers. In this final point, we see that Paul was even able to look past someone’s motives, as long as the message of Christ was getting out. Look with me at verses 15-18: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.” Some believers were jealous of Paul and unbelievably were in competition with him. Even Pilate knew that envy was one of the motives of the religious leaders when they wanted Jesus killed: “For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him” (Matthew 27:18). Paul continues: “The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.” Other believers were motivated by love and knew that Paul was proclaiming the good news.
“The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” This phrase “selfish ambition” was used of those who work for hire.
I love Paul’s summary 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.” Paul’s joy is tied to the gospel being preached, not what team is doing it. This verse had special application for me recently when a player who wears orange and blue took every opportunity this year to share the gospel with reporters, fans and teammates. He did so verbally and with Scripture references on his high tops. Roger Powell, Jr. was wearing the wrong colors but was sharing the right message.
Some of us really struggle when someone on the “wrong team” is used by God to present the gospel. We’re tempted to write them off, to disparage their character and question everything they do. I read a blog this week by a denominational pastor who took Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church to task, because he reported that 4,000 people committed their lives to Christ on Easter Sunday. This sure sounds like envy and jealousy to me. Paul would say that ultimately what is most important is whether or not the gospel message is being preached. You might disagree with someone, or even question their motives, but if Jesus is being preached and people are getting saved, then we need to rejoice not reprimand.
Pastor Chris Seay tells what happened to him when he started a church that grew very quickly, from 0 to 600 in a matter of months. A local pastor wrote a scathing article in his church newsletter defaming this church and Pastor Seay. Assuming there was a misunderstanding, the pastor of the new church called the other pastor to clear the air. This veteran pastor blasted away with these words: “Son, we are in a different class. You don’t amount to !*%! and you never will. Maybe you will make me eat my words. But I doubt it.” Pastor Seay was humiliated and angry, and over time, started blasting away at pastors and ministries he didn’t like (“A Casualty of My Own War,” Chris Seay, Leadership, Spring 2205).
Paul’s attitude is refreshing, isn’t it? We need to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is the message of the cross. Let it be said that these four truths make up the ethos of this church:
- God’s purposes are often accomplished through our problems.
- The sharing of the gospel should always be our goal.
- Take courage from the examples of other Christians.
- The message of Christ is all that matters.