Speak to anyone, and before long it becomes apparent what makes him tick. Unbelievers prioritize their careers, aim for bigger and better homes, selfishly indulge in pleasure, and so on. From Paul’s splendid example, we can learn of two priorities that should be the main life-focus of every Christian.
Preach the Gospel (vv 12-20)
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Paul’s sterling character rose above his difficult circumstances and gloried in the benefits which accrued to the cause of Christ and His gospel. Knowing that his brethren had heard of his imprisonment, Paul showed concern that they should understand the advantages gained through his suffering. If in times of adversity we, too, were more concerned for other believers’ peace of mind, rather than dwelling on our own discomfort, how much more contented we would be. This same selfless attitude of putting others first during suffering was also demonstrated by Epaphroditus during his near terminal illness (2:26, 27), and of course by the Lord Jesus on the cross when He provided for His mother (Jn 19:26). Paul’s great priority, even while imprisoned, was not escape or relief from suffering but, “the furtherance of the gospel” (1:12). It was to this end that he had expended his energies as a free man, and even in bonds his heart’s desire was the worldwide dissemination of the gospel. As a Roman prisoner he had a bright testimony. It quickly became “manifest in all the praetorium, and in all other places” that his imprisonment was for Christ, rather than because he was a malefactor.
As the apostle’s imprisonment provided inspiration and encouragement for others, even in our difficulties we should seek to embolden the brethren in the Lord. Alas, there were believers who envied this faithful Christian and used the occasion of his imprisonment to their advantage. These preached the gospel with wrong motives, envious of Paul, with enmity in their hearts towards him, and in a spirit of self-seeking and ambition, wishing to add to his afflictions (vv 15, 16). It is sadly possible to be doctrinally sound, yet preach the gospel out of evil motivation; may the Lord preserve us from such. Likewise, we must also be sure never to allow the root of envy to spring up in our hearts towards each other. Paul was a man of remarkablestability. His trials tested the reality of his convictions. Nevertheless, these hardships in no way altered the desires of his heart. Paul remained “set for the defence of the gospel” (v 17), just as he had been prior to his imprisonment. We too should be steadfast in our convictions. Paul’s magnanimity is evident in his rejoicing that “Christ is preached” (v 18), rather than harboring grudges against those who sought to add to his afflictions. Although Paul’s own immediate future was uncertain, yet he knew with confidence “that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (v 19). This did not necessarily refer to release from imprisonment (he hints at possible execution), but to salvation in the spiritual sphere. There are several aspects involved in salvation, including past (Eph 2:8), present (Phi 2:12) and future (Rom 13:11). “Here the present and future aspects may be fused into one as the apostle looks to the unfolding of his Christian life and his ultimate hope of standing unashamed before both human judges and before his Lord.” His earnest expectation in the midst of trouble was for Christ to be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death.
Encourage the Saints (vv 21-26)
His internal struggle was unusual, for it involved the question of whether life or death was preferable (v 23); execution was always a possibility (2:17). This conflict was also purely hypothetical, for Paul, typical of all believers, did not have any say in his own fate; however, if the choice were to be his, he “wot not” (v 22) what he would decide. This produced intense feelings within his heart, for he described himself as being in a strait, suggesting marked restriction on both sides from outward pressure. As with every decision in his Christian life, Paul calculated the major advantages and disadvantages of life or death, reaching a conclusion which may be startling to us. The only reason for drawing breath, as far as he was concerned, was Christ (v 21), and laboring and bearing fruit for Him (v 22). This involved helping the saints make inroads into the faith (v 24): “furtherance” is a word used to describe pioneers cutting their way through brushwood to make progress. The faith referred to here is that body of truth “which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). The Christian life, far from being static, should be full of exploration and discovery in the Word of God, and hence an ever deepening appreciation of the faith. This journey ought to be one of growing enjoyment (v 25). This joyful adventure can be greatly encouraged by other believers (v 26).
For Paul, as with every Christian, death meant being with Christ (v 23), which is most definitely “gain” and “far better.” Death is simply a departure from this present life, as a ship loosing its moorings in preparation for setting sail. Therefore, he concludes that, for himself, it was better to die and be with Christ, but for the Philippian Christians, it was better if he abode “in the flesh” (v 24). His selfless attitude is seen in his willingness to forgo his own desire that he might help the Lord’s people (v 25).
Every Christian should make the things of God the priority in his or her life.