In the summer of 1988 I was a part of the Summer Christian Service Corps ministry which many college age students from Seventh Day Baptist churches serve in. We had about two weeks of training and that summer I served at a church and camp in West Virginia. What was challenging about the training for me is that we were asked to take a gospel tract and walk through it with our fellow SCSCers multiple times. We practiced sharing the good news of Christ with each other. Then, during our project in West Virginia, our goal was to share the good news with every kid that came to camp.
This was very challenging to me, but I was up for the challenge. Our team of four students met our goal. We shared the good news of Christ with every kid. It was exciting. I don’t remember, however, any of the kids wanting to respond to the message and receive Christ. The only kid I remember talking to was the kid who didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I remember clearly thinking that this kid was the farthest from responding to Jesus of any kid I had met that summer.
Fast forward several years, possibly a decade or two. I found out that that kid from West Virginia whom I thought could have cared less about the gospel had, in fact, given his life to Jesus Christ. Not only that, he followed the call of the Lord to serve Him in pastoral ministry. That kid was John Pethtel and today he serves as the director of Pastoral Services for Seventh Day Baptists. He serves as a pastor for our pastors. He serves as my pastor. I never saw that coming 30 years ago. But the Lord has different plans than we do. Sometimes the strangest, most unanticipated, most unexpected things turn out to be a God thing. He uses the most unusual settings through regular ordinary people to work out His extraordinary will.
This morning as we continue our study in the book of Philippians, we will continue to see that the work God does in His people is resetting our mindset. God is in the business of getting us to think like He does. Have you seen God do things that you would have never dreamed possible in a million years? Have you seen the Lord take something that looked like it was a total disaster and bring about something extraordinary?
Clear your heads. Open up your hearts to how God does things differently than us humans and how His thoughts do not line up with our thoughts. Today we will see again in Paul the apostle just how radical his mind was reset through the power of God.
“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.”
Advancing the Gospel
It’s clear that Paul’s mindset had been changed by Jesus Christ because he believed that not even prison could hold back the gospel’s advance. Prison was merely a speed bump, a respite from which he could take the time to write the words of Philippians which would impact generations upon generations of people. Looking back we can say that Paul had no clue just how greatly his imprisonment would serve to advance the gospel throughout the ages because of the words of this letter.
His mind was focused on the gospel, the mission which Jesus left to his followers. Paul’s perspective had been so altered by the Lord that he viewed his imprisonment as a strategic advance. The imperial guard, an influential bunch, understood that his imprisonment was not as a common criminal but as an uncommon man on a mission. Others also, because of Paul’s position, would come into contact with the message of God’s grace who otherwise would not have been exposed to it.
Bold to Speak the Word
That wasn’t all the good news for Paul. He was pumped that the other believers, who had been afraid to preach the gospel up until this point, were encouraged and even became bold in telling others about the Lord. All of this was good for the gospel. All of this was great for the gospel. What seems like one of the worst things that could happen to a person, to be thrown in prison, was in fact the very thing that the Lord used to bring about more boldness in sharing the gospel and more opportunity to share the gospel.
Brother Andrew is a Christian missionary that is famous for smuggling Bibles into communist countries during the height of the Cold War. He has greatly elevated the plight of Christians who face persecution through his ministry, Open Doors International. Brother Andrew tells the following story about a Christian prisoner named Sylvador Ali Ahmad in Sudan.
While studying for his doctorate in comparative religions, he began reading the New Testament and ultimately gave his life to Jesus.
Then, in 1991, Shari’a became the law of the land in Sudan. Ahmad was called in for questioning. When he admitted to being a Christian, he was arrested, chained, and thrown into solitary confinement.
The first night in prison, the authorities tried to kill him. Unexplainably, however, they could find no petrol for their car to drive him to the place of execution.
The next day he was to be arraigned before the Islamic High Court. A lawyer friend urged him to renounce his faith publicly and keep it secretly in his heart. Ahmad refused.
“Jesus is my only defense,” he said. “I cannot deny Him.”
Ahmad was sentenced to six months in prison, stripped of his military rank, and fired from his teaching position. His wife had already divorced him. He also lost his four children, his car, his house, and his bank account. If at the end of his sentence he still refused to return to Islam, the judges said, he would spend six more months behind bars.
Ahmad organized small Bible studies and prayer groups throughout Omdurman Prison.
“By the end of three months,” he said, “there were 305 known Christians in our prison, at least seven from Muslim background.”
Labeling him “a very dangerous man,” the prison imam had him transferred to Gerif Prison, a work facility in east Khartoum. There Ahmad continued to spread the Gospel.
In this prison, Ahmad and seven other Christians began meeting together. After a week, fifty gathered around a tree in the prison courtyard. Two months later, there were 115 believers, growing bolder and experiencing miraculous answers to their prayers.
One night, the guards threw Ahmad into a truck with orders to drown him in the Nile. But as the truck neared the river, it mysteriously stopped. Terrified, the guards and driver refused the officer’s orders to kill Ahmad. Soon afterward, he was released. “When so many were getting converted around me in the prison,” he explains, “they must have decided it was better for me to be outside.”
For Ahmad as well as Paul, prison served to advance the gospel. Notice the parallels of their experiences. People in prison began to hear the good news through Ahmad, and those believers in prison began to become more bold in sharing the Word of God.
Now this would be enough for us to claim a miraculous change of mind in Paul the former persecutor of Christians and the former man of no faults. His prison sentence was a secondary consideration compared to the gospel advance, even, as he writes, from people with bad motives.
“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.”
In Every Way Christ is Preached
Paul had rivals who were jealous of his role, position, success in the gospel. Even though he was innocent and did not deserve to be in prison, they were happy. These were Christians who were happy that he was in prison! They actually wanted to make his life more difficult than it already was, so they preached the gospel because, amazingly enough, they thought it create more problems for him.
I would imagine if I were in that same situation as Paul I might have a different response. I might be thinking, “Hey guys, aren’t we on the same side?” I might be tempted to lash out against them and warn people to stay away because they might cause others harm also. Incredibly, instead of acting to stop what they were doing, Paul rejoiced that the gospel was being preached! Unconcerned about how it affected him personally, his mindset was riveted on the opportunity for people to be set free from the consequences of sin. We might be thinking if Paul lived in our time, “Where did this guy come from?”
Jesus is where he came from. You see, Jesus got a hold of Paul, and over a period of years reset his mindset so that it looked more like the Lord’s. There was such a change in him that Paul was able to write words like we have in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Although in prison, Paul was not ashamed. He thought nothing of ridicule or embarrassment or false accusation or persecution because if it was for the gospel then all these things were worth it.
This same Paul had been so changed by Jesus that he wrote the words of Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Paul wrote that God works all things together for good, and he lived it out. The good was first and foremost not Paul’s comfort. It was God’s will. God’s will is good. The Lord can work out His will in the sun or the rain, the good times or the bad, having everything or nothing at all, being in prison or out. He works everything together – think about it – for the Good News.
Because God so loved the world He looked for someone like Paul who would understand that Good News of Christ is the greatest good that the world will ever know. He looked for someone who would be more concerned about what God thinks is good for the world than what they think is good for the world. He looked for someone who was willing to endure all kinds of difficulties for the sake of God’s goodness because that is what it takes sometimes. God looked and He found Paul. The Lord today still looks for those through whom He can bring His goodness, His good news to the people who need it.
What would encourage you to become more bold to speak God’s Word?
The gospel really is good news. Who doesn’t like a free gift? But the packaging of that gift has been so mushed and smushed that many don’t want to open it. There is a risk that we take when talking about the truths which the Lord has placed in the Bible that because of the packaging of the message, it will be rejected and therefore we will be rejected.
But you can be an encouragement to other believers by taking a risk and talking about the grace that you’ve found in Christ to those who are skeptical or even downright resistant. When we share our highs and lows with each other concerning the good news we have in the Lord, then fear gets kicked to the curb. Boldness will then start to characterize what it means among us to follow Christ.
Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area tells a story about one day years ago… “when neither seatbelts nor infant car seats were mandatory, my daughter, Shauna, would sit right by my side on the arm rest of the old Chevy Impala I drove.
One morning she and I loaded up to run a few errands, and as I was pulling out onto a major thoroughfare, I glanced over to make sure she was secure on her makeshift seat. In that split second between when I looked her way and when I looked back to see any oncoming traffic, a car appeared out of nowhere. Feeling I had no other options, I stomped on the accelerator. The other driver came within mere feet of plowing into us before swerving out of our lane. It was way too close for comfort, and I died a thousand deaths in the space of the next six shallow breaths. What if that car had hit us? What if Shauna had been hurt? Or killed?
My mind was racing as I tried to think of a way to apologize to this little girl who because of me almost didn’t make it to her fifth birthday, when she interrupted my self-reproach with three simple words: “Bold move, Dad.”
It wasn’t the first time Shauna had leveled me with her wit. At four, she could verbalize things better than people far older. I was so struck by the humor of her comment that as soon as we got home, I told Lynne the whole story. I told my close friends. One time I even told the congregation at Willow during a weekend service. And eventually, the phrase stuck.
These days, we use it to describe courageous, high-risk plans that God just might use in a major way.”
What was in reality perhaps a dumb move on Bill Hybels part the Lord redeemed and applied to risk-taking for the advance of His Kingdom. Courageous, high-risk sharing of the message of Jesus to the people that God places in your life is a bold move. You might be rejected. You might feel like you blew it bigtime. You might be ridiculed and marginalized and talked about, yes, all of that. But wouldn’t that all be worth it? Isn’t the message of Christ worth all of the risk?
Now remember that the Lord is the one who opens the hearts of people to receive His word. It is His mission after all. William Carey, known as the father of modern missions and a missionary to India, was known to have said, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” The outcome of being bold for the Lord is not dependent on us but on God who does great things. Whether it seems good or bad, whether it feels good or bad, whether it lands you in prison or not, God works it all together for good. What do you think? Are you ready to make some bold moves?
What if we created a culture in our church family that was biblical in the way we took risks for the gospel? Imagine what it would be like if we started to live with boldness instead of fear. There would be those who right now are in our lives who might respond to the message of the gospel.
The risk is of course that we could fall flat on our faces. But rather than be like those people who were envious of Paul and tried to make life even more difficult for him, we would be the kind of people who would say to Paul, “Bold move! You’re in prison because you took a risk to share the gospel, but that’s ok. We’re right there with you!”
Let us take bold moves to share the gospel message, that people can know God personally because of what Jesus did on the cross and not because they deserve it, that every bad thing they’ve ever done can be forgiven, that they can be and live differently because of the grace and the presence of God in their lives. Let’s share those bold moves with each other so that we all can be encouraged to live with courage and faith and like Paul for the advancement of the gospel of Christ.