THE GOSPEL PRODUCES COURAGE
Prayer: Lord Jesus, You want us to fear nothing except losing You, to cast all our anxieties upon You, and to not even fear death. So let us hear the Gospel that we leap for joy, give thanks to You, and are not frightened in anything. Fill us with cheerful courage that gives courage to one another. Amen.
Sermon Text: Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30.
Dear people loved and purchased by God, in Christ, to be His own: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We really need Philippians. This is an epistle, or letter, from the apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. We should think of the epistles as letters to us from God, who inspired Paul to write these words.
We’ll be making our way through all four chapters of Philippians over the next four weeks. Philippians is really a special letter from God. The word you hear so often in it is: “Rejoice!” Which is why I said we really need it. We’re in need of joy! Of course, not only is this what God is telling us, but we know also it’s the apostle Paul who is saying, “Rejoice!”
The reason this is a big deal is that Paul was imprisoned. It wasn’t a harsh imprisonment, he wasn’t in a public prison or dungeon but under house arrest. He was chained to a Roman officer, and couldn’t go out, but he could have visitors. Although it wasn’t a harsh form, yet he wasn’t free.
Paul was in Rome, waiting to be on trial in front of Caesar. This came at the end of what we hear in the book of Acts. He came to Rome under guard on a ship, there were storms, there was a shipwreck, they all made it safely onto the island of Malta, and finally received a transport to Italy, and Paul made his way to Rome. The end of Acts shows what his imprisonment was like, that he was able to rent a house to be under house arrest. It says: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Ac 28:30-31).
This isn’t the whole story, though. Remember how chapters 21-28 go in the book of Acts, what we might call “Paul’s trials”: Paul was arrested in the temple at Jerusalem, after a riot in which he was beaten by the Jews. He was first on trial before the Jewish council. Next came a hearing before the Roman governor Felix; then Paul was left in custody for 2 years. Next, a trial before Herod Agrippa; this is when Paul said: “I appeal to Caesar!” Then came the perilous journey to Rome. And finally – did you catch it? – at the end of Acts Paul has waited 2 more years for his trial to start.
At this point Philippi seems a long way and a long time ago. Paul was there years before. He was persecuted there too, for preaching the Gospel – put in jail and beaten, but God freed him with an earthquake that shook the prison and tore apart the prisoners’ chains.
So far this seems to be all about Paul and what he went through. But this is a little exercise in how to read the Bible. We read what Paul suffered, and God uses it in causing these words to be written. But the words are for you. The words are for all people. The words are so “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ … and by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:31).
Paul says some things here that hit home. He talks about life and death. He says: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. … I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
There’s an important teaching here. It’s the Christian view of life and death. You hear Paul saying that when a Christian dies, you “depart [to] be with Christ,” and he says it’s “far better.” He also says that, if God doesn’t say it’s time for that yet, then it’s “more necessary” to remain here, and that’s not only for yourself but for the good of others. You’re needed here. The way we say it as Christians is that when you die, God has decided your time serving Him here is over, it’s time for you to serve Him there.
In contrast to that Christian view of life and death, we hear the worldly view all the time. That view doesn’t believe in eternal life in heaven. They believe that this life is all there is. So during Covid we saw this obsession with avoiding death at all costs, because after that: nothing. People are terrified by that. So that’s what we saw in Covid: fear of death.
We also hear the other side of the worldly view, in the rampant increase in suicide and even contemplating suicide. They decide life isn’t worth living, or life is horrible, or feel they have no friends, so they contemplate ending their life. Just to be clear, St. Paul’s words are not saying the choice is up to him or that a Christian may choose to end his life. He says, “if I am to live on in the flesh,” showing that it’s in God’s hands and we don’t take it into our hands. But here’s the point, often a person who’s contemplating this is overwhelmed by life, drowning in anxiety. This is a fear of life.
It’s this fear that we want to talk about. I think it’s why Paul brings up death. What gets us is the fear of death: afraid of the unknown, afraid of not having control over how we die, afraid of pain. Paul also knew something about pain and suffering, and the fear of going through that.
Also on the table here is the fear of life. What Paul addresses here is being tempted to fear others, to fear how they react if you confess the faith. When he says those around him have become “much more bold to speak the word without fear,” when he tells the Philippians he looks forward to seeing them “not being frightened in anything by your opponents,” he’s acknowledging the power fear has over us, what it can do.
Do you have fears? Of course. Fear is the devil’s tool. As we fixate on fear, we don’t see God our Protector and Father. It’s a 1st Commandment sin: when you’re afraid you aren’t trusting God. So why are we to fear God?
We’re afraid of people, we’re afraid of the world. Jesus says: “Be of good cheer; I overcame the world.” We’re afraid of death. Jesus says: “I conquered death. Whoever believes in Me shall never die.” We’re afraid of pain. Jesus says: “There will be no pain, suffering, or sadness.” We’re afraid of rejection, being alone. Jesus says: “You’re in a multitude no one can count, it’s your family.” So He keeps saying, “Fear not.” Don’t fear any of those things. Be afraid only of losing your salvation. Fear God, and you find escape from all fear.
In contrast to fear, what do we see here in Philippians 1? Courage. Paul starts by saying that the Christians where he is, they see how he confesses Christ, and “are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Then he says he expects he himself “with full courage” will confess Christ. Last of all, for the Philippians, Paul expects to see them “standing firm in one spirit … not frightened in anything by your opponents.”
What is striking is that in every case St. Paul expects courage to result. What does it result from? The Gospel. The Good News of Jesus Christ. This Good News says that for Jesus’ sake your sins don’t condemn you. It says that because Jesus lives, you will live also. It says He suffered all, for you – instead of you – and so He makes all pain and suffering go away forever.
Jesus is preached. What’s the result? The first result is faith: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” But what else is the result? Courage. It’s really trust. God, through St. Paul, is saying to expect this to happen. To expect to have courage. Since it comes from the Gospel.
If you’re weak in courage, realize it’s something you build, with God’s help. So Paul asks even for himself that he may have “full courage.” It comes first from hearing the Gospel. So if you’re praying for courage, you need to hear the Gospel forgiving your sin of fear and also powerfully giving you this faith and trust. And secondly, let the 1st Commandment guide you to fight your fear and to boldly trust and speak.
It helps us to have courage if we view it from the perspective of love: that others need to see this courage, especially in how we confess the faith in our words – speaking the Good News – and how we confess the faith in what we do – saying no to sin, which does take courage. May God give us cheerful courage, by His Gospel. Amen!