Providential Gospel Progress

Introduction

Read Philippians 1.12-18.
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

To help us understand this text, think about this: let's ask a key question: Paul found himself in a difficult situation: What filters did he use to understand his situation? In short, what we're going to see is that Paul looked at God’s providence as the key explainer of his life’s details, and this enabled him to see opportunity where others saw problems.

1. The Search for Meaning

A core dimension of the human experience is the search for meaning. More than noting the facts of our existence, we are hard-wired to try and understand the bigger picture. What’s it all about? What does our life mean? What is the meaning of the events that happen to us?

As we seek to attribute meaning, not only to our lives, but to the details and circumstances of our lives, we tend to revert to filters. A ‘filter’ is an explanatory premise, like X happened because of Y. And so as students we might say, ‘I did poorly on this test because I didn’t study much’.

But our deeper questions are not really about the basic cause and effect details of our lives, but why did I have the parents I have? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to Christians?

We understand that, theologically, bad things happen because we live in fallen world. But in addition to the condition of fallenness, there is a God-factor we cannot ignore. One of the key doctrines the Bible teaches is providence.

2. God's Providence

When we used the word providence we mean God’s purposeful sovereignty by which God superintends the universe to accomplish his will. Historically different Christian creeds have given definitions of providence:

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q27: What do you understand by the providence of God? A: The almighty and ever present power of God1 by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures,2 and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty3 — all things, in fact, come to us not by chance4 but by his fatherly hand.5 (1Jer. 23:23-24; Acts 17:24-28; 2Heb. 1:3; 3Jer. 5:24; Acts 14:15-17; John 9:3; Prov. 22:2p; 4 Prov. 16:33; 5Matt. 10:29).

The Belgic Confession
(1561): We believe that this good God, after creating all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement.

The doctrine of God’s providence is taught in many scriptures, such as Isaiah 46:9-10:
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.

Providence is also taught in the book of Jonah:

1.4: The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea
1.17: And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah
2.10: And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
4.6: Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah
4.8: God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.

Notice that God is the actor controlling wind, fish, plans and sun. And he did all of that for the sake of getting his message to Ninevah, and to teach Jonah about his goodness. Remember, providence is God’s purposeful sovereignty. God is exercising his sovereignty – his raw power to do what he wants; but more than that, he is doing is on purpose, to accomplish something.

3. Gospel Purposes

And so when Paul looked at his situation – being in prison in Rome – he didn’t feel like God had abandoned him; just the opposite. Paul saw this is a gospel opportunity. The theological interpretation Paul gives to the details of his life is 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.

This belief in God’s providence and the trust in God it promotes become the lens by which Paul interprets his circumstances. Not only is God working all things together for Paul, but there is a bigger purpose at stake:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. Philippians 1.12

This is an amazing statement. Rather than being bitter; Paul adopts a better attitude; rather than feeling abandoned, Paul feels strategically placed. And not only gospel progress generally, but those close to Caesar were hearing the gospel: it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ). Paul's rejoicing isn’t because everything is going perfectly, just the opposite:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. Philippians 1.15

But Paul is able to use this gospel filter to come round to a place of rejoicing:

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Philippians 1.18

The advance of the gospel became the filter Paul used to interpret his life. Rather than assuming that life was random and without meaning, Paul assumed life was superintended by God and had purpose. And that purpose was wrapped up in the gospel.

4. God's Purposes in Your Life

Remember that, like Paul, your life too is cared for by the providential hand of God. Remember that, like Paul, God is working all things together for good in your life if you love God and have been called through Christ according to his purposes. And remember that, like Paul, when it feels like God has abandoned you and you find yourself in a situation of darkness and isolation and bad circumstances, it may be that God has orchestrated everything for a gospel purpose. Open your eyes and look around to see the opportunities God opens for you every day.