What Has Happened to Me Has Really Served to Advance the Gospel

I saw a Christmas ornament advertised online today: a dumpster fire with 2020 written on it. 2020 has been a year filled with difficulty, frustration, tension, and sorrow, to the point where people are apt to say that they are “over it.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said something incredible, especially when you consider the circumstances in which he wrote it:

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

Philippians 1:12

This statement is particularly surprising when you consider what things Paul is referring to here that had happened to him:

What Had Happened to Paul?

When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he was being held as a prisoner in Rome.

Prior to his arrest, Paul had spent years traveling around the Roman Empire as missionary: preaching the gospel and starting churches, and training others to do the same. But then, some people who wanted to hinder Paul’s work and hinder the spread of the gospel, started spreading fake news that Paul was an anti-government revolutionary. As a result, Paul was arrested.

While under arrest, Paul was no longer able to travel the world to advance the gospel. Because of corruption in the judicial system, Paul was left in prison for several years, until he appealed his case to the Roman supreme court, which is how he came to be in Rome at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Paul was under house arrest, awaiting trial, and chained to Roman soldiers 24 hours a day.

With those details in mind, consider again what Paul wrote to the Philippians:

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

Philippians 1:12

The things which had happened to Paul were:

  • The loss of his freedom
  • False accusations
  • Suffering at the hands of corrupt officials.

It would be easy to look at those circumstances and conclude that these things which had happened to Paul were preventing him from advancing the gospel, but Paul says, “No. Everything that has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”

Being under house arrest had obvious limitations, but it also afforded Paul some unique opportunities.

One of those opportunities was: down time, and Paul used that time to pen four letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which are now part of our New Testament canon, and for the past two millennia have been used by God to bring encouragement and instruction to those who read them.

Another unique opportunity this situation gave him, was that Paul was chained to members of Caesar Nero’s Imperial Guard for 24 hours a day, the soldiers being changed out on shifts. Rather than seeing himself as restrained, however, Paul viewed this as an evangelist’s dream! It wasn’t that he was chained to soldiers, Paul thought, but those soldiers were chained to him! For hours at a time, he had a soldier’s undivided attention, and when their time was up, a new soldier would be brought in and chained to him. Paul viewed himself as a missionary to those people in that place. I imagine Paul’s biggest struggle must have been finding time to sleep because he was so excited to make new friends and tell them about Jesus.

Some of these guards, Paul tells us, were becoming Christians. If Paul had not been in custody, but had rather knocked on the door of Caesar’s Palace and said, “Hi, I’m Paul, I’d like to talk to you about your sins and convert you to Christianity,” they would have slammed the door in his face, but because of what happened to him: the injustice, the slander, and the corruption, Paul now had unique opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel which he could not have had otherwise.

Paul was able to see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity, and he wanted his readers to develop that mindset as well.

Paul’s Mindset In Our Situation

The events of this past year have been difficult and uncomfortable for all of us, from the pandemic, to the racial and political tensions, the economic hardships, the isolation, and the online fatigue. But how would the Apostle Paul have looked at this situation, and how would he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have encouraged us to view these circumstances? Would it not be to view them through the eyes of faith, knowing that all of these difficulties have presented us with unique opportunities for the furtherance of the gospel, and that “what has happened has really served the furtherance of the gospel”?

God has placed us who are believers here for such a time as this. May we be faithful to steward this great gospel message in a world that needs it, and may we see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity for the furtherance of the gospel.

Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

Image result for chinese christianity

In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

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Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

New Feature: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

A lot of the topics that I write about here are inspired by conversations I have or questions I’ve received from readers.

In order to better serve you with content that is relevant to questions that you have about the Bible, culture or current events, I created a new page with a form that can be filled out to submit a question or suggest a topic.

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Brett Felton: US Veteran Fighting ISIS and Defending Christians in Iraq

60 Minutes aired a report this past weekend on the Christians of Northern Iraq, and how they are being persecuted by ISIS. It is terrible and tragic, and something the whole world needs to hear about. Take a few minutes to read this report. This is an event of historic proportions: books and churches which have existed since the early days of Christianity are being destroyed. A Christian community is being eradicated.

If we think back on the actions of Hitler in Europe and reflect on what Christians should have done, we must open our eyes to realize that something similar is happening in our day in the Middle East to Christians. What will the world do? What can be done?

One American Christian, Brett Felton, came to the conclusion that the right thing for him to do, as a former US soldier who fought in Iraq, was to return there to help the Iraqi Christians defend themselves. 60 Minutes posted this video report about him. Check it out.

Brett is over there, not hunting ISIS, but training the Iraqi Christians on how to defend themselves if and when ISIS attacks, and he is standing beside them to fight if and when that day comes.

What do you think about a Christian taking up arms to fight against ISIS?

ISIS is clearly doing something very evil – something that should not be tolerated from any group of people, no matter who they are persecuting.

Considering the circumstances, and the fact that ISIS is functioning as a military group, terrorizing largely unarmed, untrained civilians, I think that what Brett Felton is doing is praiseworthy – putting his life on the line to help civilians protect their families and their ancient civilization from an evil assailant.