As I’ve studied the epistle to the Philippians I was once again struck by the attitude of the apostle Paul when, in the wake of his incarceration, the churches found new boldness to preach the gospel. “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry” he wrote, “but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense and confirmation 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 pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed and in that I rejoice.” (Phil. 1:15-18)
Some, taking opportunity from the apostle’s chains, were preaching Christ out of jealousy. They wanted some of the attention. They wanted to make names for themselves. They wanted to take Paul down a peg or two. Their motives were terrible. And yet Paul doesn’t call them false teachers. There were heretics peddling lies infecting the churches in those days, to be sure. But these men were not among them. They preached Christ accurately, even if they preached him with selfish motives. There is an important lesson here about gospel ministry and gospel ministers, isn’t there? We are being reminded that God will always speak by his word whenever it is proclaimed even if it is proclaimed by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. The power does not rest in the preacher but in the preached Word (for which this preacher is profoundly thankful!). It’s not the preacher you need most, but the preaching; not the minister of the word, but the word he ministers!
The key thing to notice here is what Paul does with all this. Some people, he knows, are out to undermine him. Others have been emboldened by his example to suffer for the gospel cause. But either way, Paul says, he rejoices that Christ is being preached. That is remarkable. How can he do it? What does that tell us about Paul’s heart? I think at its root Paul’s response speaks to the question of the deep motives of our hearts. We call them ambitions.
D.A. Carson, commenting on this passage, hits the nail on the head: “Paul’s example is impressive and clear: Put the advance of the gospel at the center of your aspirations. Our own comforts, our bruised feelings, our reputations, our misunderstood motives—all of these are insignificant in comparison with the advance and splendor of the gospel. As Christians, we are called upon to put the advance of the gospel at the very center of our aspirations. What are your aspirations? To make money? To get married? To travel? To see your grandchildren grow up? To find a new job? To retire early? None of these is inadmissible; none is to be despised. The question is whether these aspirations become so devouring that the Christian’s central aspiration is squeezed to the periphery or choked out of existence entirely.”1
When the gospel is at the heart of our aspirations, when the fame of the name of Jesus is our dearest ambition, nothing can hinder our joy. When you hitch your happiness to your hopes for a better life, a contented retirement, a successful career, a family life free of dysfunction… when you hitch your hopes for happiness to yourself and your circumstances you are setting them up to be dashed on the rocks of hard providential trials. There is no scriptural guarantee that all will work out well for your job, your finances, your children. The gospel is not about your best life now, and when we make our joy contingent on our outward successes, we will inevitably find it to be a fleeting and fragile thing.
But when the honor of Jesus, the gospel of grace, the knowledge of God, for ourselves as well as for others, become the grounds of our deepest joy, when the advancement of the renown of Jesus’ name becomes our most basic ambition, then in fact, not only will our trials fail to hinder our joy, they will in the end only serve to further them, as God works in and through them for our good and his glory (Romans 8:28). That was Paul’s experience. It can be yours too!
1 D. A. Carson, Basics For Believers, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), pp. 25