Teaching series from Philippians

God's Sovereignty & Joy

Philippians 1:12-18

Teaching t12668


Briefly review author and audience (MAP).  We noted two weeks ago that Philippians is often called the “joy letter.” Paul uses the noun (“joy”) 5 times and the verb (“rejoice”) 8 times, and the entire letter exudes an attitude of joy.  We would expect that Paul must be vacationing on some Greek island, playing great golf every day, etc.  Instead, he is imprisoned in Rome, chained to Roman guards and awaiting trial and possible execution for a crime he didn’t commit!  This highlights the profound difference between Christian joy and American happiness.

“Happiness” derives from the word “happen” or “happenstance,” and refers to the pleasant feelings that come from favorable circumstances.  I usually feel happy on vacation because I am where I want to be, with the people I like being with, doing what I like to do.  There is nothing wrong with this – happiness is a blessing from God.  But since happiness is dependent on favorable circumstances, it is extremely fragile in a fallen world.  Pursuing it is therefore not a wise goal for your life.

“Joy,” as it is used it this letter, is not just a feeling, although it involves your feelings.  It is related to peace and hope – deep-seated sense of well-being that God grants us as we trust in Him (read Rom. 15:13).  Therefore, it is entirely independent of your circumstances, and you can have it even when you are unhappy (2 Cor. 6:10a).

What does it look like to “trust God” in this way?  We get one answer to this question in 1:12-18a (read).  Before we look at the details of this passage, it is important to understand the theological truth implied: God is sovereign over our adverse circumstances – namely, He is able to advance His purpose (Eph. 1:11,12) and our good through them (Rom. 8:28).  Because Paul trusted God sovereignty, he looked for His sovereign activity in his wrongful imprisonment.  And when he saw glimpses of this, it gave him joy.

God’s sovereignty & the progress of the gospel

Re-read 1:12.  Paul knew that God’s purpose involves “the greater progress of the gospel” – spreading His message of salvation through Jesus’ followers to people who don’t yet understand or believe it.  This is not about arrogant people coercing others to submit to their opinion; it is about humble people sharing God’s good news to others (“One beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”).  This is heart of biblical Christianity: Humanity is infected with a lethal disease (sin).  God, because He loves us, has provided the antidote through Jesus (His death for our sins), and He is offering this antidote through people who have already received it and can testify to its effectiveness. 

Because God is sovereign, He can create opportunities to spread His message in even terrible circumstances.  Note how Paul saw this in his circumstances:

God gave him unique opportunities to share this message through his imprisonment (1:13).  The Roman imperial guards to whom he was chained became his captive audience, and they spread the message to other guards.  “Everyone else” includes the many people who visited him as he was under house arrest (Acts 28:30), and the people at his legal hearings.

God also used the news of Paul’s example to strengthen the Roman Christians to share this message (1:14,15b,16).  Whereas before they may have been especially fearful (“If I can get arrested like Paul for sharing, I’d better keep quiet”), Paul’s example gave them courage (“If God can strengthen Paul to share in his situation, He can certainly strengthen me”).  Their love for Paul motivated them to share in his sufferings in this way.

God even used the carnal motives of some of the Roman Christians to spread this message (1:15a,17).  Certain Roman church leaders evidently felt jealous of and threatened by Paul’s presence in Rome.  When they heard that Paul had been sharing the gospel with so many people, they evidently stepped up their own outreach in order to compete with Paul’s popularity.  This motivation is messed up, which is why Paul critiques it.  But before you throw a self-righteous snit, look in the mirror.  Am I the only one who has shared Christ with people so I could boast about it to other Christians?  Am I the only one who (as a single) has invited girls to Bible studies in the hope that they would come to Christ and date me?  God doesn’t justify this behavior, but He graciously works even through our mixed motives to get the message of His love to others!  Isn’t this a better problem than fearful, silent Christians?

So Paul’s imprisonment, which was meant by his captors to prevent the spread of the gospel, has actually been used by God to increase its progress.  As he sees how God is confirming his trust in His sovereignty, he rejoices (1:18a).[1]

There is obvious application for all of us who belong to Christ.  We have the same message Paul had.  We have the same privilege of sharing it with others.  We have the same God who is sovereign over our adverse circumstances, and is working through them to forge opportunities to share the message.  And we have the same opportunity to experience joy as we see God doing this through us.

A Russian Jewish doctor was imprisoned in the Soviet prison-camp system during the 1950’s.  Somehow in this hell-hole (through other Christians who had Paul’s perspective), he came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  Forced to serve in the prison infirmary, he began to protest the mistreatment of his patients – arousing the ill will of the guards.  One day, as a fellow-prisoner was regaining consciousness after surgery, he felt prompted to talk to him about his new-found faith in Jesus.  The next morning, the doctor was killed by the guards – but what he shared made a deep impression on his patient.  A short time later, he came to faith in Christ and shook the world through his books which exposed the evils of Soviet communism.  His name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn (BOOKS).  He also knew the joy that comes from trusting God’s sovereignty in this way, which is expressed in this poem:

How easy for me to live with You, O Lord! . . .

You grant me the serene certitude

that You exist and that You will take care

that not all the paths of good be closed.

Atop the ridge of earthly fame,

I look back in wonder at the path

which I alone could never have found,

a wondrous path through despair to this point

from which I, too, could transmit to mankind

a reflection of Your rays.

And as much as I must still reflect

You will give me.

But as much as I cannot take up

You will have already assigned to others.

What about you?  You are not imprisoned, but you have adverse circumstances.  How might God be working through your adverse circumstances to give you opportunities to share your faith?  Some of you have serious health problems, but you’ve seen how this has created opportunities to share your faith with medical people and fellow-patients.  Some of you don’t like your current job, you’ve seen how this has given you opportunities to share your faith with certain employees.  Some of you have painful family difficulties, but you’ve seen how God is giving you an opportunity to reach out to them in love.  Some of you have suffered a personal tragedy, but you’ve seen how God is giving you an opportunity to share your hope in Christ with others who have suffered a similar tragedy.  This doesn’t take away the adverse circumstances or the pain, but it does produce real joy!  Ask God to open your eyes to see how He is working in this way in your life!

God’s sovereignty & our personal welfare

The Bible has a lot more to say about God’s sovereignty over our adverse circumstances.  God never pits His purpose against our personal welfare (Rom. 8:28).

God works through our adverse circumstances to persuade us of our need for Christ.  We naturally trust ourselves and other idols we think we can control to make life work.  Left to ourselves, we would stubbornly live our entire lives this way, and then sail off to hell when we die.  But God pursues us through His “severe mercy” – He works especially through adverse circumstances to show us that we need to come to Him (LEWIS: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts to us in our pain.  Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”).  Read and explain Hos. 2:6,7.

You may think: “So you’re saying that Christianity is a crutch for weak people.”  Yes!  We are all finite, contingent beings.  We all need a crutch and we all use crutches to get through life (EXAMPLES).  The question is not: Will I use a crutch?  It is: Which crutch is strong enough to bear the weight of life in this broken world?  Only the God of the Bible and His Son Jesus Christ.  Will you lean on Him?

Once you come to faith in Christ, God works through our adverse circumstances to transform our character to be more Christ-like.  Read Rom. 5:3,4.

God knows the length and difficulty of the race He has set before you.  He knows how much perseverance you need, and He is working through your adverse circumstances to develop that perseverance.

God knows the ways your pride has twisted your heart and life.  He works especially through your adverse circumstances to burn away your pride and work genuine humility into you, which is profoundly healing to your soul.

God knows your misplaced hopes for the future.  He works especially through your adverse circumstances to expose these false hopes so that you place your hope in Him alone (in this life and the next life).

God sovereignly advances our personal welfare through adverse circumstances in many other ways: “We should not be . . .  too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now.  What do they mean?  Why, simply that God in His wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly.  Perhaps He means to strengthen us in patience, good humor, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult conditions.  Perhaps He has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us.  Perhaps He wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit . . .  Perhaps His purpose is to draw us closer to Himself in conscious communion with Him; for it is often the case . . . that fellowship with (God) is most vivid and sweet, and Christian joy is greatest, when the cross is heaviest.  Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling.”[2]


This profound and mysterious truth challenges us to look at our adverse circumstances in a different way.  No longer do we have to live as victims.  No longer do we have to react to them with bitterness and hate (Gen. 50:15-21).  No longer do we have to be cynical.  Because God is sovereign, no person or circumstance can prevent God from accomplishing His good purpose for our lives.  Because God is sovereign, our one great enemy is our own unwillingness to trust His sovereign wisdom and goodness.  The more we trust God in this way, the more God will show us glimpses of how He is doing this.  And the more glimpses we see, the more joy we will have!


[1] Paul may have been unaware of the biggest way his imprisonment advanced the gospel – his prison letters (Philippians; Ephesians; Colossians; Philemon; 2 Timothy).  How many people have been influenced by these letters to come to faith in Christ?  How many Christians have been spiritually established and strengthened and revived by these letters?  How much joy must Paul have today as he sees this? 

[2] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p. 86.