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Difficult Bible Passages: Philippians 1:15-18

May 5, 2019

This is another one of those passages which can so easily be misused and abused by some folks. It has to do with the preaching of the gospel, and those who do it with bad motives and the like. But even though this is happening, the Apostle Paul still rejoices that the gospel is being proclaimed. The passage is this:

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

The mistaken impression some folks have here is that Paul is saying it does not matter what your motivation is, and worse yet for some, it does not matter who is preaching the gospel, or even what the gospel might be. But is that what is actually being said here by Paul?

Let’s look at these words in more detail. By way of background, Paul was likely writing this letter while imprisoned in Rome (perhaps around 62 A. D.). As the verses quoted above demonstrate, there was disunity within the Philippian church.

Among other things, there seem to have been pro-Paul groups and anti-Paul groups. Divisions within the church were nothing new for Paul. He had dealt with that problem in 1 Corinthians for example years earlier. There are always factions and sides that tend to compete with each other. Markus Bockmuehl speaks to these issues of division and mixed motivations:

The nature and purpose of Paul’s confinement have genuinely strengthened many believers in the task of evangelism, the majority being motivated by love and good will. Others, however, smell an opportunity for self-advancement, even at the expense of causing the captive Paul distress (v. 17). The divisions in the Roman house churches are already evident in Paul’s letter to Rome several years earlier (eg., Rom. 14:1-15:6), and competing interests are clearly still at work.

We are not told who exactly these divisive and antagonistic people are, and why they had these bad and unhelpful motivations. But some of the believers there clearly did not like Paul and wanted to cause even more trouble for him. F. F. Bruce reminds us that this is not so surprising:

If we find it difficult to credit that followers of Christ could actually find satisfaction in thus rubbing salt into Paul’s wounds, it may be because we fail to realize how controversial a figure Paul was, even within the Christian fellowship, and how deep and bitter was the opposition maintained by some to his gospel interpretation and missionary policy.

Peter O’Brien does look at some options as to their identity, and then concludes that the opposition to Paul was “due to personal animosity and rivalry. His coming to Rome had worked for the advance of the gospel in the city, but there were differences of outlook among the various groups of Christians who were antipathetic to Paul.”

However, as James Montgomery Boice reminds us, they were still a major headache for Paul: “It will not do to call the troublemakers unbelievers. These people were Christians. They were not anti-Christ. They were anti-Paul, but they were anti-Paul with a vengeance.”

So the Apostle had to put up with this kind of behaviour. However, if the gospel was being proclaimed, then he could still rejoice. But as mentioned, this text can be misused by some. One has to walk carefully here: Paul is happy that the gospel is preached, even by his opponents and those with lousy motives.

But elsewhere of course he speaks about how unhappy he is when a false gospel or a distorted gospel is being preached. So care is needed in how we run with Paul’s words. It seems that these enemies of Paul were still preaching a more or less sound gospel.

This was not the case with the Galatians for example, and Paul had to rebuke the false teachers there very strongly indeed (see Gal. 1:6-10). And in 2 Corinthians Paul had to warn about the great dangers of another gospel and another Christ being proclaimed (2 Cor. 11:4). Whenever the truth of the gospel is at risk, Paul does not just sit back and allow it to do its damage.

So here Paul seems assured that a false gospel is not being proclaimed, so he is willing to put up with the abuse and discord. At least the gospel is being preached. But this does not mean motivations therefore mean nothing to Paul. As Frank Thielman comments:

“That the motives and style of those who proclaim the gospel are not a matter of indifference to Paul is clear from his other letters. In 1 Thessalonians 2:1–12 Paul explains at length that his own motives in preaching to the Thessalonians were pure, not motivated by flattery or greed.”

He looks at other texts where Paul speaks of the importance of motivation, then goes on to explain the apparent contradiction with what is found here:

The answer to this puzzle lies in the difference in the circumstances that Paul confronts in Philippians and in other letters where he discusses the importance of motives in preaching. In the other letters Paul was speaking directly to the people who might be convinced that his motives were impure or who had fallen under the spell of those whose motives were impure. This letter, on the other hand, is addressed neither to Paul’s rivals nor to people who have fallen under their influence.

What we have here is a clear look at Paul’s heart – of his Christ-centred attitude. He could so easily have become bitter and angry. After all, here he was, languishing in prison, and some of his fellow believers were seeking to add insult to injury. But he did not respond that way. As D. A. Carson writes:

How does Paul handle this? Is he wounded? Doubtless he has feelings like everyone else. But he is a man of deep principle, and he perceives that whether by preachers like this or by preachers who align themselves with the apostle, the gospel is getting out – and that is more important than whether or not he himself achieves universal respect in the church….

Paul’s example is impressive and clear: put the advance of the gospel at the centre of your aspirations. Our own comfort, our bruised feelings, our reputations, our misunderstood motives – all of these are insignificant in comparison with the advance and splendour of the gospel. As Christians, we are called upon to put the advance of the gospel at the very centre of our aspirations.

Amen. The Apostle above all demonstrates his love of Christ and his love of the gospel, And he also shows us in this passage his largeness of heart. As Gordon Fee explains:

True, he lacks the kind of “largeness” for which religious pluralists contend. Is that because such pluralists have not been apprehended by Christ and the gospel, as God’s thing – his only thing – on behalf of our fallen world? Unfortunately, and ironically, such pluralism often has very little tolerance for the Pauls of this world! But in Paul’s case it is his theological convictions that lead both to his theological narrowness, on the one hand, and to his large-heartedness within those convictions, on the other – precisely because he recognizes the gospel for what it is: God’s thing, not his own. And that, it should be added, also stands quite over against many others who think of themselves as in Paul’s train but whose passion for the gospel seems all too often a passion for their own “correct” view of things.

At stake for the Philippians – and for us, I would venture – is the admonition finally made explicit in 4:9: to put into practice for ourselves what we hear and see in Paul, as well as what we have learned and received by way of his teaching.

Yes, seeking to get Paul’s heart here is crucial. On the one hand, too many believers often lack his humility and willingness to be abased. They refuse to play second fiddle to anyone, and always seek to get credit for everything. They lack the humbleness and love of Paul.

But on the other hand, there are too many believers who think the gospel does not matter, and we should just go with the flow. Paul would have none of that either. When the gospel was at risk, he spoke fearlessly and forcefully. He would not tolerate false gospels or false teachers.

So we need to find this biblical balance. Paul is so well worth emulating in this regard. Do we put the gospel first, or do we worry about our own reputation? Is Christ paramount, or how people treat us? We all must ask ourselves these questions, and on a regular basis.

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7 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Philippians 1:15-18

  • Yes, there is a distinction between the one who enthusiastically and charismatically preaches a distorted gospel and the one who carefully and with reverence and fear preaches the gospel to six.

    The best analogy I guess we could give of ‘mistaking’ is to consider say someone like Dr Lloyd Jones was ‘faulty’ so should be rejected as he held Calvinist views. Just reading one page of his interpretation of scripture should alert you to the fact that you may love going into pharisee mode perhaps. Equally and oppositely would be to embrace the one who preaches health and wealth since you want to be rich.

    I think in today’s church the likely ‘mistaking’ is likely to be associated with, Love as this can be the cause of the ‘mistaking’ both I the negative and the positive in that Love can be valued over truth and procedures, and rules can be valued over love.

    Getting the gospel message accepted with a loving, and hungry for more heart should be the aim and the measure of success perhaps, doing so while walking on the tightrope of our responsibility and Gods necessary grace and mercy.

    Molly and lots of co.

  • Bill, I am puzzled about your comment that there was disunity in the Philippian church. That church was a real favourite of Paul’s and is unusal in that Paul had nothing but praise for the Christians there. The only comment he makes about any disunity that I can see concerned two women: Euodia and Syntyche. This is antirely opposite to the Corinthians church, for example.

    Paul wrote the epistle from prison in Rome, as you would well know, and in 1:12-18 he relates what had happened because of his imprisonment, and that despite the hostility of his enemies outside the church [the church universal, not specifically the Philippian chuch] and his critics within he was encouraged that Christ was being proclaimed.

    Instead of the expansion of the church being halted his imprisonment was resulting in its expansion. Many people in Rome heard the gospel who would not otherwise have heard it.

    Two groups had heard Paul’s witness: the Praetorian guard, and many other people such as the Jewish community and some Gentiles, as well as Paul’s fellow Christians.

    Of these Roman Christians who were witnessing and preaching there were two types, distinguished by their motivation: those who were seeking to advance their own reputations, were envious of Paul, and were striving with their fellow believers for selfish reasons. Others had a sincere desire to reach the lost.

    But this was in Rome, not Pilippi; and I cannot see any indication of division within the Philippian church.

  • Thanks Graeme but there is really nothing at all puzzling about it. Paul obviously had a love for all the churches he was involved in. That does not mean they were without any problems or divisions. The Phil. 4:2 passage you mention is of course one clear example of discord and division in the church – so much so that Paul had to plead with them to “be of one mind”. One need not make such a plea if there already is unity.

    But the very passage examined in my article does demonstrate that disunity and division were found in the Philippian church. There was a pro-Paul party and an anti-Paul party. The former preached the gospel with good motives, while the latter did so with bad motives, in part to spite Paul. If that is not evidence of disunity and discord, I don’t know what is. And of course that is specifically spoken about in this letter to the Philippians, not in his epistle to the Romans, or the Corinthians, etc. All this is not to say division was the only problem there, or the major problem there. It was simply one issue Paul had to deal with. And even if this particular issue were confined solely to the churches in Rome or Corinth, that does not preclude general concerns about this happening elsewhere, which is why Paul raises it here. But a main point in my article was how Paul responded to all this. That is what I want readers to focus on here. In the face of such discord, what should be the response of Christians? It is this devotional concern that I hope gets the main attention here.

  • Dear Bill good analysis and exposes. I realise the Bible has been written. History continues and Western Christendom largely appears to ignore the immense suffering of Brothers & Sisters in Jesus Christ is other part of the world. Particularly at the hand of Islamic terrorism. In some ways it would appear – ‘there is nothing new under the sun’?
    Mark Bryant

  • We think Luke 9:48-50 is an important biblical passage to consider concerning this article, particularly V49.

    Luke 9:48-50.

    …48And He said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me. For whoever is the least among all of you, he is the greatest.” 49“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” 50“Do not stop him,” Jesus replied, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”…

    Interestingly, Jesus called John, “son of thunder”, perhaps because of some character trait such as the zeal exemplified in Mark 9:38 and Luke 9: 49 and 54. it seemed John listened and learnt from Jesus because later he was known in the Catholic tradition as the patron saint of love, loyalty and friendships. So there’s hope for us yet.

    The Gospel is our primary concern. Quoting it, from a secular perspective should be seen as someone exercising their free speech. From a Christian perspective, it should be seen as speaking Jesus. Do keep in mind, however, you will be hated for it, as Jesus was before you.

  • Thanks for your response to my “puzzle”, Bill. My problem was seeing in a spat between two ladies—something I imagine happens in many churches– being viewed as any kind of major disunity in the Philippian church. We can agree to differ on that one.

    As for how to respond to a situation like that Paul gives the exhortation on the first few verses of Philippians chapter two, and then gives the application: “Let this mind be in you”, or, “Have this attitude in yourselves”, depending on what translation being used, “which was in Christ Jesus”–an attitude of humility.

    This only comes by way of spiritual growth, which is a life-long process achieved by the intake and application of Bible teaching. Paul explains in Ephesians 4 why gifts were given–“Some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to the mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ”.

    Anybody knows that in a family kids squabble, but with maturity they grow out of it.

    Spiritual growth is the key. Paul told the Roman church, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind …” This implies a change from the inside out, and that only comes for the Christian through the constant teaching of God’s Word. There is no other way.

  • It’s disheartening to realize that even true believers–saved and “sanctified”–can still be cantankerous! Whenever two or more gather together, somebody will find something to argue about!
    Judy

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