Sermons

November 1, 2020

Gospel Ambition for Gospel Advance

Steven Lee (North Campus) | 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 defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, 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.

Yes, and I will rejoice.Philippians 1:12–18

Outline

Introduction

Question 1: How does the apostle Paul respond to his imprisonment? (Philippians 1:12–13)

Question 2: How do others respond to Paul’s response to his imprisonment? (Philippians 1:14)

Question 3: How does Paul respond to those seeking to afflict him? (Philippians 1:15–18)

Application & Conclusion: Cultivate Gospel Ambition

Introduction

This morning is the second week of our Global Focus. I have two aims this morning:

  1. To call some of us to pursue advancing the gospel among the nations as missionaries.
  2. To call all of us to participate in advancing the gospel wherever God has placed us.

One of our yearly rhythms, in this second week of Global Focus, is to call you to consider using your life to advance the gospel among the nations as a vocational missionary. Whether you’re 8, 18, 28, 58, or 88, we want you to prayerfully consider whether God is calling you to go to the nations. It’s my prayer that God would raise up the next Amy Carmichael or Hudson Taylor in our children’s and youth ministry. I imagine that the next Jim & Elizabeth Elliots are students at Northwestern or Bethel, sitting here this morning. Perhaps the next William Carey is a young adult pondering the next season of life. Be praying for God to raise up the next Ola & Minnie Hanson in our congregation right now.

At the end of this service, after we take Communion together, we are going to call for three groups to come forward to bear witness to their own conscience and to the church that they believe God is or has been stirring in them to go to the nations. The three groups are as follows: 

  1. Global Partners – Global partners who are here this morning in any of these services on each campus, come forward. We want our people to know who you are.
  2. Nurture Program – We want any who are presently in the Nurture Program and hoping to be sent out for vocational, cross-cultural missions to come forward. 
  3. Fresh Stirring – We want any who sense that God is leading you toward vocational global missions (not short-term), and who intend to pursue this leading until the Lord directs otherwise. You are simply saying, “I believe God is leading me toward vocational, cross-cultural mission. And until he shows me otherwise, I’m going to act on that leading.” 

If you know you’re not called to be a vocational, cross-cultural missionary, you’re not off the hook. I want to call all us to participate in advancing the gospel wherever God has placed you right now. You may never go overseas—you don’t even own a passport and you’ll never leave this country—but you can advance the gospel in your neighborhood. We are all called to be disciple-making disciples—none of us is exempt. 

So what I want to do this morning is look at Paul’s passion for gospel advance in Philippians 1:12–18. The picture I have in mind is this. The apostle Paul is a red hot glowing ember, and we want to gather around him and ask the Spirit to blow on that ember, so that we all become red hot glowing embers that burn with a passion for God’s global glory.

Main Point: Every believer is to burn with gospel ambition so that Christ is preached and the nations are reached. 

So why would I call Paul a red hot glowing ember that burns with a passion for God’s glory? Is there anything in our passage that would reveal Paul’s ambition, desire, or passion?

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 defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, 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.—Philippians 1:12–18

Did you see the repetition in this passage? In every single verse, Paul either mentions Jesus Christ or the message of Christ, namely the gospel. When Paul says “I want you to know what has happened to me,” he doesn’t tell them about his arrest, his accommodations, or even about his health. Paul tells them about the one thing he cares most about: the preaching of the gospel of Christ. Paul’s burning passion is to see the gospel of Jesus Christ go forth. I’m calling this Paul’s gospel ambition. His desire, his dream, or his aspiration is to see the gospel of Christ proclaimed, advanced, and preached. More than anything in the world, he wants gospel advance. 

Paul actually was even more explicit about his ambition in Romans 15:20, “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation …” Paul’s ambition was to preach Jesus! Not just any old preaching, but preaching where the name of Christ had not been named. It’s a missionary ambition. He wants to reach new territory and to build new foundations. He wants to go to people that have not yet heard.

So here’s our plan in walking through this passage. I want to ask three questions of this passage to understand how and why Paul responds the way he does to this particular situation in order to understand his attitude and perspective.

Question 1: How does Paul respond to his imprisonment? (Philippians 1:12–13)

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.

This is the exact opposite of what one might expect. Paul has been thrown into prison. Here is the end of his evangelistic career. But Paul’s update is surprising because he says the opposite: his imprisonment has been a launching pad for gospel advance. Why? Let’s see.

Paul says “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Everyone knows that Paul is in prison for the name and sake of Jesus. This likely refers to all the guards and soldiers stationed in that general region as part of the Roman government. Paul has a captive audience day after day, hour after hour. So was Paul waiting for the right time to share the gospel? No! Paul was relentlessly preaching Christ. Imagine being an unsuspecting Roman soldier that gets shackled next to Paul. You think he learned about Jesus Christ? You bet he did. Paul responded to his imprisonment by preaching Christ all the more.

Paul’s chains could have sunk him deep into depression, fear, anxiety, and paralysis. Why didn’t it? Why didn’t Paul’s imprisonment impair him? This is key to understand, because if it can be true of Paul it can be true of us. Paul’s ambition was not comfort, financial prosperity, or even the advance of his reputation. If Paul was mainly concerned with living a comfortable life, then imprisonment would have been horrible.

Paul’s ambition is preaching Christ for the gospel to advance. How do we know this for sure? Later, in Philippians 1:20–21, he says, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That is the key to Paul’s gospel ambition. Paul’s life ambition was that Christ would be honored—whether by life or death. What matters more than me—my comfort, my reputation, my prosperity—is the name and fame of Christ. That perspective transforms prison into a platform and launching pad for the gospel. Paul’s chief concern is not with his ability to move about freely, but with the gospel’s ability to move about freely. 

Paul said the same thing in 2 Timothy 2:8–9, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” Though there are chains on my arms and legs, they cannot stop my mouth from proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

Let me illustrate this with one hero of the faith I had the privilege of meeting. I was in college at the time, on a mission trip, and we trekked through the flooded streets of Guangzhou, China with water up to our knees to get to this unassuming house, a house church. Inside were people packed together like sardines (the complete opposite of social distancing), shoulder to shoulder on tiny stools, and intently listening for two hours to this little man preach by the name of Samuel Lamb. Afterwards he shared with us that he had been imprisoned for 20 years for refusing to register his church with the Chinese government. Fifteen of those years had been in labor camps. When he was finally released from prison what did he do? He began preaching, the very thing that landed him in jail the first time. And God caused his house church to grow from 900 to eventually 4,000 people attending services almost every day of the week. The police would come regularly to arrest him and beat him, and to take all of the Bibles and hymnals. But he said every time they came and arrested him, the church grew larger. His ambition was not comfort or fame, but rather the advance of the word of God.

Why can Paul and others like him preach Christ even in imprisonment? Because Jesus is our superior treasure: “to live is Christ, and to die is gain!” Dying in service to Jesus is better than 80 years of life where we try to get as much money or comfort or prosperity as is possible. Do we believe that? The superior pleasure of knowing Christ in his death and resurrection frees us to advance the gospel even in the face of pain or prison.

What will sustain aspiring missionaries and global partners as they step out into hostile mission fields? What’s going to sustain parents who send their 20- and 30-year-olds into dangerous places? Only a gospel ambition that treasures the glory of God above all else. And the way we get that is by cultivating that ambition for gospel advance right now. Jim Elliot, missionary to Ecuador, put it famously this way, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Is our ambition—our dream, aspiration, and desire—over and above all else, to advance the gospel? 

Question 2: How do others respond to Paul’s response to his imprisonment? (Philippians 1:14)

The second surprising thing Paul points out is similarly counterintuitive. He says “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (14). Again, this is the opposite of what we expect. If Paul’s in prison, everyone else is supposed to be afraid. Why are they “much more bold to speak the word without fear?” It says they have become confident in the Lord. How did they become confident in the Lord? Paul’s example of confidence in God gave them confidence in God. His trust in God is contagious and inspiring. This is the red hot ember heating up cold coals around him to become red hot embers themselves. If Paul is bold and courageous in prison, how much more should we be bold and confident to preach?

Paul has a contagious courage to advance the gospel. Paul’s gospel ambition is contagious for others. By whatever means possible, let the gospel go forth. Paul’s example is inspiring and encouraging others to speak the word of God without fear. Why without fear? Paul’s fearlessness is contagious. And why is Paul fearless? “To live is Christ and to die is gain!” Because Paul doesn’t care if he lives or dies, as long as Christ is preached and proclaimed. When we stop fearing things that are frightening, we can then become bold evangelists for Christ.

Let me share an account of how God uses contagious courage to advance the gospel.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hard-line Islamic regime. Over the next two decades, Christians faced increasing opposition and persecution: All missionaries were kicked out, evangelism was outlawed, Bibles in Persian were banned and soon became scarce, and several pastors were killed. The church came under tremendous pressure. Many feared the small Iranian church would soon wither away and die. But the exact opposite has happened. Despite continued hostility from the late 1970s until now, Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the gospel in the Middle East.

How did this happen? Two factors have contributed to this openness. First, violence in the name of Islam has caused widespread disillusionment with the regime and led many Iranians to question their beliefs. Second, many Iranian Christians have continued to boldly and faithfully tell others about Christ, in the face of persecution.

As a result, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran. In 1979, there were an estimated 500 Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. Today, there are hundreds of thousands—some say more than 1 million. Whatever the exact number, many Iranians are turning to Jesus as Lord and Savior.[1]

Though there is no threat of imprisonment here in America, no threat of chains or of being beaten, I know that fear is one of the greatest obstacles to our witness. We fear awkwardness, we fear being ostracized, and we fear offending. We fear getting fired, getting cancelled, or getting labeled “one of those Christians.” But we need to let the example of the Apostle Paul, the example of Samuel Lamb, the example of Iranian Christians, and the example of thousands of Christians around the world rebuke us for being afraid to share the gospel. There’s nothing to fear! All they can do is kill you and then you get heaven! God’s people have the greatest message in all the world, are supplied with strength through the indwelling Holy Spirit, and are destined for eternal glory with Christ. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. God has numbered your days, and numbered the hairs on your head, so fear not.

Paul’s gospel ambition frees him to see imprisonment as a platform to preach Christ. His confidence in God, and fearlessness, inspire others to preach fearlessly. But now we turn to those that are seeking to afflict Paul. 

Question 3: How does Paul respond to those seeking to afflict him? (Philippians 1:15–18) 

In verses 15–18 we see two different groups and how they respond to Paul’s imprisonment. Paul writes, 

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 defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, 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.—Philippians 1:15–18

So there are two groups. One group shares Paul’s love of the gospel: they preach “out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.” They love the gospel that Paul loves, and so they preach Christ. But there is another group that is preaching from envy, rivalry (15), and selfish ambition (17), thinking to afflict Paul in his imprisonment (17). Why are they doing this?

We don’t get all the details of who this group is. All we know is that they are envious of Paul and they see him as a rival. They are seemingly preaching the true gospel, but with wrong motives (selfish ambition). Paul doesn’t say they are preaching a false gospel, that they are wolves among the sheep, or that they are false teachers. They aren’t those who are subtracting or adding to the gospel. It seems that they are jealous of Paul and see this as their opportunity to make a name for themselves. Here we see the stark contrast of selfish ambition and gospel ambition. Their chief desire is themselves rather than Christ. Paul later goes to call the Philippians to look to Christ’s example of humility, likely with this group in view. 

But this group of selfish ambition preachers is the perfect backdrop to see the stunning nature of gospel ambition. Paul wants the gospel to go out no matter what, even if it’s not him preaching. Paul says, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” As long as Jesus is preached, I’m content. These people want the recognition and fame. Paul, in contrast, says that whatever it takes, even if I am on the sidelines, let Christ be preached. This is the type of attitude and ambition that is required to finish the Great Commission. 

Do we have Paul’s attitude of “whatever it takes for the gospel to advance, I want to be part of it”? If it’s through my giving, my prayers, my children or grandchildren signing up to go, if it’s going in my golden years, or prime earning years, or forgoing that other dream, do we aspire to see the gospel advance? Most of us are not going to be on the frontlines. We’re mainly going to be prayer partners and senders and givers and rope holders. So it is even more important to have Paul’s gospel ambition: Let the gospel go forth, even if I play a supporting role. The attitude we want us to cultivate is one of doing whatever it takes, no matter our particular role in it. This is so hugely important because I want all of us to cultivate this Paul-like gospel ambition that would manifest itself right here in the Twin Cities and wherever God has placed us.

Application & Conclusion: Cultivate Gospel Ambition

How do we go from people who care a lot about our creature comforts, our reputations, and our safety to becoming more like the apostle Paul? In these cold Minnesota winters, I’ve thought it’d be really nice to have heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and a remote start for my car. How do we go from wanting those things to signing up to potentially be thrown into a dark, cold, and damp prison cell for sharing the gospel?

Answer: We are to be overcome by the glory of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Comfort, reputations, and safety are lousy life ambitions. Only the kingdom of God, the gospel’s advance, and eternal joy in Christ is worth giving our lives to. Don’t pass up joy in Jesus by taking hold of lesser joys. Don’t drink the muddy puddles on the pavement, when Jesus offers springs of living water and everlasting joy in the path of obedience. 

God has placed you wherever you’re at right now to preach Christ. In your workplace, in your neighborhood, in your dorm, and with your family. The same ambition Paul has on the frontlines, is the same that will send our missionaries, and is the same for us to have on the home front. Gospel ambition is not just for missions, but to be true of Christians. 

Let me close with why this feels so weighty for me this morning. I have shared this before but I’ll share it again to illustrate how we never know how God might use his sovereign call in the lives of his people to radically transform lives.

Robert Jaffray was born in 1873, was the son of Robert Jaffray and Sarah Bugg, and his family was wealthy. His father owned Canada’s Toronto Globe (today it’s The Globe and Mail); it was the most widely read newspaper in Canada, essentially the New York Times of Canada. Instead of becoming the owner and CEO of the family business, he became a missionary and labored in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, while living with a heart condition and diabetes.

He served a total 45 years, 32 in China. During World War II, he was captured in Indonesia by the Japanese, placed in an internment camp, and died a month before the Japanese surrendered. God saved my great-grandfather in China. My great grandfather went on to graduate from the Alliance Bible School, and became the first ordained minister in that province of China. His two sons followed in his footsteps and served as pastors and evangelists in the surrounding region, one of which is my grandfather.

I do not take for granted God’s mysterious ways. I am a fourth-generation Christian, and my faith is the fruit of missionary endeavors. I have this awesome privilege to call some of us to go, and all of us to possess gospel ambition for gospel advance. God is gathering people for himself from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation. It’s not done yet. Join me in praying that God would give us gospel ambition for gospel advance to finish the task, and then the end will come.

Sermon Discussion Questions

Main Point: Every believer is to burn with gospel ambition so that Christ is preached and the nations are reached. 

Outline

  1. How does Paul respond to his imprisonment? (Philippians 1:12–13)
  2. How do others respond to Paul’s response to his imprisonment? (Philippians 1:14)
  3. How does Paul respond to those seeking to afflict him?(Philippians 1:15–17)

Application & Conclusion

Intro Question: If you were to fill in the blank in the following sentence, what would you say? “Based on my time, energy, and thoughts, my strong ambition is to ____________________.”

Discussion Questions

  • Why might the apostle Paul want to inform the Philippian church of what has happened to him? How might have the Philippians received this news?
  • What are the three surprising observations that Paul makes of his situation, and why are they surprising or counterintuitive?
  • Why would some preach Christ from envy, rivalry, selfish ambition, and to afflict Paul? How is this type of behavior and preaching viewed?
  • How does Paul respond, and what seems to be Paul’s overall attitude and perspective about his imprisonment throughout this letter?
  • Why does Paul rejoice even in seemingly hard and difficult experiences such as imprisonment and affliction?

Application Questions

  • Do you tend to rejoice in hardships, trials, and suffering? Why or why not? What makes a difference whether you do or don’t rejoice?
  • What is compelling or contagious about Paul’s gospel ambition for gospel advance?
  • How can we cultivate and develop a greater and deeper gospel ambition like Paul in our lives, actions, and prayers?
  • How can we actively pursue gospel advance wherever God has placed us right now? Is there someone you can be praying for regularly?
  • Is God calling you to consider long-term vocational ministry? If so, how can you explore that calling? If not, is there someone you can encourage, support, or send?

Prayer Focus
Spend a moment praising God for calling you to himself in the gospel of Jesus Christ, granting you forgiveness of sins, and rescuing you from the wrath to come. Confess any indifference that you have to God’s global work of drawing all nations to himself. Confess any idols of comfort, safety, or prosperity that prevent you from prioritizing gospel advance in your life. Thank God for the forgiveness we have in Jesus and the renewed desires we have as children of God. Ask God for wisdom in how to pursue God’s global glory and gospel advance wherever he has placed you.

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