Suffering, God’s Good Sovereignty, and the Glory of Christ
Nick Esch, 4/5/2020 Cornerstone Baptist Church
John Bunyan was an English Puritan who lived from 1628-1688. He devoted his life to the glory of Christ and the advancement of the gospel of Christ. In fact, he spent 12 years of his life in prison for preaching the gospel; he could’ve had his freedom anytime he wanted, if he would have simply agreed not to preach… but he would not.
Once his wife Elizabeth went to London to plead for his freedom, but she was met with a question “Would he stop preaching?” She responded, “he dares not leave off preaching as long as he can speak.” And she was right… But, even though he was locked up for many years, the gospel wasn’t; and in fact, as God’s providence would have it, the greatest fruit of Bunyan’s ministry, and the greatest thing Bunyan ever did to advance the gospel happened while he was in prison. While locked up he wrote his famous book The Pilgrim’s Progress; and that book has done more for the good of Christians and the advancement of the gospel than anything else Bunyan ever did… In fact, next to the Bible it has been one of the best selling books globally for a few hundred years…
The main character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian, says at one point, “I have laid my hand to the plow and cannot look back. I have started this journey, and I must finish it.” And indeed, that was Bunyan’s posture as well. He had no way of knowing that his time in prison would bear such fruit, but he knew and banked everything on God being sovereign and working all things for His glory and the good of His people. So, as that old hymn says, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.” And so, with total confidence in God’s good sovereignty and total commitment to the advancement of the gospel and the glory of Christ, he stayed in prison.
And I think that’s in part why God used Bunyan and his book to do so much good: because he was willing to give up his freedom, and even lay down his life for the advancement of the gospel and the glory of Christ. And, you see, it’s when God’s people live like that that they really magnify the glory of Christ… It’s when God’s people say with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8a). It’s when we not only say that, but live that by holding the things of this life, even life itself loosely for the sake of Christ that we really display the glory of Christ… showing, as Paul said, the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus…
It is often in and through our suffering—especially our suffering loss for Christ’s sake—that we attract others to Christ, bearing the most fruit for Christ, because our love for Him and faithfulness to Him in our suffering displays His surpassing worth. That was true for John Bunyan, it was true for Paul, and it should be true for us as well: that as we suffer with joy trusting in God’s good sovereignty and the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, we make Christ look great, and thus glorify Him rightly… We might not see all the ways God uses our suffering for His glory, but if we willingly embrace suffering for His sake we can trust that He will use everything we go through for His glory and our good. And that’s exactly what we’re going to see in our passage today. So look with me at Philippians 1:12-14.
So far Paul has laid out the great love, joy, and gratitude he has for the Philippian Christians, and he tied all of that to the strong partnership, fellowship, and communion he has with them in Christ. And laying all of that out led him to express his prayer for them: praying that their love would abound with knowledge and discernment, so that they would treasure Christ above all else and thus be sanctified and one day be glorified for their good and the glory of Christ. And all of that is great; but what’s astonishing here, is that after laying out all of that amazing stuff Paul decides to go a completely different direction and point them to his suffering and imprisonment…
In verses 12 and 13 Paul says, “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.” So after speaking of love, joy, and fellowship in Chirst… after pointing them to the glories of sanctification and glorification, Paul says he wants them to know about what has happened to him; and what has happened is that he has suffered much for Christ’s sake and is thus writing from prison.
But, Paul wants them to know this for a reason; and the first reason Paul gives is that his suffering and imprisonment have served to advance the gospel. Paul’s imprisonment has served the advancement of the gospel because it has made the advancement possible. Just because Paul was suffering and in prison didn’t mean that he was suddenly going to stop talking about Jesus. Wherever Paul went he took the gospel with him; and so he says that the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest… anyone and everyone Paul could share the gospel with got a chance to hear the gospel. His very imprisonment was serving to advance the gospel of Christ, and thus souls were won and Christ was glorified. It’s like what Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” The Jews and the Romans wanted to hurt Paul and the cause of Christ, but what they meant for evil God meant for good: the ultimate good of eternal life and God’s glory.
And this seems to be the real first reason why Paul wants the Philippians to know about his imprisonment: because he wants them to know that God is sovereign… God is sovereign over all, God is sovereign over Paul’s life, and thus God is sovereign over Paul’s imprisonment. As Paul says in Acts 17:26, God has determined the allotted periods and the boundaries of our dwelling place. And that isn’t only true for Paul, but true for all. We are where we are, when we are by God’s sovereign design. We live and move and have our being by and under His sovereignty. So, whatever circumstance and season of life we find ourselves in, wherever we live and move is all by God’s design. We have been chosen by God, as His people, to live for His glory and the good of people, for the advancement of the gospel and the glory of Christ, for such a time as this…
But, notice what Paul says here: the gospel isn’t merely advanced, but it is made known… The gospel has been heard, as in heard with ears to hear… Heard and embraced… Prison guards, prisoners, and the like have apparently heard the gospel and have repented and believed. Pagans have now heard that there is one true God who is holy and sovereign, who is the Creator of all; and He created us for His glory… But, we all have sinned and fallen short of His glory, because we all seek to live for our own glory instead. And thus we have all offended the infinite God of the universe, and therefore we are all infinitely guilty.
But, Jesus, God the Son, who is Himself the infinite God of the universe came to earth and took on flesh—staying truly God but also becoming truly man—and lived the perfect life for God’s glory that we all have failed to live, and then took the punishment we deserve for our sin upon Himself and died in our place… And because He Himself is infinite He was able to satisfy God’s infinite wrath due us. And so He did, and then He died in our place. But three days later He rose from the grave showing that His sacrifice was suitable and acceptable, and that He—as the one true Savior and mediator between God and man—is truly man and truly God. And that all who would, by God’s grace, through the power of God the Holy Spirit, turn from their sin and trust in and follow Christ (who would repent and believe this gospel) would be saved from God’s wrath, granted eternal life, and enabled to truly glorify God and enjoy Him forever…
And that’s exactly what seems to be implied here: that the imperial guard and others have repented and believed this gospel… they have truly heard it… the gospel has truly and deeply been made known to them. They had ears to hear, and thus were given hearts of flesh that the gospel took hold of. And that’s because, not only is God sovereign, but He is good… Back in Philippians 1:6 Paul said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” It was true for the Philippians, and it was true for Paul as well. Christ saved Paul and called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles. But it might’ve looked like Paul’s mission as an apostle had been hindered by him being imprisoned… But the God who began a good work in Paul would indeed carry it on to completion… God would not only finish His salvific work in Paul, but He would also finish the work He was doing in and through Paul, even in and through Paul’s imprisonment. And through that work God would not only work things for Paul’s good, but also for the good of many others, bringing them into the faith and maturing many others in the faith.
So, by drawing attention to his imprisonment Paul is drawing attention to God’s sovereignty… and not just His sovereignty in general, but His good sovereignty. In Romans 8:28 we’re promised, “that for those who love God all things work together for good…” And the good that God works all things together for is to bring people into Christ, to grow them in Christ, to bring them to full maturity in Christ, and to bring them to Christ to be with Christ forever… In other words, God’s good sovereignty works for His glory and the salvation of His people: meaning everything from election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. And here we see God doing those exact things for Paul, the Philippians, as well as all who genuinely heard the gospel.
So, Paul wants the Philippians and us to know about his imprisonment and all that happened in and through it, because he wants the Philippians and us to know that God is sovereign and God is good, and God works all things together for good for His people: the good of bringing us into Christ by faith, growing us in Christ-likeness through sanctification, and bringing us to the final Day in glorification to be with Christ forever. What Paul is saying here is that confidence in God’s good sovereignty is crucial for the Christian life. And that goes along with what we see next.
Notice in verse 13 that Paul says his imprisonment is for Christ. Now, on the one hand that means for the glory of Christ and the advancement of the gospel; but on the other hand, that means that Paul is suffering and is imprisoned because he is a Christian and Christians have enemies because Christ has enemies. The Jews, the Romans, and many others could not stand Paul ultimately because they could not stand Christ. Their hatred for Jesus made them hate Paul. Their love for their own power and glory made them hate Jesus and His glory and all who identified with Him and lived for His glory. In Matthew 5:11 Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” In other words, Christians will be reviled and persecuted, and treated wrongly and have great evil unleashed upon them on the account of Christ. As Jesus said in John 17:14, the world hates Christians because we are not of this world just as Christ is not of this world.
So, once again, Paul wants the Philippians and us to know about his imprisonment because 1) he wants us to know that God is sovereign, and 2) he wants us to know that God is sovereign and good and thus works all things together for His glory and the good of His people, and 3) he wants us to know that we have real enemies and we live in a fallen/broken world, and thus we should not be surprised by suffering. The false teachers and preachers all over the world say things like, “If you follow Jesus things will go well for you… You’ll be healthy and wealthy…” One false teacher who was in the news this week said last Sunday that if you have enough faith you’ll never run out of toilet paper… I mean the prosperity gospel is utter madness… Yet so many buy into it…
But health, wealth, and prosperity teaching are all lies from the pit of hell and the mouth of false teachers… The Bible on the other hand says, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). As Jesus promised, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master . . . . If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:24-25). Persecution, sickness, trials, pain, and suffering are all a normal part of the Christian life. As Acts 14:22 says, it is “through many tribulations [that] we must enter the kingdom of God.”
No doubt, none of us would’ve imagined a few months ago that we’d be in the middle of a pandemic with people getting sick and dying, and the economy going down in the process. None of us would’ve imagined a few months ago that we’d be unable to gather as a church, many unable to go to work or school, and many unable to see or care for their loved ones. But here we are nonetheless, caught in the middle of all of this. And though we may’ve been surprised by it all, God’s Word says that we shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be surprised or think it strange when we suffer in this world, because we have real enemies, and we live in a broken world.
As Christians, we are not exempt from suffering, but we are promised suffering. And that’s exactly what Paul communicates here. But he also tells us, that though we will suffer, we must remember that God is sovereign and He is good, and He is thus working all things together for His glory and our good. So, though we suffer, though we grieve, though we hurt and lament, we never do those things without hope, because just as God used Paul’s imprisonment for much good, so He uses every trial and tribulation, every bit of suffering, God uses, and not just uses, but means the good, the bad, and the ugly in our lives for His glory and our good. What the world and the devil means for evil, God means for good. When things don’t seem to be going the way they should, take heart and have hope, because God means them all for good.
And that brings us to verse 14. There Paul 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.” This is truly an amazing statement… I mean it is so opposite of the way we naturally think. Paul says that because of his suffering an imprisonment many, most in fact, have become confident in the Lord, and are thus bold and without fear… Naturally we’d think that seeing someone else suffer and be imprisoned would make us timid and fearful… But that’s not the case here; and this again is why Paul wants the Philippians and us to know about his suffering and imprisonment.
You see, to be confident in the Lord here first and foremost means becoming and being a Christian. It means turning from our sin and trusting in the Lord… As the Heidelberg Catechism put it, “What is your only hope in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.” That’s a great definition of what it means to be confident in the Lord. And that’s the posture of every true Christian. To become a Christian means that you put all your confidence and hope in God, especially in the person and work of God the Son. And if you haven’t done that, I invite to trust in Christ now. Repent and believe in the gospel. Put your confidence in the Lord…
But, understand, that when Paul says that these brothers became confident in the Lord, he means not only conversion, but also being strengthened in their faith and their resolve to live for the glory of Christ. And we’d do well to ask how or why Paul’s imprisonment would make anyone want to trust in Christ, let alone be strengthened in their faith and be all the more resolved to live for the glory of Christ themselves?… I mean, Paul’s life demonstrates that becoming a Christian and living faithfully as a Christian—meaning being a disciple who makes disciples, and thus faithfully tells others about Jesus and seeks to help others grow in their love for, knowledge of, and dedication to Christ—living that way will bring great suffering into your life, and may get you arrested or even killed. So why would Paul’s imprisonment make Christianity attractive, leading them to faith, and then even strengthening their faith? Why would it make them confident, bold, and without fear?…
Well, think about what Paul’s testimony and life are displaying… For Paul, circumstances were opportunities to praise Christ and advance the gospel of Christ. As Mack Stiles once said, “There are no lack of opportunities in the world, just a lack of biblical responses.” But Paul seemed to always respond rightly… And in Paul they saw, we see, a bold and confident witness for Christ; he always used every opportunity to speak the Word, and likewise, did so without fear… However, it wasn’t merely a good example that they saw in Paul; it was the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ that they saw through Paul.
You see, some might say that God was weak or not truly sovereign since Paul was suffering… But Paul points them and us to his imprisonment because he knows that his imprisonment doesn’t make God look weak, but instead makes Christ look supremely valuable… Because when Paul joyfully gives up his freedom, and leverages every opportunity to make much of Jesus and advance the gospel, his life, his actions, his words, and everything about him proclaims to everyone around him that Jesus is better than freedom, Jesus is better than security or comfort, and Jesus is better than life itself. And this is exactly what Paul says later in Philippians.
In Philippians 1:20-23 he says, “it is [his] eager expectation and hope that [he] will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in [his] body, whether by life or by death. For to [him] to live is Christ, and to die is gain . . . . [in fact] to depart and be with Christ . . . . is far better.” And then in Philippians 3:7-8 he says that, “whatever gain [he] had, [he] counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, [he] count[s] everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord.” And that’s exactly what Paul’s imprisonment displays: that to live is Christ, and to die is gain, because Jesus is far better… knowing Him and living and dying to honor Him and being with Him forever is of surpassing worth… In other words, there is more joy and satisfaction to be found in knowing, living for, and even dying for Jesus, than there is in anything thing or anyone else. And seeing that reality in and through Paul’s life has, by God’s grace, led people to trust in the Lord, and to be all the more confident and bold in the Lord, to be without fear, and thus speak the Word of God freely, trusting that to live is Christ and to die is gain, because as we suffer with joy trusting in God’s good sovereignty and the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, we make Christ look great, and thus glorify Him rightly… We show Him to be as awesome as He is and thus people are attracted to His supremacy and sufficiency.
Now bring that together with everything else we’ve seen. Paul wants the Philippians and us to know about his suffering and imprisonment because 1) he wants us to know that God is sovereign, and 2) he wants us to know that God is sovereign and good and thus works all things together for His glory and the good of His people, and 3) he wants us to know that we have real enemies and we live in a fallen/broken world, and thus we should not be surprised by suffering, and 4) he wants us to know that Jesus is infinitely better than anything the world or the devil could give us or take away from us… and thus we can trust and obey with great confidence and boldness, and we can live for the glory of Christ and the advancement of the gospel without fear, come what may… And we can trust that when we do, our lives will bear fruit, because our lives will make Christ look glorious.
Beloved, this text has massive implications for us… If we truly grasp this we will be able to live without anxiety or fear. For one, as A. W. Tozer once said, “When I understand that everything happening to me is to make me more Christlike, it resolves a great deal of anxiety.” But also, when I understand that God is working everything together for His glory and the good of His people, and when I so treasure Christ that the good, the bad, and the ugly of my life is used by God to attract people to Christ—that Christ is honored in my body whether by life or by death—then I am not only free from fear, but I am brought into great joy… Because our joy is found in Christ and in making much of Him… And we make much of Him now by treasuring Him, by delighting in Him, by enjoying Him above all else. So, whatever our circumstance may be: be they prosperity or great suffering, they are all opportunities to make much of Jesus and advance the gospel.
And beloved, if God is sovereign and good, and He is, then who knows what amazing things He may do in and through our lives… even in the worst of times… Here we are today benefiting from Paul’s suffering in prison. As I pointed out in my introduction, countless people have been helped, and even won to Christ through The Pilgrim’s Progress, the book John Bunyan wrote in prison. So, though we are in troubling times, may we be filled with hope at the prospect of what God might be doing; because what we know for sure is that He is working all of this for His glory and our good.
So remember that God is sovereign, God is good, this world is broken, but Christ is better, and thus be hopeful, and take great joy in Christ. The world will fail you and perhaps even persecute you. As I said earlier, we are not promised health and wealth, but we are promised suffering… We are not promised the world; but take heart, because Jesus is better than the world. So, be confident and bold, and fear not, because come what may, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He is of supreme value. In this broken world we will suffer much, but God is in control and is doing something in and through it all; so we must proclaim as Job did, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away… Blessed be the name of the Lord… Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him.”