When Other Christians Are Out to Get You – Philippians 1:15-18a
By: Northern Seminary
Among the many things for which I’m thankful, I’m grateful for a temperament that doesn’t easily hold on to grudges. If someone wrongs me, I feel hurt like anyone else, but mostly I get over it and move on quickly.
But it has been harder when someone has set out deliberately to harm me. Just once or twice during church ministry, criticism of me as pastor went beyond the ordinary and became hostility. That was tough. I was giving my all, working day and night, sacrificing time I might have spent resting or being with the family, and yet one or two were not just ungrateful, they were trying to undermine my leadership.
It was hard to be at peace about that. I struggled to be as Christian as I should be to these church members! Forgiving them took a lot of time and a lot of prayer.
I suspect my difficulty coming to terms with intentional attacks on my ministry is not unusual. If that’s right, then how Paul responded to people who deliberately tried to diminish and harm his work was all the more remarkable.
15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 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.
In these verses Paul describes two types of preachers. He doesn’t say some are sound in doctrine and the others are heretics. He doesn’t say some are great communicators and the others dull and boring. He doesn’t say some are bold and the others ultra-cautious about what they preach. He doesn’t say some bring more people to faith in Christ compared to the success rate of others.
But what he does say is how they differ in their motivation. One group preaches out of love and the other out of envy.
One group cares. They’re motivated, he says, by “goodwill” (v. 15) and “love” (v. 16) for him. Paul is imprisoned. He’s not free to go anywhere he wants or meet anyone he wants. He’s restricted. His fellow Christians couldn’t get him released from prison, but they could help him in at least two ways.
One way was by preaching the gospel to unbelievers. That would thrill Paul because they would be reaching people with the good news that he couldn’t. In prison, he had been able to bring the gospel to the Praetorian Guard. No evangelist could have expected to get near them but Paul’s whole life now involved their presence so they heard about Jesus. But what Paul couldn’t do was stand in the market place or the synagogue and preach Christ. Others could and did.
Perhaps these preachers were among those Paul referred to when he said his chains had meant “most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Phil. 1:14). That came with risks for them. Paul was “in chains for Christ” (Phil. 1:13). He’d preached and they’d locked him away. These newly inspired preachers knew that, but they wanted the gospel told. They would fill the gap left by Paul’s imprisonment. They knew how much it would mean for Paul to know the gospel was still going out strongly, so they preached. They did it for God, but they did it also out of love for Paul.
Their preaching might also bring a bonus for Paul. It could all the sooner give him the chance to proclaim Jesus to the authorities.
Paul was very sure that God had a purpose behind him being in prison. That purpose wasn’t about his example as someone willing to suffer for the gospel, maybe even die for it one day. And the purpose wasn’t only so he could witness to soldiers of the elite Praetorian Guard.
Paul was not destined to languish in prison, nor tell about Jesus to just a few. One day Paul’s imprisonment would put him before an even more select audience. He was meant to stand before tribunals and courts and before civic and military leaders and proclaim the good news in those places to these people who held high office.
Paul was not the only one to know that. Those who loved Paul believed it too. Paul says they know “that I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (v. 16). His “defense” could reach right to the leaders of the Roman Empire. For that to happen, it was vital Paul was not forgotten and that the message of Christianity spread. Their preaching would achieve both and therefore help Paul move forward in his God-appointed purpose.
These were the preachers motivated by love. Not all were like that.
There were others who also preached the gospel but their motives were bad.
Paul says these preachers are motivated by “envy and rivalry” (v. 15), driven by “selfish ambition” (v. 17). They are insincere and suppose, he writes, “that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (v. 17).
Are there any excusable reasons why this second category of preachers would seek to cause trouble for Paul? Perhaps, for example, they thought it was God’s plan for authorities and powers to rise up against all Christians, maybe seeing martyrdom as a glorious end for every person of true faith. Ideas like that have driven groups and sects down the centuries right until the present day. Or might they blame Paul for lack of faith, that his acceptance of his present circumstances was weakness, and that a true apostle would overcome all opposition, walk out of prison, and continue to proclaim victory over all obstacles through Jesus Christ? (A very poor interpretation of how Peter was set free from prison in Jerusalem, as told in Acts 12, could be skewed to support that idea.)
But excuses like those don’t fit. The motive of this other group of preachers isn’t about martyrdom or triumphalism. Paul is explicit that envy and rivalry motivate them to make trouble for him while he is imprisoned. They’re driven by desires for prestige, power and position. They want recognition, so they’re trying to demote Paul and promote themselves.
Paul was out of the way. There was a leadership gap. That can happen in any kind of organization: political parties, golf clubs, universities, and even churches. An opening appears, and people who hardly did anything useful for years are suddenly galvanized into action. They take on any and every job, build strategic friendships, and maneuver themselves into a place of power. If a past leader or another leader still holds people’s affections, they’ll criticize or condemn that person. The super-ambitious will do whatever it takes to get to the front.
Paul faced people like that. How could it not be disappointing, frustrating, and infuriating to be held captive – in chains for Christ – and know there were people out there preaching with a motive to elevate themselves and sideline Paul forever?
Paul may have been disappointed and frustrated, but there are no signs he was infuriated. Instead, somehow, he managed to rejoice.
Why he was able to do that is one of two major lessons in these words to the Philippians.
First, lesson number one: honesty compels us to admit there are people who do really bad things, and some of them are Christians.
The bad preachers Paul talks about aren’t bad accidentally. They’re not doing something which has unintentional side effects. They’re doing something precisely designed to hurt Paul. They want to stir up trouble. They want to harm him.
“They can’t be Christians if they do that,” we’re tempted to say. That would be plausible, except Paul never says it. He could have done. He could have described these bad preachers as Judaizers or heretical enemies who would delight to diminish his leadership among Christians. But Paul never suggests they’re outside the faith. He denounces their motivation, but never their standing as Christians.
The hard truth is that Christians can do very bad things.
• Who would have thought pastors and priests could have adulterous relationships or abuse children?
• Who would have thought a senior church leader could begin sexual relations with his daughter when she was just seven years old, and continue that relationship for many years after?
• Who would have thought a parent would tell their child: “I hate you and wish you had never been born”?
• Who would have thought a church treasurer would steal the offerings given by the congregation?
• Who would have thought money given to a Christian charity to feed the poor in famine-stricken areas of the world would have been siphoned off by one of the charity’s officers into a private account?
These are just accounts of dreadful behavior I know of personally. Of course there are many more I hear about.
Sadly, some Christians do very bad things. Paul says the motivation of the preachers who wanted to hurt him was their focus on themselves: their jealousy, their ambition. A focus on self lies at the root of so much sin: my wants, my pleasure, my prestige, my goals.
I heard it said of a politician that he affirmed his belief system every morning simply by looking in the mirror. He put himself at the center of his world. As soon as people do that, others become objects for them to use to meet their needs. That instinct takes them to very wrong places.
To follow Christ is to recognize self-oriented desires and deny them. It’s to go the way of the cross – the way of death to self – and follow Christ (Luke 9:23).
The second lesson Paul teaches is this: so often, by God’s grace, even what is bad has a good outcome and therefore we can rejoice.
Paul had already told the Philippians that his imprisonment had actually advanced the gospel (Phil. 1:12). What was bad, God had used for good. Now he says the same about the preaching of those who want to stir up trouble for him. He welcomes their preaching because it makes Jesus known. He says:
“…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.” (v. 18)
These are people intent on harming him. They’re out to spoil his authority and his ministry. But God has taken what is bad and used it for something good, and therefore Paul rejoices.
How does Paul manage to think like that? How does he get past the personal hurt and be grateful about what they’re doing?
Perhaps there are two answers.
One is that he didn’t care at all who got the credit for preaching Christ; he just wanted Christ preached. Paul’s thinking was the complete opposite of the badly motivated preachers. They were absorbed with themselves, trying to catch everyone’s attention and win admiration for their preaching. Paul wasn’t looking for attention, admiration, or adulation. He just wanted the good news told, and if that was being done by people for wrong reasons at least it was being done.
There is an old saying that God can do remarkable things with a person who does not care who gets the glory. Paul was that kind of person.
The other answer to how Paul coped so well with the badness of these preachers was because he was focused on the big picture. He could have indulged himself in a ‘poor little me’ attitude of self pity. ‘Look at all I’ve done to bring them the good news, and see what it has cost me. And this is how they thank me? By trying to make my life even more miserable?’
That wasn’t how Paul felt because that wasn’t how he thought. Paul had known the greatness of God all his life. Then he’d met with the risen Jesus and had his life changed from being an opponent of the gospel to one of its chief proclaimers. He knew Jesus was alive. He knew the gospel was salvation for all who believed, and he was not ashamed to proclaim it in every nation and to every man, woman and child.
If you were to say Paul had a career, that career had nothing to do with him reaching the highest place. It was a career focused on making Jesus known and the gospel believed. If being in prison meant some preached more about Jesus out of love for him, and others preached more about Jesus because they thought it would cause him trouble, so be it. Both were good, because both meant the gospel was preached more. Paul’s career goal – making Jesus known where Jesus was not yet known – was being fulfilled. Therefore he rejoiced.
Coping with hurt is never easy. There are bad people who do real wrong against us, and Christians bleed when wounded, just like everyone else. Sometimes we think our faith or trust in God should mean we’ll rise instantly above unfair criticism or ill-motivated opposition, and then we find we can’t. We are not perfect.
Paul’s example teaches that the less we are focused on ourselves, and the more we are focused on God’s plans, the more we will be able to give thanks in all circumstances. God is never beaten. His purposes never fail. His victory is assured. Life on this earth can be very tough but it’s not for nothing. There is an end for which we can be thankful and about which we can rejoice.