“Your Circumstances: A Witness Stand For Christ” (Philippians 1:12-20 sermon)

I’ve got a friend and brother in ministry, Jack Tillery, who experienced a LOT of physical difficulties while he served at our church in Louisiana and for some years since. You may get an opportunity to meet Jack some time, as they don’t too far away — near Lake Charles, Louisiana — and he has a great heart for missions. Perhaps he’ll come and share with us some time. But while we were there in Louisiana, Jack had severe heart problems, and eventually had to have a double transplant: heart and kidney, which for a while it looked like a long shot to get, but in God’s Providence he did get it, and he is still going today, over 10 years later. But one thing about Jack: whenever he was in the hospital — and he was in the hospital more than anyone I’ve ever known, he always saw it as an opportunity to share the Lord. And he did share: with doctors, and nurses, and staff, and whoever who would come to visit him. He always saw his circumstances as an opportunity to be a witness for the Lord.

That is exactly what our scripture passage for today tells us that the Apostle Paul did with his imprisonment — and all of his other difficulties. He always saw these things are opportunities to take the witness stand for Christ:

“Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

 

I. The circumstances that lead to witness.

Paul begins this section by saying in :12, “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.” The word “circumstances” in English is actually 3 words in the Greek Bible text, literally translated into English it would be something like: “the things against me.” Paul really had some “circumstances,” some “things against him” right then:

He describes those circumstances in :13, when he talks about “my imprisonment in the cause of Christ.” Paul was writing from prison. He had not been arrested for anything we would think of as a “crime;” he was in prison because of his witness for the Lord. About the last third of the Book of Acts talks about how Paul was arrested because of his faith in Jesus, and how he was eventually sent to Rome to stand trial for his faith. And it was from prison in Rome that he was writing this letter to the Philippians.

So you might think that a letter from a guy who was in prison would be a pretty discouraging letter: Paul had been yanked out of his ministry, lost his freedom, put in prison, first in Jerusalem, had several “hearings” there, and then sent to Rome, where he still sat in prison, chained to a Roman guard. And yet he said in :18, “in this I rejoice, yes and I will rejoice” — because, as we shall see, his circumstances gave him opportunities to glorify God though his witness. Paul saw his circumstances — “the things against him” — as opportunities to witness and glorify God.

But the thing is, Paul is not the only who has “circumstances” in his life, is he? We all have “circumstances,” don’t we? Like Paul, so all of us, at various points in our lives, have “things against us” too. We need to realize that just because we commit our lives to Christ, it does not guarantee that we will have no problems, no sicknesses, no losses, no difficulties, no “things against us.” If you think you have a lot of problems now, but if you just become a Christian, you’ll get rid of all your problems, you are going to end up becoming very disillusioned. It’s true that if you repent of some specific sins that are bringing trouble upon you, those areas of your life will get better, sure. But you will still have problems in your life. Jesus warned us: “In the world, YOU HAVE TRIBULATIONS” (John 16:33) We WILL have “things against us” in this life, even as Christians:

— some of us have sickness or bodily weakness against us.
The Apostle Paul did; he said in II Corinthians 12 that he had a “thorn in the flesh” and he was not healed from it. Some of us have similar physical afflictions in our own lives.

— Many of us have suffered the loss of a loved one, or loved ones, that has come against us — one of the most difficult circumstances one can face in life.

— Others of us have other trials of other various sorts against us: in our family, our relationships, or in our finances, or on our job — there are as many applications of this as there are individuals among us. We ALL have “things against us.” Paul shows us here that God wants to use “the things against us” as a platform for witness, to glorify God.

Maybe you have never thought about it that way. Maybe you are in a situation right now, and you’ve got some circumstances that are “against you” in some way — physically, emotionally, or some other kind of trial — and all you have been thinking about is, “How can I get out of this?” And your prayer to God has been: “God please just get me out of this!” But God is showing you today from His word that His purpose is not necessarily just to “get you out” of the circumstance that is “against you,” but that He wants to USE that difficult thing as a platform for your witness for Him!

Think about what “things are against YOU” today — your “circumstances,” just like Paul’s “circumstances” — “the things against you.” Instead of just praying: “God, get me out of this,” begin to pray “Lord, how do you want me to USE this circumstance as a witness for You?

 

II. The Witness that comes from our Circumstances

So despite Paul’s adverse circumstances — “the things that were against him,” Paul said God has used these things for His purposes. God used Paul as a witness in every circumstance He brought him into. We see this all through the last part of the Book of Acts:

— In Acts 22, when Paul was initially seized in the Temple, he stood on the stairs and offered his defense, in the form of his personal testimony of how he met Jesus.

— In the next chapter he appears before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, and he witnessed to them.

— In Acts 24, still in prison, he was able to testify before Felix the governor, and then in Acts 25 and 26 he also witnessed to Festus, another official, and then to King Agrippa.

— Then in Acts 28, the last chapter in Acts, when Paul finally made it to Rome, and was imprisoned there, it says in the very last verse that from there he was “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.”

— And we see the story of Acts continued here in Philippians 1:13, where he says “my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard, and to everyone else …”. One of Paul’s specific trials, they tell us, is that he was constantly chained to a Roman soldier. A “normal” person might think this was about the worst thing that could “come against” a person — but Paul’s attitude was, “Hey, captive audience!” — and he witnessed to every one of these soldiers, until he could say that Christ was made known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard! He used his circumstances as a platform, for the gospel.

— AND, not only this, but he says because of his situation, many OTHERS have been encouraged to share because of what they saw in his imprisonment: :14 says, “and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.”

— And even beyond that, he says in :15 & 17 that there some who were preaching Christ out of envy, hoping to make him feel bad while he was in prison. But he said, Hey, even that is working out for a good witness: at least Christ is being proclaimed!

So Paul saw every one of his circumstances: being arrested, put in jail, put on trial, being in prison, chained to a guard, even his enemies trying to distress him — every one of these things “against him” was an opportunity for witness for the Lord. His circumstances gave him an opportunity to take the witness stand for Christ.

During World War II, the Nazi-controlled police raided Corrie Ten Boom’s home watchmaking business, and a friend named Henry was being taken away by them. Corrie wrote that “Henry kissed his wife. Then he took my hand and shook it solemnly. Tears filled our eyes. For the first time, Harry spoke. ‘I shall use this place — wherever they’re taking us,’ he said. ‘It will be my witness stand for Jesus.’” (Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place, pp. 110-111)

THAT is exactly how God wants us to see all of our circumstances: “This is MY witness stand for Christ.” Whatever circumstance He allows to come into your life, ask yourself, HOW can I be a witness for Him in this circumstance?

— I mentioned that some of us have “sicknesses” that have come against us. Sometimes God glorifies Himself by healing our sicknesses. But He doesn’t always. Paul said in II Corinthians 12 that he was given a physical weakness — “a thorn in the flesh” — and he says he asked God three times to take it away, but God told him NO. He said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” (:9) God was saying, I will glorify Myself, not by healing you in this situation, but by giving you my grace — and what you are able to do by my grace, WITHOUT being healed, will be a witness for Me.

Some of us need to see OUR physical circumstances in the same way. Maybe like Paul you’ve asked God three times to heal you — or maybe you’ve asked Him a THOUSAND and three times! — but He hasn’t. Then maybe you should begin to see this particular physical “thing against you” as your “witness stand for Christ.” When I got sick with POTS in 2012 I had a blog, so I would write articles and post about it from the perspective of a Christian who was going through it — and people from all over the country read it, and many contacted me, and had me pray for them. I’m certainly not the greatest example: but there are many Christian people who have bravely demonstrated to the world how a Christian person bears up under suffering, and holds to their faith in Christ, even when things are against them. Our sickness and suffering can be our “witness stand” for Christ.

— Those of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one know that this is one of the most difficult circumstances we can face in all of life. But even when that comes against us, we have an opportunity to glorify God with our faith.
When John Newton, who wrote the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” was older, his wife passed away. He wrote to someone that he had loved her so much that she was almost an idol to him; and her loss to him was immense. And YET he had such a witness when she passed away; because he would share with many others the Christian hope he had, that he knew he would see her again soon, because of what Jesus had done.

We too, in our losses, have the opportunity to make that a “witness stand for Christ”, and share our faith. Now, that doesn’t mean we have to put up a “phony front” and act like we don’t miss our loved one. There is nothing worse than putting on a mask, and acting some way that you don’t really feel. We need to be real. Of course we miss our loved ones; and there is a place for a Christians to have legitimate sorrow over the loss of our loved ones. But at the same time, even in our hurt, we have the opportunity to share with people of our ultimate faith: even through our tears we can affirm: “I will see them again, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ!” THAT kind of real faith in the midst of the circumstances against us can really speak to people around us, and be a witness to them.

— Others of us have other kinds of trials of various sorts against us: financially, or on our job; or in certain relationships, and so on. But in all of these things, we can be a witness through our circumstances. We can show by our attitude that money, or success, or whatever is involved, is not the most important thing to us, because we have faith in something bigger than ourselves and our situation. Most people in the world don’t understand this; they don’t have that faith. But they can begin to understand it as they see how we respond in our trials. So God is glorified, and our trial has become our witness stand for Christ.

We should see everything we go through; everything we do; everywhere we go, as an opportunity to be a witness for the Lord:
— When we go to Mexico next week, that trip will be our witness stand for Christ.
— When you go to your work or school or WalMart next week, you should look at that as your witness stand for Christ.
— Some weeks ago I had put on Facebook that I was going on a trip, and Josh Lowe commented and said something like: “Be sure to look for opportunities to witness along the way!” He is right; in every situation, we should always look for the opportunity God will give us to be a witness for Him.

One of our members was telling me last week about a difficult situation that had come up in their family, and about how he hoped this would give him an opportunity to be a witness to his extended family. This is exactly how we should look at it — this is how we should look at EVERY SITUATION God allows to come into our lives: our circumstances provide an opportunity for us to glorify God and share Christ. In EVERY situation God allows in your life, instead of just thinking “How can I get out of this?,” think like Paul did: “THIS IS MY WITNESS STAND FOR CHRIST.”
It is the witness that arises from our circumstances.

 

III. The Commitment That Makes Witness (in our circumstances) Possible

The reason that Paul could rejoice in opportunities to share the gospel, even while he was in prison, is that he had an underlying commitment to God that directed his attitude about everything that he experienced in life. We see that underlying commitment reflected in this passage:

:18 “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.”
:20 “that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

These verses show us Paul’s underlying philosophy: he says in everything that happens in his life, the gospel is being shared, and THAT is the most important thing — not just his comfort and pleasure. That was his commitment: that Christ would be shared in every event of his life. “As always”, he said. His goal in EVERYTHING was for Jesus to be exalted by his life. That was the basic commitment of his life. And if you are a Christian, that should be YOUR basic commitment too. If you are a Christian, you are not here to live for yourself, but to glorify God.

See, there are basically two kinds of lives you can live on the earth:
— You can live for your own comfort and pleasure,
— Or you can live for the glory of God.
I am reading II Corinthians in my own quiet time, and this week in 5:15 it says “(Christ) died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for HIM who died and rose again on their behalf.” This summarizes the basic Christian commitment: when you become a Christian, you are no longer living for yourself; you are living for Jesus, who died for you, and bought you with His blood on the cross.

See, this is where the Christian life the Bible teaches, differs from what is taught by the “prosperity preachers” we hear so much about. They say things like, God wants you to live “your best life now;” God wants to help you achieve “your dreams” — as if God was here to be your own “personal assistant” on the path to success. Folks, we need to exercise discernment, like we talked about last week. That kind of teaching is not biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity is not that God is here to serve US and help us reach our goals; Biblical Christianity is that WE are here to serve GOD — and that we are to glorify HIM with everything we do.

In I Corinthians 10:31 Paul says “Whether then you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Whatever we do in our life, as a Christian, is to glorify God. That is our purpose in life: to glorify Him.

And so if you see your purpose in life as glorifying God in everything, then consequently, when you come into times of difficulty, you see that — whether it is imprisonment, or illness, or suffering, or whatever you go through — you see that as an opportunity to glorify God. That’s why Paul could say what he did: because his whole life was about glorifying God, so if he was in prison, then he knew that was there to glorify God — and that is what he DID! He was able to rejoice, and witness, and glorify God, even in prison, because he had this basic commitment that he was not living for himself, but for God.

What about YOU? Is that YOUR commitment? This is one of the most fundamental questions of life: “What are you here for?” And I think this is a good way to explain what being a follower of Jesus is really about. See, it’s easy to say, “Are you a ‘Christian’?” But a lot of people mean different things by that. Many people think if they go to church once a week, they are a Christian.
Not long ago I heard a reporter on a tv special on the Lost Ark, ask if he could go into an ancient Ethiopian shrine, and they asked him, “Are you a Christian?” And he said, “Oh yes, I am a Christian; I am English.” I about came out of my seat! Being “English” doesn’t make you a Christian! Being an American doesn’t make you a Christian. I love Texas, but living in Texas doesn’t make you a Christian!

Being a real Christian means that you realize that God created you for His glory. But you have sinned against God, by trying to live for your own pleasure and comfort and glory instead. But despite that, God loved us, and sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, so that we could repent — turn away from our self-centered lives — and return to Him, and follow HIM, and glorify HIM with our lives, like we were originally meant to. THIS is what it really means to be a Christian, just like Paul said in II Corinthians 5; it means you are not living for yourself, but for HIM!

SO: if we put it that way, can you say today that you are a Christian? Is your life really about living for God, and doing His will, and glorifying HIM? Or is the truth that you are still living for yourself? If you are still living for yourself, you are not a Christian at all.

See, this is where it truly “gets real.” Many of us think of ourselves as “Christians” because we are a member of a church, or attend worship services. But there is no commitment like Paul talks about here.
— You can be a church member, and still life life for yourself.
— You can go to church every week, you can get baptized, you can do all kinds of “religious things,” but still basically be living life for yourself.

But the one who is truly committed to Christ, has this basic commitment like Paul had, that they are not living for themselves, but for the Lord. That doesn’t mean they are perfect at it; they will often fall short of it — but that is at least their basic commitment. They can say with Paul did in :21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We will be looking at this great verse in 2 weeks, when we get back from our Mexico mission trip. But the question is: can you say that? Can you say that the basic commitment of your life is to live for God, and not yourself?

If it is, then one of the tests of that commitment, is that when you come into a difficult time in your life, your biggest prayer will not be: “God, get me out of this!” If you are really committed to live for Christ, then your biggest prayer will be: “God, help me share the GOSPEL through this.” Because your commitment, as a real Christian, is that you are not living for yourself, but for Him. So in every circumstance that “comes against” you; just like Paul, you want God to be glorified in your life.

Is that true for you — or is it not?

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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