Around 62 A.D. the Apostle Paul was imprisoned, most likely in Rome, and penned a letter to the church at Philippi. The church at Philippi had been the first church in what is now Europe to be founded by Paul and they had supported him in his ministry and had continued to support him even during his imprisonment.
One of the most striking characteristics of the letter to the Philippians is its emphasis on joy and encouragement. For me, it is hard to imagine a less joyful situation. After many hardships as a missionary and church planter, shipwrecks, beatings, several imprisonments and now imprisoned yet again for preaching the Gospel, now with the threat of possible execution hanging over him.
How could Paul be joyful and even offer encouragement in this situation? Firstly, he was joyful in the partnership of the Philippians. He says as much in verses 3-5, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” The Philippians have supported Paul financially and are concerned for him personally. They have stuck with him despite his arrest, despite the social stigma associated with it.
Secondly, Paul rejoices because God is at work even in his low circumstances. In verses 12-13 he encourages the Philippians that what has happened to him “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.” Not only that but that other believers have become more confident in sharing Christ because of Paul imprisonment!
Paul’s letter is also for us
This letter is for believers today as well and we should be encouraged and take seriously the exhortation to let our lives “be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” I think many American Christians are discouraged these days. We see a culture that reviles truth and is hostile to the message of salvation in Jesus. We see hurting, broken people all around us. Broken homes, abuse, depression, suicide and every manner of sin aimed at filling the despair and emptiness most experience in their heart, even as try to keep up with the Joneses on Instagram and Facebook.
As our country careens down this path, many Christians are fearful about the potential cost of their faith. Will they lose their job? Will they be sued? Will their friends and family reject them? Will the government restrict their rights? Imprison them? Take their children away?
None of us knows what will happen. What we do know is that Christ is victorious. What we do know is that our salvation in Christ is secure and that a glorious homecoming awaits us in heaven. What we do know is that God promises that he works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. What we do know is that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
We should be encouraged by Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi because even if we suffer because of our faith, God can use that to advance the Gospel, just as he was doing with Paul. Paul tells the Philippians (and us), “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
The example of Chinese Christians
By way of additional encouragement, I want to share with you another letter, this one written by a group of over 100 Chinese pastors to the Chinese government. By way of some background, the letter states,
In September, 2017, the State Council issued the new “Regulations on the Administration of Religious Affairs”and began implementing these regulations in February, 2018. Ever since then, Christian churches across China have suffered varying degrees of persecution, contempt, and misunderstanding from government departments during public worship and religious practices, including various administrative measures that attempt to alter and distort the Christian faith. Some of these violent actions are unprecedented since the end of the Cultural Revolution. These include demolishing crosses on church buildings, violently removing expressions of faith like crosses and couplets hanging on Christians’ homes, forcing and threatening churches to join religious organizations controlled by the government, forcing churches to hang the national flag or to sing secular songs praising the State and political parties, banning the children of Christians from entering churches and receiving religious education, and depriving churches and believers of the right to gather freely.
With such intense persecution one might imagine that the Chinese churches would keep a lower profile or perhaps even go along. And yet, in the face of this surge of persecution, Chinese pastors have written a public letter to the government. Below are some excerpts but you can read it in full here.
For the sake of faith and conscience, for the spiritual benefits of the authorities in China and of society as a whole, and ultimately for the glory, holiness, and righteousness of God, we make the following declaration to the Chinese government and to all of society:
Christian churches in China believe unconditionally that the Bible is the Word and Revelation of God. It is the source and final authority of all righteousness, ethics, and salvation. If the will of any political party, the laws of any government, or the commands of any man directly violate the teachings of the Bible, harming men’s souls and opposing the gospel proclaimed by the church, we are obligated to obey God rather than men, and we are obligated to teach all members of the church to do the same.
Christian churches in China are eager and determined to walk the path of the cross of Christ and are more than willing to imitate the older generation of saints who suffered and were martyred for their faith. We are willing and obligated under any circumstance to face all government persecution, misunderstanding, and violence with peace, patience, and compassion. For when churches refuse to obey evil laws, it does not stem from any political agenda; it does not stem from resentment or hostility; it stems only from the demands of the gospel and from a love for Chinese society.
Christian churches in China are willing to obey authorities in China whom God has appointed and to respect the government’s authority to govern society and human conduct. We believe and are obligated to teach all believers in the church that the authority of the government is from God and that as long as the government does not overstep the boundaries of secular power laid out in the Bible and does not interfere with or violate anything related to faith or the soul, Christians are obligated to respect the authorities, to pray fervently for their benefit, and to pray earnestly for Chinese society. For the sake of the gospel, we are willing to suffer all external losses brought about by unfair law enforcement. Out of a love for our fellow citizens, we are willing to give up all of our earthly rights.
For this reason, we believe and are obligated to teach all believers that all true churches in China that belong to Christ must hold to the principle of the separation of church and state and must proclaim Christ as the sole head of the church. We declare that in matters of external conduct, churches are willing to accept lawful oversight by civil administration or other government departments as other social organizations do. But under no circumstances will we lead our churches to join a religious organization controlled by the government, to register with the religious administration department, or to accept any kind of affiliation. We also will not accept any “ban” or “fine” imposed on our churches due to our faith. For the sake of the gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses—even the loss of our freedom and our lives.
Wow! Read that last line again: For the sake of the gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses—even the loss of our freedom and our lives. If you read the whole letter you will also be touched by their desire to bring glory to God and their love for their countrymen who do not know Jesus.
Despite what I know about the oppression of Christians in China, when I read this letter I wanted to cheer. I was so encouraged to read about their stand of faith and their willingness to lose everything for the sake of the Gospel. As I read it I feel like those Paul mentioned who were emboldened by his imprisonment.
If you are feeling discouraged as you look around you, read Philippians. Read this letter penned by Chinese brothers and sisters. Take heart that God is at work, even in suffering and persecution. Continue to live out your faith, even if the cost be great.
Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians is also for you:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16)