David Jeremiah - The Joy of Adversity
As we start the next section of the first chapter which begins at verse 12, the verse starts this way, "The things which happened to me". How many of you know things happen to us? Things happen. Say that with me, "Things happen". When Paul prayed that he might have a prosperous journey to Rome in the will of God, Romans chapter 1 verse 10, I'm sure he had no idea that his prayer would be answered the way it was.
My friend Warren Worseby has observed he wanted to go as a preacher and he ended up going as a prisoner, which reminds us all that when we pray to the Lord we should be very specific, not only about what we desire, but how we want it to happen. Everything about Paul's imprisonment was a mockery. He was insulted and shamed, and yet Paul was still certain that this sorrow and this suffering was part of God's plan for his life. When he wrote to the Corinthians, he said, "I take pleasure in infirmities, and in reproaches, and in needs, and in persecutions, and in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong". And I looked up that word, "take pleasure". It means to think well of or to have the right attitude toward.
As Paul relayed his situation to his friends in Philippi, he clearly had the right attitude toward his troubles. Here we are going to learn how you can have joy in the midst of adversity as we watch Paul process what is happening to him. His upbeat explanation has become a source of encouragement to me and to all who read this who walk through the valley. In this letter that we are studying, beginning at the 12th verse of the 1st chapter, Paul gives us seven proven principles as to why adversity should be viewed in a different way than we normally view it. Our normal response is, "Lord, get this away from me or get me away from this".
But I want you to notice what Paul did as he had the right attitude about this. He took inventory of where he was and how it was affecting him. And here's the first principle: adversity promotes the progress of the gospel. Philippians 1:12 says this, "I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happen to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel". When Paul talked about his present situation in prison, notice he didn't talk about how bad the food was in jail, how cold it was at night. He didn't discuss any of his personal discomfort. He was not occupied with the inconvenience that imprisonment had caused him. His concern was primarily for the gospel and its advance. He saw everything in his life through the lens of winning the world to Christ. He told his prayer supporters in Philippi that his imprisonment had actually put the gospel ahead of schedule in Rome. And he used a word there that is very interesting. He described the advance of the gospel and he used the word, "furtherance".
This is a military term used by engineers who prepare a road for an advancing army by removing the obstacles that are in the way, like rocks, and trees, and of such. And Paul viewed his imprisonment as the removal of the barriers to the gospel coming to Rome. And we learn more about this when we come to the second point: adversity provides opportunities for witness. Verse 13, Paul writes, "So that it has been evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ". When the Apostle Paul spoke of his bonds being evident to all the palace, he was referring to the Praetorian Guard, which was a group of chosen crack imperial troops that the Romans used to take care of those who were waiting to have an appointment with Caesar. These guards would have been exposed to Paul's testimony as he shared it with them personally. And as they listened to him share it with others, they couldn't help but be changed.
Apart from his imprisonment, Paul would never have had any way to approach the highest dignitaries in the palace of Rome. We know that some of these high dignitaries for the military were considered at the very highest echelon of Roman government. We know that because of Paul's presence, some of these dignitaries became Christians. How do we know that? Well, in the last words of this book we read, "The Saints who are of Caesar's household". Every day, 24 hours a day, he was chained to a Roman soldier. Every six hours the shift changed, so Paul had four prospects for the gospel every day of the week. I sat down and figured it out, what that is like in a two-year imprisonment. He would have been able to engage 3,000 witnessing opportunities at the top echelon of the Roman government. He was chained to the Roman soldiers. And suppose they were atheists, suppose they didn't want to hear the gospel. Tough, man, you're chained to the number one witness for the next six hours. Like it or not, you're gonna hear the gospel.
And as he preached the gospel to his soldiers, everybody listened, and it created a stir, and it was the beginning of the gospel coming to Rome. I wouldn't have done that. I wouldn't have come up with that plan. God, he throws all of the normal things away and he comes up with his own plan. Adversity promotes progress in the gospel and it provides opportunities for witness.
Number three, adversity produces courage in our fellow believers. Notice verse 14, "Most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the Word without fear". It is evident from this statement that when Paul was sent to prison, it had an effect on all of his associates, all of his preaching buddies. He was aware that many of them became very confident and bold because they saw his courage. Men and women, bravery is contagious, don't you know? Persecution can be productive. And one has to wonder what would have become of the gospel had it not been for persecution.
Isn't it interesting that God used persecution to get people to do what he told them to do and they could have done willingly? For instance, back in the early days of the church when the great commission was given, the priorities the commission were very clear, "Go into Jerusalem, and Samaria, and Judea, and the uttermost parts of the world". But the problem is, the gospel got stuck in Jerusalem. The Lord said, "Go to Jerusalem and start, but don't stay in Jerusalem". Well, let me read to you what happened. Acts chapter 8, verses 1 and 4, "At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the Word". God used persecution to accomplish his purpose. They wouldn't go willingly. He sent persecution and they had to go.
I have to tell you that in my lifetime I have witnessed the infectious impact of courageous suffering. I remember the death of a man by the name of Paul Carlson, who was a missionary to the Congo. I remember the stories, I'm sure you do, of Jim Elliot, who was a missionary to Ecuador's Auca Indians, and Chet Bitterman, missionary to Columbia. And these people have probably been responsible for recruiting more missionaries than all of the other recruiting programs put together. When people see courage, they are drawn to it like a magnet. And the Bible says that when Paul went to prison and his buddies saw his chains, they became more bold to preach the Word without fear.
Number four, adversity proves the character of our friendships. This is kind of a convoluted little section of this passage, but I think if you listen carefully we can unpack it and you'll get what's going on here. In verse 15, Paul says that while he's in prison, "Some indeed were preaching Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill. The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice".
Now, here's what's going on. Paul's in prison, and he looks out, and he's getting information from his buddies, and they keep telling him what's going on in the church. And what they're telling him is that some of his associates have taken advantage of his imprisonment to advance their own careers. And actually they're using the adversity that's going on in Paul's life to make things better for themselves. I know that doesn't happen today, but it happened back in Bible days. These people weren't false teachers. They preached the gospel. But Paul saw that they were using his incarceration for purposes that weren't godly. As he described those who were preaching for the wrong reasons, he used an interesting word. He said they were preaching from selfish ambition.
That phrase means to canvas for office in order to get people to support you. Their aim was to get people to follow them. Paul's aim was to get people to follow Christ. They were building a following for themselves and they were using Paul's imprisonment as a platform upon which to preach that message. But watch what Paul did. He didn't rail against them. He didn't send somebody to correct them. He sorted this out. He tried to come to some resolution, and here's what he said. He rejoiced that Christ was being preached. Even if it was not as he wanted it to be, he knew that though Christ might not honor the motive of the messenger, Christ would always honor the message.
Do you know that sometimes people get saved listening to a message preached by somebody who may not even know Jesus Christ himself? The power isn't in the messenger, the power's in the message. You set the message free. And so Paul said, "Okay, I don't like this. I've certainly got a revelation of who these people are". How many of you know when you go through adversity, you figure out who your friends really are? Isn't that true? And some of them that you thought were really your friends, adversity sorts it out quickly. Paul got his friends sorted out when he went to prison. And the bottom line was, and here's Paul, he cared about one thing, the gospel. I don't care who preaches it. I don't like what they're doing. I don't think what they're doing is right, but thank God the Word of God is being set free.
Number five, adversity provokes growth in our lives. He says in verses 19 and 20, "I know this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death". Paul said as he looked at his situation, "I'm gonna take advantage of this and I'm gonna watch God do in my life something that couldn't be done if I weren't here in this situation". How many of you know that adversity separates men? It makes some men better; it makes other men bitter. God has planted within us resources we've never used. He's given us courage we've never known. Adversity sharpens your attention. Adversity removes all the non-essential things and helps you to see clearly how to do what needs to be done.
Paul went on to talk about the things that helped him during that time. He spoke of the prayers of his friends. He said, "I'm gonna come through this. I'm gonna be delivered through the prayers of my friends". In 1 Thessalonians, he wrote, "Making mention of you in our prayers, night and day. Brethren, pray for us". In 2 Thessalonians, he wrote, "Therefore we also pray always for you. Finally, brethren, pray for us". Often when facing trouble, we are the focus of the prayer of God's people. And it is through these prayers that we are able to survive our crisis and go on to maturity. Paul had this great thing. He basically said, "I'm gonna pray for you, but I expect you to pray for me".
Prayer is a responsibility we have to each other in the body of Christ, is it not? And it's almost a certain thing that when you pray for someone else they will pray for you. It is a part of the dynamic of what it means to be in the body of Christ. And then Paul said the second thing that happened to him during this time was, he not only had a lot of people praying for him, but he noticed that he also received the provision of the Holy Spirit. His language is picturesque. This phrase literally means the full supply of the Holy Spirit. I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but when you go through adversity, I know this isn't true actually, but it seems like God gets closer to you.
How many of you know God is always as present in any place as he ever was or ever will be, because he's omnipresent? It is not true that during communion God is closer to us than he is in a regular service. But during those moments of communion and during adversity, what happens is we become more sensitive to the presence of the Lord. Isn't that true? It almost seems like God has pulled a chair up next to us and put his arm around us during those days. It's not that God has moved toward us, it's that because of the situation, we have moved toward him. I had an experience when I was going through cancer that's always been one of my favorite things that I took away from that. I was preaching on the radio all over the country when that happened. That was 20 years ago. I've been doing this a long time. And I got letters from a lot of people.
After I got better and I was back in the pulpit for a while, I got a letter from a guy who said this, "Dear Dr. Jeremiah, I know what you've been through. I watched it. I've watch you go through it and prayed for you. And what I want to tell you is that since you've been back, you've been preaching a lot better". Now, that's kind of a double-sided comment, you know, 'cause I wondered how bad I was preaching before. But he said, "Since you've come through cancer and I've been listening to you, you're so much better than you used to be". I thought it was a nice thing to say, except here's the funny thing. What he was listening to on the air were recordings that I had made before I got sick. Gotcha!
But then, one day, when I thought about that, it struck me. I wasn't preaching better, he was listening better. Because you see, when people know that you've been through something, they listen to you with a different way than they would if you... have you ever had anybody come up to you and say, "Oh, I know what you're going through," and you know in your heart they haven't got a clue what you're going through? But when they know you're going through something, they listen to you with a sensitivity. That's what Paul's dealing with here. And then he talked about his own personal determination. He said, "I'm getting through this because of the prayers of the saints, because of the provision of the Holy Spirit, and I'm getting through it also because of my own personal determination".
He was confident that he would come through this ordeal. He describes his attitude as earnest expectation. "My earnest expectation," he said. And it was his purpose in this time that he would maintain his testimony. He wrote that, "In nothing I shall be ashamed". He said, "I want to be bold as always". So now, in other words, "I don't want this prison experience to change who I am". We can never allow our adversity to define who we are. We are who we are. Adversity is just a footnote in our life journey. Paul was determined to use his adversity as an opportunity to more loudly proclaim Christ. While many are silenced by adversity, Paul turned the volume up louder. And he was determined that Christ would be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death.
I mean, for Paul at that moment, his body was fairly useless to him. He was chained to a Roman guard 24 hours a day, but he saw beyond that. He was determined that his body would be a vehicle for magnifying Jesus Christ. In one of his letters to Timothy, he described the situation like this, "I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the Word of God is not chained". Paul knew that while he was chained, the Word of God which he had given his life to was running free through the testimony that he had. Quite often the Lord uses the adversity in our lives as a lens through which he can be seen.
So often here as your pastor, I've had people tell me that their neighbors who've come to the funeral or their friends who've come to the hospital have made the comment that there's something uniquely different about the way you're handling things. They don't understand it and they ask a reason for your faith. Only through experiences of trials and suffering can the soul be strengthened. The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something rewarding if there were no limitations for us to overcome. Ladies and gentlemen, if the hilltop hour was all we had, we would never appreciate it. It's when we go through tough times that God helps us to understand better times, isn't that true? We've been there, now we're here. We look back over our shoulders and we thank God for the tough times, but we thank him also for the joy he's brought to us.
I need to tell you that adversity is an interesting study. Adversity helps us to see all of life in perspective. Paul saw life in perspective. Later on in this text he says, "Whether it's by life or by death," he said, "for me to live as Christ, to die is gain". Have you ever heard anybody say that? I don't know whether I want to go to heaven or stay here. Paul was so in love with Jesus Christ, his thought of spending time with the Lord in heaven was overshadowing anything he thought of on this earth. Of course, Paul spent most of his time on this earth in prison, so I can get that. That's a great attitude to have.
When you become a Christian, something happens in your life and relationship to life and death. Nobody that I know wants to die, but we aren't afraid to die. And when we know Jesus Christ, death is not the ominous thing out in our future because we know that the Lord Jesus Christ has put his foot on death and taken all the power away. Paul saw life and death as equally desirable. If he continued to live, he would come to know, and love, and serve the Lord more fully. If he died, he would completely, and finally, and perfectly know the Lord. He was caught between his desire to be with Christ and his sense of duty to help the Philippians. And his selfless, servant heart is unmatched outside of Jesus Christ.
I read a statement in a book by John Ortberg that I thought was so fitting to what we've been talking about today. He reports that on one occasion he was part of a survey on spiritual formation. He said that thousands of people were asked when they grew most spiritually and what contributed to their growth. He said the response was humbling, at least for someone who works at a church. The number one contributor to spiritual growth was not transformational teaching and preaching. So, that takes me out of the picture. It was not being in a small group. It was not reading deep books. It was not energetic worship experiences. It was not finding meaningful ways to serve.
The most important thing, and the time when people most grew spiritually, and what contributed to their growth was suffering. People said they grew more during seasons of loss, and pain, and crisis than they did at any other time. And then John Ortberg said, "I immediately realized that as a church we had not put anybody in charge of pain distribution". Actually, he said, "The wonderful and terrible thing about crisis is that it's the one resource we do not have to fund, or staff, or program, or put in our budget". It just happens and it's free. However, we need to understand that pain does not automatically produce spiritual growth.
Adversity doesn't make you spiritually better, unless you are in the context where spiritual growth can happen. I mean, you can go and find stories of abusive homes and trauma wards where pain is produced and nothing happens but makes people worse. They are crippled instead of helped. But when you are going through adversity in the context of a loving congregation, or a loving marriage, or a loving environment, or a loving neighborhood, you will discover soul strength begins to happen. If the soul is starved of other nutrients then that won't work, but if you're in an environment where spiritual resources are around you, when you go through adversity, you will be changed.