The Judean Jews wanted to present Paul before Roman authorities as a political prisoner who was antagonistic against Rome. If they could succeed in this effort, then they would have eliminated him from the religious scene of Judaism. Therefore, before the Roman governor of Caesarea, the lawyer for the Jews, Tertullus, accused Paul:
For we have found this man [Paul] a pestilent fellow and a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (At 24:5).
Tertullus used all the right political words before the Roman authority that would picture Paul as one who was a threat to Rome. But the Roman officials knew enough about Judaism and the Jewish religious leaders to understand that this “pestilent fellow” was not against Rome, but against the Jews’ religion (At 25:19). Nevertheless, during this trial Paul appealed to be judged in Rome. As a Roman citizen, he had the right to be judged before a Roman court in Rome (At 25:11). So the historical context of Paul’s statements in the first chapter of Philippians was written while he was in the custody of a Roman guard in Rome.
Rome was the center of politics for the entire Roman Empire. We would correctly assume, therefore, that almost everyone in Rome had some political agenda, or whose behavior was cautiously guarded by the political environment. This would certainly be true in the case of the religious leaders. If one were out of favor with the powers of the Roman State, then this would certainly not put one in a comfortable social position.
The tension between Roman state religion and Christianity would eventually play itself out in the great persecution that would eventually arise throughout the Empire and would last for 150 years. So what was coming in the lives of Christians was Roman state religion that was against Christianity. The entire book of Revelation was written to prepare the early Christians for this onslaught against their faith.
At the time Paul was in Rome, the wicked and narcissistic Nero was emperor. Because of his personal claims to be deity, Nero launched a personal vendetta against Christians in Rome during the middle 60s. Nero’s personal vendetta against Christians would eventually turn into state persecution in the years to come. But at the time Paul was in Rome, he was there representing the Christian faith in the midst of Nero’s antagonism against Christianity. We would assume, therefore, that the political preachers in Rome were greatly influenced by the political environment in which they lived and preached.
The disciples in the Roman colony of Philippi knew the predicament that Paul was in as he sat in custody in a Roman prison. In answer to their concerns for his personal safety, Paul wanted the Philippian Christians to know one very important point in reference to his trials: “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things that happened to me have turned out for the furtherance of the gospel” (Ph 1:12). Whatever transpired as a result of his imprisonment, therefore, had resulted in the furtherance of the gospel. That which seemed to be a tragic turn in his life, was actually turning out for the preaching of the gospel. God had led Paul to a Roman prison in order to have Christianity put on trial before a secular court (At 23:11). All the evidence that Luke transcribed in the documents of Luke and Acts would be in Paul’s defense, which defense eventually led to Paul’s release in A.D. 62. (Download Book 28, Luke’s Historical Defense Of Christianity, BRL, africainternational.org).
Paul’s presence in a Roman prison was a mistake on the part of the Jews who sought to silence his preaching. While Paul was in prison, he wrote that the gospel “has become manifest throughout the whole [Roman] Praetorian guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ …” (Ph 1:13). Because of his bold stand for Jesus, “many of the brethren in the Lord, being confident by my chains, are more courageous to speak the word without fear” (Ph 1:14).
Before Paul arrived in Rome, the brethren in Rome had previously been apprehensive about speaking the word publicly. But the fact that he was bold in his chains encouraged some of them to be the same. After he was falsely imprisoned in Philippi on a previous journey, Paul simply carried on as his bold character necessitated. So he wrote to the Thessalonian disciples:
But after we have suffered before and were shamefully treated in Philippi, as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you [in Thessalonica] the gospel of God with much opposition (1 Th 2:2).
We would conclude that Paul’s request for prayer from the Colossians was answered by God while he sat in a Roman prison. At the same time he wrote the Philippian letter, he also sent a letter to the disciples in Colosse. In that letter (Colossians) he asked them to “continue in prayer … that I make it [the mystery of Christ] manifest as I ought to speak” (Cl 4:2,4). The fact that some even of Caesar’s household had obeyed the gospel, and were now brothers and sisters in Christ, was a testimony of Paul’s boldness to speak in prison in Rome. His bold speaking is evidence that God gave Him a portion of boldness in answer to the prayers of the brethren in Colosse (See Ph 4:22).
But the situation in Rome was not all a rosy picture of boldness and successes. There were some brethren in Rome who did not defend the jailhouse preacher. In fact, Paul continued in his letter to the Philippians, “Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife …” (Ph 1:15).
Paul was known throughout the religious world for stirring up religious animosity among both Jews and Gentiles by his preaching that Jesus was the only way to God (See At 4:12; 21:20,21). If Paul were in prison on behalf of the defense of Christianity, then the political preachers in Rome would have been preaching the cross and Christ in a way that would bring more opposition to Paul. Since they sought to be politically correct, then they could not have preached in a manner that defended Paul. It seems that the preaching of the political preachers was thus ineffective in producing the results that came from Paul’s preaching. It was ineffective because they did not want to preach Christ in a way that would stir up animosity against themselves, as did the preaching of Paul.
These ambitious, and possibly envious preachers, sought to compromise the faith because they did not want to suffer from the hostility of Nero. They did not want to involve themselves in being hated for Jesus as did Paul (Jn 15:18-27; Rm 1:16). Therefore, their political preaching produced division within the family of disciples in Rome, for some Roman Christians were encouraged to be bold, but the political preachers sought to preach a message of compromise.
Paul wrote that the “envy and strife” preachers preached “Christ out of selfish ambition, not with pure motives, supposing to add distress to my chains” (Ph 1:17). These ambitious preachers were political in that they sought to promote themselves at the cost of stirring up antagonism against Paul. These were the ones who would seek to sit in the chief seats, wear robes and clothes that distinguished them from others in public, and then parade themselves before others that they were accepted religious leaders and approved by the government. They possibly paraded themselves in positions of political prominence that would separate themselves from the jailhouse preacher down at the local prison. We have found that whenever a preacher seeks to be politically correct and in favor with hostile governments, he compromises his message in order to remain in the company of government officials.
One certainly cannot set himself forth to be someone if he associates with jailhouse preachers. Such associations would not bring one in favor with the government powers of the day. One cannot be politically correct if he defends those who are accused of being “… a pestilent fellow and a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (At 24:5). Who would want to be associated with a religious political prisoner in Rome who was accused of such things?
These political preachers were intentional. They were specifically speaking in a derogatory manner against Paul in order to disassociate themselves from Paul. Paul stated frankly that they supposed “to add distress to my chains” (Ph 1:17). Can you imagine that? Here are preachers who were so political in their behavior and preaching that they would seek to cause preachers as the apostle Paul to have more distress in their chains by how they represented Christ to the public.
One might think that he would never be guilty of such behavioral shenanigans. But such things did Diotrephes in reference to the apostle of love by speaking all sorts of slanderous accusations in order that John not be accepted by the brethren over whom Diotrephes had claimed authority (See 3 Jn 10). The next time some preacher would slanderously speak against another preacher, he should probably bite his own tongue, lest he fall into the evil of Diotrephes and into the company of the slanderous political preachers of Rome.
When one is filled with selfish ambition, and thus becomes envious of those he would like to replace, in his evil motives he will often seek to bring another down through slander in an effort to exalt himself.
So what would we expect as an answer to these political preachers by a true man of God who suffered from ungodly behavior? What would we reply to “title holding” presumptuous and self-proclaimed apostles and prophets who seek positions and fame among the disciples by slanderously speaking against other preachers? Paul simply replied, “What then?” (Ph 1:18). Or, if we would paraphrase his meaning in modern-day thinking, “Whatever, as long as Christ is preached.”
We might expect Paul to come forth in the power of the Spirit with some profound denunciation to lambast such self-righteous and slanderous personalities who spewed forth their political garbage from pulpits throughout Rome. We might even expect him to show up at the meetings that generated strife, meetings that he told both Timothy and Titus to refuse to attend (See 2 Tm 2:23; Ti 3:9-11). We might even expect our own feelings to be played out in Paul’s reaction to the ambitious promoters. But Paul did none of these things. He simply wrote,
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached. And in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice (Ph 1:18).
When there are those brethren who stand up out of envy and selfish ambition, and bring a railing accusation against other brethren, they condemn themselves through their evil motives and behavior. If they are preaching Christ, then at least they are accomplishing the mission of keeping the name of Jesus Christ before the world.
We will ignore the competitive motives of self promotionalists. We will praise God that the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is being proclaimed. What Paul was saying was that he was willing to suffer the reproach of others in order that the name of Christ be preached. He was willing to continue the unity of the body regardless of the motives of some who were driven by selfish ambition. It was simply not worth causing division among the disciples to become involved in debates with those who were motivated by envy and selfish ambition. There would be a lot less division among the disciples if the bigger men would simply ignore the self-promoters and refuse to attend those meetings that lead to more controversy. Unity is promoted by refusing to meet with contentious people whose motive it is to intimidate others into giving way to their opinions, demands, or lordship.
[Next lecture: November 20]