Philippians 1:12-18

Text Comment


With v. 12 Paul moves into the body of the letter and, because the Philippians had been concerned about his welfare, he begins by assuring them not only that he is well, but that the gospel has been flourishing during his imprisonment, indeed because of his imprisonment. In more contemporary terms, Paul is a missionary and the Philippians have supported him and they have a right to know that their investment is reaping returns. The next few verses amount to what we know today as the “missionary letter.”


The praetorians were an elite force of soldiers, serving as the emperor’s bodyguard, who would have come into contact with Paul as supervisors of various criminal justice functions in Rome. Remember there was no such thing as a police force in the ancient world. As Paul met one after another of these elite soldiers, the knowledge of the gospel began to spread among them. A number of them became Christians as a result. And, as Christians, they began to speak to their fellows of Christ and salvation. The kingdom grows geometrically, as each convert becomes an evangelist in turn.


As so often happens, when people are coming to Christ and Christians can see it, all the more when prominent people are coming to Christ, people who might have been thought unlikely candidates for conversion, Christians take courage and begin to share their faith more boldly. Nothing discourages evangelism more than the anticipation of failure. Having Paul in the city and being encouraged by his example and his success, Christians in Rome became more daring and fearless in their witness for Christ. If Paul could be such an effective evangelist as a prisoner, and among the hard-boiled praetorians, surely we who are free should be at work sharing our faith and be bold even with those who seem to have no interest in or even active hostility to the gospel.

One very important and interesting implication of the phrase “most of the brothers in the Lord” in v. 14 is the evidence it provides that evangelism in early Christianity was the work of Christians in general and not only of the ordained ministry. That every Christian should be an evangelist is rightly the universal assumption of evangelical Christians, but it is a striking fact that the New Testament never says that in so many words. The New Testament never, in so many words, lays all Christians, men and women, boys and girls, under the obligation to share their faith. Its remarks about being the Lord’s witnesses are addressed to the apostles and, by implication, the church officers that replaced them. And, accordingly, the evangelism that we actually see being done in the New Testament is largely the work of apostles and other church officers. But here it seems clear that Paul is talking about Christian brothers in general, even if in the verses that follow he seems again to be talking about men we would describe as ministers. There are many other reasons to believe that every Christian should be trying to win the lost, but here, in one of Paul’s obiter dicta – comments he makes while talking about other things – he indicates that it was so even in his own day. And so it would be in the centuries that followed. The gospel spread from mouth to mouth as, according to Celsus’ scornful comment, Christian women gossiped Christ at the laundry!


“Some” harks back to brothers in the previous verse. Therefore, it appears that the “brothers in the Lord” mentioned in the previous verse include both the rightly motivated and the wrongly motivated preachers of the gospel. Paul is willing to say that those who preach Christ out of envy and rivalry are, nevertheless, brothers. That is interesting because the terms he uses to describe their motives – envy and jealousy – are terms that several times in the New Testament appear in lists of evil qualities that characterize the unregenerate life. It is an illustration of how much can be wrong in a genuine believer’s life, a fact that should both humble us and make us wary of our tendency to think better of ourselves than we ought to.


Once again, Paul raises no question as to the integrity of the message itself. These men were preaching Christ. But the men take different views concerning Paul. The genuinely motivated among them see Paul’s imprisonment as a demonstration of his loyalty to Christ and his faithfulness to his calling and, therefore, as a consequence of the work the Lord called his apostle to perform. The other group stumbles at Paul’s imprisonment and its appearance of weakness. A real Christian leader, they reasoned, shouldn’t be in jail.

The difficulty here is to figure out precisely how these men supposed that their preaching Christ would put Paul at some further disadvantage. Jealous of his prestige, it seems likely that they are trying to outdo him in the estimation of others while he remains confined. They were taking advantage of an opportunity to preach when Paul could not, in hopes that, in Paul’s absence, the church would rally around them. Were these men also, while perhaps not Judaizers per se, nevertheless not entirely in agreement with Paul either and, by their preaching did they hope to undermine his authority among the Gentile Christians? “Yes, men and women were being brought to a saving knowledge of Christ, and for that Paul rejoiced. But this evangelistic success was being used by some to subvert the apostle’s authority and to establish a form of Gentile Christianity that was friendlier to Judaizing influences. It is no wonder that they believed that their efforts would add misery to Paul’s sufferings…” [Silva, ad loc] That seems plausible because we’ve seen it again and again in subsequent church history. We might think, for example, of the unseemly counter-preaching engaged in by the Wesleyans and the Calvinistic Methodists in the Great Awakening. People were coming to Christ, but there was no doubt, in many cases, that converts were being added to particular parties at the same time. They were preaching Christ, but they were preaching him – they would never have admitted this, of course – to their own advantage, to increase the number of their followers. This was not true of all of them, but it was very definitely true of some of them. In a similar way, one of the reasons that comity agreements were reached in the 19th century—agreements that, in effect, divided up unevangelized areas among various mission agencies was because of the tendency of missionaries to view for converts.

The world has known its share of great men: men of rare accomplishment, men of great influence, men who left their mark on their own and succeeding days. A great many of them were vain. They were great men and no one was more aware of their greatness than they themselves. They lived for applause and for recognition. I don’t always read books straight through. Sometimes I pick a book up, put it down, pick it up weeks later and read some more and so on. It can take me years to get through a book that way. Well, after several years of reading bit by bit, I’m just now finishing Christian Meier’s highly regarded biography of Julius Caesar. And through the months and more than a year of reading that book, coming back to it time after time, a way of reading in which the details fall away and only the great impressions remain, one is left with two impressions. First, Caesar was a very great man, a man of extraordinary drive and ability, and he unquestionably accomplished remarkable things. But, second, neither “self-love” nor “vanity” is an adequate description of the towering ego, the supreme selfish ambition that drove Caesar to reshape the world of his time. Caesar was a man who had the gall to imagine that his own fate and the fate of the world would be the same. Here was a man who was willing to receive honors as if he were a god. Christian Meier isn’t absolutely sure that Caesar didn’t really begin to wonder if he were a god! Search the man’s writings through – famous writings that Latin students have been required to translate for many generations now – and you will be hard-pressed to find any expression of sorrow or remorse for his own failings, if he ever realized that he had failings. His histories invariably give an account of events that reflects well on him and often omit altogether facts that could be taken to be to his discredit.

We want to believe it is not so of our heroes but we are usually disappointed. We admire Winston Churchill’s daring and his courage under fire as a young army officer, but cringe to hear him say in a letter home to his mother that his courage was motivated by the desire to get a medal that he could wear at a dance or a ball when he returned to England. Churchill was a man who lived for the praise of others. Having got far too little of it from his parents when he was a boy, he spent the rest of his life trying to make up the loss. He hardly ever did anything without a thought to whether it would make him look brave, or clever, or generous in the eyes of others. George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, perhaps the most famous fighting generals of World War II, were both prima donnas and more than once got soldiers killed by acting in what they took to be the best interest of their own glory and reputation.

Many great things in the history of mankind have been achieved for ignoble reasons. We rightly admire the accomplishment of setting a man on the moon. We wish we didn’t have to hear how the plan originated. President Eisenhower, concerned primarily with the American economy, refused to invest heavily in space beyond the pragmatic needs of the defense program. He was opposed to expensive forays into space exploration for the sake of “prestige.” But less than three months after John Kennedy was elected president, Russia launched the first man into orbit, beating the Americans by a month. There is a vivid record of a frenzied meeting that President Kennedy held with his advisors two days later, in the early Spring of 1961.

“Is there any place where we can catch them? What can we do? Can we go around the Moon before them? Can we put a man on the Moon before them?…Can we leapfrog?…If somebody can just tell me how to catch up! Let’s find somebody, anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how.”

Three days later came the Bay of Pigs fiasco and a few days later Kennedy met with his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, and ordered him to find out if there were some way we could beat the Soviets in space. A few days after that he committed America to put a man on the moon “before the decade was out.” And, of course, the United States did put a man on the moon in July of 1969. It was a spectacular accomplishment. But for what purpose? “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Whatever that was supposed to mean, the whole effort was, in fact, first and foremost, a gamble by a politician to distract the country and the world from some galactic miscalculations on his part, to make Americans look better than Russians, and the American president a greater statesman than his Russian counterpart. [Paul Johnson, Modern Times, 629-630] And in this way history disappoints us time and time again. Avarice spurred heroic exploration and marvelous invention, pride and envy were spurs to accomplishment.

There is no help for it. We forget this as much as possible because we know and cannot deny that it stains, it diminishes, it sullies the accomplishment when you have to add the seedy, ignoble, and selfish motive to it. If, for example, you had somehow overheard a squabble among the astronauts – I’m not saying that there was one, but I know the human heart – over which one was going to get to step on the moon first – “It should be me,” “No, it should be me!” – you would have looked at that scene of Neil Armstrong stepping off the ladder onto the surface of the moon with a more jaundiced eye. We can’t help it. It is the way we were made. God’s holiness, his moral perfection goes down to the bottom, down past the words and deeds to the motives from which they spring. Motives attach themselves to actions and vice versa, and once attached they cannot be separated.

One of Malcolm Muggeride’s realizations, on his way to Christianity, came when he finally repudiated his earlier hope of some utopia on earth. The repudiation of the possibility of utopia, he later said, came with the realization that motives were everything in human action.

“The essential quality of our lives, as I now understood, was a factor, not so much of how we lived, but of why we lived. It was our values, not our production processes, or our laws, or our social relationships, that governed our existence.” [Chronicles of Wasted Time, 291] [My italics]

As soon as he realized that the “why” told you the most important thing about any human action, he realized that we were no closer to perfection as human beings than we had ever been. It is the why that hangs us out to dry: all of us, all of the time.

That should not surprise a Christian. Jesus taught us that. He was always going down to the motives. He considered the “why” of someone’s thoughts, words, and deeds, to take the measure of a person’s life. The Pharisees, he said in his famous Sermon on the Mount, did many things that they ought to have done. In fact, most of the things they did as religious men were things they should have done. They prayed, they fasted, they went to worship, they gave gifts to the poor, but their motives were wrong and that fact rendered their actions displeasing to God. Bad motives make good deeds bad. It is as simple as that. That is because the judge of our actions is God himself and he cares about the entire act, from motive to event. For God, who looks upon the heart, the motive and the action are one. However shiny the outward behavior, if the inside, if the underside is dirty, corrupt, and petty, the entire action displeases and offends him. Long before Jesus preached that sermon he had read in Proverbs:

“All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are
weighed by the Lord.” [16:2] And,

“The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the
Lord tests the heart.” [17:3]

God looks on the heart. He judges any human action in its totality, with the motives included. God sees the why as well as the what of everything we do. In the Pharisees case it was chiefly their motives that made them unrighteous men and it was their wrong motives that blinded them and deafened them to the ministry of the Son of God when he came among them. We tend to think that, knowing the Pharisees as bad men as we do, reading the New Testament and believing it as we do, that we aren’t likely to make their mistake. But, of course, it is first and foremost in our motives that we also fail most commonly, consistently, and egregiously.

We need to be thoughtful about this, just as Paul teaches us to be thoughtful here. What we have here in the middle of Philippians 1 is a study in motive and the relationship between motive and action. The fact is, the desire of these men to rise above Paul in the estimation of others, the desire to aggrandize themselves or their party at Paul’s expense led them to preach Christ more zealously than otherwise they would have done. The message got out more widely than might otherwise have been the case. Paul could acknowledge that fact and even rejoice in it, such was the wideness of his spirit. But that did not make the envy and the rivalry any less evil. Paul could rejoice in the happy result, but the preachers themselves could take no credit for it and would receive no reward for it.

The fact that selfish and unworthy motives may produce incidental benefits does not make them any less evil. The desire to be rich is an evil desire, but it often produces diligence, enterprise, frugality, and self-denial in people, things that are, in themselves, good things. [Cf. C. Hodge, Princeton Sermons, 105] The desire to be admired is selfish and small in almost all its forms, but it can lead people to bite their tongue when they might otherwise say unkind and hurtful things, to do good deeds, to cultivate friendships, all of which are good things in themselves. The longing to be thought intelligent by others can lead a person to read and study more than he or she ever otherwise would, which is not a bad thing but a good thing. Think of all the women who have, after the wedding, discovered that their husband seemed a better man when he was courting her than she found him to be once they were married. His desire to secure her hand put him on his best behavior. That behavior was right and proper – that is precisely why it impressed her at the time – but the fact that it wasn’t a true expression of his inner self made it not only hypocrisy but, as time would prove, a cruel deceit.

And all this being so widely true, it bears our thinking carefully and honestly about it. After all, it is of the brothers that Paul speaks of their doing good out of wrong motives. Had Paul said that some false-brothers had wormed their way into the fellowship and were preaching Christ for nefarious purposes, we would have taken it simply as a warning against wolves in sheep clothing. We hear that warning often enough in the Bible as it is. But that isn’t what Paul says. He says that some brothers were preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry. They were men Paul thought himself obliged to consider real brothers and they were really preaching Christ – the gospel was their message – but their motives were bad. In magnanimity Paul says that he is glad that Christ is being preached, even if from false motives, but that doesn’t mean and shouldn’t mean that we can then be indifferent about our motives. James says that too often, when we pray, we don’t receive what we asked for because we ask with false motives. God was not indifferent to the motives of these men. Paul could be, but God was not.

In summoning his son, Solomon, to a righteous life as the new king of Israel, David was careful to warn him:

“And you, my son…, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.”

We can fool one another, but, as Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 4:5:

“[The Lord] will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”

What we have here is the warning, given in many different ways in Holy Scripture, that it is easy to do the right things for the wrong reasons and that the wrong reasons make our actions wrong. Christ was preached, but the preachers got no credit for it. Paul could be thankful for it, but the self-important and envious preachers couldn’t be. They could not be thankful that they were preaching Christ for themselves. Their selfish motives made it an accident that the gospel was being communicated to the lost. As William Law wrote in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, those preachers in Rome who were proclaiming Christ out of envy and rivalry were both thieves and liars. They were guilty of stealing because they were taking to themselves what belongs to God alone – the credit for man’s salvation – and they were guilty of lying because they were pretending to be something that they were not. They posed as messengers of love but in fact they were purveyors of hate. They didn’t preach because they loved Christ but because they hated Paul. What did Christ think of that and what will he say about that at the great day?

And if that possibility in your own heart and with regard to your own actions causes you to shudder – as it should – what are you to do about that? How can you test your motives to be sure that they are pure so that your good deeds are good deeds in fact and not simply in appearance?
Well, Paul has given us the answer to those questions. Study his self-denial as a product of his love of Christ. These men were making life difficult for him. They were trying to worm their way into the admiration of men and women who were and had long been great admirers of Paul. They were running Paul down in the only way that they could without bringing reproach upon themselves. They knew they couldn’t publicly criticize the great Apostle who was known in the Roman church as Christ’s champion and had been the instrument of God’s grace in the hearts and lives of at least some people in the church of Rome. So they sought to take advantage of Paul’s limited access to the church and to opportunities for public preaching. They wanted everyone to forget about Paul and begin admiring them.

Hard to take. But Paul took it. He was so devoted to Jesus Christ that anything that served his cause and exalted his name, was a cause of happiness for him. Love Christ enough, care enough for his name, want enough to see him glorified in the hearts of men and women, and the petty selfishness of competitors won’t matter at all. When Christ matters that much to you, it isn’t any longer about you; it’s about him and you find yourself judging your actions and the actions of others according to their bearing on him, not on you. Every Christian knows that ought to be the case with him or with her. Keep testing yourself and be relentless in your determination that, the Son of God being your Lord and Savior, it is always going to be about him and never about you! This is what Thomas Chalmers famously called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Nothing is strong enough to drive out selfish motives accept a love stronger than our love for ourselves.

The revival in Scotland in the late 1830s and early 1840s broke out in Robert McCheyne’s church when he was absent on a long trip to investigate the possibility of missionary work in Palestine on behalf of the Church of Scotland. The interim preacher, William Burns, was the one upon whose sermons the Holy Spirit fell. Talk about a situation made for rivalry! It will not surprise you to learn that there were those in McCheyne’s church who wanted Burns to stay. After all, a church shouldn’t tamper with the power of the Spirit once it has fallen upon them. More amazing, however, is that McCheyne also thought Burns should stay – his preaching being as powerful as it had been – but Burns was determined to put pastor and people back together again and get on his way to China. He wanted to be a missionary, like Paul! I’m not sure there is an incident in the life of those two remarkable men – men who are primarily famous almost two centuries later not for what they did but for what sort of men they were – I say, I’m not sure there is an incident in their lives that more magnificently demonstrates their spiritual greatness. It was not about them; it was about Christ. There was no jealousy or envy or rivalry in a situation tailor-made to create such things because for those two men it was about Christ not them. And the proof that it really was so in their hearts was the fact that they were so willing to let someone else get the credit of God’s people. Christianity is the belief that you are unworthy. There is something deeply wrong with you. And yet God loved you and gave his Son to deliver you from yourself. A true Christian, therefore, a faithful Christian, must be a man or woman who thinks it is all about Christ and not about himself or herself. Of our deserving there can be no thought. To seek our own glory is to behave as if we never needed Christ as desperately as we did. It is to deny him. These men, Burns and McCheyne, as the old writers used to say, gloried in the ruins of their own righteousness, and, as a result it was all about Christ and not about them. And that purified their motives in a beautiful way.

I want to be a man like that. I want to be like Paul in just this way, the way that made him so willing to be happy if others got credit, even his enemies, if only Christ got glory. Every good thing will come from motives like that: a happy heart (for so much unhappiness comes in our comparison of ourselves with others) and a fruitful life. There is the Christian heart and the Christian life in a nutshell: a good life proceeding from the love of Christ in the heart. There is what makes it so hard. There is what makes it so beautiful. There is what proves no one can live it without the help of God. To be all about Christ and not about ourselves!