Philippians 1:12-21 – Commentary


Paul explained to the Philippians that they shouldn’t despair over his imprisonment because what had happened to him was helping to spread the gospel. Paul’s example encouraged many believers to willingly take a stand for Christ and preach the Good News regardless of the consequences. Paul himself never stopped preaching, even in his confinement. The soldiers guarding Paul heard the gospel, and they learned that he was in prison not for being a criminal, but for being a Christian. Despite the differing circumstances of Paul’s life, his goal never changed—the gospel of Christ was to be preached to as many people as possible. This, too, should be our goal. While we go about the busyness of daily living, we should remember that we are to tell others about Christ and represent him in every situation.

1:12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.NRSV Paul called the Philippians beloved, again emphasizing his fatherly love for them, and he turned his attention to a concern expressed by the Philippian church through Epaphroditus. The Philippians were certainly concerned for Paul’s well-being (expressed by their financial gift), but they were also concerned that Paul’s imprisonment had slowed down the spread of the gospel. By the time of this writing, Paul had been in prison about two years. Paul even

Missionaries of the past who boarded ships to go to foreign lands did not expect to see their homeland shores again. Their good-byes were final, in terms of earth time. Some early missionaries (from Europe to the New World) actually sold themselves into slavery in order to preach to slaves. There was no turning back for them.
Pioneering requires a high sacrifice. Paul’s passion was for others to discover the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ. No matter what.
Pressing through frontiers of spiritual darkness still requires pioneers today—people who will reach neglected people or new people groups. Pray for missionaries, support them, join them.

may have questioned God’s reason for his lengthy imprisonment, for it effectively put him out of commission for further traveling and preaching. But Paul had come to understand, and he wanted the Philippians to know beyond any doubt, that what has happened (that is, Paul’s imprisonment) has actually helped to spread the gospel. Although one of Christianity’s most tireless missionaries had been imprisoned, God’s work could not be slowed down. In fact, God was using Paul’s imprisonment to actually help spread the gospel to Europe. “Helped to spread” is also translated “furtherance” and comes from the Greek word meaning “to cut the way before.” The picture is of pioneers cutting through uncharted territory. Paul’s arrest and subsequent lengthy imprisonment had resulted in the gospel moving in new directions. Paul went on to explain this in the following verses.

1:13 So that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.NRSV Paul’s long arrest had allowed him to share the gospel with the very soldiers who guarded him. As a result, the whole imperial guard (the Praetorian guard, elite troops housed in the emperor’s palace) and everyone else (others in the palace, other believers, those who came to visit Paul, those in power, and members of the Jewish community—see Acts 28:17-23) knew that Paul was in prison only because of his belief in Christ and teaching of the gospel, not for being a criminal. Paul’s example, fervent love for Christ, and manner of life, even in prison, had allowed others to see the gospel in a whole new light. The custom of the time was for a prisoner to be guarded by a soldier who would be replaced every four hours. These soldiers certainly heard Paul’s words to those who visited, as well as his message spoken to them personally. Paul was confident that the message of the gospel was infiltrating the Roman army and the palace itself (see comments on 4:22).

How did Paul end up in chains in a Roman prison? While he was visiting Jerusalem, some Jews caused a riot and had him arrested. Eventually, Paul appealed to Caesar to hear his case (Acts 21:15-25:12). Paul was then escorted by soldiers to Rome, where he was placed under house arrest while awaiting trial—not a trial for breaking civil law, but for proclaiming the Good News of Christ. At that time, the Roman authorities did not consider this to be a serious charge. A few years later, however, Rome would take a different view of Christianity and make every effort to stamp it out of existence. Paul’s house arrest allowed him some degree of freedom. He could have visitors, continue to preach, and write letters such as this one. A brief record of Paul’s time in Rome is found in Acts 28:11-31. The Jews certainly hoped that Paul’s arrest would silence his teaching; the Romans hoped the arrest would keep the peace (Paul’s teaching sometimes infuriated his audiences to the point of rioting). However, locking up Paul only served to spread the gospel through new preachers to new audiences.

Being imprisoned would cause many people to become bitter or to give up, but Paul saw it as one more opportunity to spread the Good News of Christ. He realized that his current circumstances weren’t as important as what he did with them. Turning a bad situation into a good one, Paul reached out to the Roman soldiers who made up the palace guard and encouraged those Christians who were afraid of persecution. We may not be in prison, but we still have plenty of opportunities to be discouraged—times of indecision, financial burdens, family conflict, church conflict, or the loss of our jobs. How we act in such situations will reflect what we believe. Like Paul, look for ways to demonstrate your faith, even in bad situations. Whether or not the situation improves, your faith will grow stronger.

1:14 And most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.NRSV Not only was the gospel being spread by Paul through his contacts in prison, but his efforts were being multiplied outside the prison. Paul’s faith, confidence, and patience in spite of his imprisonment helped his fellow believers become more confident in the Lord. Whatever the reason for their lack of confidence before—whether they had been afraid to speak up, whether they left all the mission work to Paul because they lacked his boldness, or whether they wondered if faith in God was worth the price—they saw Paul’s faith and it strengthened their own. They began to tell the gospel with greater boldness and without fear. With more and more believers gaining boldness in telling the gospel of Jesus Christ, more and more people heard the message and had the opportunity to accept it. This gave Paul great joy. He passed this good news on to his friends in Philippi, that they might know how God was working through his difficult situation.

1:15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.NIV Paul had been made aware that some of the brothers and sisters who had been newly emboldened to speak about Christ were doing so out of envy and rivalry. But others were preaching Christ out of goodwill—that is, with pure motives. They wanted to help others to faith and they wanted to glorify God.

On Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, when regiments of men were pinned down in fear, desperate for confidence, a brigadier general who could have sent written orders took charge by roaming the beaches like a coach along the sidelines. His language was coarse but his courage was unmistakable. He moved the beachhead uphill, turning a disaster into victory.
Paul’s battle was spiritual, and he carried no rank except “servant of Jesus Christ.” But his bold leadership inspired many others to share the gospel. His courage dissolved others’ fear. See, his life told them, it can be done!
How can you become less inhibited about witnessing for Christ? First, watch those who do it. Second, do it yourself. And third, lead others in doing it. Your confidence will sit still as long as you do and grow as fast as you step out from behind your cover.

This comment by Paul provides an interesting look into people’s motives. All of those who preached Christ were sincere believers—they had the right doctrine and they acted upon it by sharing it with others. While the end result might be the same (people hearing the Good News), some actually had wrong motives in their preaching. Their motives stemmed from envy and rivalry. Now that the great missionary Paul had been virtually silenced in prison, some of these brothers were hoping to make a name for themselves in the vacuum that Paul left. Perhaps they hoped for great notoriety, trying to turn people’s eyes away from Paul and toward themselves. These people had no personal love for Paul. They even hoped that their planting churches and gaining converts would upset Paul and make his imprisonment even more frustrating.

These Christian preachers were driven by envy and rivalry. They saw the authoritative position Paul enjoyed, and that painful awareness drove them to desire the same advantage. They were striving to equal or excel Paul’s position. Christian leaders today can fall for this same temptation: to gain leverage over another or to compete for status or position. God gives us what we really need, so Christian leaders must learn to be content with what God has given (see 4:11). Our eternal life in Christ is our greatest asset, so we should not compete against or strive with others.

1:16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.NIV Those who preached Christ “out of goodwill” (1:15) did so in love, spreading the Good News of Christ with pure motives. They knew Paul was in prison, not because of any criminal act, but simply for his defense of the gospel (see also 1:7). Paul had landed in prison because of his devotion to Christ and his zeal to spread the gospel. Yet his fellow believers in Rome, some of whom may have been his spiritual children, fearlessly picked up where he left off, continuing and expanding his ministry.

Paul could have become depressed, discouraged, or disillusioned. He could have wallowed in self-pity and despair. Instead, he regarded his imprisonment as being appointed or destined. He considered, “I am put here to fulfill God’s greater purpose.” God had used Paul’s imprisonment in Rome to bring the gospel to the Roman emperor. Do you have difficulty accepting your station in life? Do you resent where God has placed you? Although education and focused effort may enable us to take a new role or get a new job, often God puts us in a place to serve. Whether it is an actual prison or a place that feels like one, God wants you to serve him faithfully and joyfully.

1:17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.NIV Those who were preaching Christ “out of envy and rivalry” (1:15) were doing so because of their own selfish ambition, making their motives less than pure. These preachers were not so much interested in their message as they were in their reputation. Apparently their doctrine was sound—these were not false teachers—Paul never tolerated any kind of false teaching (see 2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6-9). The error was in motive, not in content. These self-seeking opportunists hoped that Paul would be angered at the notoriety of new and powerful preachers who took his place while he was in prison. Little did these men understand Paul’s sincere love for God and his single-minded focus on spreading the gospel.

1:18-19 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.NIV Paul had an amazingly selfless attitude. He knew that some were preaching to build their own reputations, taking advantage of Paul’s imprisonment to try to make a name for themselves. Regardless of the motives of these preachers, Paul rejoiced that whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. Some Christians serve for the wrong reasons. Paul wouldn’t condone,

nor does God excuse, their motives, but we should be glad if God uses their message, regardless of their motives. Paul had no concern for his own reputation or success; he had dedicated his life to glorifying God. He understood that God was being glorified even as he sat in chains; thus, Paul could rejoice. That is the way it is in the church. It never lives by its deeds, not even by its deeds of love. Rather it lives by what it cannot see and yet believes. It sees affliction and believes deliverance.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.NIV Paul had been able to rejoice during his two years in prison, could rejoice that good results could come from preachers with bad motives, and would continue to rejoice no matter how long he would remain in prison or how long he would live. Paul knew that all that had happened (resulting in his imprisonment, see also 1:12) would end in his deliverance.

Paul, the prisoner, expected to be delivered, but not by a daring raid. In fact, the means of his escape are downright curious: prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit. What kind of talk is this?
Prayer—his own, no doubt, and the prayers of many Christians. Paul counts them as part of his life’s treasure.
The help of the Holy Spirit—the calm assurance that God is present and potent.
Paul may never escape detention; his shackles may never be loosened. So what? He is delivered.
Today, try prayer, and whatever your circumstances, accept the help of the Holy Spirit, the key to real freedom.

What kind of deliverance did Paul envision? While most scholars agree that Paul was quoting from Job 13:16, “Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance” (niv), they disagree on what Paul meant. Some scholars argue that Paul was referring to his upcoming trial, believing that he would be acquitted and freed (which did happen). However, this is unlikely because of Paul’s words in the next verse that reveal his uncertainty about the outcome of his trial. Others believe that, like Job, Paul was focusing on his relationship with God—that whether he lived or died, his stand for Christ would be vindicated. Still others think Paul was referring to his apostleship in the face of the envious preachers. As Job sought to prove his integrity, so Paul was seeking to vindicate his standing, despite his chains. A final option, and most likely, is that Paul was referring to his ultimate deliverance in salvation. That is, whether or not he would be delivered by the Roman court, he would be delivered from God’s judgment.

Paul’s confidence came from two sources: human and divine. Paul knew that the Philippians’ constant prayers had sustained him. As Paul consistently prayed for the churches (1:4-5), so he petitioned their prayers on his behalf (Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 1:11; Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2). In addition, Paul depended upon the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The word “help” (epichoregias) carries the meaning of “support.” The “Spirit of Jesus Christ” refers to the Holy Spirit, who makes Christ’s presence real in true believers. The prayers of the church and the support of the Holy Spirit sustained Paul through a difficult trial and, in the end, no matter what the outcome, Paul would ultimately be “delivered.”

1:20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.NRSV The Greek word apokaradokia, translated “eager expectation,” pictures a person straining his neck to see what is ahead. In Romans 8:19, Paul used the same word as he described looking forward to the revelation of God’s children, as God had planned from the beginning of creation. Hope and expectation are linked together. Paul looked forward to the final fulfillment. He was not concerned about the verdict of his trial, but for the testimony he would leave. Paul hoped and expected to not be put to shame in any way. He was not worried about his own humiliation, but he prayed for courage to present the gospel. When standing trial, Paul wanted to speak God’s truth courageously and not be timid or ashamed. The word “boldness” means with “sufficient courage” (niv). Paul wanted to have openness and fearlessness when he spoke out for Christ. Whether by life or by death, he wanted only to exalt Christ. “Exalt” means to raise in status, to give dignity and honor. Paul did not say, “I will exalt Christ”; instead, he said, “Christ will be exalted.” Paul did not rely on his own boldness, but rather on the help of the Holy Spirit to produce that exaltation of Christ through Paul. Paul wanted his witness to heighten the effect of God’s power and plan. Early Christians would remember the death of Stephen (a death Paul

himself witnessed), the first martyr for the faith, who died bravely, and whose death glorified Christ and resulted in an incredible spread of the gospel (Acts 7:1-8:1). Perish all things, so that Christ be magnified.

Lord Shaftesbury


This was not Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome, but he didn’t know that. Awaiting trial, Paul knew that he could either be released or executed; however, he trusted Christ to work it out for his deliverance. If the verdict were to go against him, Christ would be glorified in Paul’s martyrdom. If Paul was to be released, he would welcome the opportunity to continue serving the Lord. As it turned out, Paul was released from this imprisonment but arrested again two or three years later. Only faith in Christ could sustain Paul in such adversity.

1:21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.NKJV To those who don’t believe in God, life on earth is all there is, and so it is natural for them to strive for this world’s values—money, popularity, power, pleasure, and prestige. For Paul, however, to live meant to develop eternal values and to tell others about Christ, who alone could help them see life from an eternal perspective. For to me indicates Paul’s firm resolve and unshaken faith. Paul used the present tense when he said to live is Christ, thus emphasizing the process of living. For Paul, the essence of life was Christ and having a vital spiritual union with him. Everything Paul desired or attempted was inspired by his devotion for Christ. The meaning is not quite the same as Colossians 1:27: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (niv), or Galatians 2:20: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (niv). Paul wrote not so much of the indwelling Christ here as of Christ being the motive and goal for living and doing worthwhile work for the benefit of others.

Paul’s whole purpose in life was to speak out boldly for Christ and to become more like him. Those who wished to “stir up trouble” for Paul (1:17 niv) might have thought that his anticipation of death would bring shame and fear. Instead, Paul knew that both his living and dying were the decision of God’s sovereign will. To die would not be a tragedy but, instead, a realization of Paul’s hope and expectation (1:20). On one hand, death would be a release from the toils and troubles of this life; on the other, death was the gateway to Christ’s presence. To live would continue Paul’s ministry of spreading the gospel; to die would be gain because Paul’s martyrdom would glorify Christ and bring him face-to-face with the Savior. Paul’s faithful and fearless witness even unto death would enhance the reputation of the gospel. Christ would be magnified as much as in Paul’s death as he had been in Paul’s life. In addition, Paul could confidently say that dying would be even better than living because he would be with God whom he had served and loved (1 John 3:2-3).

Some people hold tightly to this life. Afraid to lose or let go, they in effect become slaves to their mortality. In contrast, those who do not fear death, seeing it as merely the door to eternal life, are free to live with purpose, meaning, and commitment to a cause. Because Paul was ready to die, he was ready to live. He belonged to Christ and was confident of his eternal destination, so he could donate his life on earth to living for Christ. Where is your hope—is it in this life or in the next? Until you are ready to die, you won’t be ready to live.


Paul knew that heaven would be better than this life, and he looked forward to it. Yet in obedience to Christ, Paul would work and serve as Christ saw fit. We must avoid two errors: (1) to work and lose sight of our ultimate home with Christ and (2) to desire only to be with Christ and neglect the work he has called us to do. So we must work hard now, live at our peak, serve and love those around us, help the church grow, heal someone’s wounds, write a good poem, clean up our yard, do our best at school, but we always know there’s a better day coming!
Always with one eye toward heaven, Paul made the most of each day. So should we.


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Source:  Life Application Bible Commentary – Life Application Bible Commentary – Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon.

About dkoop

Lead Pastor of Upwards Church: Leander & Jarrell, TX
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