And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. – Philippians 1:14, ESV
I am always amazed with how God accomplishes things. He uses a prisoner in bonds to declare true freedom to people who are ostensibly free. Paul’s imprisonment is also stirring the faith of most of the brethren, resulting in courageous action as they live out their faith in God. Again, we see our ideas of “successful ministry” in evangelicalism challenged by God himself. Imprisonment gives opportunity for preaching to an otherwise unreachable audience. Persecution gives rise to an emboldened church actively proclaiming the gospel without fear.
The plan, the execution, the change-in-heart, the courage, the boldness. These are all God things. This situation and the resulting impact cannot be explained away by social theory or predictable human nature. God is at work in Paul and in the brethren. It is unnatural for imprisonment to be the source of increased boldness, for persecution to remove fear. These are all easy excuses for hiding, for running silent, for zipping the lip, putting our light under a cover, crouching in the dark behind locked doors. Instead, God fills Christians with courage to boldly speak the gospel without fear in the midst of persecution and trial. Why, the next thing might very well be outlandish generosity springing out of impoverished churches, or unlearned and unlettered men giving eloquent answers of their hope in Christ. Who would imagine such things, humanly speaking? Yet they are some of the manifold ways God chooses to advance the gospel in the world.
“Church growth” materials, as commonly encountered today would pretend these situations do not even exist. Instead, they advise in how to remove barriers, how to remove hurdles, how to set people at ease so they might hear and believe in Jesus. However, in his infinite wisdom, God uses all kinds of circumstances to further the advance of his kingdom across the spectrum of human existence. This includes unjust prison time, shipwreck, interrupted plans, riots, torture, illness and disability, even outright murder of his evangelists.
What shall we say, brothers and sisters? Do we think God is too hard on us? That we deserve much better, that “success” is to be enjoyed in beautiful spaces with beautiful people recounting beautiful stories of God’s blessing of success? God is able to reach into the prison, the hospital, the courtroom, or the castle; using unlikely people in surprising ways to speak of Jesus.