There are some bad apples in every bunch.
Paul’s faithfulness to preach Christ even while incarcerated in Rome had stirred the believers around him to become more bold themselves. But not everyone who joined Paul in gospel witness did so with the purest of intentions.
The apostle outlines two types of evangelists he sees: (1) those who do so from envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition, thinking even to “afflict” Paul, and (2) those who do so from good will, knowing that God had providentially brought about Paul’s trials as a means to defend and advance the gospel. Both groups appear to have been preaching the true gospel (v. 18), so it is unlikely that Paul is addressing the Judaizers—heretics who wanted to add the requirements of the Law to the way of salvation through Christ, whom Paul sharply condemns in Philippians 3. Rather, Paul is considering two groups with contrary motives, not messages.
It is not difficult to grasp that, in any group of professing Christians, we will find a mix of both the sincere and insincere. The Presbyterians and the Baptists of the 17th century both enshrined in their confessions of faith concerning the nature of the church: “the purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error” (Westminster Confession 25.5; Second London Confession of Faith, 26.3). We know far too well that not all who profess to follow Christ or who serve him in public ministry do so in true faith.
What is harder to grasp is how those in verse 17 connected proclaiming Christ with “thinking to afflict” Paul (v. 17). The English Baptist John Gill offers this interpretation in his commentary:
[T]hey envied [Paul’s] gifts, his usefulness and success in the ministry; and he being now in bonds, they thought it a proper opportunity to exert themselves, and set up preaching Christ as he had done, in the clearest manner; hoping they should meet with the same success, and gain great honour and applause in the church, and even be able to transfer to themselves that glory which belonged to the apostle.
This interpretation fits with the “selfish ambition” Paul describes. These pretentious preachers were vying for recognition and were characterized by a fractious, party spirit. Their activity added insult to Paul’s injury.
Motives matter in ministry. We must ask ourselves: why are we engaged in Christ’s mission? To be seen by others, or perhaps even to satisfy ourselves in some way—validating ourselves as “good Christians”?
Paul will go on to exhort his readers: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (2:3)—in part, referring back to these insincere ministers. The Lord Jesus himself warns us more frighteningly: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22-23). Participation in ministry is no sure sign of salvation. Rather than rejoice in our feats for the Lord, we should rejoice that he has saved us at all (Luke 10:20).
In light of all this, we might expect Paul to issue a scathing rebuke to his opponents in verse 18—his full right as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Instead, we read: “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul marveled at God’s ability to draw a straight line with a crooked stick. What a remarkable testimony to God’s sovereign determination to advance his cause, that even unrighteous may be used to proclaim Christ!
Paul’s simple, pure delight in the cause of Christ mirrors that of the sincere workers, who preach Christ out of “goodwill” (v. 15) and “love” (v. 16). So too should our ministry come from the overflow of joy in Christ.
Last night, I came home from work with an awful fever. I quickly retired to the bedroom, not wanting to spread my illness to my family. As my wife wrangled our three children to bed, my cheerful, two-year-old son repeatedly bounced into my room to check on me. I told him, “Tell mommy and the others that I love them.” He stoutly replied, “Okay!” and immediately went throughout the house, announcing proudly to each person, “Daddy loves you!”
Our Heavenly Father, in commissioning us to preach the gospel to all nations, sends us forth with the news of his love for the world (John 3:16) and for his children scattered abroad (11:52). Would that we were always filled with such childlike delight to carry this message!
May it never be said of us that we went about our mission out of selfish ambition. Rather, may we rejoice as the gospel goes forward and spread it far and wide in love.
I praise you for your love for the world. I thank you that you use the sincere and insincere alike, believers and those who are in error, as a part of your grand scheme to advance Christ’s kingdom. Rid me of selfish ambition and cause me to delight in seeing the gospel go forward, even from the lips of those who are unlike me or whom I would be inclined to doubt. Give me childlike joy in your love such that I would freely tell others of Christ’s person and work.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray for you, your pastors, and any missionaries you know or support to be sincere in their motives in ministry and to avoid seeking human praise.
- Pray for Christ to be proclaimed through you, your church, and through missionaries still raising support.
- Pray for more workers (Matthew 9:38) to serve as evangelists and church planters among the Open Initiative’s strategically-selected unreached people groups.
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