Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.
For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me. (Phil. 2:17-18)
If anyone had human reason to be a gloomy pessimist it was the Apostle Paul. Paul spoke in the midst of a battle, a struggle that eventually cost him his life. He had been falsely accused and jailed to pacify an angry crowd. (Order, not justice, dictated Roman legal practices.) Paul's own accusers could not agree on the charges, though it was clear they wanted rid of him. Five years later, Paul remained a prisoner, having been transferred to Rome after he requested an appeal. In the first chapter of his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul had spoken of how his imprisonment had furthered the preaching of the gospel. Paul was certain that, regardless of his own current situation, or even whether he lived or died, Christ would be magnified (1:20). Paul's attitude was in striking contrast to that of many Christians, particularly those in the West today, who see only discouragement and defeat for the cause of Christ. Paul kept his focus on the big picture by faith, not on his immediate sensory perceptions.
By any human criteria, Paul was a failure. He had no organization, no regular income, and his own leadership was challenged by some of his few scattered converts. By any rational, human measurement, Paul was a loser on a long, downward slide that commenced with his conversion. He went from being a trusted, influential leader of a large, prestigious religion legalized by the most powerful government that history had ever known, to an itinerant preacher of an illegal religion. Paul, from prison, now had to ask people to believe in a Messiah who had been publicly executed. In the end, Paul himself was beheaded by the state, apparently because they deemed him and his religion a nuisance best eradicated.
Paul had it far tougher than most modern believers, yet he always spoke in terms of joy and victory — not his victory necessarily, but that of the gospel of Christ. Paul believed that to live was Christ, and to die gain (1:21), that His gospel came first, and that it was a gift to suffer for it (1:29).
The Big Picture
It is easy to misplace priorities because we fail to see the big picture, or perhaps more commonly, we hold to the big picture as an idea, and not as a motivating vision. Paul saw that big picture. On the road to Damascus, Paul saw a victorious, resurrected Jesus Christ come down from heaven to commission him as an apostle. Paul thought of Jesus Christ as reigning victoriously, and, hence, of His gospel as a message of victory. Paul could thus say "work out your own salvation" — that is, carry through the meaning of your salvation to its logical end. Paul had already three times referred to "the day of Christ" in this brief letter (1:6,10; 2:16). When Paul thought of Jesus Christ, his mental image was of His victorious return as Judge of the living and the dead. This mental image allowed Paul to see through persecution and personal suffering. Paul knew he served a resurrected, victorious Christ, so he thought and spoke like a joyous victor, even in bondage. Paul was focused on the big picture.
If we compare Paul's struggles, and our own, to a modern battle, we can appreciate what it means to have been given the assurance of victory. Thousands of Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in 1945. None of them knew the outcome of that battle or the war. Some died in the landing ships before reaching shore, never having fired a shot. Some of them knew their wounds were mortal and that their death was certain. Some survived that battle, but not the war. Others survived the war and went home victors. Some saw no victory, not even a hint of one; others celebrated both V-E Day and V-J Day.
All those soldiers served in the victorious cause. After the victory we can look back and say they were all soldiers in the victorious army, even those who died before they could see the victory.
The Victorious Christ
Paul had seen the victorious Christ, and that image was always a very real one to him. Nothing ever shook that vision from his view. And, as Paul encouraged the believers to carry through the meaning of their salvation to its logical end, Paul saw the inevitable conclusion of Christ's resurrection from death as His return to so raise us (3:20-21). Moreover, Paul, even from prison, saw himself as part of that inevitable victory. Paul considered God's promise of victory as a certain victory, and he saw himself as having a part in it. Paul could thus speak of the negative in terms of ultimate joy. He could persevere because he knew he was on the side of victory, and thus measure his ministry in terms of faithfulness rather than results.
Soldiers in battle have no guarantee of victory. They do not know if their sacrifices will be part of a winning cause, and so they must face death with the knowledge that theirs may be a "lost cause." This is not true of the Christian, however. Through the inspired words of Paul and John and others we have a promise of victory everlasting. We have been given a gift. We have been told how our battle will end, how all battles will end. Christ shall be victorious. If we stand for Him, we stand in the victorious celebration even now. Though modern entertainment uses the name of God as a punch line encouraged, very often, by "canned" laughter, we can now see the Lamb of God as John pictured Him for us in Revelation, on the throne of the New Jerusalem throughout all eternity.
What Paul says, in effect, in Philippians 2 is "If I be offered like a sacrifice," i.e., if I lay down my life for Christ, for the gospel, "for your faith," it will be a cause for me to rejoice and for you to rejoice with me. Why would Paul rejoice? Paul believed that to live was Christ and to die was gain. If he lived he served the victorious Christ. If he died he went to paradise, and he did so in service to his Lord. Paul had already told the Philippians that his imprisonment was furthering the gospel. Now, for the second time, he says his death, if it comes to that, is gain.
Paul says that if he dies, he wants the church to rejoice with him. Paul would die as a faithful soldier, though. Despite an imprisonment that had, by this time, stretched to five years, Paul had instructed the church, orchestrated the movement of ministers, laymen, and resources to the furtherance of the gospel, and forced the church to take an uncompromising stand against Judaizing, the first major heresy of the church.
Paul continued to be optimistic from prison. He was not optimistic about his own prospects or efforts, but about the certainty of Christ and the eternal victory of His kingdom. Paul remonstrated that the church was not to indulge its fears and insecurities if he died, but rather was to rejoice with him, that he had finished his course with joy and that he had not "labored in vain" (2:16).
God has not given us repeated pictures of His total victory so that we can be gloomy pessimists about the cause of the gospel. Rather, we are called to serve the victorious Christ and to see Him as the eternal Victor whether we by faith see that future victory or any personal victories in this life. We must, even in the "midst of a crooked and perverse nation," keep our eyes on "the big picture" and "shine as lights in the world" (2:16).
Look around, take stock of where you are and where the gospel of Jesus Christ today stands. Is your situation worse that Paul's? Does the gospel face worse prospects than it did just prior to the first major persecution of Nero? Paul could say that he had a stake in Christ's victory; it is time for us Christians to be like him and think like victors.