The term ‘progress’ often defined the way people understood the world in the twentieth century. Whether it was the technology revolution, the ‘green’ revolution, political revolution, or scientific revolution, many considered human progress the supreme good. But the twentieth century also saw progress in evil as human atrocities occurred on a scale never before attempted or experienced in human history.
When Paul sat in prison in Rome in the early 60’s, he wrote a letter to his Christian friends in Philippi. His concern for them is wrapped up in this word ‘progress’ (prokope 1:12,25). They knew about his dangerous situation and were troubled by it naturally. But Paul affirms his jail time for Jesus comes with being a ‘slave of Christ’ Jesus’ (1:1). Humanly speaking his arrest and incarceration seems a disaster, perhaps resulting in his death. Yet Paul is convinced that "the things that have happened to me have come for the progress of the Gospel" (1:12). He then illustrates how his difficulties have brought the Gospel into the midst of the Praetorian guard and led many Christians to proclaim the Gospel more boldly. Note how often Paul speaks of this in vs. 12-18. As the Philippian believers pray for him and as the Spirit of Christ provides for him what he needs, he knows that this shall turn out for him for salvation (vs. 19). In every way, then, Paul asserts that the progress of the Gospel continues through his obedience as the slave of Christ, even in jail.
But Paul is also vitally interested in the Philippians’ own "progress and joy in the faith" (vs.25). He did not want the news of his own situation to disturb his friends’ advance in the faith, nor their joy. What would such progress look like? Paul outlines this in vs. 27-30 and on into chapter 2. Key phrases identify the primary markers:
- Living as citizens of God’s kingdom in a way that is worthy of the Gospel of Christ
- Standing fast in one Spirit
- Striving together as one person for the faith of the Gospel
- Not being afraid of those who oppose you.
All of these elements combine to mark individual progress in the faith. Inescapable is the focus upon working together, unity, as a significant marker of progress in the faith.
There is a distinct relationship between Paul’s personal progress in the faith and his ability to advance the faith of his Philippian friends. When Paul fails to progress personally in the faith, he is unable to facilitate the Philippian Christians’ progress in the faith. As these two elements work together, it results in the progress of the Gospel. If either fails, then the Gospel’s progress is hindered.
Carefully Paul emphasizes that progress in the Gospel normally will involve suffering. Such a definition of progress seems contradictory in our 21st century western context, in which suffering would be considered a negative, counter-productive element. Not so with the Gospel and its advance. Just as Jesus took upon himself the form of a slave and experienced crucifixion for the progress of the Gospel, so too, we should expect that our personal progress in the faith will also involve suffering for Jesus’ sake.
God expects us to progress in our faith. For this purpose He has provided for us His Holy Spirit. The good work He has initiated within us, He firmly plans to bring to a successful conclusion (1:6). Paul applies this to himself in chapter 3 as he acknowledges that he has not achieved perfection yet. Rather, he presses forward, seeking to win the prize that is his in Christ, namely a resurrection body and perfection that is like that of Jesus himself. This is the goal of his progress in the faith.
Finally, Paul would remind us that progress in the Gospel will require us to regard other kinds of progress as worthless. In chapter 3 he summarizes all of the wonderful privileges he possesses as a result of his Jewish heritage. With very strong words he regards them all as liabilities, indeed as loathsome garbage, in comparison to his gain of Christ. Economic language of profit and loss defines the kind of progress that truly makes a difference in our lives. For us to progress in our faith also requires us to consider what our society tends to regard as ‘progress’ – fame, possessions, position, personal skills, human relationships — as in fact ultimately worthless in and of themselves. They cannot gain for us resurrection! Rather, our trust in these things definitely will deprive us of the winning the only prize worth having, namely an eternal relationship with Jesus.
What in your life as the slave of Jesus is contributing to the progress of the Gospel? How are you contributing to the progress of the Gospel in the lives of others? How is your personal progress in the faith?
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- perhaps your personal circumstances are very difficult and creating considerable stress for you as seek to be faithful to Jesus. Consider how obedience to your calling by God is contributing to the progress of the Gospel today;
- reflect upon the ways that your personal growth in the faith contributes to the advance of others in the faith – family members, friends, colleagues;
- what motivates your progress in the faith? What is the prize that keeps you motivated in your spiritual growth?