Paul was a lover of Jesus but he was also a lover of his people. Sin in the church? He loved them. Getting beaten almost to death? His concern for the people mattered most. Prison? It was all about the people.
And for most churches that was only mildly or moderately reciprocated, except in the case of the Philippians. They were his sending church, a church with surprising maturity, and a church that genuinely and deeply loved him.
He knew they would be concerned while he was in prison, and rightfully so. His situation was dire. He was “in chains” and death appeared to be a real possibility. He knew that the believers in Philippi would be deeply concerned about him.
- He modeled a mission greater than his suffering. For Paul he made it clear that what was most important was the gospel, not his imprisonment. Had he made it about himself and his imprisonment, he would’ve turned their energies to fighting for his release, instead of the gospel. But by prioritizing the gospel, this very attitude provoked others to preach the gospel more courageously and boldly.
- He elevated being with Christ greater than all things. His genuine desire was to be with Christ. But for him “to live is Christ” (Php 1:21) but also to “depart and be with Christ which is better by far” (Php 1:23). It was all about being with Christ whether by life or death. It didn’t matter. Both were good options. And being with Christ was what was important.
- He prepared them for the possibility of his death. The worst thing about someone dying is if they are terrified, scared and fighting it every step of the way. It makes it hard for the living to grieve when this case. But when someone is ready to go it is comforting. Paul genuinely desires to depart and be with Christ, but his making careful and repeated statements to this effect make it clear–If he dies he will be with Christ which is “better by far.” This isn’t a morbid fixation or a a place of despair in a suicidal man. Quite the opposite. If he has a choice he would rather stay for their progress and joy in the faith. Staying had very high value as well. But if his imprisonment meant his death, it was Ok because he is “with Christ.” And if he does die, this should be great comfort for him.
The way Paul handled his imprisonment was genius, heart-felt and compelling. Having suffered so much, he probably did want to depart and be with Christ. But his genuine love for the churches and for Christ made his suffering worthy of his staying.
In this moment we see Paul, the faithful follower of Christ, the lover of Christ, and a caring pastor to the people of Christ. His pastoral leadership here was exemplary. It was all about Christ. In life. In death. And for his disciples.