“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What do you do when things aren’t going like you planned? Maybe you’re the kind of person who is able to fairly well roll with it. But I suspect you are at least a little disappointed in that moment. Perhaps, though, “a little disappointed” doesn’t really cover it for you. Rolling with it isn’t a resource in your repertoire. This may be especially true when your plans were to help someone else or do something good. In that moment, you’re ready to simply throw up your hands and give up. Paul, here, though, offers us another approach to consider.
Paul had grand plans to advance the kingdom of God across the European continent. He had fairly well conquered Asia Minor, and had his sights set firmly on Rome and the further west. He experienced a little hiccup the first time he wanted to head into Bithynia, but God made clear a call to Macedonia instead, so on Paul went. Eventually, after three long and profitable missionary journeys, Paul returned to Jerusalem against the advice and even the prophetic words of pretty much every believer he encountered on his way back. Sometimes staying on track with the plans of God means sticking with a path everyone around us insists couldn’t possibly be God’s plan for us because of what it will clearly cost us. Yet Paul persevered.
When he arrived back in Jerusalem, all of the awful things everyone said would happen to him did. He wound up having to lean pretty heavily on his Roman citizenship so that he wasn’t murdered by a mob of angry Jews. He was kept under arrest in the Roman military base in the city after he appealed to Caesar as all Roman citizens were entitled to do. And so, after making appearances before the two regional Roman leaders in Judea, Paul was bound on a ship to Rome. Getting there was its own adventure, but his dream of being able to advance the Gospel in the capital city was becoming a reality.
Except it wasn’t.
When Paul got to Rome, rather than being given free rein to proclaim the Gospel throughout the city, he was put under house arrest and kept chained at all times to one or two Roman guards. He couldn’t go anywhere. He couldn’t do anything on his own. They allowed for believers from the Roman church and the various other churches he had planted to visit and care for him, but that was about it. From a worldly perspective, it looked like Paul’s grand plans had been permanently derailed. I mean, what kind of missionary work can you do under house arrest while chained to guards?
For many of us, this would have been the point we finally broke. We would have thrown our hands up (at least, we would have thrown them up as high as the chains allowed us) and metaphorically walked away. We had spent our lives trying to serve God, but one thing went wrong after another. Every time we got started on a great project, we ran into nothing but roadblocks. And now we couldn’t do anything while we waited for Caesar to write our death warrant. God had clearly abandoned us, and this was the end.
Maybe you haven’t experienced anything quite so dramatic in your attempts to do life after the pattern of Jesus, but you probably have hit some roadblocks and setbacks. You have probably had carefully laid plans suddenly blow up on you, leaving you scrambling to figure out what to do next. There is a pretty great likelihood you have experienced an unexpected tragedy of some kind that left your head spinning and feeling pretty confident that God had thrown in the towel on you. Or maybe traffic was just extra heavy on the way to work this morning. Whatever the exact form it has taken may be, you have experienced the frustration or even tragedy of having things not go the way you were hoping and expecting leaving life feeling a bit like a train wreck.
It is easy in those times to turn to frustration and anger and ever despair. What we see from Paul here is very different from that. Oh sure, he had every reason for those emotions to overwhelm his senses, but he did something else instead. He kept his eyes on Christ, and served faithfully in the situation he happened to be in. Now, was being chained to Roman guards while under house arrest the set of circumstances he was planning on when he managed to get a ticket to Rome? Of course not. Things seemed in the moment to go horribly awry. But we serve the God who is sovereign over the big picture and all of the moments. So, rather than getting a bad attitude about the whole thing, Paul got to work in the moment in which he found himself.
And the kingdom grew.
Now, it could be that your unexpected twist is the result of some sinful choices you have made along the way finally coming to a head on you. If that’s the case, your rough patch is your own fault. You need to own up to your sin, repent of it, seek forgiveness, and move forward from there. But it just may be that things have blown up through no fault of your own. Rather than letting the shake-up leave you all discombobulated, remember something important: The God you serve is sovereign over the moments of your life too. He is never surprised when things appear to run off the rails. Instead, He is maneuvering you into just the position He wants you to be in. Sometimes that path runs through some decidedly painful ground, but if you will keep trusting Him, and keep pursuing faithfulness even through the valley of the shadow of death, you need not fear any evil. God will redeem your moments and advance His kingdom in powerful ways through your sustained faithfulness.
For Paul’s part, rather than complaining about his chains, he delighted in the fact that he now had a literal captive audience for his Gospel sharing efforts. He proclaimed the Gospel to his guards, who shared it with other guards, and suddenly the whole imperial guard was introduced to the Gospel. Not all of them bought it, but some of them undoubtedly did. Paul could be pretty persuasive. What if you began intentionally looking at your circumstances through the lens of how you could advance the Gospel in them in spite of their difficulty? What if you took the unexpected twists and turns of life as God’s invitation to advance His kingdom into new territory that you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach? You just may find yourself doing incredible Gospel work while hardly having to lift a finger to find it.
I hope your day goes exactly according to plan today. But if it doesn’t, I pray you’ll seize the opportunity to advance God’s kingdom anyway. Someone will be very glad that you did.