It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good-will... they preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? Philippians 1:15-18
I was a very young minister at the time, not long out of college, and with a lot to learn. I had joined a ministers’ fellowship; it was ecumenical, with Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal and Salvation Army people as well as me. We used to meet every two months to talk, pray and share news.
One meeting we had a visiting speaker. He asked us a question: “How would you feel if God sent revival to this town?” Well, there was only one answer to that, wasn’t there? - Great! Bring it on! (as we might have said if we’d been Americans).
He smiled and said, “All right, now another question. How would you feel if God sent revival to this town, but did it through the church down the road, not your church?”
Ah. That was a bit different. We all said the right thing, of course - it wouldn’t matter a scrap! we’d still be delighted! But I’m not sure we were quite as enthusiastic - after all, my church was the best church, the most sound in doctrine and the most Spirit-filled. (Not, of course, that any of us would have dreamed of actually saying that out loud...)
Does it come as a surprise to you that Christian leaders can think that way? - that there can be a spirit of rivalry rather than of co-operation, even a spirit of jealousy?
Well, I’m afraid it’s nothing new. Paul makes this clear in these words to his Christian friends in Philippi.
The background is this... He is “in chains” for preaching Christ (quite likely in Rome), and he doesn’t know if he will ever get out. And he learns that while he is therefore unable to preach the gospel, other evangelists - yes, fellow-Christians! - are preaching pretty much out of spite.
Why would they do this? Paul doesn’t tell us in any detail, but, reading between the lines, it seems that he wasn’t completely popular with the Christian community in Rome (or wherever he was). He was the new kid on the block, a Johnny-come-lately to their city, and they rather preferred things the way they were before he turned up. So they took advantage of his absence from the scene to put him in his place by demonstrating what better preachers they were.
Sad? Yes, I think so too.
But see now how Paul reacts to this: “But what does it matter?” (verse 18). Who cares! And then this: “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached, and because of this I rejoice.”
How generous-spirited is that! No bitterness. No grumbling. No sulking. On the contrary, just rejoicing because Jesus is being made known.
I see here two main things: a challenge, and an encouragement.
First, the challenge: How generous-spirited are we?
Are we so obsessed with our own importance or talents that we are jealous or resentful of what others are like or what they are doing?
Here’s another story from that ministers’ fellowship. A new minister came to the town, and linked up with us. The first time he came he told us in very plain terms how he viewed the progress of God’s kingdom in the area: “We are praying to become the biggest church in this town,” he told us, full of fervour. Not, notice, the most Christlike church; or the most obedient church; or the most Spirit-filled church; or the most sacrificial church. No: the biggest church.
Well, that put the rest of us in our places, didn’t it? It showed very clearly the way his mind worked: “I don’t care about you lot - I’m going to be Mr Big around here.” (In fact, he was gone within a year, leaving behind a mess.)
If we are Christians, we are brothers and sisters of all who love and follow Jesus, even though there may be areas of disagreement. So it’s vital that we co-operate, and show humility, even taking pleasure in the “success” of others. Is that you? Is it me?
Second, the encouragement: God uses very imperfect people.
The beautiful thing about Paul’s response to the animosity directed towards him is that he just doesn’t care. “What does it matter?” he says. All that matters is that Christ is preached. It’s the message that matters, not the messenger.
Of course, Christ’s messengers should be above reproach: the attitude of Paul’s enemies was wrong, and no doubt God would judge them for it when the time was right. But for the present moment Paul was just delighted that more people were hearing about Jesus.
God uses very imperfect people. Mmm... come to think of it, when I look at myself, and perhaps when you look at yourself, that’s just as well, really, isn’t it?
Lord God, drain out of my heart every drop of rivalry, envy, jealousy and resentment. Teach me to delight in every work of the gospel, wherever it is done - and whoever it is done by. Amen.