What if we are here for a higher purpose?
As the apostle Paul languished in a prison cell in Rome, not knowing if he would be set free or executed, he wrote to believers in Philippi, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.”
That statement spurs a couple of questions:
1: What did happen to Paul so that he is in a prison cell writing a letter to the Philippians?
About four years earlier, around the year 57, Paul traveled to Jerusalem with representatives from various churches from what we now consider Greece and Turkey. They brought with them a monetary contribution to help the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem, people saw Paul spending much time in the temple, for he was participating in a seven-day Jewish purification custom. They also saw him spending time with certain non-Jewish persons he had brought to Jerusalem. People put those two items together—sightings of Paul in the temple and sightings of Paul with Gentiles—and they jumped to the conclusion that Paul brought non-Jewish persons into the temple. On the basis of that assumption—or false accusation—a crowd became stirred up. They seized Paul, dragged him from the temple, with his life in grave danger. Roman soldiers broke up the riot and rescued Paul. For his safekeeping, Paul was locked in the barracks as a prisoner for the night. While he was in the barracks, information was leaked that a plot was being hatched to capture Paul and to kill him. To avert the plot, Paul was quickly sent away from Jerusalem. Protected by Roman soldiers, under the cover of darkness, Paul was brought to the port of Caesarea. In Caesarea, Paul was put on trial before the Roman governor Felix. Though the false accusations against Paul could not be substantiated, Felix kept Paul imprisoned, hoping that Paul, or the Christian churches, would offer a bribe for his release. Two years later, Felix was replaced by Festus who kept Paul in prison in an attempt to score political points with the Jewish leaders. When Festus made plans to transfer Paul back to Jerusalem, where Paul faced both the threat of a corrupt trial and a new death plot, he appealed his case to Caesar instead. Because of this appeal to Caesar, Paul was sent as a prisoner to Rome. For two more years, Paul waited in prison for his opportunity to present his case to Caesar. However, Caesar did not want to touch such a political hot potato, so Paul was left in prison without ever receiving his right as a Roman citizen to present his case to Caesar.
What “has happened” to Paul is that he remained stuck in prison because of false assumptions, false accusations, political maneuverings, corruption, and injustice.
Paul has strong grounds to lodge a nasty complaint in this letter, to give vent to bitterness over all that has befallen him. But Paul does something different. He writes, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” This prompts another question:
2: What if we are here for a higher purpose than to be happy for a few years on planet earth? What if we are here to help others find the love of Christ for the sake of eternity?
If Paul’s focus is only upon himself—his satisfaction level in life—he has reason to fill this letter with complaints. But if Paul’s focus is on the opportunity to help others find the love of Christ, he has reason to rejoice.
As a person who has not had to endure many injustices in my life, I want to be careful with my words. Jeremiah 22:3 declares, “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.” Micah 6:8 states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Believers need to confront injustices in society. But in his personal circumstances, Paul keeps his heart focused on that which is more valuable to him than personal satisfaction: The highest purpose of his life (and of every life) is to help people to find the love of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul goes on to say later in this letter (in Philippians 1:21), “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (for with death we get even more of Christ).