There sat the world’s most outspoken Christian evangelist, chained to two Roman prison guards behind a locked jail cell. If most of us found ourselves in Paul’s shoes in this cell, we’d have thought for sure this was a sad day for the gospel. “Poor gospel”, we’d think. “Your days of victorious spreading have now come to a screeching halt. I guess I might as well just retreat to the cold recesses of this cell and silently go over some memory verses to reassure me. There’s no point trying to preach now.” Yet the Apostle Paul knew better than all this. He wrote to the church of Philippi, "I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (Php. 1:12-14).
We may be tempted to see such circumstances as hindrances to the gospel spreading where it needs to, but Paul saw them as helps which serve to advance the gospel. Paul knew that God often allows the troubling trials into our lives for His own divine purposes. Paul knew after watching Stephen’s martyrdom that persecution has a way of lighting a fire under God’s people to spread the gospel elsewhere. It was Paul’s travel companion Luke, who wrote, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles...Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1b, 4). So God could even use the terrible stoning of one of His own children to get the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem. Ancient Christian Tertullian was right when he stated, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
What does this have to do with me, you may wonder. While you may not face much persecution for your faith at the moment, you probably do encounter “trials of various kinds.” In order for us to “rejoice” with Paul or “count it all joy” with James, we must understand that God allows all this to advance His gospel, not send it in retreat. His gospel knows no such thing as retreat. We must see every screaming toddler, every financial burden, every unexpected doctor’s call, and every natural disaster as events guided by the hand of our sovereign God to advance His gospel. We must learn to behold the invisible King of glory as He sits on the throne of heaven, guiding all things according to His perfect counsel. All human authorities from ages past to today and into the future cannot stop or silence His gospel. North Korea’s emperor says, “No evangelism allowed!”, and South Koreans send thousands of Bibles into their territory via giant balloons. China says, “No other churches authorized!”, and hundreds of millions of Christians gather with greater earnestness in underground churches and in houses. As Paul said to young Timothy, “I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9). No chains can hold back the gospel from going forth.
What should this mean for us? Rejoice when you encounter obstacles that seem to stand in the way of gospel advancement. Rejoice not in the obstacles themselves, but in the God who secretly works through them and despite them to accomplish His purpose of spreading His glory. Rejoice as you consider that God is currently making a way in your personal life and in the Church universal to extend His gospel to those He will redeem. Rejoice as you consider the words of Christ when he said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd...My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:16, 27-28). Rejoice as you believe the promise, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). May we keep our mind's eye on the multitudes John saw around the throne praising the Lamb who purchased them with His blood (Revelation 7:9). Then, let us put on the armor of God and commit to advance Christ's gospel, come what may. Since the gospel never retreats, may we never retreat in declaring it until the trumpet sounds and our King comes to rescue us.