Human Set-Backs or Divine Set-Ups? (4:3-4)
Perhaps the most revealing test of spirituality is our response to undeserved adversity. If we suffer because we’ve sinned, there’s nothing particularly special in yielding to it without complaint. We typically find the strength to endure with the reminder that the fault lies within. It may hurt, but there’s no one to blame but ourselves.
But if one suffers unjustly and is able to avoid bitterness or resentment, that’s another thing altogether. The apostle Peter had this in mind in his counsel to servants who labored under oppressive and cruel masters. “What credit is it,” asks Peter, “if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20).
This is what makes Paul’s prayer request in Colossians 4:3-4 so incredibly important and instructive for us. It also reveals the depths of his maturity and his unshakeable confidence in the providence and goodness of God. Tucked away in this passage in such a way that it probably goes unnoticed by many is a brief statement by Paul that we need to consider. Here is the text. See if you can identify what I have in mind: “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:3-4).
It’s the phrase, “on account of which I am in prison.” Paul is clearly referring to “the mystery of Christ,” which is to say, the gospel, as the reason for his incarceration. The apostle isn’t in prison for embezzling church funds or for fomenting rebellion against the civil authorities. Neither is he there for sins of the flesh, whether lust or greed or pride or even blasphemy. He’s there for one reason: he faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed the mystery of Christ to a lost and dying world.
His legs are in chains because he loved Jesus too much to keep silent. His freedom has been curtailed, his privileges stripped, his reputation destroyed because he was obsessed with the glory of Christ and refused to keep it to himself. Had Paul been arrested because of some overt criminal act I suspect he would hardly have mentioned his imprisonment to the Colossians. If God had orchestrated his imprisonment as discipline for repeated sexual misconduct or as a way of bringing humility into his otherwise arrogant and prideful heart, that would be one thing. But Paul is in jail because of his determination to proclaim the person and work of Christ to lost souls.
Let’s note a few important lessons from this.
First, contrary to what you may have been told, God doesn’t promise to protect us from painful and unjust experiences if we will but remain faithful and obedient. Paul couldn’t have been more to the point: “It is precisely because I was diligent to obey the call to preach the gospel that I now suffer this horrid and distressing imprisonment.” What God does promise is that while we languish in prison, he will never leave us nor forsake us. The declaration on which we can rest assured is that notwithstanding “tribulation” and “distress” and “persecution” and “famine” and “nakedness” and “danger” and “sword” we will never suffer separation from the “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35,39).
Second, we need to learn from Paul’s reaction to his plight. There’s no indication here of self pity or bitterness or anger with God for having permitted this to occur. The last thing Paul would have said was, “Why me, Lord?” which, I’m sad to say, are usually the first words out of my mouth when things don’t go my way.
Had I (you?) been imprisoned in this way, I fear my reaction would have been: “God has forgotten me!” or, “I must have sinned horribly to deserve this!” or, “I guess God has rescinded my calling and withdrawn his anointing from my life!” or, “God hates me!” or, “Satan has really won a victory in all this!”
Paul’s perspective is perhaps best seen in Philippians 1:12-18 where he again makes reference to his imprisonment for preaching the gospel. He clearly looks on his situation as a divinely orchestrated set-up to elevate the gospel into places where it otherwise might never have reached. The Philippians probably thought his imprisonment was a hindrance to the spread of the mystery of Christ, a strategic set-back, a defeat for the kingdom of our Lord. Not Paul! What has happened to me, he wrote, “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” (Philippians 1:12-13). More than that, “most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14).
In other words, adverse events that from a human perspective seem to be obstacles of defeat are by divine providence transformed into instruments of victory! Or again, human set-backs are gloriously changed into divine set-ups. We see this often in Scripture, whether in Joseph being sold into slavery or the nation Israel being hemmed in at the Red Sea or even Jesus being nailed to a Roman gibbet.
Third, few, if any, who are reading this have yet to suffer to the extent that Paul did. But it may well be that you have endured other forms of unjust treatment for no other reason than that you love Jesus and are committed to the proclamation of the gospel. Many of you are in a position to say, by God’s grace, “Pray that I will have additional opportunities to share the good news of the gospel, on account of which I have been denied promotion at work” (or, “on account of which I have been mocked by my colleagues,” or, “on account of which I have been ostracized and made to feel like a leper,” or, “on account of which I have lost lucrative business deals,” or, “on account of which I have said ‘No’ to certain pleasurable activities with friends,” or, “on account of which I have been slandered by those I once trusted”).
Fourth, and finally, have you thanked God today, as Paul no doubt did on numerous occasions, for the “gift” of suffering? No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses, for “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). I can’t account for Paul’s perspective in Colossians 4 apart from this statement in Philippians 1. Suffering, he says (without stuttering), is as much a “gift” of God as “believing” in Christ is!
Something was obviously more important to the apostle than physical comfort and freedom of movement. Something mattered more than convenience and ease and personal peace or security. That “something” was the advance and exaltation of the “mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3). Have we sufficiently tasted of the sweetness of this glorious truth that undeserved adversity is embraced as opportunity rather than oppression?
On account of the “mystery of Christ,”