One of the most memorized of all Scripture verses is Romans 8:28. Rightly so, as it reminds us of how God works through our circumstances to accomplish His purpose. Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
The main point of the passage is that God is sovereignly working in the lives of His children to accomplish His purpose in them. And note that there are a couple of qualifiers or conditions associated with this verse.
The promise is to those who love God. I.e. those who have been called by God unto salvation and as result love God. No such promise is given to those who stand outside of the gospel. They face difficult circumstances too, but it cannot be said of them “that God causes all things to work together for good.” Their trials are but a precursor of the greater and eternal trial that they will face when they are condemned to hell in a Christ-less eternity.
The second qualifier is this…the good spoken of in the passage is specific. It is defined for us in verse 29. God is at work in the life of the believer to conform him to the image of His Son. Now that is a grand and magnificent purpose! And it a purpose that will surely come to pass, even as we have seen in our study in Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Now both of these verses are true because of who God is. God is wise, loving, and powerful. He is not limited in what He does by the circumstances that we face. Indeed, He is able to use our difficult circumstances in a positive way. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is able to bring good out of our bad. That’s the way God works. And because of that we can be and we should be optimistic as Christians.
Webster’s defines “optimism” as “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.” The passage before fits that definition to a tee. Paul is inclined to put the most favorable construction on the events of his life. But Paul is not able to do that because he is a member of the optimist club. His optimism is well-founded in his relationship with Jesus Christ and the triumphant nature of His plan. He’s optimistic in Christ.
Note that Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison. There is good reason to believe that this is the imprisonment that is referred to in Acts chapter 28. And it should not escape our notice that this is not the first imprisonment of the Apostle Paul. In fact, when Paul first brought the gospel to Philippi, a riot ensued, and he and Silas were locked up in a prison. Remember that? And what happened on that occasion? Paul and Silas were “praying and singing praise to God” (Acts 16:25). And the prisoners were listening to them. And God caused a great earthquake. And the jailer, terrified because he himself would be executed if he were to lose his prisoners—was ready to take his own life. But Paul shared the gospel with him, and he and his family was saved. Now our text says that Paul’s later imprisonment worked out for the “greater progress of the gospel,” but what was true of the second was also true in the first.
So Paul is again in prison. Why is he there? You can read the details of how his imprisonment in Rome came to pass in the book of Acts. Put simply, he was in prison because he had preached the gospel of grace and in preaching that message he upset the Jews. In other words, he was in prison not because he had done anything wrong. His enemies—enemies of the gospel of grace—had seemingly won a victory in their working to have him imprisoned.
Now we should note in our text that Paul was not all deterred in his ministry efforts though he was in prison. His enemies probably assumed that would be the case. But it wasn’t. No doubt the believers in Philippi were wondering how things were going for Paul, he wrote to reassure them. But note what happened as a result of Paul being in prison:
- His circumstances turned out for the greater progress of the gospel (12). The cause of the gospel was not at all hindered when the Apostle to the Gentiles was imprisoned. Instead it prospered. Just as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:8-9, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned.” You can lock up the messenger, but you can’t lock up the message.
- Because of his circumstances (his imprisonment) he was able to reach people with the gospel who otherwise would not have been reached. Paul’s “imprisonment in the cause of Chris (became) well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else” (13). Paul was no ordinary captive. His relationship to Christ became clear to those who guarded him. And some of them no doubt trusted in Jesus. Others were likewise exposed to the gospel—Jews (Acts 28:17f); at least one Gentile, Onesimus, though likely many more (Philemon 1:10); and members of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22).
- Because of his imprisonment, and specifically because of his godly and courageous response to it, others had “far more courage to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14). In other words, Christian brothers looked at Paul and what he was going through and said, “If Paul can speak out boldly regarding Christ in his circumstances, why should I fear in doing the same.”
- Because of his imprisonment, some opponents were taking advantage of him. They were preaching Christ, but were doing so out of selfish ambition attempting to take advantage of Paul in his circumstances. Being envious of Paul, they were misguidedly attempting to gain a larger following for themselves. But even in this Paul found reason to rejoice, saying, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice.” By the way, in speaking to this particular aspect of Paul’s response—there is far too much competition between churches in America. It is dishonoring to God and detrimental to our Christian testimony. The story is told of three churches, located on different corners of the same intersection, who didn’t get along together. One Sunday each of them opened their meeting with a rousing song service. It was a warm day and all the doors and windows were wide open. One congregation began singing the old hymn, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” The strains had barely faded away when the congregation across the street started singing, “No, Not One, No, Not One!” They had scarcely finished when the third church began singing, “Oh, That Will Be Glory for Me.” That’s just a story, but it speaks to the divisive spirit that exists among some churches. Naturally, we want to support our own church and pray for it and rejoice in its growth. But we need to refrain from that spirit that would rejoice when other churches struggle or falter.
- Because of his imprisonment the believers in Philippi had opportunity to show their loving concern for Paul in sending a gift to him. How encouraged Paul must have been in receiving that gift. And it said something about the love and spiritual maturity of those believers in Philippi.
We could go on. There were other ways, no doubt, in which God worked in Paul’s difficult circumstances to bless Paul and his ministry. But the main point is this—Paul’s difficult circumstances were no deterrent to God in what He was doing in Paul’s life and in Paul’s ministry. Contrarily—they worked to prosper Paul in his ministry.
God is not deterred at all by our difficult circumstances. He delights in bringing good out of bad. The cross is the ultimate example of this. But then again in Acts 8 we read of how a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem following the martyrdom of Stephen. But that great persecution did not hinder the growth of the church. Instead, as a result, believers were scattered “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).
There are some great historical examples of such things.
- John Bunyan was imprisoned because he stood firm in contending for the faith. From that prison cell he wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress,” That wonderful allegory regarding suffering that has encouraged millions of believers.
- It was in a Japanese prison cell that Jacob DeShazer, one of “Doolittle’s Raiders, came to know Jesus. God not only saved Jacob, He called him—while he was still in prison–to be a missionary to the Japanese. After the war he returned to Japan and many people were saved through his ministry.
- I’ve heard of the testimony of the pastors in the house churches in China. These pastors were sometimes arrested and imprisoned. But according to their testimony their circumstances worked out for the greater progress of the gospel because they would spend their time in prison evangelizing fellow inmates and preparing them to be pastors.
Now none of our circumstances are as dire as any of these examples, but we sometimes feel imprisoned. But we need to realize that we serve a God who is much greater than our circumstances. I’ve got a little sign in my office that says, “Our great problems are small to God’s power. Our small problems are great to God’s love.” In other words—in our difficult circumstances we need to remember that God knows and God cares and God is able.
Remember that definition of optimism? Optimism is an “inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”
That’s what Paul was doing. But we need to ask the question “Why?” Why was Paul able to do that? What was at work in his life that he could remain so optimistic in those difficult circumstances?
The short answer to that question is “Jesus.” But let’s try to flesh that out a little bit.
Know the Risen Christ. What made the difference for Paul? There were no doubt plenty of other prisoners in Rome. Few if any would be able to say what Paul said, “my circumstances have worked things out for the better.”
And so it is in life. We all face trials. Unbelievers face trials and difficult circumstances. Believers face trials and difficult circumstances. The difference for believers is that God causes all things to work together for good in their lives. That difference exists because of their relationship to Christ.
Paul knew Jesus Christ (Cf. Galatians 2:20). His great purpose in his life was to know Him better (Philippians 3:10).
Stop to consider this for a moment…if you are a believer your life is in His hands.
- Christ died for your sins.
- He rose from the dead.
- He ascended to the right hand of God.
- From heaven He even now intercedes for you.
- His purpose and plan for you cannot be thwarted. He will never leave you or forsake you. Nothing can work to separate you from His love.
- He’s coming again for you. To take you home to be with Him forever.
These truths are unalterable. Nobody and nothing can work to change any of these things. Paul was not alone in that prison cell. The risen Christ was right there with him (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:17). And because of that he was able to respond to his trials in a godly and courageous manner.
Serve Him in His Triumphant Plan. Note Paul’s focus here. The term “gospel” appears twice (12 and 16). Then you find these phrases: “speak the word of God” (14); “preaching Christ” (15); “proclaim Christ” (17); “Christ is proclaimed” (18).
While he was free he lived his life according to one purpose—to know Jesus and to make Him known. When he was in prison he lived his life according to that same purpose—to know Jesus and to make Him known.
He was serving God in His plan. Remember what Jesus said regarding His church? Matthew 16:18, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” Remember what Jesus’ mandate in Acts 1:8, “…you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” God has a plan and His plan will not be thwarted. So a key to being an optimistic Christian is making sure that we are onboard with God’s plan because we know that God’s plan will not fail.
What does this mean for us as individuals? God’s great plan for you as a believer is to make you to be like Jesus. He has purposed to conform you to the image of His Son. Bad circumstances are no deterrent to His plan. In fact, He can and will use your difficult circumstances to accomplish His purpose.
There are many passages which speak to this—James 1:3; 1 Peter 1:6-7, etc. Let me quote just one. Romans 5:3-5, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
Jesus Christ will never disappoint you. So make knowing and serving Him your chief concern.
Be Filled with His Spirit-imparted Joy. Even though Paul was in prison. Even though some were taking advantage of him in his imprisonment seeking to cause him distress. Paul rejoiced and determined that he would keep on rejoicing.
This is a recurring theme in the book of Philippians. The words “joy” and “rejoice” are found repeatedly in the book.
The word speaks to a joy or gladness that is derived, not from our circumstances, but from our relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is helpful to distinguish between the words “joy” and “happiness.” The word happiness is related to the word “happenstance.” What is a “happenstance?” It is a matter of circumstance. We think of happiness in terms of circumstances. We might sometimes say, “Whatever makes you happy.” According to that way of thinking there are certain circumstances or activities that can make us “happy.” The problem with that way of thinking is that that kind of “happiness” is a fleeting thing. We find that it doesn’t truly satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. People can exist in the best of circumstances and still not be happy.
And many live their lives according to this “if only” approach to life:
- If only I win the lottery…then I’d be happy.
- If only I had a better husband or better wife…then I’d be happy.
- If only I had a better job…then I’d be happy.
- If only so-and-so wasn’t so difficult to get along with…then I’ll be happy.
- If only I could find a better church….then I’ll be happy.
- If only so-and-so is elected President…then I’ll be happy.
But a true and lasting joy, independent of our circumstances, is availed to the believer in Christ by the Holy Spirit. This joy is not dependent on our existing in a prescribed set of circumstances, this joy can be ours no matter where we are or what we do.
- It is availed to us by God: Romans 15:13, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…”
- It is the fruit of the Spirit: Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy…”
- It is a joy which we experience in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Peter was writing to persecuted believers when he said, “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
So let me ask you a question…are you happy in Jesus? Are you even now experiencing the joy of Christ? And let me ask another question…are you holding on to some of those “if onlys?” What’s your “if only?” The key to finding happiness is not in pursuing happiness. True Joy is bound up in the person of Jesus Christ. We find true joy in knowing and serving Him.
The account of Joseph’s life has to be one of the most remarkable and inspiring in all the Bible.
- Joseph’s troubled began when his father showed favoritism for him and gave him the vary-colored tunic.
- Then Joseph had the dreams where he saw first all his brothers bowing down to him and then his father and mother and brothers bowing down to him.
- After his brothers found out about his dreams, they plotted against him to murder him. But ended up selling him off into slavery.
- He was a slave in Potiphar’s house.
- Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of making advances on her.
- He was thrown in prison.
- While in prison he had opportunity to interpret the dreams of the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker—who had both been thrown in prison for displeasing their master. The interpretation of their dream came to pass, just like Joseph had said.
- Pharaoh had a dream. The cupbearer remembered how Joseph had interpreted his own dream, so he advised Pharaoh to send for Joseph.
- Joseph was able not only to interpret Pharaoh’s dream but advise Pharaoh as to what should be done. A famine was to come upon the land—for seven years. Joseph had a plan to provide for the people.
- And ultimately that’s what happened. As Prime Minister of Egypt Joseph was in a position to provide not only for the people of Egypt, but ultimately for the Jews. That had been God’s purpose from the beginning. And though Joseph could not have known that—when he was hated by his brothers, or sold off into slavery, or stuck in a prison—God was working in Joseph’s life all along.
- So, we read Joseph’s assessment of the matter at the end of the book. Genesis 50:20, “And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”
Now Joseph did not understand exactly what God was doing when he was thrown into the pit, or sold off into slavery, or falsely accused, or sat languishing in prison. He came to that conclusion after the fact. He was able to look back on the events of his life and see how God’s hand was at work to bring about that good result.
Maybe in your present circumstances are making you feel like you are imprisoned. I’ve got some good news for you, God is able to set you free. And no matter how difficult your circumstances, you can be and should be optimistic as a Christian:
- Know the Risen Christ. Do you know Him?
- Serve Him in His Triumphant Plan? Is God’s plan your plan?
- Be filled with His Joy? God has availed a true and lasting joy—independent of our circumstances—in His Son Jesus Christ.