Paul begins the second section of his letter by saying what has happened to him has in no way hindered the preaching of the Gospel. “What has happened” is Paul’s arrest and imprisonment. Assuming the traditional view, Paul was placed in protective custody in Jerusalem when a crowd at the Temple thought he might have brought a Gentile into the Jewish section of the Temple courts. He spent two years under house arrest in Caesarea, used a pawn between the Roman governor Felix and the Temple aristocracy from Jerusalem. After he appealed to Rome, Paul spent a significant time traveling by ship to Rome, was shipwrecked and washed ashore at Malta. By the time Paul writes this letter, he has been under house arrest for more than two years, perhaps as long as four years. He does not know whether this long time under Roman guard will end in acquittal or execution. (Here is a post on the options for where Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter. If Paul was in prison in Ephesus or Caesarea, his point is still valid.)
Paul believes all of this hardship has actually advanced the gospel. To “advance” (προκοπή) has the sense of progressing towards a goal or an “advanced state” (BDAG). People sometimes say “we made good time” when they travel, or if they get a great deal of work done on a project they says “we made good progress.” The word is used in contemporary Greek for advancement in a career. On a tombstone found in Rome, the word describes the career of a man named Rufinus who was advancing his career in public service in Egypt when he suddenly died (NewDocs 4, 36). To die suddenly, in the midst of one’s career is something potentially shameful. One is cut off mid-life, perhaps because he has offended a god.
Perhaps Paul is using this somewhat rare word in the New Testament in a similar way, even if his personal career is cut short, the Gospel will continue to advance.There may have been people who observed Paul’s career (the selfish preachers in the next section) and thought that Paul’s arrest would end his Gentile mission, or that his death would mean the end of the preaching of the Gospel of the Grace of God. But just as the book of Acts ended, Paul might be in chains, but the Gospel is not.
This is an important point: There is no single person in the history of the church so important to a ministry that the Gospel will be hindered if they were to leave! It is possible some pastors have thought that they were the only person holding a ministry together, or a person thought if they were to leave a particular ministry within a church would fail. In fact, I might consider a person who thought they were that important to the advance of the gospel to be deluded (and possibly leading a cult of some kind). If a pastor (or professor) looks at their career advancement as the goal, they have failed already. The goal for Paul was the advancement of the Gospel alone.
It is probably true some small churches are held together by a single, dedicated pastor, so much so that if that pastor died the ministry might cease. But this is not at all the same as the Gospel failing. Paul’s point in this section of Philippians is that the Gospel will continue to advance whether God prospers Paul’s career or not.
Is it dangerous for a pastor to see a small church as a stepping stone to a larger church? What about a youth pastor who looks at their job as the first step toward a “real” pastor’s job?
How would Paul’s attitude transform the way a pastor leads a local church?