“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me, has really served to advance the gospel” (ESV).
Two things made me think of Philippians 1:12 this week. The first came right after I wrote the blog about my experience in Bimini – preaching on Hebrews 13:8. Some readers may recall that I referred to that moment as being the greatest anointing experience of my ministry. And so it was. You must remember however that anointing is by degrees. I doubt not that I had a measure of anointing from my first day at Westminster Chapel till the last. I preached approximately 3,250 sermons at the Chapel. But the kind of anointing I always dreamed of came only once during my twenty-five years at Westminster Chapel. It was when we came to Philippians 1:12 in my series of sermons on Philippians. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. When I sat down after preaching that sermon, I thought to myself: “At last the unction has come. This is it – what I have always wanted”. I was not the only one that felt that way. Everybody felt it. The place was electric. Everyone was talking about it.
Two hours later Graham Paddon, one of our deacons, admitted he was dreading to speak to me. “I have some disappointing news. Your sermon this morning was not recorded. The man who does the tape recordings was sick and forgot to let us know. I am truly sorry”.
Imagine this. Two times in my sixty-three years of preaching I had an undoubted touch of supernatural power. Twice. And neither of them was recorded. Supernatural means “above” what is natural. Something that has no natural explanation. It is what every preacher wants. I have had it twice.
I have thought a lot about this over the years. Why are these two sermons not available? They don’t record sermons in Bimini. But we did at the Chapel. Surely these sermons would bless the church. Why are these sermons not available?
I don’t know. Do you?
That said, one of our other deacons then suggested, “Not to worry; you are preaching in Bromley next week; just repeat that sermon from Philippians 1:12”. Good idea. So I did. And guess what? It did not even come close to the power and authority I had in the pulpit at Westminster that morning when I first preached on Philippians 1:12. Not even close. Explain that.
I have the notes from Philippians 1:12. I used the exact same notes the following week when I preached in Bromley. But what I actually said at Westminster that Sunday morning was not to be found in those notes. I had suddenly departed from my notes that day when I preached it at Westminster. I simply just took off. I have only a vague recollection of what I said.
It reminds me of an occasion when someone asked George Whitefield if he could print the sermon Whitefield had just preached. Whitefield replied: “Yes, as long as you can get in the thunder and lightning”.
The thunder and the lightning. That cannot be put in words. I suspect it is the element of surprise that partly makes the anointing the anointing – that is, if you are there to hear the original sermon preached. Proof of this: read Whitefield’s sermons. They are dull. You would take no notice of them if you did not know they were Whitefield’s. You simply had to be there.
I do wish I could recall what I said that morning when I first preached on Philippians 1:12. I remember this much – perhaps ten per cent of what I actually said: I suddenly found myself touching on the enigmas of life – those things in our past which we continue not to understand. Were we right when did what we did? Were we wrong? The answer is, as it came out in my sermon: it doesn’t matter. What matters is the furtherance of the Gospel! That’s all that matters.
When Paul wrote those words in Philippians he was fully aware that some people’s perception of his wisdom and integrity was at stake. He had gone right against the godly opinions and prophetic utterances that warned him not to go to Jerusalem (see Acts 21:4;10-14). Not a single person believed he should go to Jerusalem. He went anyway. Was he right? Was he wrong? Most people would say the great Apostle Paul absolutely did the right thing. But Luke – who wrote of these prophetic utterances in Acts 21 – didn’t think so! So was Paul right? Was he wrong? It doesn’t matter, says Paul; all these things have fallen out unto the furtherance of the Gospel!
It happens that Philippians 1:12 had been signally used in my life – in April 1956. In the middle of a huge crisis that would lead to my father disapproving of me Philippians 1:12 instantly came to my mind. It was an extremely critical moment. I had no idea what that verse said but I immediately pulled the car over and opened my Bible to find out:
“I would that ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened to me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel” (KJV).
That verse and that moment were to hold me steady for many years. In the light of what had happened in the previous week back in April 1956 it was sufficient to assure me that God was at the bottom of what was going on. But some of the strangest things also occurred. Very strange. It therefore made me question over the years: was I right? Was I wrong? According to Philippians 1:12, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether the Gospel is advanced! Not whether you or I was right or wrong in this or that!
The second thing that made me want to write this blog seems so very silly. But it was this. I had not been to Bimini for a good while and I so wanted to go there and do some bonefishing. But the weather forecasts were not good. Besides, January is the worst month in the year for bonefishing; the cold weather scatters the fish. I went anyway. The weather was horrible. I spent an entire eight hours fishing in the rain. You have heard of singing in the rain? I was fishing in the rain. With the aid of my guide I caught one little three pound bonefish. Embarrassing. But I did manage to present the Gospel to him; he prayed to receive Christ. I came to my hotel room soaking wet – including my shoes (and I brought no extra pair). I asked the housekeeper to put my shoes in a dryer, but nothing worked. In the meantime I managed to present the Gospel to her and she prayed to receive the Lord.
As for the bonefishing trip, it was a bit of a disaster. Was I right to go? Was I wrong? It doesn’t matter as long as the Gospel was advanced. It was.