A sage old professor of mine would sometimes say, “God can strike a mighty blow with a crooked stick.” The saying is a rendering of a medieval adage, and it has never left me since hearing it. The apostle Paul explores the notion in his epistle to the Philippians.
As he explains to them that his imprisonment is due to his advancement of the gospel, he draws attention to other preachers who in his absence are attempting to sway the masses with their interpretation of the gospel.
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (Ph. 1:15-17)
We don’t know these preachers’ agenda; however, we can make a strong case for Judaizers who leaped at the chance to debunk Paul’s preaching now that he was bound and unable to evangelize, shepherd the congregation, and, importantly, oppose them. If you’ll remember, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that “savage wolves” would appear and devour the flock—“even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
These particular Macedonian ministers were much closer to orthodoxy than those John and Jude warned their readers about. Yet their motives were still impure and far from the heart of the gospel. From the little we can deduce in Paul’s words, their purpose didn’t lie in the exaltation of Christ, spiritual transformation, and the care of the soul with grace and godly love. Instead, they were in it for control, indoctrination, and whatever other self-centered, contentious reasons that figure in Paul’s description “envy and rivalry.”
The Diamond in the Ruff
Paul then says something truly remarkable: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (v. 18).
Given the crooked hearts and devious purposes of these preachers, Paul suggests that there is more than enough gospel and truth about Christ to be learned by their preaching. It was sufficient for those who didn’t know Christ and those needing edification; and, to Paul, this is a splendid thing. God was not limited by the moral character of these persons, but rather served his own purposes with them. In fact, if necessary, he could save one by their preaching and raise him up to condemn their ungodliness!
It should give many of us pause when we chance to pass a vote on a preacher in the cause of Christ that we feel is serving his or her own purposes more than the Lord’s. Something may be wrong about them, but we should nevertheless rejoice that people are hearing the Word of God. Further, we should be responsible and spiritually perceptive enough to pray for the many these ministers lead and influence, that their eyes be fixed on Christ; that God would align that leader’s heart with his own; and that we might see more clearly where we may have only judged incorrectly.