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Jesus humbled himself by taking on the nature of a human. While humility is often seen as a virtue in modern culture, people did not “humble themselves” in the Greco-Roman world. Someone who was humble was lowly and weak, even servile. That man should humble or belittle himself is rejected. To suffer misfortune and humble oneself “is quite unnecessary, vain and irrational” (Plutatch De exilio, 1 (II, 599b). In the Hebrew Bible, to “be humbled” is associated with punishment. God humbles the proud (1 Sam 2:7). The word appears in LXX Isa 53:8, describing the humiliation of the suffering servant.
Not only did Jesus become a slave, he was a slave who was executed by crucifixion, the most shocking horror in the Roman world. Jesus therefore goes from the highest place imaginable, equality with God, to the lowest, death on the cross.
Because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God vindicated Jesus exalting him to the highest place imaginable. The verb Paul uses for “exalted” (ὑπερυψόω) is not the usual one in the New Testament, it only appears here, but it also in Ps 96.9 (the verb is repeated many times in Odes 8:52-88). It is possible Paul has this verse in mind in Phil 2:9-11, the Most High ὁ ὕψιστος of that verse is God himself, and he is exalted above the earth and far above all other gods. This exaltation refers to the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15), but also the ascension in Acts 1 and Rev 4-5.
Because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God gave to Jesus the highest name imaginable. In the Roman world the name of the emperor was venerated as divine on coins and inscriptions. Yet Jesus has been given a name that is above every name, including the Roman emperor! And because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God will put everything under the Lordship of Jesus. Heaven, earth, and under the earth all will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
All this implies that Caesar is not the true lord of this world. Paul was not anti-Rome, although his gospel did subvert the social order by advocating Jesus as the Lord. As I read Paul, I think Hellerman (Embracing Shared Ministry, 168) is right that Paul is not consciously anti-Imperial, he in no way was advocating some sort of rebellion against the Empire. But the Gospel was so radical that it would erode the Empire if that Gospel practiced consistently. Perhaps the sad story of Church history is that by the time Christianity was the majority religion, it had become thoroughly Roman with respect to honor and status.
Jesus is therefore the true Lord of this world and all of creation ought to recognize that lordship. It is quite remarkable that Paul never suggested the Christians openly rebel against Rome. That would have been a futile effort since there were so few Christians. What he did tell the Philippian church is that they ought to have the same attitude as Jesus. This sort of humility was counter to the Greco-Roman world and slowly brought down the Empire.
More important, this sort of humility is counter to Western/American culture, even in the church. If Paul says “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not,” should we also say, “Jesus is Lord, America is not”?
It seems every word in Philippians 2:5-11 is theologically important . That Jesus “emptied himself” is one of the most discussed since it is not immediately clear what it means to become empty when one is “the form of God.”
The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient. While there is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, it usually focuses on how Jesus (as God) could set aside certain attributes of God while he lived as a human. I do not want to downplay those discussions, but they do distract from what Paul’s main point is in the cultural context of the Roman world of the first century.
The phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite. Jesus set aside his honor and prestige as “form of God” when he became the “form of a servant.” Perhaps the use of the toga in the Roman world illustrates what Paul may have had in mind. The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (Embracing Shared Ministry, 167).
So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe. Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.
Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world.
Jesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. By way of analogy, think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave. (Think of the the rags of Dobby the House-Elf!) Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga!
The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world. In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression; the social status of a servant was not worth considering. Yet Jesus was by nature God and he voluntarily took on the nature of a human.
This idea of a “leader as a servant” or “God as a servant” would be counter-cultural in the first century. A leader would not be humble nor would they ever consider serving others of a lower social class. The modern church is used to hearing about “servant leadership” and Christians are continually encouraged to serve in their churches and communities. Like the church at Philippi, members of local churches still struggle to serve others with “the mind of Christ.”
It is hard to over-estimate the theological importance of Phil 2:5-11. Paul’s original intention may not have been to create a theological statement when he described Jesus as the “form of God.” Even though this passage is foundation for a correct understanding of Jesus, Paul assumes the church agrees with his theological statements about Jesus. He is drawing out a practical implication for “living a life worthy of the Gospel” (1:27-2:4) from this important theological statement: serve one another with the same attitude of Christ Jesus.
The noun Paul uses to describe Jesus’ outward appearance (μορφή) is used twice in the passage: Jesus goes from “form of God” to “form of servant.” While the word refers simply to “what something looks like,” it is used to describe the outward appearance of a god. Philo used the word to describe Caligula as “dressed up as a god” (Leg. 110). Most cultures have some sort of system of social stratification that can be discerned from what people wear. Joe Hellerman describes well the Roman emphasis clothing as an external sign of one’s social standing (Embracing Shared Ministry, 142). For the most part, one could tell social status by the clothes a person wore. A slave, for example, could not parade around in a toga, nor would a wealthy Senator and leading Citizen of Rome dress in rags like a slave.
Jesus was “equal with God.” This parallel phrase uses “equal” (ἴσος). While the word often is used for two things that are equal (for example, Luke 6:34), it appears in several theological important passages. In John 5:18 Jesus is accused of making himself “equal with God,” something the Jewish religious authorities though worthy of death! Some Greek and Roman rulers claimed to be equal with God. In 2 Macc 9:12, Antiochus claims to be “equal with God” (ἰσόθεος), Appian described the honors Augustus gave to Julius Caesar as “equal with God” (BCiv. 2.148, cited by Hellerman, 143).
But that equality was not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something. Maybe another way to think of this is a benefit that gives you an advantage over other people, maybe handicapped or expectant mother parking at the mall. This is a “status” that allows someone to take an advantage over others.
Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself. The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power.
This humble attitude of mutual submission, even to people of a lower social class, flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99). Paul’s main point here is to encourage the believer to serve other believers without respect to their rank or position in society. This includes everyone in a local church, including the pastor!
The larger a church grows, the more need there is for power structures reminiscent of American corporate business models. A church could have a “CEO Pastor” who is paid (respected) like CEO in a major business. Perhaps they think of themselves as too busy “casting vision” to drive a van for the youth group, or play games with the elementary kids, or teach a small Bible study, or weed the flowers on a work day.
The pastor worthy of respect is the one who sets aside his title, respect and power, and serves others, doing tasks that might be “beneath” their position.
Paul’s appeal in Phil 2:1 is based on what the church already has. The ESV translates these short phrases as conditions (“if there is any….”) This does not mean Paul is unsure of the state of the church in Philippi. The Greek syntax does not express uncertainty and might be translated as “since there is…” For example, I might say “If it is morning, if coffee is made, then I am going to drink a cup of coffee.” In this case, the sentence is really, “Since it is morning….”
Encouragement in Christ can refer to both comfort and exhortation. The noun (παράκλησις) is something that emboldens you to act (BDAG). The context will make it clear if the word refers to encouraging the timid to act or exhorting someone who needs to be corrected. One side of the word is tenderly comforting a person who is hurting, the other is a swift kick in the pants to motivate a person the right direction!
Comfort from love may refer to consoling for a person who is hurting in some way, it is a “friendly word” (TDNT 5:820) . The noun (παραμύθιον) appears in the LXX only in Wisdom 3:18, referring to people who will have no comforter on the day of Judgment. Encouragement and comfort naturally go together. In 1 Thess 2 Paul uses the concepts of mothers and fathers to describe his ministry with that Church, gentle like a mother, encouraging like a father.
Participation or fellowship in the Spirit may refer to the close association all Christians have because the share in the same Holy Spirit. Since all believers have the same Spirit, they ought to have complete unity.
Affection and sympathy are both deep emotional responses one typically has for someone you genuinely love. Affection (σπλάγχνον) originally referred to the inner parts of a person, their bowels or entrails, where emotions are felt most strongly. Sympathy is also a stronger word than in English, οἰκτιρμός is the deep compassion God has for humans (1 Kings 8:50, Zech 7:9, רַחֲמִים). Taken together, the words refer to genuine, “heartfelt sympathy” for one another.
Does this mean there is no room for dissent? American culture almost requires people to have different ideas and opinions, Paul sounds like a cult leader who will squash any dissent! One criticism Atheists sometimes use is the vast differences between the various denominations of Christianity. Which Christianity is the real one? Compare a traditional Catholic to a radical Protestant and there are very few things that seem the same. There are good reasons for these differences, but the differences should not obscure the similarities. There are non-negotiable beliefs that make one a Christian (God, Scripture, Jesus, Atonement) and others that are simply differences created by culture and history.
Far from demanding conformity in everything, unity in the church functions like it does in a real family. There are similarities and differences, but what ultimately counts is the family! The first believers may have been ostracized by their families when they became Christians. If that is true, the church becomes their adopted family. Paul’s description of the church as a family highlights the similarities yet allows for differences. Some have the view that the church is a kind of factory producing identical clones and squashing thought and dissent. This is not at all Paul’s point here!
Since the church is a family, the members of the family ought to be supportive of one another, characterized by the same sort of grace and forgiveness one experiences in an ideal family. This requires humble service from all members of the community, including the leaders. In fact, the best example of humble service is in fact Jesus himself.
If the church is living their lives worthy of the Gospel, they will be striving together for the gospel and not frightened by any opposition they face. The verb Paul uses here is cognate of ἀθλέω, “to compete in a contest,” implying strenuous action. The book of 4 Maccabees 17:14ff uses this word group to describe martyrs, and the cognate (ἄθλησις) appears in Hebrews 10:32 to describe the hard struggles of the church at Rome as they were persecuted by civil authorities. By the end of the first century, Clement describe the apostles who had given their lives for the gospel as “contending to the death” (1 Clem 5:2). Paul uses a form of the word that stresses the unified action of a team (συναθλέω) with a prefix which is something like the English prefix co-. They are “co-strivers,” hence the ESV’s “side by side.” The related noun (συναθλητής) refers to a fellow athlete (LSJ).
The church does not have reason to be frightened by their suffering. The verb Paul chooses to use in this verse (πτύρω) is not the usual word for fear in the New Testament. While it can be translated “terrified,” it is better translated “shy.” In secular Greek it was used of horses that were shy, easily frightened, etc (D.S.2.19). Since it always appears in the passive, and in this case the agent of the passive verb is “opponents,” it is probably best to translate this “do not let yourself be intimidated by your opponents.”
Why would the Philippians be intimidated? They are a tiny minority with a view of the world that is radical in Greco-Roman. They have no temple, priesthood, or sacrifice. They do not worship the gods in Philippi, nor do they even recognize their existence! They worship in homes, sharing food and fellowship with people of various social classes. Remember the photograph of the man in Tiananmen Square. One man stood in front of the tanks, refusing to move. This one man stood alone against an ultimately powerful force. The Philippian church is something like that man, a single example of a Christian community in the vast work of Roman Philippi.
Paul’s call, therefore, is for the Christians at Philippi to live a life that is consistent with the Gospel. In the context of Philippians, this means unity of heart and mind as well as willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
In fact, by living a worthy life, the church will suffer for their faith (v. 29-30). Contrary to public expectations of success, a life worthy of the Gospel will lead to conflict with culture, resulting in suffering. A Roman would compete for honor, but he expected to win! Paul says here that even if the church is doing everything right, they are going to suffer loss. This is the same conflict Paul is fighting. He is in chains on account of the Gospel of Christ, yet he has already described this “loss” as a “gain.”
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Christians are suffering persecution in more places today than any other religious group; between 2006 and 2012, Pew says, they were targeted for harassment in 151 countries— three-quarters of the world’s states.” (From Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, see also Paul Marshall’s original story at The Weekly Standard.) While it is hard to look at suffering of innocent people as a gain, from the perspective of this passage, it is if people are suffering on account of their testimony.
Paul’s encouragement to life a life worthy of the Gospel anticipates his description of Jesus in chapter 2. Just as Jesus humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, so too the church at Philippi must humbly serve others.
By living a worthy life, the church will stand firm in one spirit (v. 27-28). One’s “manner of life” (πολιτεύομαι) refers to being a good citizen. If someone was a Roman citizen, there were a number of expectations for proper behavior in the public forum. This refers to both a legal responsibility as well as conduct in public. By analogy, a “good citizen” in America pays their taxes and votes in elections, properly registers and insures their car, etc. You cannot call a person who refuses to pay taxes, breaks the Law regularly, or runs around burning American flags a “good citizen.”
“Manner of life” can be used as a metaphor for living in accordance with the Law. In 3 Macc 3:4, for example, it describes the way of those Jews who had kept themselves separate with respect to foods, but had gained a good reputation for various good works. But these differences were so significant that they fell under suspicion as “hostile and greatly opposed to the government” (3 Macc 3:7) and eventually the government oppressions the Jews because their “manner of life” was so different than the Greeks in Egypt (3:11-30). The same sense of the word appears in 4 Macc 2:8 where one whose “manner of life” conforms to the Law stands in contrast to a number of typical vices. Josephus refers to keeping the Law, but also paying the Temple tax and other civic duties (Ant. 12.142). The word appears in other Jewish literature to describe proper conduct of life with respect to the Law. It is not insignificant that the Jews in 3 and 4 Maccabees were perceived as hostile to their culture and were persecuted for their “manner of life”
To have a manner of life “worthy” of some ideal is a common way of expressing the goal of spiritual life in the New Testament. Perhaps this might be thought of as “live up to an expectation.” For Roman citizen, the expectation is to live like a Roman citizen should; for the one who is “in Christ,” they are to live worthy of the Gospel! Paul begins the second half of Ephesians with similar words (“walk in a manner worthy of the calling”); in 2 Thess 2:12 he encourages his readers to “walk worthy of God” (cf. 3 John 6); in Col 1:10, it is “walk worthy of the Lord;” in Rom 16:2, it is “walk worthy of the saints.” Deissmann reports this word was used on inscriptions in Pergamum (Biblical Studies, 248). Athenaios, a priest of Dionysus and Sabazius, is extolled as “worthy of god.” Whatever these priests did, they were considered good examples for other worshipers.
The goal in Philippians 1:27 is the Gospel of Christ. The one who is “in Christ” is not a citizen of Rome. Nor should they conform their lives to the Law quite like the martyrs in 3 and 4 Maccabees. Their loyalty is to the Gospel of Christ only. Everything the individual Christian or local church does ought to be viewed through the grid of the Gospel.
Paul expects that his imprisonment will not end in shame (v. 18b-20). Paul’s desire is to be free of this legal threat, to be delivered from the charges and return to the ministry to which he has been called.
Paul’s expectation is that everything that has happened will turn out to be his salvation. The word here is used literally for getting out of a boat (John 21:9, ἀποβαίνω). The word comes to be used as a metaphor for getting an expected result: “things turn out as planned.” “Deliverance” is usually translated salvation, the word does not always mean “salvation from my sins,” sometimes it means “saved from a bad situation.” “Eager expectation” (ἀποκαραδοκία) is a rare word only found in Christian writings, although the verb appears in Herodotus for “awaiting the outcome of a war” (vii.163, 168). Paul used the word in Rom 8:19: all creation has an “eager expectation for revealing of the sons of God.” The impression the reader has is of Paul looking forward to his release so that he can return to his long-delayed mission.
Being under house arrest is something most people in the Roman world would consider “shameful.” Shame in the Roman world was serious, people would do all that they could to avoid something that brought them shame awhile at the same time trying to increase their honor in society. This pursuit of honor often took precedence over wealth or love. Just to be under house arrest for any reason was shameful. To be in prison for preaching the story of a man who was crucified (the ultimate shame) would be enough shame to doom most people.
Yet Paul He has “full courage” that “Christ will be honored in my body,” implying that things might not go as well as he hopes. Even if he should die as a result his trial, death is still a gain! (v. 21-24) This is one of the most cherished passages in Philippians because it expresses the hope that when we die, we will be with Christ, which is “far better.” Paul’s life is defined as “Christ.” Whatever he does in this life is for Christ and Christ alone. Roman life was defined by their pursuit of honor. Whatever a Roman might do in order to gain honor for themselves, yet Paul willingly gives up in order to reach others for Christ.
“To die is gain” runs counter to how a Roman person would think. If Paul dies, then he proves his shame! Many famous Romans chose to commit suicide rather than accept greater shame, “death before dishonor.” Socrates is an example of this, although much closer to the time of Paul Cato the Younger killed himself in 46 B.C. because his army was defeated by Julius, so too Brutus, who killed himself in 42 B.C. after it was obvious Octavian would prevail (Brutus participated in the assassination of Julius, Octavian’s adopted father). Both Seneca and Nero killed themselves a few years after Philippians was written (A.D. 65 and 68).
This anticipates what Paul will say about Jesus in the next chapter. Jesus is the ultimate example of “to die is gain.” Paul is not talking about a “noble suicide.” Just as Jesus gave his life on behalf of others, Paul is also willing to lay down his life so that the Gospel will continue to advance.
Paul is “hard pressed” between these two good things. If he lives, he can continue the ministry to which God has already called him, especially to continue working with the Philippian church in order to build it up spiritually. Paul is not expressing some sort of morose acceptance of his impending death, nor is he giving up on this life because of his hardships. If he is not executed, he will continue his mission; if he is executed God has already raised up other leaders who will continue to preach the Gospel.
Because he expects the gospel to continue to advance, he prays for the Philippian church to continue to grow spiritually (v. 25-26). In spite of his imprisonment and competition of rival preachers, all that matters to Paul is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s imprisonment may have been controversial, allowing an opportunity for rivals to “afflict” Paul. When your rival in business has troubles, you benefit. When Toyota recalls a million cars, other car companies benefit because Toyota’s public image is shamed.
First, Paul’s rivals preach the gospel out of envy and strife, not good will. Envy or jealousy (φθόνος) usually appears in vice lists along with strife (ἔρις, Romans 1:29, 1 Cor 3:3). This word is always negative, there is another word for zealous/jealous. Strife (ἔρις) is a rare word, but in the wisdom literature it is the opposite of wisdom (Wisdom 6:23) “Strife” describes the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:11, “quarreling”). The Romans could think of themselves (ideally) as ruling without “jealousy or strife” (1 Macc 8:16). 3 Macc 6:7 describes Daniel as subject to “jealous (φθόνος) slander.”
Second, they preach out of selfish ambition (ἐριθεία), thinking to afflict Paul, not out of sincerity. Ambition is not bad, but this word refers to a self-seeking ambition and usually has the sense of a “feeling of hostility or opposition” (LN 39.7). The word originally referred to a day-laborer and became associated with the “attitude or disposition of the day laborer” (TDNT 2:660). In Phil 2:3 Paul will encourage the congregation to do nothing out of self-ambition, but rather seek the needs of others first. Someone who is a “team player” is usually respected because they are willing to sacrifice their own honor and statistics in order to help the team win. Someone who only tries to increase their own honor often hurt the team. In contrast, the idea preacher of the Gospel does so out of sincerity. This adverb refers to purity of motives. Think of a kid who gives his parent a gift totally unexpected; the first thought might be, “what do you want?” For Paul, there is no ulterior motive for the preaching of the Gospel, he is not trying to build his own reputation or personal wealth.
Third, the rivals preach out of pretense, not from love and truth. A pretense or pretext (πρόφασις) is the reason someone has for doing something. There is a difference between “a reason” and an “excuse.” This word has a little bit of a negative connotation carried by the English word excuse. Perhaps they have some sort of a hidden agenda, some other reason for preaching the Gospel other than the advance of the gospel. This pretense may not be particularly bad or sinful. There are other places where Paul attacks a false teacher for their greed (such as opponents in 1 Timothy, for example).
Who are these rival preachers? Paul does not identify them, other than saying they preach the genuine gospel. These rivals are not the same as his opponents in Galatia who do not preach the gospel at all, or like the opponents in Colossae who have such theological errors that they cannot really be considered “Christian” anymore. These rivals are at least preaching the Gospel, even if their motivations are wrong.
Paul concludes by saying that he rejoices in the successes of his rival preachers while he is in prison! It is a wonderful thing that they are bringing the Gospel to new parts of the world, planting churches and training leaders.
There are two specific ways the Gospel has advanced as a result of his imprisonment. First, the whole “imperial guard” has heard Paul’s imprisonment is on account of Christ. The word Paul chose here is refers to the praetorium (πραιτώριον), or the headquarters of the Roman guard. In any major city with a Roman presence there might be such a headquarters, certainly Herod’s palace in Caesarea could be called a praetorium and “all the rest” are the people living in the palace. If Paul is in Rome, then the term could refer to the Imperial guard. In either case, everyone who has contact with Paul knows why he is in prison.
Second, “most of the brothers” have grown in confidence and are speaking the Gospel more boldly and without fear. Paul’s example of boldly preaching the gospel despite his chains has convinced timid believers to be more open in their faith. This verb (τολμάω) has the sense of daring to do something (as in Rom 5:7, someone might dare to die). Joseph of Armethea, for example, has the courage to approach Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43). This request was courageous since Joseph might have been seen as rebellious or revolutionary by Pilate, potentially he too could have been executed for providing an honorable burial for Jesus.
To be “fearless” has the connotation in contemporary English of doing something dangerous, such as skydiving or base-jumping. People put “fearless” on t-shirts (although usually not the people who jump off skyscrapers). But the word in Greek can have the connotation of shameless actions as well. To be brave and bold might mean that you do something dangerous and risky, but it also might mean you do something that is socially embarrassing (the old “truth or dare” game?)
It is possible some Roman Christians (again, assuming the traditional view) were in fact believers, but quite timid in making some sort of public proclamation of their faith. They were afraid to tell friends and family they were a part of this new religious group that worshiped a crucified man. Their belief in Jesus as the Messiah and savior would be shameful if they were Jewish or Roman and in either case could result in a loss of status, threatening their position in society. To boldly declare you are believer in Jesus was more than socially awkward, it was potentially life threatening!
Paul’s imprisonment, therefore, is good because the Gospel continues to advance despite his chains. His example to other believers has emboldened them to publicaly declare their faith in Jesus, even if that declaration is socially dangerous.
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 that 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.