“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for the sake of you Gentiles . . .”
The Prisoner’s Problem
Paul was at this point in his career “an ambassador in chains” (
His experience was one God’s people have often had, of seeming to have their hands tied in respect to the very thing they feel called to do. How many missionaries feel called to raise money? Yet the average time it takes them to do enough deputation get to the field is now over two years. Family illness, grinding poverty – all sorts of circumstances can seem to be against us, and God does not automatically remove them, at least not immediately. Doesn’t He want His work to prosper? The worst part is the identity crisis you can have at such times, doubting the very calling that you thought gave purpose to your life.
So how do you survive the Prisoner’s Problem? By remembering . . .
The Prisoner’s Principles
Paul’s theology was what sustained him in this trial. And the first principle he was able to call upon was the Sovereignty of God. Had not Jesus said a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without the Father’s concern? And, more to the point, the God who had manifested the power to raise Christ from the dead could not possibly be conceived of as being thwarted by some puny little Roman Empire! All this had been proved already in Paul’s own experience in the Philippian Jail, much as it had been proved earlier when Peter was imprisoned.
Chained between two watchmen,
Peter tried to sleep;
Outside the walls an endless prayer
Was lifting for his keep.
When a light shone in the darkness
Of the lonely prison cell
And the chains that bound the man of God
Just opened up and fell (Amy Grant).
And Peter walked out a free man, even as Paul himself would do. Therefore the Apostle knew and could not deny that if Jesus wanted him out of confinement, Jesus could have him out – now. Therefore, it was really Christ, not Caesar, who held the key. Paul was not the prisoner of Rome, but the prisoner of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference.
A second principle was the Goodness of God. If we accept the Sovereignty of God without understanding His character, we may be tempted (in the short run) to believe in the cruelty of God. But think back again to the Philippian Jail. Paul and Silas were singing praises before the earthquake. Paul knew that while not everything we experience is good, God is working it all toward an end which is good for those who love Him (
This leads to the third principle, the Wisdom of God. That is, not only is God Sovereign and Good but He knows what He is doing. In this fallen world, it will often look in the short run as if He does not. As William Cowper said, “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform.” When that is the case, we must heed Paul’s example and Cowper’s exhortation:
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and will break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
God is good and He does know what He is doing, but this is often not immediately apparent to us. Therefore, we must fortify ourselves in advance with these principles and with Paul’s example so that when such trials come we may not fall prey to doubt.
A fourth principle is this: Circumstances are Secondary; Personal Growth is Primary. If God has ordained the circumstances for an end we cannot yet see, He may not change them. It is not wrong to work to change them or to ask Him to change them (as Jesus did in Gethsemane), but we must ask submissively (as Jesus did). The primary focus is not to change the circumstances, but to change you. You are a part of the circumstances. You are the channel through whom God wants to work in the circumstances. Therefore, if you change in accordance with these principles, that in itself will change the circumstances, even if to outward eyes they remain the same. They will nevertheless have changed in this: you will no longer be the prisoner of Rome, but rather the prisoner of Jesus Christ.
The Prisoner’s Productivity
Being stuck in Rome must have seemed like a hindrance to Paul’s ministry. But God used it in remarkable ways. Think of just a few of the things that happened because Paul was chained to that Roman guard, under house arrest. The Gospel was proclaimed at the crossroads of the world. Onesimus, the slave fleeing his master, was saved (who, according to Ignatius, later became the bishop of Ephesus). And the great Prison Epistles of Colossians, Philemon, Philippians, and, yes, Ephesians might not otherwise have been written, for had Paul been able to visit those churches instead of just writing to them he might have done so.
By hindsight, it is easy for us to see that some of Paul’s most productive work was ironically the direct result of his being taken out of circulation. This confirms the wisdom of God, and gives us grounds for the faith to believe in it too when all outward signs seem to tell against it.
The Prisoner’s Privilege
If the Prisoner’s Principles are true, then they are the solution to the Prisoner’s Problem and may also be the key to the Prisoner’s Productivity. And then we may also be able to enjoy the Prisoner’s Privilege. What is it? It is to live knowing that in the darkest hour of your life, in the midst of what looks like utter failure, God can still accomplish His purposes if we are faithful. It is to share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. It is merely to be identified with Jesus Christ, to belong to Him. The chains of circumstances, of frustration, of rejection, of failure, become a badge of honor surpassing all the diadems of heaven and earth – if you are a Prisoner of Jesus Christ!