A friend of mine is awaiting his day in court. In the meantime, he has to wear an ankle monitor and his movement is very restricted. Since I am his friend and neither a judge nor a part of the jury, I think that he is innocent, but we have to see what the justice system decides. It is natural that when you pass through certain situations, you find out how many other people pass through the same situations. When you have a particular illness, you discover how many other people have that illness. A colleague recently delivered a devotional about all the great preachers who had depression. He chose to focus on that topic because he suffers from depression.
Jesus himself experienced imprisonment for at least one night as he awaited the crucifixion. John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, also spent time in jail. He sent Jesus a question from his cell: “Are you the one, or shall we wait for another?’ Even though John had been the one to baptize Jesus, he had a moment of doubt as he languished in prison. Maybe John expected Jesus to free him from Herod’s jail. After all, he owed him a favor – it was John who declared that Jesus was the One! Now the multitudes were following Jesus, while he was imprisoned.
I must admit that it is easy to talk about jail when you are not in it. But this theoretical theology can be dangerous. When my friend was talking about the electronic device that keeps him in contact with his parole officer 24 hours a day, I told him that he can now completely identify with Paul who is described in this way: “When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself with a soldier to guard him.” (Acts 28:16) We do not know exactly how much freedom he had. Some people believe that he could not leave his rented house, while some people tell us that he was tied to a soldier. The soldiers would take turns guarding him, but he depended on them for his limited movement. Later on, we read that this arrangement was not a brief one; Paul stayed under house arrest for two years. (Acts 28:30)
One of the fiercest debates I ever had was with a denominational leader who believed the verses “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” and “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:31-46) should be interpreted spiritually instead of practically. We both knew of Baptists and Pentecostals who were in jail back in Romania, and I asked him if he would visit them as a church leader. He replied that those people were condemned, and they were hooligans and criminals. I reminded him that in communist lands, hooliganism was a trumped-up charge for singing hymns in the house and two or more families of Christians coming together were charged with disturbing the peace. I also reminded him that while the communist government called them hooligans and criminals, they were our brothers and sisters in Christ. The oddity of this conversation was that it took place in Toronto, Canada. Both of us were far away from the imprisoned.
The conclusion of the book of Acts is this: “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 28:31). Some scholars think that Paul was imprisoned once at the end of the book of Acts and then a second time, in a Roman jail instead of a rented house. In both cases—his rented house under guard and in the Roman jail—Paul continued to preach Christ. When he was imprisoned for a night in Philippi, he preached and sang songs of praise. That night, the Philippian jailer was converted. The jailer is not the only one who became a believer because of Paul’s words in prison. In his letter to Philemon, Paul writes, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” (Philemon 1:10)
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About half of the epistles that Paul has written are called the Prison Epistles. Among them is the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, the place where he experienced prison when he preached the gospel for the first time. When he was in the Roman prison, he decided to write the church another epistle to encourage them in their walk with Christ.
In 1972 a group of students from Wheaton College visited a place in Rome that is believed to be the prison of Paul. It was dark, cold, and musty. Dr. Allan Johnson, our professor of New Testament who knew so many New Testament epistles from memory, recited one portion from Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord, always. I will say again: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:4-7).
I can still picture this moment down to the last detail. It was an incredible experience to stand where Paul stood and imagine him writing those words. Paul wanted to be known by the joy that comes from knowing and walking with God who is always near us, even closer than our own breath.