Grace and peace to you
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is with these or similar words that Paul uses to open
each of his prison epistles.
Some of you may be asking, “What are the prison epistles?”
They are the four books of the New Testament that Paul wrote
while he was in prison. The books are actually letters, and there are four of
them, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Paul was also in prison in
Rome under the reign of Nero when he wrote the book of Second Timothy. Each of
his arrests were the result of trumped-up and even false charges, but he was
detained and incarcerated more than once, and for extended periods.
If we stretch our definition self-quarantine a bit, we could
say that like David of last week’s mini-sermon, Paul was also in a sort of
self-quarantine. Neither of these quarantines were of these men’s own choosing,
so in that sense they were not self-imposed, but both were still a sort of
Each one of us are also in some manner of self-quarantine
that we did not choose. Certainly our situations are probably all very
different. Some may still even be enjoying this time of separation, and to
others it may not seem much different than an actual prison. But I suspect that
all of us, to one degree or another, are at the point where we would like to return
to some sort of normalcy in our former manner of life.
I am quite positive that this was also the case for Paul. I
cannot imagine that he actually enjoyed
being in confinement. This was a man who was accustomed to being among many
people and journeying to many places. Nevertheless, there is very little sense
of this in his letters.
It is not that Paul writes absolutely no words of
discontentment, because there are a few. I will get to those few words, but from
the great majority of the words we read in his letters, Paul seemed to be
living a full and rich life during his time of confinement.
Paul was a teacher and a mentor to each of these churches,
so naturally, the greater part of the content has to do with instruction in
living as a follower of Jesus. Nevertheless, there are also hints or
allusions—small indications as to how Paul was able to cope with his isolation.
If we are to learn contentment in being sequestered,
listening to the advice of one who is himself imprisoned seems a good place to
Three-fold Blessings in Time
Paul did not allow self-pity to find harbor in his daily life.
He instead concentrated on the blessings that he enjoyed. I am quite certain he
was thankful for the small blessings that he received every day, but in his
writings he speaks of blessings that went far beyond his prison cell, blessings
which extended even beyond time and into eternity.
Like Paul, these are the blessings which every follower of
Jesus can share in our own hours of confinement. They are blessings we enjoy
not only in the present, but which were also ours in the eternity past, and also
in that which is to come.
Perhaps the clearest expression of this is found in the
first fourteen verses of the letter to the Ephesians. Paul speaks of a time in
the unimaginable past when he says, “God has blessed us in Christ with every
spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, for He chose us in Him before the
foundation of the world to be holy and blameless.”
These are the blessings that we have come to realize in the present,
because it was in Christ that “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness
of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us
with all wisdom and understanding.”
And they are also future blessings, blessings that
will also extend into “the fullness of time,” when all things are brought into
harmony in Christ.
Blessings of Friends
We also see that while Paul sat in prison, he brought to
memory those people in his life with whom he worked and whom he also had
come to love. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he wrote to the
people of Philippi.
He not only brought his friends to mind, but he also prayed
for them: “In every prayer for all of you, I always pray with joy,” he also
told the Philippians.
And to the Colossians: “We always thank God, the Father of
our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”
“I always thank my God, making mention of you in my prayers,
because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the
saints,” Paul wrote to Philemon.
Blessings of Imprisonment
Paul even saw the blessings of his imprisonment. He wrote to
the Philippians, “I want you to know that my circumstances have actually served
to advance the gospel. Because of my imprisonment, the gospel has also become
clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else. And most of the
brothers, given confidence by what they see by my chains, now dare more greatly
to speak the word without fear.”
The Blessings of Faithful Friends
These four letters that Paul wrote are only positive in
nature. There is no negativity, no self-pity, no thoughts of depression or even of cheerlessness. We see that Paul, sitting as he did for those long days
and longer nights in prison, concentrated on the positive and the constructive.
It was only to his close friend Timothy that Paul allowed
himself to voice complaint. As we saw in David’s words last week, Paul also
spoke of the injustice of what was happening to him.
“At my first defense, no one stood with me, but everyone
deserted me. May it not be charged against them.”
“Alexander the coppersmith did great harm to me.”
“Demas, because of his love for this world, has deserted me.”
Blessings of a Faithful God
At the end of it all, Paul understood the final source of
hope. Speaking to Timothy about the injustices done to him, the teacher adds: “But
the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message would
be fully proclaimed, and all the Gentiles would hear it. So I was delivered
from the mouth of the lion.
And the Lord will rescue me from every evil action and bring
me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever.”
And to emphasize that conclusive statement, Paul punctuates with the exclamation point—“Amen!”
We can learn from Paul as we did from David last week, that
even in times of self-quarantine and sequestration, good things can happen. But
they do so only if we work at it.
If you spend your time of lockdown posting your complaints
on social media, complaining how Trump is handling the pandemic, or how your
governor is handling it, you probably will gain no personal growth during this
But if like these two men, you concentrate on what can be
gained in these unusual days, you will emerge strengthened to face and to
thrive in whatever change is required in the days ahead.
In Paul’s letter to his friend Timothy, he writes, “Make every effort to
come to me quickly, before winter if you can…and when you come, bring the cloak
that I left at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.”
Paul was preparing for a long winter of study and
meditation. His final strength and desire for humanity is found in his final
words to the Ephesians.
“Peace to the
brothers and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. May
grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.”