Epistles: Joy, Hope and Love: Paul’s Letter from Prison

Paul has been called the greatest Christian who ever lived. He also suffered greatly for the name of Jesus Christ. When Paul defended his calling to the church, he defined suffering as a major proof of his spiritual office. “I have worked much harder,” he insisted, “been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23).

Paul’s many trials did not deter him from living a Christian life. Neither did they restrict his preaching the gospel. To the contrary, suffering seemed to motivate him to even greater spiritual service. He said something remarkable about his adversities: “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

We shouldn’t, however, think of Paul as an indestructible superman. There were times when the tremendous hardships he confronted were more than he could bear. After suffering one rather malicious incident of persecution, Paul admitted he and his companions “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8).

But Paul had faith in the living God to see him through his trial. “On him we have set our hope,” wrote Paul, “that he will continue to deliver us” (verse 10). But as Paul’s life demonstrates, God often delivers us out of troubles we are already in, not necessarily from troubles before they begin.

Yet, as we must, Paul was able to rise above his many afflictions. How did he do it? And how can we surmount our trials and troubles? Paul didn’t overcome by his own strength or will. He never took personal credit for being able to bear his painfully heavy cross. He attributed his spiritual muscle to its true source — Jesus Christ. Paul said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

He rejoiced, not in his own will and courage, but in the power of Christ in him. And by that example we know that we, too, have access to the same spiritual power and courage.

Apostle of spiritual joy

Paul maintained this Christ-centered faith during at least four years of suffering as a prisoner of the Roman government, first in Caesarea and then in Rome, possibly in other places as well. During his imprisonment, Paul wrote four letters that survive in our New Testament. They are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. We, living almost 2,000 years later, are fortunate to have these letters to teach us the inspiring truths of God. We are the beneficiaries of Paul’s spiritual wisdom forged in the crucible of personal suffering.

These four letters are among the most hopeful and encouraging Paul wrote. They help us understand how we can find joy in our trials and peace in our suffering. The upbeat message in the prison letters contrasts markedly with Paul’s grim physical condition. Such a contrast teaches us a fundamental truth about our Christian faith: No matter what our misfortune or difficulty, God reigns supreme and sovereign. He can — and will — see us through any calamity.

Christ the center

The Rome of the apostle Paul’s day was a breathtaking city. Rome — the nucleus of the mighty Roman Empire. Rome — the axis of political power. Rome — the hub of the Western world’s social and economic systems.

In his book Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, New Testament scholar William Barclay described how Rome had united the world:

In the Roman Empire a new unity had come to the world. The pax Romana, the Roman peace, was a very real thing. Kingdoms and states and countries, which had struggled and warred with each other, were gathered into a new unity in the Empire which was Rome. (page 67)

When Paul was brought to Rome as a prisoner of the empire, he must have been impressed with the city. Perhaps Rome’s greatness suggested a metaphor to Paul that expressed a profound truth about Jesus Christ. As Dr. Barclay wrote: “It may well be that in his imprisonment Paul saw with new eyes how all this unity centred in Rome; and it may well have seemed to him a symbol of how all things must centre in Christ” (page 67).

That is, Jesus Christ is the heart and hub of all that exists. All that exists has its focus in him. In Christ, “all things hold together,” says Paul (Colossians 1:17).

Paul reasons that through Christ’s death, Jesus brought the discordant elements in this world together (verse 20). Jesus reunited person with person and humans with God. To Paul, Jesus was God’s imperial moving force for reconciliation (verses 19-20).

Paul emphasizes Jesus as the focus of this spiritual union. God has purposed to “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ,” he writes (Ephesians 1:10).

Paul describes the center of this unity in Christ as occurring within the church — not in an empire ruled by an emperor from Rome. He says Jesus has been appointed by God “to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (verses 22-23).

The church, then, is the place in the world where the unity of Christ is experienced. Dr. Barclay says: “It is within the church that all the middle walls of separation must be broken down” (page 67).

Paul shows exactly in what way the church is unified. The church is one body and one Spirit. The church has one hope, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).

The Roman Empire of Paul’s day had one leader who unified the empire: Emperor Nero — a reigning potentate with near absolute power, if he wanted to use it. Nero had lofty titles and broad rule throughout the world. He was the Pontifex Maximus — the high priest of the empire — a mediator between the gods and the people.

Paul may have been thinking of a comparison between Nero and Christ as he was dictating his letter to the Ephesians. Here was Nero, mighty in this world but puny when compared with the Creator’s power. Jesus Christ is the true king of the universe, having all rule and every title that can be given, including High Priest. He is both Lord of the world and Savior of his people.

Paul writes that God has placed Jesus Christ “at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given” (Ephesians 1:20-21). Thus, the unseen Christ is Lord of all. But his rule can be seen only among those who are Christ-centered — that is, those who are part of the Body of Christ.

No matter that we may face adversity, persecution, affliction, hardship or disaster. God’s remarkable purpose for us is so much better, that it is not to be compared with this life’s sufferings, says Paul. Beyond that is the wonderful news that we can have the spiritual strength to endure trials when they strike our lives. Paul says to us that we do not face life’s problems alone, but do so with the Holy Spirit — through Christ in us.

That’s how Paul was able to remain assured in his terribly unsure years in prison. We should think of a spiritually joyful Paul in prison, not someone downcast and fearful. He is striding around some small room or dismal cell in Rome, perhaps in the presence of — or even chained to — a Roman soldier. We see Paul carefully dictating a profoundly positive letter to encourage the church. Paul writes hopefully of his future in spite of the obvious hopelessness of his predicament.

This contrast between Paul’s rather hopeless physical situation and his hopeful reaction reverberates through a letter he is writing. It is one of the four prison epistles. This one is to the Philippians, and it becomes a message of joy. The word joy occurs 16 times in its various forms in the letter. Spiritual joy, rejoicing in Christ, is a major theme. “I will continue to rejoice,” Paul writes to concerned believers while he is under house arrest in Rome (Philippians 1:18). He continues, “For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (verse 19). Paul has confidence in the outcome of his situation. No matter how bleak it is, no matter what ominous turn it may take, God’s will shall be done.

Meanwhile, the power of the Holy Spirit will see him through his predicament, no matter how difficult. Through Christ, Paul will face the worst and come out the best. What may happen to him in the near future is not the issue.

Paul’s present prison life, admittedly, is less than ideal. However, that is not the issue for the apostle Paul. He learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Encouraging the people he knew and loved, Paul says: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12).

Paul encourages the church

Here is Paul in an uncertain and trial-filled position. Yet he is the one encouraging the church to have hope, joy and peace. He virtually demands the members to feel triumphant: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (verse 4). Paul, who is suffering in prison, pleads with the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (verse 6).

Paul is no bootstrap psychologist. Church members need not attempt to manufacture this confidence and exultation. They should have joy and peace within because these are fruits of the Holy Spirit living within us (Galatians 5:22). So Paul can tell the church: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

Paul’s prison message is always hopeful, his outlook confident, his future bright. This especially shows through in another prison letter, the one to the Ephesians. When writing this letter, Paul is in chains, with little to look forward to in this world. But he is exuberantly thankful for God’s priceless spiritual gifts.

It is these gifts — joy, peace, faith, hope — that will get Paul through his trial. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that God and Christ are the source of all these spiritual blessings — ones we need to support us through life. He writes: “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Yes, says Paul, God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). Joy, peace, faith, hope — these spiritual blessings are ours if Christ lives in us. These spiritual qualities are indestructible because they have their source in Christ, who is always with us. Because we cannot lose Christ, our spiritual blessings are secure.

Author: Ronald Kelly and Paul Kroll

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