Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 01/17/1999
"For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for the sake of you Gentiles . . ."
Eph. 3:1-13 constitutes, as we have seen, "the great parenthesis" in Paul's argument. Therefore in our studies we have adopted the somewhat outlandish procedure of skipping from 2:22 to 3:14 to highlight the connection between the growth of the Church built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ as the Cornerstone and Paul's prayer for the growth of individual Christians as they are strengthened, rooted, grounded, and filled. That procedure might make these verses seem less important, merely tangential--but to think that would be a great mistake. Rather, let us ask, "What could have been important enough to make a logical and systematic mind like Paul's lose its train of thought?" The answer? The stewardship of God's grace, i.e., the ministry of the Gospel and the privilege of having a part in it. How great a privilege is it? Great enough to transform your own view of your circumstances: to turn a prison into a place of praise and bonds of iron into a badge of honor--to turn a prisoner of Rome into a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
I want to begin by concentrating on Paul's strange self reference in vs. 1: "I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ." The first thing we have to understand in order to grasp the significance of this phrase is The Prisoner's Problem. He was an "Ambassador in Chains" (Eph. 6:20). In Acts 21 we read of the riot in Jerusalem that prompted the Romans to take Paul into protective custody. When the Roman officials who had started the affair so well began to play political games with him in order to please the Jews, Paul was forced to appeal to Caesar's judgment. Hence in Acts 28 we find him under house arrest in Rome, chained to a guard, awaiting his trial.
Why was this such a problem? Because it made Paul a Missionary without Mobility. How could he plant churches and care for them if he was stuck in Rome? How fulfill his ambition of making it to Spain? He hears (Phil. 4:2) that Euodia and Syntyche are causing a fuss in the church at Philipi. He hears (Col. 2:4, 8, etc.) that false teachers are threatening to mislead the church at Colossi. He is needed in these places! Yet all he can do is try to address the problems in what must have seemed to him at the time (in comparison to going in person) very feeble and impotent letters. Meanwhile, Spain (Rom. 15:20-25) remains unevangelized.
This is an experience that many of God's children can unfortunately relate to: that of seeming to have your hands tied in respect to the very thing you feel sure God has called you to do! How many missionaries feel that they are called to raise money? Yet the average number of months spent in deputation before they have raised enough money to get to the field keeps going up. It has now risen from about a year to almost two. Why does family illness force a productive missionary home from the field after he's finally got there? Why does poverty cause many servants of God to struggle mightily to get through college or seminary, and then come out with such a load of student debt that they find living on ministry salaries all but impossible?
But it gets even worse. I know more than one pastor who has begun a good work only to find himself attacked by individuals fearful of losing their own influence over the congregation. Their hands are tied--often maintaining counseling confidence keeps them from being able to defend themselves, while their enemies have no scruples about spreading vicious lies. I know one who in four years had taken a certain congregation from near bankruptcy to solvency, almost doubling their attendance. Yet he was forced to resign without warning when his board refused to back him in a case of church discipline involving a family that was stirring up bitter dissension against him. His crime? He had dared to support a certain measure in a business meeting that this family opposed. And, by the way, some of the new people who had started coming were "not the right kind." When this story was shared with an older and experienced pastor friend, he just nodded his head. "Yep," he observed, "that's pretty much par for the course."
So why does God allow these plots of the Enemy to succeed? Why doesn't he intervene on the side of his faithful servants? Doesn't he WANT his work to prosper? The worst of it is the identity crisis, the sense of abandonment, that those servants can feel when they believe they have laid everything on the line for him. Well, that is the Prisoner's Problem. So how do you survive such times? How do you surmount them? You do it by remembering
I see at least four principles in Paul's theology that were for him the solution to the Prisoner's Problem. And the first was THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD. Had not Jesus said that not even a sparrow could fall to the ground without the Father's concern and permission? Paul knew that the God who had the power that raised Christ from the dead (Eph. 1:20-22a) could not be defeated by such a relatively puny force as the Roman Empire! The simple logic that flows from that realization is that if Paul was in jail it was because Jesus had permitted it for Paul's ultimate good and God's greater glory. It was not Caesar then at all but rather Jesus who held the key. Paul was the Prisoner of Jesus Christ because he knew that if Jesus wanted him out, he could have him out--now! Had he not done so with Peter?
"Take this man to prison," The men heard Herod say, And so four squads of soldiers came And carried him away. Chained between two watchmen, Peter tried to sleep. Outside the walls and endless prayer Was lifting for his keep. Then a light shone in the darkness Of that lonely prison cell, And the chains that bound the man of God Just opened up and fell!
And Peter walked out a free man. But what of Paul's own experience? He could not forget the Philipian jail! So Paul knew down in the very marrow of his bones, he knew and could not deny: it was Jesus who held the keys! He was therefore not the prisoner of Rome at all, but the prisoner of Jesus Christ.
There is a second principle, equally important: THE GOODNESS OF GOD. Think back again to the Philipian jail. Paul and Silas were singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God before the earthquake came and knocked open the doors--before they knew it was coming. They had a faith in the goodness of God that was deep enough not to be dependent on the happiness of their immediate circumstances. And this is very important. For if we accept the Sovereignty of God alone, without an equal emphasis on the Goodness of God, we are liable to end up believing in the Cruelty of God. But not Paul! He knew that God was good--had he not extended his grace to the chiefest of sinners, who had persecuted the Church? Therefore he knew that his being in prison had to be ultimately not only for God's greater glory but his own greater good. Not that all experiences are good--the Prisoner's Problem remains a problem--but all experiences work together for an end that is good for God's own (Rom. 8:28, 18).
A third principle is THE WISDOM OF GOD. What is required for one to sing in chains? Not only a confidence in the Goodness of God, but that conjoined with the confidence that he knows what he is doing. In this messed up and fallen world, it will often in the short run look as if he does not. Therefore we must fortify ourselves in advance with these principles and Paul's example so that when the evil day comes, we will be able to stand.
There is a fourth principle that flows from the first three. CIRCUMSTANCES ARE SECONDARY; PERSONAL GROWTH IS PRIMARY. If God has ordained the circumstances for his glory and our good, he may not change them. It is not wrong to pray or to work for that change (as even Christ did in Gethsemane), but like Christ in the Garden we must pray submissively. For the primary focus is not to change the circumstances so much as to change YOU. You are a part of the circumstances; you are the key to the circumstances. Therefore, if you change according to these principles, that WILL change the circumstances, even if to outward eyes they remain the same. They will have changed at least in this: you will no longer be the Prisoner of Rome, but the Prisoner of Jesus Christ.
If in the midst of the Prisoner's Problem you live by the Prisoner's Principles, you may experience the Prisoner's Productivity. Ironically, in God's providence Paul's being taken out of circulation led to some of his most important work. At the crossroads of the world for two years he preached the Gospel unhindered (Acts 28:30-31). While he was there, the run-away slave Onesimus came through that crossroads and was saved (Phil. 1:10-11). According to Ignatius, Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus around AD 100. And just think of the writings! If Paul had not been stuck in house arrest, unable to go to various places to put out the fires that sprang up there, we might never have had Philemon; we might never have had that great Christological and philosophical statement, Colossians; we might never have had the great rejoicing epistle of Philippians; and we might never have had this greatest treatise on God's eternal purpose, the book of Ephesians. Yes, in hindsight we can see that some of Paul's most significant contributions were the direct result of his being taken out of circulation. But at the time, hindsight was not available. Paul had to live by faith and not by sight.
If in the midst of the Prisoner's Problem we live by the Prisoner's Principles, we may enjoy the Prisoner's Productivity. But we will without doubt have the opportunity of knowing 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 achieve his purposes if we are just 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, the chains of frustration, the chains of rejection, the chains of failure become a badge of honor surpassing the glory of all the diadems of heaven and earth--if you are a Prisoner of Jesus Christ.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams