Part 12 Paul ( Part 2)
This is the twelfth in a series that examines the references to prisons and prisoners in the Bible. This will be the second article focusing on Paul the Apostle. Much of Paul’s ministry took place while he was imprisoned and as we shall see, he viewed his incarcerations not as great hindrances to his work, but rather as opportunities to proclaim the gospel in an environment that would not have been accessible to him had he not been in that situation.
In our previous article we looked at how Paul had been transformed from a persecutor of the gospel who had Christians thrown in prison, to the strongest proclaimer of the message of Christ so that he himself was imprisoned because of his testimony of faith. The last article also looked at how God had been glorified through Paul and Silas’ imprisonment in Philippi when He caused an earthquake to open the doors of the prison, but none of the inmates escaped. As a result of the miracle, the jailer and his family became Christians and new members of the Body of Christ were welcomed into the hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus.
We know from the record of the book of Acts that Paul was arrested in Rome and was imprisoned for two years in Caesarea, before beginning a journey to Rome that took almost a year. He spent at least two more years under house arrest in the city of Rome. The period from Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem until the end of his two-year imprisonment in Rome was at least 5 years. It was during this time that Paul wrote at least three of his most important letters; Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, in which he describes in the fullest detail the nature of the Church of this dispensation, the Body of Christ. In these epistles Paul provides us with the complete teaching about the truth revealed to him that had been kept a secret in God’s mind since before the world began, specifically that Gentiles could be saved and be in relationship with God through faith alone by grace, regardless of the nation of Israel’s lack of faith in Jesus the Messiah.
There is a great deal that we learn about the apostle’s character, and the nature of God’s will and work during this current Dispensation of Grace through the story of Paul’s Roman imprisonment and the events that led up to it. The story, as it is related to us, begins in Acts 19:21 where we are told that Paul, while in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, had determined that he wanted to visit Romeafter first going to Jerusalem. Some time later, while in Corinth collecting funds for the impoverished believers in the Judean churches, he penned the Epistle to the Romans, where he tells the believers in theImperial City that he hoped to visit them and he asks for their prayers so that this desire of his would be realized.
Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints; That I may come unto you with joy by the will of God, and may with you be refreshed. Romans 15:30-32.
As the story continues we find that when Paul was traveling to Jerusalem to deliver the money he had collected for the churches he was warned by the prophet Agabus when he reached Caesarea that he would be taken prisoner by the Jews and turned over to the Gentiles. Paul responded by saying, “for I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13b). The book of Acts then tells of how Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, taken to Ceasarea, shipwrecked on the way to Rome and then kept under house arrest for two more years.
This narrative illustrates the intensity of Paul’s commitment to preaching the gospel of Christ. Even though he knew what was in store for him, and despite the pleas of his closest companions not to continue to Jerusalem, he was willing to go there in order to complete the ministry the Lord had given to him.
Furthermore, we learn a great deal from the account of Paul’s journey to Rome and the words in his epistle to the believers there about what we should expect in terms of God’s intervention and the question of unanswered prayer in the dispensation of Grace. In the passage in Romans 15 we find Paul asking the Romans to pray that he would be delivered from the unbelieving Jews and that he would be able to travel freely to Rome in order to preach to them and help them better understand the grace of God that they had experienced personally through faith in Jesus Christ. This was a perfectly fine request. Paul clearly believed that God would intervene to make such an appeal take place. There is no reason to believe that Paul thought it inappropriate to ask for such intervention. In fact, in an earlier letter Paul made it clear that he had been delivered from a similar peril in Asia because of the prayers of the Corinthian believers on his behalf (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). Likewise, Paul wrote in a later epistle, probably during the Acts 28 imprisonment, that because of the prayers of Philemon he would be released and be able to visit his dear friend from Colosse (Philemon 1:22). Paul clearly believed that God had the power to intervene, and that he could expect such intervention in response to the earnest prayers of devout believers. We see, however, that God is not bound by our personal wishes and desires to grant us everything we ask. This legitimate prayer request of a man who was probably the most spiritual Christian of all time was not answered according to his wishes. There was nothing wrong in the petition itself. If Paul did not know how to make a prayer request, who would? But God, in His divine sovereignty, saw fit to overrule Paul’s personal wishes and plans and even the sincere prayers of the Roman believers in order to fulfill a much greater purpose that He had in his own mind.
Paul came to understand that God’s will for him was perfect, and that the Lord was able to bring greater glory to Himself if Paul was willing to submit to what God wanted for him. Paul was not delivered from the unbelievers in Jerusalem and though he did travel to Rome it was in no way how he imagined it would be when he asked the Roman churches to pray for him.
As we read more in the prison epistles we find how God’s perfect will, while not exactly what Paul expected, was still the best option.
But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Philippians 1:12-14
Paul recognized that his imprisonment gave him an opportunity to testify about Christ in a way that he would never have been able to had he not been in that position. The good news of Christ even reached the guards in the court of Caesar. In fact, in Philippians 4:22 we find out that even some of the emperor’s own household had embraced Christianity. The message of the cross had reached levels that would not have been possible had Paul traveled to Rome as a free man, rather than as a prisoner. Paul understood that even if his body was locked away the message would still be free to circulate throughout the world. He understood that the power of God was not him as a person, but the message he proclaimed. As he says in Romans 1:16, the gospel is the “power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes.” Again in 2 Timothy 2:9 Paul says that although he was chained like a criminal, the Word of God is not bound. Paul understood and accepted that God had the authority to accomplish His will in ways He chose, that Paul was simply a vessel to glorify the Lord.