“Paul in Prison,” by Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Paul was imprisoned several times and wrote much from prison. A list of letters and volumes produced in prison or as a result of prison experiences would run to considerable length. Thus it is said (uncertainly) that Don Quixote was penned while Cervantes lay in prison and that Robinson Crusoe was partly completed while Defoe endured a similar fate. Raleigh wrote several volumes of his uncompleted History of the World before his execution in prison, and the Italian monk Campanella penned his communistic City of the Sun while immured for treason and heresy.
All of these were influential works. Greatest and most influential of all prison writings ever penned, however, are the letters of Paul, which have thoroughly impressed the western mind and molded the church. Not all of his influence came through his writings, however. In his first recorded incarceration (at Philippi) the praises he and Silas sang led directly to the founding of a church.
And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain maid possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the most high God, who show unto us the way of salvation.”
Apostle Paul and the Earliest Churches.Paul in Asia Minor is a brilliant and illuminating production. Beginning with his conversion, it reenacts Paul’s missionary journeys on Anatolian soil (modern Turkey).
She did this many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out the same hour.
And when her masters saw that the hope of their profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace unto the rulers, and brought them to the magistrates, saying, “These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, and teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.”
And the crowd rose up together against them: and the magistrates tore off their clothes, and commanded they be beaten. And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.
And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had fled.
But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm: for we are all here.”
Then the jailer called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your household.” And they explained to him and to all who were in his house the word of the Lord.
And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their wounds; and was baptized, he and all his, immediately. And when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his household.
Paul’s willingness to suffer for Christ geared his mind to face prison.
Acts 21: 10-13
…there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus. And when he reached us, he took Paul’s belt, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says, ‘so shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ”
And when we heard these things, both we, and the people of that place, begged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Then Paul answered, “Why do you weep and break my heart? for I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
And when he would not be persuaded, we stopped pleading with him, saying, “The Lord’s will be done.”
Once in prison, Paul spent his days praising God, preaching to all who would listen, praying for the churches, overseeing his converts through correspondence, and preparing his defenses. His letters to Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Philemon, and the second to Timothy were penned from prison, either while he was in Caesarea (the view of J.A. Robinson), or else in Rome, to which he was ultimately transferred. He frequently mentions his incarceration in them.
Pray … for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the Gospel, For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that I may speak boldly about it, as I should.
But I want you to understand, brothers, that the things which happened to me have resulted in advancing the Gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brothers in the Lord, gaining confidence by my imprisonment, are much bolder to speak the word without fear.
Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you…
…I would have kept [Onesimus] with me, that in your place he might have ministered to me in my imprisonment for the Gospel…
Although he spent years in prison on trumped up charges (see Acts 22-28), rather than attribute his imprisonment to man, Paul declared himself a prisoner of Christ. “Since Christ rules,” he must have reasoned, “man cannot hold me without Christ’s permission. Therefore I am Christ’s prisoner.”
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord…
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow-worker, and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prison may have been God’s means of preserving the life of this ardent Gospel-bearer, and resting him, for his labors had been extreme. Nonetheless it had severe trials of its own.
2 Timothy 4: 9-18
Do your best to come to me soon: For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with you: for he is profitable to me for the ministry. And Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus.
Bring with you the cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus when you come, and the books, but especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works. Beware of him, yourself, for he has greatly resisted our words.
At my first hearing no one stood with me, but everyone forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. In spite of that, the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me so that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear, and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Whatever his trials, we see that Paul always sought to advance Christ’s kingdom and God’s glory. He may have been willing to be chained or to die for Christ, but the reality, drawn out as it was for years, had to be hard to bear. Nonetheless, he triumphed, declaring that he had learned to be content whatever his circumstances.