Paul was in prison. Prison during Paul’s day was not a cake walk. It was deplorable. Prison was not a sentence anyone received as punishment. It was where the accused awaited trial or sentencing. And since there was no promise of a speedy trial that meant that sometimes the defendant waited for months or even years to be heard. There were no beds, no lights, and no promise of three meals a day. There were shackles and stone walls and floors. The prison Paul was believed to be kept in was dug out of solid rock and was underground. There was a manhole type opening which was used to lower prisoners, guards, and supplies. Lights were provided by lantern and fires. The Roman historian Sallust, described it this way, "[The dungeon] is sunk about twelve feet under ground. Walls secure it on every side, and over it is a vaulted roof connected with stone arches; but its appearance is disgusting and horrible, by reason of the filth, darkness and stench." Prison was no picnic for Paul and it was dangerous for those who visited him and showed him kindness. Visitors opened themselves up to interrogation by the Romans in order to gather evidence against the prisoner awaiting trial. Roman interrogation was often accompanied by beatings. Visitors were forever associated with the accused in the eyes of Rome and the public. (Fraser, n.d.).
But through his incarceration, Paul rejoiced. He was willing to suffer, not in order to be a martyr or victim, but because he knew the good that was coming out of it. Verses 11-14 read,
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
He could have reacted selfishly, ‘poor me, pity me.’ He could have responded by telling everyone who would listen how unfair his situation was, but instead he wrote letters to the churches, he taught, he proclaimed Christ. The entire imperial guard knew Paul was there because of Jesus, some even became followers of Christ. And Christians everywhere were emboldened by Paul’s situation to spread the Gospel fearlessly. And people like Timothy and Mark, and the others who visited Paul and helped him through this time, they also had a part in encouraging the believers. They risked beatings and their reputations by ministering to Paul.
It clearly was not an easy thing to endure. Socrates and many other Roman prisoners chose to end their lives with hemlock. Archeological digs found the evidence of many suicides of prisoners. But Paul knew he couldn’t and wouldn’t take the easy way out. He bore the hardship of prison, keeping in mind the Gospel and the promise of eternity with Jesus. Verses 19-20 read,
“for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
This should be our attitude as well. Most of us will never have to suffer as deeply as did the Apostles and the other first century Christians. But some do. People across the globe are tortured, imprisoned, and killed for their faith in Jesus. The time is coming when even in America and Europe we will suffer like that for Him. Regardless of the degree, we are promised to suffer. We can respond by putting the focus of ourselves or on Jesus. We can rejoice because we know the endgame or we can moan because we want sympathy and pats on the back. Read those verses again, hold onto them, keep them in your heart and let them encourage you to respond with godliness, nobility, and faith.
What is the worst thing that will happen if we suffer so horrendously? We might die. And for the believer death is not awful, death is rewarding. Believers will be with Jesus in paradise! Living is rewarding as well. We get to keep spreading the truth, glorifying Christ, and doing His work. This was Paul’s dilemma. His agony had gotten so bad that he knew he could die. If he simply gave up in his spirit, he would pass away. Verses 21-26 put words to his predicament.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.”
Paul knew it was not up to him to decide to be finished and die. He knew that as long as he had work to do, living for Christ was more important than dying for Christ. God would decide when Paul died, and until that time he would live a life worthy of Jesus. Paul was not alone, not only did he have the Holy Spirit with him, but he knew he had his fellow believers. His life and his reaction to his torment affected others. He knew too that his suffering was not unique. Many of the believers would suffer just as he had, and many would come to a point of questioning if life was still worth living. So he encouraged them. Verses 27-30 read,
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
We have a responsibility to one another and to the many lost to respond to situations in a manner that honors the Lord. We are united, standing together. Are we holding each other up? Are we remaining faithful and steadfast? Are we glorifying the Lord? And when we get to the point where we would rather die than go on for one more minute, can we look to our obligation to one another and the lost and choose to live for Jesus?
Does your response to trials and tribulations impact the Kingdom of God for the good, or does your response focus on you and even dishonor your Lord?
Fraser, B. (n.d.). Prisons in Paul's world. Retrieved from Meyers Park United Methodist Church: http://www.mpumc.org/uploads/file/Prisons%20in%20Paul.pdf