Some of the most encouraging words in the Bible, are written by a man who was incarcerated for years. Take a detailed look at the mindset and the environment of Paul to better appreciate his "Prison Epistles".
If you’ve ever been in jail or visited a prison of some kind, you know, brethren, how very difficult those conditions are and how depressing those environments are. I’ve been in various county jails, state facilities, federal prisons over the years as a visitor and I’m very glad to get out and I’m very sorry for those that have to stay there. You know, that whole system will change in the Kingdom of God but I did want to talk about a gentlemen who wrote inspired letters to God’s people, God’s elect, while he was in jail. In fact, some of the most encouraging words, brethren, in the Bible, in the New Testament, are written by a man who was incarcerated for years. Now, that’s an astounding thing, which I think often is lost as we read through those three Prison Epistles. We take them out of context historically and we read them - in a sense - the way they shouldn’t be read. I think, to really glean the true historical, spiritual significance of any book of the Bible, you have to put yourself in the author’s mind and in the author’s place. And I want to cover those three Prison Epistles with you. I think you all know who wrote them — and that, of course, was Paul, the Apostle Paul. They are known as the ‘Prison Epistles’. They are written about in many different commentaries and books. We haven’t covered that in quite a while, but I wanted to especially note the historical background and not necessarily the exegetical analysis of those three books.
So, let’s talk about the historical background; paint that for you first. And I do want you, brethren, to understand that when you read those three epistles or letters of Paul you should think about where he was at the time. Think about his mind-set, his environment. Most of you, brethren, and I have not been in jail or prison for any length of time where there are perhaps visitors visiting occasionally and encouraging those who need encouragement, but Paul was there. He was literally bound by some kind of chain — a very short chain according to the commentaries — to a Roman soldier the entirety of the two years he spent in prison in Rome. Now, he had virtually no privacy day or night because the interesting thing with the Roman system is that it worked. They had a very interesting way of demanding loyalty from the Roman soldiers who were very undereducated for the most part. And that is, if a prisoner escapes on your watch, guess what? You die! You get early retirement at the behest of the Roman Empire. You know that put all these soldiers on alert. ‘If I allow this prisoner to escape while I’m watching him, then that’s it for me.’ So even if you’re a little sleepy, a little bit indifferent, or maybe even thought the inmate, the prisoner was innocent, you weren’t about to let him go because it meant your life. So, these Romans were ruthless, but they were also very astute and they had a way of insuring that when you became a prisoner in the Roman Empire, you were a prisoner until they released you. There weren’t too many escapes, I dare say, from that system. There was Paul chained from his wrist to the soldier’s wrist for over two years — or around two years according to the book of Acts. Of course, I don’t think he really wanted to escape. He wanted to let God work this out and have its full course of action. But when he went into prison, brethren, he had no idea if he was going to get out of prison dead or alive — like the old TV show. He had no idea. We know from the book of Acts and other letters of history that he was released after that imprisonment. But at the time, of course, he didn’t know what the recourse was going to be or what the outcome was going to be.
So, let’s read these three letters of Paul. They are called the Prison Epistles. What are they? The books of Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. We are going to read them in that order as they are in the New Testament. But let’s start with some background in the book of Acts, chapter 28 and verse 16. The 28th chapter of the book of Acts gives us some brief historical background of why Paul was in prison and some brief circumstances surrounding that. Actually, if we had the time, we could have a very interesting discourse, I think, earlier in the 28th chapter of Acts because remember he was on the island of Malta and this poisonous snake came out of the limbs or the sticks and latched onto him. I don’t know about you, but there is one critter in God’s creation that I just don’t like and that’s snakes. I just don’t like them. I don’t have any use for them. They’re wonderful, I’m sure, in their own way, but this viper latched onto him. He shook it off and the barbarians around him said, ‘Well, obviously, this man is bad. We’ll just let him go. We won’t help him.’ You know, nice friends, right? He didn’t feel any recourse or any disease coming into his system. The venom just was neutral. God evaporated it or whatever. But that is kind of a background on his journey to Rome. It wasn’t, certainly, on a cruise-line coming into Rome for a nice ten-day cruise. He got to Rome and notice what happens now next in verse 16.
Acts 28:16 Acts 28:16And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him.
American King James Version×And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was…allowed or…suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him. So I believe that God was in that, God directed all of that.
Verse 17 It came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. So, he said, I’ve done nothing to merit this kind of treatment. Paul wasn’t there because he was a criminal, he was there because, frankly, there was hate among the Jews and God allowed Paul to go there in order to further the preaching of the gospel. And a wonderful witness it was in Rome for two years.
Then in verse 20. For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain. There it was. He was chained to a Roman soldier.
And then over in verse 23, And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; of whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. Brethren, this is mind-boggling to me that a man, whose fate is in the balance has such tenacity and faith, ‘I’m going to continue to do the work even though this is a very hard circumstance.’ Chained to a soldier, not knowing whether he was going to be alive in days or weeks ahead, he preached the kingdom of God to everyone around. Some believed, in verse 24, the things which were spoken, and others did not believe.
Dropping down to verse 30, Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house… we would call it house arrest today but that’s a very, I think, complimentary term or situation compared to what Paul really had. He wasn’t home. He wasn’t home, he was in Rome and he was with a guard all the time and, of course, that system was anything but a just system. But he did…receive all that came in unto him.
Verse 31, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, and no man forbidding him. Brethren, this is a zealous apostle. This is a zealous man of God. We need to be that way. We cannot let Satan hinder God working though us and I’ve never, ever been in that circumstance. I’ve never been chained to a guard. Never really been in prison. But I hope, brethren, we appreciate what Paul is going to write about during those two years. They are called the Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. So that’s the background, historically. And, you know, I’d tell you, my human nature at that time would say, ‘Steve, the Work’s over. Let’s roll the sidewalks up. I’m in prison. Why would God allow this? Therefore, I can’t do anything.’ And the other reaction would be, ‘Where is God? God, I’m a faithful servant, why have you allowed this?’ And I would have the world’s biggest pitty-party for myself. ‘Woe is me! Hasn’t God loved me? Why has God allowed this.’
Now, that’s how my human nature would react to all of this. Not Paul. He zealously gave the truth during those two years of imprisonment. So let’s turn over to the first Prison Epistle, the book of Ephesians. In chapter 3 - we, of course, can’t go verse by verse in a sermon - but we will hit a few of the highlights of each of the three letters written from Rome while he was under house arrest (and that’s putting it nicely) under arrest in a carnal system, perhaps could lose his life at any time. And now we read chapter 3 verse 1 of Ephesians.
Ephesians 3:1 Ephesians 3:1For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
American King James Version×For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles… That’s all I want to read here in this particular section. I want, brethren, to highlight the phrase, I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ.
Not once did Paul ever say, I am a prisoner of Rome! Not once did he ever infer that or write that or dictate that. He said, I’m a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Brethren, it’s all about perspective. It’s all about our perspective. If Paul had been less than the minister and apostle he was, he could have said, ‘Paul, a prisoner of Rome — pagan, deadly Rome. You know what they do to people like me? You know, there’s no human rights here — there’s no civil rights, no human rights — there’s no Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in Rome, two-thousand years ago.’ Brethren, he said, ‘I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ and I’m happy to be one of His prisoners.’ That’s an astounding truth. You see, today mankind wants to be free. I don’t want any enshacklements; I don’t want anyone chaining me down. Well, Paul understood, brethren, that it’s a privilege to be committed to Jesus Christ as one of His people, one of His saints. He never said, ‘I’m a prisoner of Rome.’ He always had that unique perspective of a saint of God who is close to God.
You know, things can happen in your life and in mine and other people’s lives, but we all react differently to it, don’t we? We all react a little differently. It’s interesting, in a room you all see the same thing happen or you hear the same news at the same time and then to go around the table and hear each other give a discourse on or evaluation of the same material. It’s all about perspective, brethren. Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ - that’s quite a perspective and that’s what he is saying to the church here at Ephesus. We are, brethren, to serve Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean that every day will be a bed of roses. There will be ups and downs. And here, Paul was a prisoner and said, you know these are not the best of circumstances, but on the other hand, God can work and He was working through these things.
This glass of water probably can’t portray it as well I’d like, but you know we use something like this to visually demonstrate that it’s all in your perspective. I guess I could drink some of this to being half full but I won’t. I want you to use your mind. Is this glass half full or half empty? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? You know, to Paul - he just saw basically full glasses. What can I do with that glass of water? He didn’t bemoan the fact that it wasn’t full of water or that it wasn’t artesian well, Perrier water — he just said, what can I do with what I have to do with. How can I serve God with what He has given me? I think it is a very interesting perspective and he certainly had the mind of Jesus Christ in that. So, brethren, the attitude really changes things in peoples lives. I tell you, it’s all about attitude. It’s all about perspective.
The same chapter of Ephesians, chapter 3 and verse 10. Let’s run over there. To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God… now, instead of writing about his own circumstance, do you know what he was doing? He was preaching truth to God’s people and lifting their spirits. I don’t know how many times I have gone to someone’s home when they were going through a trial. I was thinking, well maybe I can encourage them a little bit through the visit. I leave that visit encouraged by someone going through really depressing times. And that’s what Paul was doing. He could have been depressed and really heavily in the blues, but he was giving truth and encouragement to those that he was writing to.
Notice, in verse 12. Ephesians 3:12 Ephesians 3:12In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.
American King James Version×In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.
And yet, as he was dictating this letter — probably Paul was dictating it and not writing it as he often did — he had this Roman guard listening to these words of the Gospel. I don’t know how long their shifts were, perhaps ten or twelve hour shifts. He might have had two different soldiers every day, every twenty-four hours. And, I imagine one or two of them got to be very close to Paul — not only just physically. What is he saying here? We can have boldness and we can have confidence in Christ? Well, who is this Christ? Are you crazy Paul? Do you know who you are? You are a prisoner of Rome! You have no rights. Of course, he was a Roman citizen and he was appealing on his Roman citizenship rights, but that’s a different — set that aside. He was still an inmate, still a prisoner.
It will be very interesting to talk with these guards in the Kingdom, won’t it? What was it like? What was Paul’s perspective? Did he ever get discouraged? They might say, well you know on occasion, but he would come right out of it. He was a dynamo, I think, is what they will tell us. He was a real man of faith, real charged up.
Well, chapter 4 is a chapter, and I guess the first fourteen, fifteen, sixteen verses we often turn to in God’s Church, talking about unity. And I guess, as a minister, I’ve turned to it dozens and dozens of times in sermons and Bible studies and you’ve heard it from many ministers over the years, brethren. But, you know, when we are going through what we would call a life-changing experience, it does just that. It changes you. And most of you of any age at all have been through some real life-changing circumstances. A severe trial. A test. It might have been a health problem. It could have been a financial problem. It could have been something else, but you know what happens when you go through some of those? Your perspective changes as I mentioned earlier. You get down to the brass tacks, as we say. What’s really important? Not the peripheral, not the extraneous, not the physical, you get down to what’s really important. And here Paul, in this letter, a Prison Epistle is telling the people of God in spite of his circumstances — was he going to live or die — he says, brethren, unity is very important. You’ve got to have that in the Church. You’ve got to stay unified. And that’s what he was telling the Church at Ephesus. Without unity, you’re going to have problems. That was what he was telling the Church at Ephesus. In fact, God inspired this and God put it in the Bible and it is for people of God for all times. Unity is extremely important to God! Disunity / disharmony is not, brethren, pleasing to God. He is pulling the Church together. He is pulling His people together. The Kingdom of God in the future, brethren, will not be a disunified, disjointed Kingdom.
Now we do read - I guess it’s in Zechariah chapter 14 - about Egypt, one nation who says, ‘We are going to pull out of the Kingdom of God. I mean, let all those nations serve Christ, have a representative go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles like we’re told to do, we’re not going to do that. We’re different. We’re going to have disunity here.’ And God did not say, ‘Well that’s fine, I like disunity. I like some keeping my holy days and others don’t have to.’ That’s not going to happen! Oh, we know, brethren, what happens in the future as Zechariah 14 outlines that. So, when you really get down to it, unity is something Paul was saying was very important for God’s Church. We can’t really grow the way God wants us to grow without it.
I’ve given the story - and I heard it from a minister some years ago — at a world’s fair around the turn of the century (I’ve given that a couple of times locally) and they have this pull between mule teams. Now, that’s something you wouldn’t see anymore, they are now usually tractors. But, way back when, almost a hundred years ago, they had these mule teams pull. Well, the winning mule team, I guess they were in pairs, pulled perhaps (and I don’t remember exactly — didn’t bring my notes on it) maybe about 9,000 pounds. The second place team pulled maybe 7,000 pounds. That’s about 16,000 pounds combined, isn’t it? And so the audience, after the first pull said, why don’t you hitch up the two top mule teams. Let them harness together and pull together as a team. Well, you say, okay maybe they pull together 16,000; maybe they could pull 20,000. No, it was something like 30,000 pounds together. Now, we call it the law of synergy. You know, brethren, five of us can produce more than one or two of us. If you have a family of five you can do a lot more as a family of five pulling together than individuals of one. It’s just a truism, a fact of nature, a fact of reality.
So Paul was saying, harnessed together, working together, you grow a lot more - you produce a lot more. You know some brethren, and I think Satan is behind this, I think Satan can say the Gospel then, the true Gospel, can become basically narrowed down to parochial issues — a few little issues that somebody is upset about. I mean, the whole Gospel narrowed down to a couple of minor issues, but that become major. And I think that’s a shame. Paul exhorted these brethren to see the big picture and not let the petty issues hurt their zeal, their vision and their attitudes. Don’t listen to someone else who is reducing the Gospel down to a handful of personal issues. I mean, they are making the Gospel their few issues and they are trying to influence others. Well, brethren, it’s the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and that’s brought to us by Jesus Christ and God the Father. It’s their Gospel, not ours. We can’t pick away at it; we can’t diminish it into parochial, local or regional issues. That’s just wrong. So the Gospel is the Gospel and not to be reduced on a few minor issues from one person to the other.
Notice in Eph. Chapter 4 and verse 24 in this unity chapter we can say, Paul is saying …put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. This is what Paul wanted the brethren to be working on: changing and growing and seeing the wonderful opportunity for it. They weren’t in prison. They had jobs, they had health, they had opportunities - even though they were in the Roman Empire. He says, you can grow in Jesus Christ. You can develop. God will help you to do that.
In Eph. 6 and verse 11 he begins a very interesting section here - actually as he concludes the book, but he includes this, I think, rather interestingly. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. (12) For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. He said, our wrestling match is not physical, it’s spiritual. It’s real, he said.
Now, picture this, brethren, as you read these three books, again, where he was and the circumstances. As he is dictating these words about putting on the whole armor of God, he is chained with this short chain to a Roman guard, probably a grizzled veteran of wars. This guy has killed people; maimed people probably; has no concept of the true God. And yet, here is an apostle of Jesus Christ dictating the truth and saying, ‘You know I’m going to give a spiritual analogy about your armor and I can teach God’s people that way.’ And so, Paul begins to dictate what we are about to read. It’s a very interesting analogy. So, as he is dictating this he is looking up and down this guard of his for basically the inspiration.
It’s not noted here, but I want to talk about the Roman javelin. Paul talks about the Roman sword, but the Roman javelin was quite an invention. It was barbed to stick fast in its target. A lot of you have gone fishing and you know what a fishing hook is like. It has a barb on it. And this Roman javelin had a barb in it so it would stick fast in its target, the shaft bent upon impact so the weapon was too damaged to turn against the thrower. Again, why was Rome #1 one militarily for hundreds of years? Well, they had wonderful weapons. These superior weapons and this knowledge made the Romans invincible for centuries.
Let’s go back here to Eph. chapter 6 and let’s start in verse 14. Ephesians 6:14 Ephesians 6:14Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;
American King James Version×Stand therefore, having your loins gird about with truth… so one thing that he starts with here is the belt, the belt wrapped around the soldier’s tunic and, of course, the sword hung from it. So Paul saw the tunic, but he also saw the leather belt. That way, that tunic would not get in the way of the soldier as he moved around. And, of course, it held the sword, which was a very primary offensive weapon. And then he compares that leather belt, he says, to the truth. Brethren, we have to have God’s truth wrapped around us. It’s not just a Sabbath thing. It’s not just for the festivals of God. This is us. It is what we are. The truth is what we believe in. In John 17, verse 17 Christ said, your word is truth. Your word is truth! Living by that word, having it anchor us and gird us and, in a sense, protect us because we are living that truth, we know that truth. We live by it. We appreciate it.
So Paul is talking about the truth of God, how important that is — to know it, to live it, to have it a part of us. Then he says in Eph. verse 14 …having on the breastplate of righteousness. So he looks at the guard and says, obviously, you have this massive breastplate guarding your vital organs — very important. I mean, it only took one javelin, one flaming dart, to if not kill an enemy soldier to at least take him down to the point where he could not fight. So it made sense to protect the vital organs: the heart, the stomach, the other vital areas of the torso. So they had this plate of armor, sometimes mail armor - years and years later it was mail otherwise it was usually brass — to go around the body to protect those organs. Now, breastplate in the Greek here is thorax - thorax, one of our English words.
So what is, brethren, the breastplate for God’s people? He says, the breastplate of righteousness. Brethren, that is the confidence, the godly confidence of living the truth, having a close relationship with God and knowing that and living that way. The breastplate of righteousness. Someone, and certainly the enemy, cannot throw a fiery dart at you because you have a breastplate of righteousness on. You are one of His saints. You have faith in that. You pray about that. You’ve prayed for God’s help - His blessing and He gives you that. So the breastplate of righteousness, brethren, is that deep sense of companionship with God. Not a seared conscience, not ragged living, not up and down, but a day to day, week in and week out, month in and month out companionship and relationship with God.
The next analogy, Paul is looking at this guard, looking at his clothing and how he is decked out. He says in verse 15, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. Well, maybe we don’t think too much of shoes, but back then a Roman soldier was no better than his sandals. You know, they did not fight on Astroturf. They fought in very rocky, hilly areas. They could easily hurt their feet, cut their feet, damage their feet. And once a soldier did that, he wasn’t worth much at all. He couldn’t continue the battle. So footgear was very important back then; it still is today. I know, in World War II there were many soldiers in the dead of winter - in the Battle of the Bulge, you name it - who got fungus, jungle rot in the Pacific area and they had to go back for R & R for weeks. It took them out of the front lines. So they had sandals — well designed sandals — to protect their feet so that they could stay mobile and Paul compares this to the gospel of peace. And I liken that, brethren, to having good relationships, positive relationships, relationships that are good for you and not poisonous for you. Sometimes we get into what are called toxic relationships. They immobilize us. It’s just like a foot that has a sore on it or a deep cut — you can’t move. So I think Paul could be writing about a sense of the gospel of peace — peaceful relationships, positive relationships with family, our spouse, God’s people — keeping those things right and solid and healing. So, the gospel of peace, he says, is important to the true Christian.
Then he goes on in verse 16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith you shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. The shield of faith. Paul is not writing here, brethren, about the small, round shield sometimes you see. He is talking about a very large piece of wood. They glue these two large pieces of wood together and it was thick enough that it would stop the fiery darts — literal fiery darts that were shot at them by the enemy or javelin spears that were thrown at them. He says, Above all, taking the shield of faith… You know, there was a soldier in one of the commentaries that I read, they named him by name, and the battle he was in. He counted the number of darts in his shield after the battle. Two hundred and twenty darts in the shield. You know, any one of those could have killed the man or immobilized him.
Now you wonder how many fiery darts we’ve had thrown at us over the years. How important, brethren, that shield of faith is! Sometimes you sense that this was quite a day, quite a week. Your shield of faith had to come into play a lot. I think I’ve felt that way at times; I think you have as well. So, the shield for any soldier was vitally important. It truly saved his life. I’ve seen on various television shows over the years, they basically could hide under that shield as the soldiers threw everything they had at them and they survived to go on and win the battle. Paul is drawing a very literal analogy between us as God’s soldiers and this Roman soldier who probably had a shield right there, probably had used it in battle to save his life. He says, ‘Christians, we need a shield of faith! Don’t go out into battle with Satin without one.’ We have to have faith. If you don’t, brethren, you’re going to get nicked and hit and those fiery darts of Satan, just like Paul said, are going to inflict you.
Now back then, two thousand years ago, even a fiery dart that just nicked the body generally was lethal. That wouldn’t be the case today. You would go in to a clinic, they would put in some antibiotics, they would clean you up and put a bandage on and out you go — maybe a tetanus shot or two. But the idea was to immobilize, just to injure that soldier. And that soldier didn’t die that day. He maybe died three or four days later, though, of infection, of blood loss and shock.
So, Satan doesn’t care, brethren, necessarily in terms of killing the soldiers of God whether it’s in one day’s action or whether we’re wounded and die off a year later. It doesn’t matter to him because the injury is there. We’ve let down the shield of faith, and we’re a victim. We’ve been hurt. We’ve been hit. We are a casualty of that spiritual war. So you cannot say enough about faith as one of God’s elect. You’ve got to have faith. If you don’t, Satan is there; fiery darts are there.
Let’s talk about a fiery dart and what it was like and how they made them. One of the most dangerous weapons in ancient warfare was the fiery dart. It was a dart tipped with tow, in other words hemp or yarn, dipped in pitch. The pitch soaked tow was set alight and the dart was thrown. The great, oblong shield was made of two sections of wood glued together. When the shield was presented to the dart, the dart sank into the wood and the flame was put out. And I mentioned how one soldier had two hundred and twenty hits on his shield. I don’t know how many hits you’ve had on your shield of faith — or me either, I guess we don’t have that. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if it’s been hundreds. How many do you think you’ve had? Thousands? Some weeks you might think, I’ve had a hundred even today! But Paul isn’t just making this up. He’s got a literal soldier next to him, he’s looking at his garment and saying, ‘brethren, we need — we need to fight.’ Just like this Roman soldier, we need to have the right instruments and the right garments to do the job.
Next, Paul talks about the helmet in verse 17 And take the helmet of salvation… What is that about? Of course, our helmets today for soldiers are a lot different from two thousand years ago. Generally, a Roman soldier wore some kind of brass helmet. Before that, they were leather. But obviously the head is very exposed, very vulnerable in battle. That’s one place you don’t look forward to getting hit, having an eye taken out or something like that. You can bleed a lot. You can be taken out of the battle. So a soldier always had a helmet and Paul likens that to salvation. You know, brethren, salvation is all over us — just like a helmet. It covers us head to toe. That’s the salvation of Jesus Christ. It protects us. It guards us against sin and eventually, eternal death. Without salvation through Christ we would not have life, we would not have spiritual life. So, salvation belongs on the head. It takes care of the entire body. It takes care of the soul, so to speak. Out eternal life is on the line. And so, have that helmet of salvation. Know that you have a Savior. Know that you have repented of your sins and know, brethren, that you are a begotten son of God.
And the next thing Paul writes about is the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. He tells us exactly what that sword symbolizes spiritually, but the sword generally was worn on the left side of the soldier. Why the left side? Well think about it. If you are right-handed, and your sword is over here on the right side cinched up to your leather belt, how fast can you get that sword out of the sheath? Try that right now. You’re all thumbs. In the meantime, while you are trying to get your sword out somebody’s put their sword into you. So it’s worn on the left side if you are right-handed. You just swing the right hand across the chest, grab the handle and out it comes in one fast movement. So, even as you take it out, it’s an offensive weapon just that fast. So if you were good, if you were trained well, if you were physically fit, this could be done within less than a second — have your sword out. It meant the difference between life and death.
Now the sword was not only an offensive weapon, but defensive. They often just clashed swords until they got the edge and then in they went. So, he says, our sword, brethren, is the living Word of God, the Bible. This is the Word. This is the Word. Christ was the Word and this is His written Word. Now we have to be ready for this. We have to be ready to take the Bible out of its sheath. In other words, in the sheath it is not going to help you — that sword. It’s not going to be offensive or defensive. We’ve got to know this Bible and use it. We’ve got to blow the dust off as we were told many years ago and study God’s Word. Study God’s Word. There’s a gold mine of truth here. We have to know what the Bible says about marital relationships, child rearing, finances, what are the basic doctrines of God, what about some of these so-called difficult scriptures - Colossians 2, Galatians 4 for a couple of them. Can we rightly use the Word of God to dispel those fiery darts of Satan and doubt? We’ve all been tested in recent years in some of those areas. No doubt, there will be other heresies try to make their way into the Church of God. So, yes, study the Word of God. We have Bible studies, we have the Good News Magazine, we have twenty-eight booklets so far, we have the correspondence course, we have sermons and Bible studies, we have ABC tapes coming out. There is so much, brethren, available to us. There are so many wonderful truths that we can learn about. But read the Bible. As you are reading these booklets and magazines, don’t forget — read the Book. Know that. Put it together.
So those are parts of what Paul wrote in the first Prison Epistle and I think it’s an amazing story. Though Paul was chained to a Roman soldier he says, I’m going to write about your garments. There’s a lot to be said, a lot of truth just in that last chapter of Ephesians. Let’s go to the next prison epistle, Philippians, chapter 1 and let’s notice verse 6.
Philippians 1:6 Philippians 1:6Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:
American King James Version×Being confident of this very thing, that he which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:
I think Paul was saying Christ will return in his lifetime. Later he realized that wasn’t going to be the case, but it is still appropriate. Christ, brethren, does not let us down. He does not forsake us when He begins to call, the Father calling us; Christ does not let us down. That’s what he is saying. Look at this. This is written by a man in prison, under house arrest. He never felt Christ had forsaken him. He didn’t doubt that. So I don’t care whether our circumstances, brethren, are rosy or not so rosy. There is faith; there is that shield of faith.
Verses 12 and 13 of this same chapter, verse 12 But I would you should understand, brethren, that the things which happened to me… all of these could be looked on as negative circumstances and sore trials, but he says they …have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; (13) So that my bonds in Christ are manifest… or clear, evident…in all the palace, and in all other places.
Now what is that all about? Is he just making this up? Is Paul kind of the Pollyanna of his day? I mean, here’s a real veteran apostle who, in fact, doesn’t have many more years to live. He’s been through a lot — fastings, shipwrecks, stonings — you know, all of that. And here he is saying in spite of this trial the Gospel is being preached more powerfully than I could ever imagine it could be preached. Well Paul, while he was a free man, never had a chance to witness and preach the gospel in Rome like that, not to Caesar’s court certainly.
Now there is some discussion, what does it mean, Caesar’s court? Palace in the Greek is praetorian and this verse in the Revised Version says my bonds became manifest in Christ throughout all the Praetorian Guard and to all the rest. I do think that’s a proper translation looking into it. Sure there are a couple of possible applications of what it means for palace, but for my money, I think it means the Praetorian Guard, which was the Imperial Guard of Rome. Now, this is a very high echelon, Roman guard. You were hand picked, hand selected by Caesar and by his top generals for staffing certain areas around Caesar’s palace and Caesar’s court and also, at times, the rest of Rome. So this is the elite of the corps, the Roman corps and here Paul is saying, I’ve had a chance actually to tell some of these men about the Kingdom of God. It’s not that I preached to them day and night in the sense of just throwing out the truth, but he says, look I’m going to preach the gospel to those that are willing to listen, those who are coming to this house and of course, I have a guy always chained to me anyway. So he’s going to get a lot and he is going to pass it on to his friends. Can you imagine, brethren, being one of these guards? And here, Paul is all excited about the gospel. He is preaching to some of the visitors coming into his house and that man gets off duty and he goes to some of his friends and he says, look, I’ve never seen anything like that. That guy is either crazy or he is truly special because he is talking about a whole different government, he is talking about the Creator God, he’s talking about faith, he’s talking about my shield and helmet and my shoes as being something about spiritual protection. I don’t understand spiritual, you know. Can you imagine conversations some of these fellows had with their friends off duty? Oh, he couldn’t have done that if Paul was a free man because you couldn’t get into those areas — didn’t have access to them. So, brethren, again, it’s perspective. Paul is writing as a prisoner and doing the work.
A little more about the Praetorian Guard, they had been instituted by Augustus and were a body of 10,000 troops. Later, they were dispersed throughout Rome — later on, Tiberius concentrated them just in Rome and built a fortified camp for them. Later on they were increased to sixteen thousand and they served for twelve and later for sixteen years. At the close of their term, they received Roman citizenship and a large pension. So it was a wonderful thing for any of the soldiers to be picked for the Imperial Guard for Caesar. That’s the kind of person that Paul was dealing with day in and day out.
Notice in verse 18 again in chapter 1: Philippians 1:18 Philippians 1:18What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretense, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.
American King James Version×What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretense, or in truth, Christ is preached… Now he was just talking about some of his trials and perhaps other things people were going through, but he said, What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretense, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yes, and will rejoice. That’s a powerful man of God.
Then he says in verse 19, For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ… Brethren, he is saying, ‘I am going to depend on you, brethren, to pray. I want you to pray for me. I want you to pray for my protection and I know that is going to actually help because you are going to get more of God’s spirit — a supply of God’s spirit when you are praying, when you are praying for others, you are doing this selflessly.’ So he is saying, ‘I want you to join the team, be a part of this ministry and a part of this work going on right here in Caesar’s court.’
Chapter 2 and verse 1: If there be any consolation in Christ, if there be any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, (2) Fulfill you my joy, that you be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord and of one mind.
Brethren, the title of my sermon is ‘Paul’s Prison Epistles — Short on Complaints and Long on Praise’. We haven’t seen any complaints yet, but a lot of joy, a lot of praise, a lot of thanksgiving by Paul. Short on complaints, long on praise - Paul’s Prison Epistles. Indeed, what a perspective!
Chapter 4 of Philippians, verse 1: Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy my crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved. Imagine getting a letter from Paul, whether you are a member at Ephesus, Philippi or Colosse, and Paul says, I am an apostle of Jesus Christ and it’s really tough. I don’t know, brethren, if God is going to save me and this is really bad and it’s just really negative and I just don’t know what to do. Imagine how that would negatively influence hundreds of people, as they would have these epistles read to them on the Sabbath day. But here, Paul in Philippians is especially screaming out of the top of his lungs saying, …you are my joy. Stand fast in the lord, my dearly beloved. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t back off. Verse 4, Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. What an astounding approach and perspective.
Sometimes this book has been called the book of joy or the book of praise because Paul so often in Philippians writes about joy and praise and thanksgiving. And again I just remind you, brethren, whenever you read these three letters, remember where Paul was. I think that’s pretty amazing — the power of God’s spirit — if we let God work, it is an amazing thing!
In verse 8 he talks about the positiveness of God’s spirit dwelling on those things that are true — and let me save some time by just highlighting the key words. So he says, highlight - think about - those things that are true and honest, you might say honorable today, those things that are just, pure, and those things that are lovely, those things that are of good report. And then he says, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, then he says, meditate — think - on those things. Again, a positiveness. Paul could have talked about the negative, the discouraging, the divisive, the rumors, the negativism because he had it. He could have said, boy, these soldiers stink, they ought to bathe occasionally, you know. They’ve got horrible breath. They’re foul mouthed. They’re talking about, you know, doing away with somebody. They’re telling about all the people they’ve hurt and massacred over the years. I mean, they’re negative guys. That’s all we have here. That’s not what he said in verse 8. He wasn’t dwelling on those things.
Then in verse 11 Not that I speak in respect of want… He says, I’m not complaining, just explaining. … for I have learned… he said, I’ve already learned that… in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content…
Whoa, where was he? Rome? Not a really good place, not a fun place, a very pagan place, a very dangerous place for Christians. And where was he in Rome? Was he going to the Circus? Was he going to nice dinners? No! He was under arrest, waiting trial. Waiting trial, brethren, and guess who his judge ultimately would have been and was? A man by the name of Nero. You know Nero from church history. He was a guy who looked out his balcony one day and he got upset with all the slums he saw. He was offended by the slums. These poor Romans. Can’t they do better than that. They stink. I don’t like the view. This is my penthouse. I want a nice view. So he hired some people to torch these slums. Rome burned and, it says, while Nero fiddled. You know, it reminds you of a mad man in our day and age. Right? Killing others and not caring, saying he has done good. Then he had Rome rebuilt according to his master plan. This is not a man, brethren, you want to be judged by. So that’s what Paul had in his future. He didn’t know if he was going to make it through this arrest at all.
So he says in verse 11, I have learned to be content. Now, there is a word very close to content that is the opposite of it and what is that? He didn’t write, I have learned to be contentious. Now that is what life can teach a lot of people. I know some very contentious people out there. They’re hardened, they’re pretty obnoxious, they’re very verbal, they’re very abusive. They’ve learned to be contentious in life. That is what life has taught them to be. And the bumper sticker says ‘I get even’. I just don’t take it. I get even. I mean, that’s the carnal, satanic world out there. Do it to them before they do it to you. Paul said, look, I’m not contentious. I’m not fighting God. And you know who is in control of my attitude? I am. Paul never let these guys get the best of him. He never let the Roman system get him down because he was above that system. He was above it. That is what he was saying.
Notice, verse 12, I know both how to be abased… and he was being abased right there …and I know how to abound… he was also abounding at the same time. And then he says, …every where and in all things I am instructed… I learned, he said, I grow …both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (13) I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me. So what a perspective! What a special perspective Paul had. But anyone can have it. It’s available to all of God’s elect.
Let’s drop down to verse 22: All the saints salute you… as he concludes …chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household. That’s an interesting sidelight, that there were God’s people working on Caesar’s house staff. They might have been administrators. They could have been housekeepers. They could have been whatever. But they were God’s people. He said, right here - saints of God that are working in the house. Now Caesar could have had hundreds of people working, but he said some of them were God’s elect and they salute you. They greet you. And Paul knew them, was very close to them. I’m sure they were a very great comfort to him.
The last Prison Epistle — and again, the epistles are short on complaints and long on praise - short on complaints and long on praise. The book of Colossians. Turn with me over to chapter 4 and verse 3.
Colossians 4:3 Colossians 4:3 With praying also for us, that God would open to us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
American King James Version×Withal praying also for us, that God would open to us a door of utterance… he said, would you pray with us that God would continue to open doors for us to preach the gospel, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds. He said, ‘That’s why I am here. I’ve preached Christ, I’ve preached the truth and that’s why I’m here in arrest. Let’s pray’ he said, brethren, ‘for the truth to go out.’ That’s our job today too, brethren, pray that God would show us what to do and how to do it and for others to be called according to the Father’s design and according to His will.
So he didn’t complain. Didn’t complain. He was always thinking on the brethren, his mind was on God, on doing the work. No pitty-party for Paul. He didn’t want it, didn’t want to go there. He knew how dangerous that could be and how lonely he could be if he allowed himself to go into that approach and that mind-set.
Well, brethren, we know as we said in Acts chapter 28 at the beginning of this sermon that Paul was there for two years. He was tried, found innocent and released. He was released for a very short time to continue to do God’s work and then he was imprisoned a second time and he was executed at that time — evidently beheaded. Evidently beheaded. That’s how he lost his life while under arrest for the second time. That could have happened in 64 A.D. - 63 A.D. up to maybe 67 A.D. - but it was only perhaps a year or two after his release and then he did die as a martyr of God.
So we’ve seen briefly today, brethren, how these Prison Epistles were remarkable, they teach many truths to us today. We don’t have to be in prison, though, to learn these things. We can learn the truth of God as Paul knew that truth of God, being short on complaints and long on praise - valid truth for us today. We can learn to be more grateful, more full of praise to God in spite of our ups and downs and to see the big picture and not, brethren, see the small things. Let that armor of God really protect us. Let that shield of faith protect us as soldiers of Jesus Christ.