Imprisoned and Faithful

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Imprisoned and Faithful

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Imagine for a moment you can see a few years into the future. You learn about a man named Paul who is deeply troubled. His job had disappeared as the economy collapsed two years earlier. Unable to obtain new employment and after his jobless benefits expired, he and his wife Stacy, who had also lost her job, could no longer pay their mortgage.

As a result their house was foreclosed on, and they were forced to sell or give away many of their possessions and relocate to a small apartment. Then it wasn’t long before the couple exhausted their savings and had to move again. Now homeless, they are dependent on minimal government benefits and the charity of others for their food and shelter.

Paul and Stacy are not alone in their calamity. With the global economy in severe crisis, millions of others around the world also face previously unimagined hardship. Yet this fact does little to comfort the disheartened couple. Having been faithful Christians who had devotedly prayed, studied the Bible and attended church, they felt certain God would protect them from severely traumatic circumstances. But now they are profoundly bewildered and anxious about their dismal state of affairs.

Facing an austere future of poverty and adversity, Paul and Stacy feel utterly imprisoned by their harsh situation, which has no end in sight. Expressing serious doubts about their faith, they ask themselves hard questions: How could this possibly happen to us? Where is God when we need Him, especially after we have been faithful for so long?

Another Paul

We’ll return to Paul and Stacy’s story shortly, but let’s first shift our focus to another man also named Paul.

Although he lived in a different time and place, he too encountered significant and unanticipated troubles. He too had faithfully served God and the Church for many years and then found himself imprisoned for a prolonged period of time—literally so, in his case.

Who was this man? He was the apostle Paul of the New Testament. Let’s briefly review his story.

Being educated from his youth in the traditions of the Pharisees, a Jewish religious party, Paul grew into a man of steadfast conviction (Acts 22:3 Acts 22:3I am truly a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day.
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). Consequently, when encountering what he and the other religious authorities believed to be heresy, he vigorously opposed it and relentlessly persecuted its adherents (Acts 22:4-5 Acts 22:4-5 [4] And I persecuted this way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. [5] As also the high priest does bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters to the brothers, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound to Jerusalem, for to be punished.
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). However, in about A.D. 34, while undertaking a mission to root out apostates in Damascus, he experienced an incredible vision directly from Jesus Christ. This miraculous event led to Paul’s deep repentance and conversion (Acts 22: 6-16).

He then spent much of the next 22 years preaching and teaching the good news about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Even though he endured great persecution and many trials during that period, nothing really seemed to slow him down or halt his progress for very long (2 Corinthians 6:4-5 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 [4] But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, [5] In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings;
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, 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 [23] Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. [24] Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. [25] Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; [26] In journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brothers; [27] In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
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). But in A.D. 57, after having concluded his third apostolic journey, an event occurred that would effectively stop him in his tracks.

Interestingly, Paul already sensed he would face something unprecedented in his ministry. While en route to Jerusalem for the Holy Day of Pentecost, he told the Christians of Ephesus, “And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me” (Acts 20:16 Acts 20:16For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hurried, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.
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, Acts 20:22-23 Acts 20:22-23 [22] And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: [23] Save that the Holy Ghost witnesses in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me.
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).

Was Paul fearful and worried?

What were Paul’s feelings regarding what could lie ahead of him? Did he fear the future? He continued, “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24 Acts 20:24But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear to myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.
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).

Paul arrived in Jerusalem and within a few days faced virulent opposition from the religious authorities, who now considered him a rebellious, profane and dangerous troublemaker (Acts 21:28 Acts 21:28Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teaches all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and has polluted this holy place.
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). As Paul was worshipping at the temple, he was dragged out, the incited multitude becoming so violent that Roman soldiers were sent in to quell the tumult (verses 31-36). The Roman commander then gave Paul the opportunity to explain his beliefs to the people, but soon they again erupted into a furor, shouting for his death (Acts 22:22-23 Acts 22:22-23 [22] And they gave him audience to this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live. [23] And as they cried out, and cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air,
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).

The commander quickly ordered him to be brought into the military barracks to extract the truth from him through scourging (verse 24). But as the soldiers prepared to beat Paul, he pointed out that he was a Roman citizen. Immediately they withdrew from him since they knew severe penalties could be inflicted on anyone who even bound a Roman citizen without adequate justification (Acts 22:29 Acts 22:29Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.
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).

The next day Paul was allowed to appear before the Jewish chief priests and their council to again try to explain his position (Acts 22:30 Acts 22:30On the morrow, because he would have known the certainty why he was accused of the Jews, he loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down, and set him before them.
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). However, subsequent events led to further hostility (Acts 23:10 Acts 23:10And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down, and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle.
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). Fearing Paul could be severely injured or killed, the commander ordered his troops to shield him once more.

The Lord stood by him

Now, can you imagine what Paul might have been thinking just before being rescued from the mob? Maybe this is the end! Maybe it is my time to die! Nevertheless it wasn’t his time to die, because “the following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome’ ” (Acts 23:11 Acts 23:11And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as you have testified of me in Jerusalem, so must you bear witness also at Rome.
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).

Although God revealed this to him, Paul likely never imagined he would spend nearly the next five years in Roman captivity. After so many years of freely preaching the gospel, establishing local congregations, working with new converts and training Church leaders, perhaps he wondered: Why am I restrained and imprisoned? Is my work over? Is God done with me?

Even though Paul might have contemplated such questions, he eventually came to understand the reason for his situation.

Writing much later as a prisoner in Rome he stated: “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 Philippians 1:12-14 [12] But I would you should understand, brothers, that the things which happened to me have fallen out rather to the furtherance of the gospel; [13] So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; [14] And many of the brothers in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
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).

So Paul realized that even while incarcerated, he could still be used effectively by his Savior.

Overcoming hopelessness

Let’s now return to Paul and Stacy’s story. As you recall, they lost nearly everything and, as a result, felt utterly imprisoned by their arduous situation. However, in due course, even though their physical circumstances had not improved much, they were successful at conquering their nearly hopeless feelings.

How? By prayerfully recalling the examples of the apostle Paul and other Bible figures who faithfully endured and triumphed over what appeared to be intractable difficulties (see Hebrews 4:16 Hebrews 4:16Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
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; Hebrews 11:32-40 Hebrews 11:32-40 [32] And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: [33] Who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. [34] Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. [35] Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: [36] And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yes, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: [37] They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; [38] (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. [39] And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: [40] God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
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). With God’s help, Paul and Stacy reestablished their faith in Him. They also took comfort in the Scriptures and the vital promises held out for everyone who remains obedient and devoted to God (Romans 15:4 Romans 15:4For whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
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; Hebrews 11:13 Hebrews 11:13These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
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).

Perhaps we could say, then, that the trials of Paul the apostle and of Paul and Stacy are illustrations of the seemingly unbearable struggles we all may and do experience. Traumatic, unexpected events may tend to leave us feeling boxed in and abandoned (Psalms 38:21 Psalms 38:21Forsake me not, O LORD: O my God, be not far from me.
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; Psalms 119:8 Psalms 119:8I will keep your statutes: O forsake me not utterly.
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). However, as the apostle Paul demonstrated by his words and actions, our Heavenly Father can be relied on for help in every situation, no matter how problematic or wearisome (Psalms 91:1-16 Psalms 91:1-16 [1] He that dwells in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say of the LORD, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. [3] Surely he shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. [4] He shall cover you with his feathers, and under his wings shall you trust: his truth shall be your shield and buckler. [5] You shall not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flies by day; [6] Nor for the pestilence that walks in darkness; nor for the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand shall fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you. [8] Only with your eyes shall you behold and see the reward of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, your habitation; [10] There shall no evil befall you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. [11] For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. [12] They shall bear you up in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone. [13] You shall tread on the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shall you trample under feet. [14] Because he has set his love on me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he has known my name. [15] He shall call on me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. [16] With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.
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).

Paul’s example shows us that even though we experience difficult events and may not see the reasons for our troubles or any apparent way out, God will help us endure (1 Corinthians 10:13 1 Corinthians 10:13There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.
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). Whether we suffer a long, debilitating illness, lose a loved one to death, see a career end much earlier than expected, experience an economic reversal leaving us faced with harsh financial conditions or any other similar circumstances, we can be confident that God will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5 Hebrews 13:5Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as you have: for he has said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you.
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).

A crown of righteousness awaits

Paul wrote the biblical book of 2 Timothy while imprisoned in Rome. Even though he knew his physical life was swiftly nearing an end, he remained entirely secure in God’s ultimate salvation.

Notice his words as he looked beyond his current circumstances: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8 2 Timothy 4:6-8 [6] For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. [7] I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: [8] From now on there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love his appearing.
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).

Paul’s inspired words can offer us vibrant hope and comfort when we encounter any difficulty (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 [8] For we would not, brothers, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life: [9] But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raises the dead:
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; 2 Timothy 3:11 2 Timothy 3:11Persecutions, afflictions, which came to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me.
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). He encouraged the young evangelist Timothy to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” while being “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1-3 2 Timothy 2:1-3 [1] You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. [2] And the things that you have heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit you to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. [3] You therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.
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).

We too can hold firmly to those powerful words, especially when we face trials that appear overwhelming (Psalms 142:7 Psalms 142:7Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise your name: the righteous shall compass me about; for you shall deal bountifully with me.
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; Daniel 6:27 Daniel 6:27He delivers and rescues, and he works signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.
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).

God helps us remain faithful

As we travel the road to the Kingdom of God, we may encounter significant dilemmas and troubles we could never have anticipated (Mathew 7:13-14). Yet the Bible is filled with admonitions to remain faithful and obedient to God and His way of life while seeking the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46 Matthew 13:45-46 [45] Again, the kingdom of heaven is like to a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: [46] Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
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).

If you and I are doing so, we can be assured that God will help us complete our spiritual journey, even if we sometimes feel imprisoned by severe trials that have no obvious way out (Isaiah 26:3 Isaiah 26:3You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you: because he trusts in you.
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; Isaiah 43:5 Isaiah 43:5Fear not: for I am with you: I will bring your seed from the east, and gather you from the west;
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). As Paul wrote, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (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:
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, New Living Translation).

Finally, let us allow the following words from Paul to encourage us to remain confident, obedient and faithful no matter what untenable predicament we encounter. He wrote: “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 Philippians 4:11-13 [11] Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content. [12] I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed 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.
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, NLT).

So, can you endure prison-like calamities, afflictions and hardships yet remain faithful to God? With His strength, assurance and guidance, absolutely.

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