Letters from Prison
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Php. 1:12-14, ESV).
One came in just this week, a letter from prison. I have a pile of them collected throughout the years.
Mostly men doing time for the crimes that they have committed in the past. Often, they reach out to a pastor in order to get a dose of encouragement. Sometimes, they are looking for a place to land upon release. It’s all about relationships, they know that we (as Christians) have been there in the past, and they hope that we can assist them in the future, too.
My latest letter came yesterday. It was from a man in the local jail. It just so happened that I was about to visit the jail to see another man, so when I asked, I also was granted a visit to see this individual as well. In his letter, he shared his optimistic intentions and hopes to soon enter a drug rehabilitation program. But when I spoke with him, he broke down ... and he shared the overwhelming disappointment of being denied this opportunity by the judge.
Together, we prayed that "when God shuts one door," he opens another one.
The Apostle Paul was behind bars (not for crimes he had committed), but due to the very nature of the gospel.
The Jewish establishment with whom he was working at the time of his conversion (at the appearance of the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9)), wanted to silence Paul’s testimony. They believed that Paul was a threat (much like Jesus) and that needed to be dealt with. They even went so far as to enlist up to 40 men to take a vow of fasting, neither eating nor drinking until they had killed Paul (Acts 23:12-13).
Still, Paul viewed his imprisonment as an advantage to the spreading of the gospel. He was a witness to fellow prisoners and to his Roman captors. It caused others to be bold in their witness of the faith without fear. That is what persecution does. It brings us to our feet and gives us a clear understanding of living for Christ during trials and trouble. The gospel strengthens our witness to become completely ready for whatever comes our way. Paul knew that God was still using him even behind the prison bars.
On this day, May 19, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was published.
This was about a month (April 16) after Dr. King penned it as a response to “A Call for Unity” by eight white clergymen denouncing his and other outsiders' participation in the protest of segregation in Birmingham. Dr. King masterfully responded with grace and grit to these clergymen’s unjust proposals. He used the letter to say that people hold a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. His record speaks for itself as to the value and power of mounting a peaceful revolt to change and transform culture.
Without the imprisonment of the apostle Paul, we would not have a number of his inspired letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 2 Timothy) that give us hope and instruction. Without the jail time served by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who knows where we would be today in the civil rights movement in this nation. Letters from prison and letters to prisoners offer inspiration and confidence that we are not forgotten, and that God knows and cares for “the least of these my brothers.”
Lord Jesus, we know that we are not forgotten. Many of your closest followers have endured prison for the sake of the gospel from days of old until now. Free us to be bold in caring for the prisoner and in sharing the gospel of love. Amen.
Pastor, First Baptist Church of Delta,
Western Slope Ministry & Missions Facilitator
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains