Introduction to the Prison Epistles of Paul

At the end of Paul’s third missionary journey the Scripture records that he wintered in Corinth (Acts 20:2, 1 Cor 16:6).  During this time he wrote his epistle to the Romans anticipating a campaign to evangelize the western regions of the Roman empire.  The church in Rome would be a strategic base for this missionary endeavor, and the letter also afforded him the opportunity to articulate to an important church that had no apostolic witness his comprehensive understanding of the gospel which had been honed by years of ministry in the eastern empire.  As Acts records, Paul left Corinth and traveled north through Macedonia, visiting and encouraging the saints in Philippi and then Troas before sailing on to Miletus, just south of Ephesus (Acts 20:3-15).  Hoping to arrive in Jerusalem before Pentecost and to avoid being delayed in Ephesus where he had recently spent three years in successful ministry, Paul summoned from there the Ephesian elders to exhort them to “be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock”, warning of the “savage wolves” that would come in among them (Acts 20:16-38).  Sailing from Asia Paul came to Tyre in Syria and then to Caesarea.  At both places he was warned through the Spirit of the bonds awaiting him in Jerusalem (Acts 21:4,11).  And yet he would not be deterred from confronting the hostility of both believing and unbelieving Jews with the love of Christ by delivering the contribution to the poor saints in Judea he had raised from the Gentile churches he had established (Rom 15:25-27).  In doing so he hoped to make the Gentile Christians more acceptable, especially to their Jewish brothers in Christ, and thus effect as a practical reality the spiritual truth that Christ “made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph 2:14).  For in His body, which is the Church, there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28), but a new creation (Gal 6:15).

That “the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6) was a great mystery “which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it [had then] been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph 3:5).  Paul understood that God had entrusted to the apostles and prophets of the Church a stewardship of the mysteries of the gospel (1 Cor 4:1, 9:17), and upon himself especially it was bestowed for the benefit of the Gentiles “to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages [had] been hidden in God” (Eph 3:9, Col 1:25).  While the Jewish nation had previously been entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom 3:2), the administration of this great mystery required the new wineskin of the Church, the ekklesia, or those “called out” from the carnal world of fleshly distinctions.  It was “an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up (gathering together, KJV) of all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10).

And so as a faithful and wise steward whom his Master had put in charge to give His servants their rations of this spiritual truth at the proper time (Luke 12:42), Paul could not be persuaded against going up to Jerusalem.  For the sake of the Gentiles he was “ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).  “On behalf of His body (which is the Church)” Paul would do his share “in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).  And so it was that in delivering alms to his nation (Acts 24:17) the hostility of those “savage wolves” from Asia who opposed his ministry to the Gentiles (see Acts 24:18) was aroused so that while in the temple a mob was incited against him and would have beaten him to death had not the commander of the Roman cohort stationed adjacent to the temple intervened (Acts 21:27-36).  Allowed to address the people, Paul spoke to them about his conversion on the road to Damascus and subsequent ministry, to which they listened quietly until he told of the Lord’s command to go to the Gentiles.  However, at that point “they raised their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!’” (Acts 22:22).  And thus began Paul’s first Roman imprisonment from which he would not be released for over four years.

After defending himself before the Sanhedrin from which “a great dissension” ensued, a plot was formed on his life so that Paul was transferred from Jerusalem to Caesarea, the capital of the Roman province of Judea (Acts 23).  There he defended himself before the governor Felix who, wishing to do the Jews a favor, put off deciding Paul’s case and so left him in custody for two years until he was succeeded by a new governor, Festus (Acts 24).  Festus, wishing to grant the Jews a concession so as to endear himself to his new subjects, wanted Paul to return to Jerusalem to stand trial against their charges.  But fearing an ambush (Acts 25:2) and not wishing to become a victim of the new governor’s expedience, Paul declared his innocence and exercised his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar, which appeal was granted (Acts 25:6-12).  However, not understanding the religious charges brought against Paul by the Jews and having nothing definite to write to the emperor, Festus sought the counsel of King Agrippa, before whom Paul also gave his defense, and who could not help but agree with Festus that he had done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment, and even commented that “this man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:31-32).

After a harrowing voyage during which he was shipwrecked, Paul finally arrived in Rome and “was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him” (Acts 28:16).  Upon arrival he immediately called for the leading men of the Jews and was “solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God, and trying to persuade them concerning Jesus” (Acts 28:23).  And yet the Acts record concludes with the apostle to the Gentiles having reached the capital of the Gentile world and these Jews leaving unconvinced, so that concerning their hardness of heart Paul’s final words were to make it known to them that “this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen” (Acts 28:28).

Luke records that Paul “stayed two full years in his own rented quarters, and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:30-31).  It was during this time that he wrote what have been called the prison epistles: Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon and Philippians.  Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon were all written about the same time and delivered by Tychicus, a “beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord” who would also inform the recipients of all Paul’s affairs (Eph 6:21).  With him was Onesimus, a slave who had run away from his Christian master Philemon but whom the apostle had “begotten in [his] imprisonment” (Col 4:7-9, Philem 1:10-20).  Paul was sending him back to Philemon to make right the wrongs committed in running away.  He wrote the short epistle to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus asking that he “accept him as you would me”, since Philemon could punish Onesimus even to the point of death for running away.

Because of the many similarities between Ephesians and Colossians they have been called “twin epistles”.  The words “at Ephesus” identifying the former with the church in Ephesus are not found in the oldest manuscripts.  This, along with the general nature of its content and lack of specifics to a church where he spent three years ministering have led many to believe that this letter was probably intended as a circular letter for the general encouragement of believers in the Roman province of Asia to where Tychicus was traveling.  It may even be the letter Paul refers to in concluding his letter to the Colossians: “And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Col 4:16).  That such a letter would soon become identified with the central church of the region, which was in Ephesus, would not be surprising.

Both Ephesians and Colossians divide neatly in half with the first half a doctrinal exposition of truth and the second half the practical application of that truth.  In Ephesians Paul emphasizes the Church as Christ’s body composed of both Jew and Gentile, and the great spiritual wealth possessed by those who are “in Christ”.  Its profound, reflective nature is illustrated in Eph 1:3-14 which is one long sentence in the original Greek!  In Colossians Paul emphasizes Christ as the head of the body and His sufficiency for our complete salvation.  Paul had never visited the church in Colossae (Col 2:1), but it was established by Epaphras (Col 1:7) who was now with Paul in Rome (Col 4:12).  The church there was faced with the false teachings of some whose “wisdom” declared that Christ’s death and resurrection were not enough to effect their salvation, but that in addition they also had need to submit themselves to certain decrees.  Paul responds that these “have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom…but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col 2:23).

Towards the end of his two years in Rome when Paul was anticipating his release (Phil 1:19,25, 2:24) he wrote the letter to the Philippians.  The Philippians were among his most faithful supporters:  After establishing the church on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:9-40) they had sent a gift “more than once” for his needs while ministering in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15-16).  On his third missionary journey he traveled through Macedonia (of which Philippi was the capital) both on his way to and from Greece rather than taking the more direct sea voyage across the Aegean from Ephesus (Acts 19:21,22, 20:1-3,6, 1 Cor 16:5-7).  Now, having learned of his Roman imprisonment, they had sent Epaphroditus as well as a monetary gift to assist the apostle in his affliction (Phil 2:25, 4:18).  Recalling his unjust prison experience in Macedonia and the testimony of the Philippian jailer himself (Acts 16:25-40) they were quick to overlook the stigma of the apostle’s imprisonment and continue their faithful support of him.  Paul rejoiced at their revived concern for him and wrote to express his gratitude.  At the same time he also wanted to warn the believers there against those of the “false circumcision” who stood opposed to the truth of the gospel and were responsible for his imprisonment.  Epaphroditus had also related some minor disagreements that had arisen among the Philippians that Paul wished them to overcome in the spirit of Christian humility.  Finally, during his visit Epaphroditus had become deathly sick, so that the Philippians were concerned when they heard of his illness, and Epaphroditus himself was distressed because of their concern.  Thus Paul, ever mindful against being a burden to anyone (2 Cor 11:9, 12:13-16, 1 Thess 2:9, 2 Thess 3:8), was anxious to send him back to the Philippians in order that they might rejoice and he might be relieved of the anxiety of the situation (Phil 2:25-28).

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