I’ve never been in jail. I’ve been in a jail, but I’ve never been in jail. There is a major difference between the two. A couple years ago when we began to partner with sister churches to conduct worship services at the Coweta County Prison we got to tour the facility. I was not surprised by anything that I found. Men wearing jumpsuits and flip flops, performing assigned tasks and responsibilities. Everything ran much like a military operation. When the prison warden stepped into a wing of the building, the prisoners snapped to attention. We even got to see the solitary confinement cells which were nothing more than tiny block cells barely large enough to hold a sleeping cot and a toilet. While everything was in order, it is difficult to imagine that any real cultural change could take place behind the cold steel bars and thick concrete walls.
But then I got to worship with the inmates. I got to hear them pour out their hearts as they prayed for family members on the outside. I got to hear them pour out their souls as they sang praises to Jesus. I got to see them engage their minds as they studied the Scriptures and listened intently to the preaching of the Word. I found myself impressed with their mission-mindedness as they sought ways to bring their lost prisoner friends to worship so that they might too hear the gospel. An amazing thing happened in that I saw these men becoming agents for cultural change inside the concrete walls of the prison. Some might even say that they were doing a better job of changing the inside than we are doing changing the outside.
There may not be many similarities between the prisons of today and the prison from which Paul wrote Philippians, but knowing my friends at the jail helps me to understand what Paul has to say regarding his own imprisonment. He says that his imprisonment resulted in the advance of the Gospel. That’s an amazing idea. The one thing that the authorities thought would silence the Apostle actually resulted in the Gospel being preached to the hired thugs assigned to guard him. You’ve heard of a captive audience, this is just a captive preacher.
Not only did it give Paul a new audience of guards to speak to, it also emboldened those watching Paul on the outside. If Paul could still be bold for Christ in the hostile environment of a Roman prison, then certainly those on the outside could be bold with the freedom that they had.
Truthfully, that’s just how God likes to work. Only God would be pleased to use a prisoner to powerfully accomplish His objectives. In that case, no one could say that it was Paul’s craftiness that resulted in the spread of the Gospel. And only Christians could truly be encouraged by the arrest and imprisonment of their leaders (as long as said arrest was for preaching and not for something more sinister). Throughout the scriptures, God is pleased to use the weak and unimpressive to do great things. Moses speech was impaired. Gideon’s army was too large. Saul’s armor was too heavy. The Bethlehem hotel was too full. Jesus’ mother was too young. And the cross was too bloody. In everything, God’s desire is for his glory and he tends to be very creative in accomplishing this.
Paul was a participant in this grand revelation of God’s glory over and over. From jail cells to floggings to shipwrecks – the secular mind might say that he was always in the wrong place at the wrong time saying the wrong thing. The Christian mind must consider the possibility that Paul was exactly where God wanted him to be, always saying exactly the right thing. It is, after all, just how God likes to work.
May Christ use us in weakness!