Freedom in Chains: The Perspective of the Apostle Paul in Prison

 

This is a bit of a different kind of post. I originally wrote this for a Bible study I lead at my church. We are discussing the letter to the Ephesians and we had noted that Paul seems to have a pretty positive attitude about being in prison. This post examines possible reasons that Paul would adopt such an outlook.  

We should all desire the boldness of the Apostle Paul in proclaiming the gospel. However, we must also accept that Paul’s boldness often brought him into confrontation with the state authorities in the provinces where he preached. Paul often found himself on the wrong side of the civil law. He was no stranger to a prison cell. We rightfully view time spent in prison negatively. When we are sentenced to prison it is because we have been found guilty of a crime such as theft, murder, etc. We live in a western world where the freedom of religious expression is generally enjoyed. Conversely, Paul was imprisoned for his religious expression. He was in prison because he refused to be silent in proclaiming the gospel.

Given our negative conception of prison, Paul’s own statements regarding his imprisonment should be slightly disorienting because they are often framed in a positive light. Why would Paul’s perspective on his imprisonment be positive? What does he know that we do not?

In our study of Ephesians, Paul has not mentioned his imprisonment often. It is not until Eph. 3:1 that he describes himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.”[1] In my own personal reading this past week, I noticed that he uses the same language in Philemon 1. Paul does not see himself as a prisoner of the Roman authorities. He is not their possession. He belongs in and to Jesus Christ. He may be in prison, but he is still free in Christ.

In Eph. 4:1, he calls himself a “prisoner for the Lord.” The language of “for” is also used in Philemon 9. Philemon 13 also features similar verbiage when Paul describes his imprisonment as “for the gospel.”[2] This coheres with Paul’s language in Eph. 3:13. He is suffering “for” the Ephesians and for their glorification in Christ.

I find Paul’s positive appraisal of his incarceration astonishing. How does he arrive at such an outlook? There could be books written on this very subject – indeed there are. However, there are a few starting points we can discuss in our limited space here. The first is highlighted in Ephesians 1. In Eph. 1: 20-23, Paul describes Jesus in royal language portraying Him as seated on the throne above all earthly authority in the present. Jesus is the King of kings now and forever.[3]

This reality should be the starting point for every situation we face in life. Paul knew where the real authority was seated. The Roman emperor himself was but a subject of Jesus. Paul was not denying his reality, but acknowledging his reality in its full scope. This should change the optics of how we view desperate situations. We will face tough times, but Jesus is ultimately in control. He may not be explicitly causing the situation, but He is sovereign over it. This knowledge should give us at least a modicum of hope in any situation. Jesus has already conquered the powers of sin and death. He is powerful enough for our concerns. Paul had already witnessed the power of Jesus numerous times in his ministry and had hope in the one true authority for his deliverance.

Paul had hope in his present situation, but he also had hope for his future. He knew what the final outcome of the created order is going to look like. Those of us who like big words might call this an eschatological hope that pairs nicely with his present hope. Even if Paul’s predicament leads to his death, he has hope in his future. I Corinthians 15 is one of the most explicit passages that outlines this hope. Paul knows that one day, “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’”

This is an important component of Paul’s hope. He knows that one day, the reign of Christ will be fully culminated and he will join with the saints in a new earth with a resurrected and spirit-animated body. It is why he writes in I Thessalonians 4:13 that Christians should not grieve death “as others do who have no hope.” If that reality is at the core of our perspective, then what in our experience can possibly compete?

Essentially, I believe that the two poles of Paul’s positive perspective in prison are “Jesus is King” and “Jesus is coming again.” We would do well to emulate Paul and his positive perspective. Life can get hard sometimes. We all suffer and my intent is not to dismiss the real suffering of Christians. When we experience something like the loss of a loved one, we are meant to grieve. We can be angry and frustrated. However, if we truly understand our situation as Christians, we cannot become completely despondent. We must meditate on these two truths of “Jesus is King” and “Jesus is coming again” to develop a perspective of present and ultimate hope. If our times are darkness, we may not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel that our faith tells us is there. But it is there. Though it be a faint glimmer, we must cling to that hope that we have in Christ in the present and future if we are to develop the width and the depth of Paul’s perspective.

 

A Brief Excursus on Translating Paul’s Descriptions of his Imprisonment

 What follows will be a nerdy discussion of Greek grammar, which you can skip if you like. All of the examples provided above in which Paul describes his status as a prisoner are in the genitive case in the original Greek. In Greek, words change forms (known as cases) to indicate function. Conversely in English, the position of a word in a sentence largely determines its function. Greek cases are then a lot like “parts of speech” in English, but they are more flexible and thus more ambiguous. Furthermore, the genitive case in Greek is very elastic and has many possible meanings.

Paul describes himself as a δέσμιος τοῦ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ in Eph. 3:1, Philemon 1, and Philemon 9. In Eph. 3:1 and Philemon 1, it is rendered literally as “Prisoner of Christ Jesus”. However, in Philemon 9 it is translated as “prisoner for Christ Jesus” in the ESV. The Greek is exactly the same, but the translation differs because the translators are making interpretive decisions. They have left Eph. 3:1 and Philemon 1 ambiguous. It could be a possessive genitive (my preference) or an objective genitive. In Philemon 9, the translators of the ESV (against most other English translations) have decided that δέσμιος τοῦ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ represents an objective genitive (or less likely a genitive of purpose). They make a similar decision in Eph. 4:1 when they decide to translate ὁ δέσμιος ἐν κυρίῳ as “a prisoner for the Lord” rather than the more literal “a prisoner in the Lord.” This would be a somewhat unusual use of the Greek pronoun ἐν. They are using it like it is in the dative case and indicates cause. Why would the ESV translators do this?

First, translation is an inexact science. There is no such thing as pure formal equivalence in translation. Secondly, a case can be made from the context to translate it in this way. In Eph 3:13, Paul asks the Ephesians to not “lose heart over what I am suffering for you” (μὴ ἐγκακεῖν ἐν ταῖς θλίψεσίν μου ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν). The Greek ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν is clearly “for you.” The Greek preposition ὑπὲρ is much less ambiguous than ἐν. His imprisonment is for the advantage of the Ephesians. Given this is in close context to the more ambiguous examples mentioned above, the translators can provide a cogent argument that Paul understands his situation as being on behalf of something other than himself. It is for the Ephesians and ultimately for God.

 

 

[1] I will use the English Standard Version (ESV) for English translations.

[2] We do need to be careful here because we are using English translations of the original Greek. Every translation is an interpretation so we should not hinge too much on the decisions of English interpreters. See the Excursus on Translation that follows the main body of this text.

[3] There are many other places that Paul will make this point. In Philippians 2:11, Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the central statement of the gospel and an affirmation of his present authority. In I Timothy 6:15 Christ is “the blessed and only Sovereign, King of kings, and Lord of lords.” Jesus himself declares that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” in Matthew 28:18. These statements are all in the present tense. Jesus is King now.

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