Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

April 2002
Paul in Prison
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column UNDER ARREST AND UNDER GUARD in the city of Rome, the apostle Paul tried to reassure some of his friends and colleagues in a letter we know as the Epistle to the Philippians.

In verses 12 and following, he puts a positive spin on what must have been considerably more than an inconvenience. "What has happened has actually served to advance the gospel," he writes. "Because of my imprisonment, the guards and other non-Christians around me have had to consider Jesus. Also the Christians have rallied in their faith."

You can read that in the epistle and think, isn't that nice? It's more than nice, though; it's more than anecdote. Paul doesn't know he's writing this to you, he thinks he's writing it to the Philippian Christians. Who are the Philippian Christians who will be reading this?

The book of Acts describes Paul's first visit to Philippi and the first converts there, likely to be among the core members of the church (Acts 16:11-40). One of the significant features of that story is that Paul was imprisoned back then in Philippi as well. How that must have rattled them at the time!

Paul could have been quite safe on that occasion. His Roman citizenship could have been his personal ticket to freedom, but he chose to use that fact in a way that brought safety to those Christians in Philippi who could not hide behind citizenship: after his miraculous release from his chains, he stayed in the prison in order to force the magistrates to publicly apologize – setting a valuable precedent regarding the legality of being a Christian.

He is no doubt drawing on this memory when he writes about his current imprisonment in Rome being to the benefit of the Christians. This is more than sentiment.

Oh, and one of the guys in particular would have been very interested. Remember the Philippian jailer who contemplated suicide and then was converted in Acts? Now Paul says he's having a chance to witness to the jailers in Rome. When the Epistle to the Philippians is read to the congregation, he'll be smiling and shaking his head, "Go get 'em, Paul!"

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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