Joy in the Midst of Suffering
The Apostle Paul had a unique attitude that was very much contrary to the ways of the world when he wrote his “prison epistles”. These were the four letters of Paul that we have preserved in our Bible that were written by Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome. Paul had been arrested on “trumped up” charges when he visited Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. Our historical record of this is found in Acts 21-28. Paul considered the actual charge against him was preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In order of appearance the prison epistles are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. One of the distinctive characteristics these letters share is Paul’s obvious joy in the midst of a very difficult situation. He was being held as a prisoner awaiting trial, and if he was found guilty he would be executed. Nevertheless, in Colossians 1:24 Paul wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings”. Imagine what he had already been through, “beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned (and left for dead)…shipwrecked…dangers of all kinds…labor and hardship…hunger and thirst…in cold and exposure” (2 Cor.11:23-27), and now he had been imprisoned in Caesarea and Rome for over four years awaiting trial. Through all this he saw the bright side because he saw Christ doing amazing things through these circumstances.
To the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote about everything that is ours (the church’s) in Christ. Paul expressed all the wonderful things God had done for us, given us, and promised us as the “riches of His grace which He lavished on us”. Among these riches is our redemption through Christ’s blood, the truth Jesus revealed to us, our inheritance in Heaven, and the Holy Spirit given as a pledge of our inheritance. Paul wrote that he was a “prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (Eph.3:1). He meant that he had been arrested because he preached the Gospel to the Gentiles in Asia and Greece. Paul went on to remind them about all that Christ had done for them, and then in Ephesians 4:1, he said, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of your calling”. Paul was telling them to also be grateful at what God was doing in his imprisonment, and to react in all gratitude and rejoicing. Paul concluded this letter by asking them to pray that he would be given opportunity to boldly speak the Gospel for which he was an ambassador in chains. Clearly Paul saw this circumstance as an opportunity to preach the Gospel to a new audience he previously had no access to.
Next, we follow Paul’s circumstances while a prisoner in Rome in his letter to the church in Philippi. Paul had planted this church in Macedonia on his second missionary journey recorded in Acts 16:11-40. The church in Philippi had heard that Paul was arrested, and had been sent to Rome for trial. Based on several passages in Philippians and church tradition we can derive that the church sent their representative, Epaphroditus, with support money to help Paul, and to find out about his circumstances. Paul sent this letter back to Philippi to thank them, explain his circumstances, and to encourage them.
After a gracious greeting, Paul wrote in Phil.1:12 that his circumstances were actually a cause for great joy. His circumstances had actually “turned out for the greater progress of the gospel”. Paul had the opportunity to share Christ with the Praetorian Guard which was the imperial guards there in Rome. In addition to this Paul had the chance to boost the courage of the local church in Rome so that they were speaking the word of God without fear. Christ was being proclaimed throughout Rome BECAUSE Paul was a prisoner, so praise the Lord for his circumstances. In regard to his personal fate, Paul did not seem to be very concerned. In Phil.1:20, Paul said that whether he lived or died the important thing was that Christ be exalted. Paul could honestly say that because to Paul, living was centered in Christ. Christ is the purpose of our lives as Paul put it so well, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Why would dying be a gain to Paul? Paul said that the greatest desire of his heart was to “depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better”. Yet if the Lord let him live it would be good also because he would get to continue on with a fruitful ministry for Christ. The thing that jumps out at me is that no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in, if we live for Christ as we endure the circumstance, we will glorify God, and it will be a great cause for rejoicing both in Heaven and earth.
Another great truth we can glean from Paul in this passage has to do with his opponents (persecutors). In Phil.1:28, Paul says that in spite of the appearances that his opponents had succeeded in stopping him from preaching the Gospel, God had actually used the occasion to further the Gospel by giving him access to a whole new audience. Paul encouraged the Philippians to not be alarmed by such opponents because their opposition was, “a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you”.
Before Paul was drug off in chains to Rome as a prisoner, he had written a letter to the church in Rome expressing how much he desired to come to Rome. It was Paul’s intention to visit Rome of his own free will after he took an offering to the destitute church in Jerusalem. Paul did not start the church in Rome, and probably had never been to Rome, but he was well acquainted with some of the believers there. Paul wrote his letter to Rome that we have preserved in our Bible to introduce his ministry to the church in Rome, and announce his plans to come there, and establish a new base of operations for a missionary journey to Spain (Romans 15:23-24). After Paul systematically laid out his presentation of the Gospel, he remarked that any hardship or suffering along the way was not worthy to be compared to his coming expectations for the glory we will experience in eternity, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”(Rom.8:18). Paul closed out this train of thought by saying that even now any opposition, hardship, or pain cannot, “separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38-39).
Paul had already pointed out in Romans 5:3-5, that in such opposition, hardship, or pain, we should REJOICE, “knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance, and perseverance, proven character, and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts”.
Jesus’ Teaching About the World
The night before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples shocking news that caused great fear and dread in their hearts. He not only told them He was going to be arrested and crucified, but they would deny Him and all “fall away”. In John 14-16, it is clear the disciples were very disappointed and fearful because Jesus repeatedly told them, “Let not your heart be troubled”. One of Jesus’ teachings to bring peace to their hearts can be found in Jn.16:33. Jesus told them flat out that there is no peace in this world apart from Him. In this world, only tribulation awaits them, yet the good news is that Jesus has “overcome the world.” A casual observer could say that it seemed that the world overcame Jesus since He was arrested and executed, but Jesus was speaking with a Godly perspective that the people of the world cannot understand. In spite of appearances, Jesus actually had succeeded in carrying out God’s plan of redemption for mankind. While the world sees the death of an innocent man as a tragedy, God views it as a great triumph for all who believe. The world that Jesus said He had overcome fails to recognize that it has a sin problem that must be dealt with. It is one thing to recognize the faults and mistakes of other people, but to recognize your own is a rare event. Nevertheless, the only purely perfect and holy being, God Almighty, easily recognizes that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Out of love, God has provided for that need by sending His Son to give His life as a ransom for many.
Jesus has overcome all the evil and death in this world through His atoning work on the cross. By becoming recipients of this gracious act, we can have peace and joy in spite of our circumstances. This was Paul’s message to the churches in his prison epistles. Even if you find yourself in bad health, broke, or rejected by people; rejoice in what Jesus has done for you. Your present circumstances will be short lived, but God’s grace to you is eternal.
Happiness Versus Joy in the Bible
Critics find it hard to believe that Paul could have been rejoicing about being in prison awaiting a death sentence. What they miss is that Paul was not saying he was happy about being beaten up, imprisoned, and threatened with death. All of his rejoicing was about what God was doing in the midst of Paul’s circumstances. To the Philippians he rejoiced in new opportunities for evangelism and discipleship. To the Ephesians, he rejoiced over the “riches in Christ” that was theirs. In every situation Paul saw God at work, and rejoiced over the promises of God to bring good out of it. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves today, “What temporary worldly thing is threatening to rob us of our joy in Christ?” Then remind yourself of God’s promises to bring good out of it.