Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ. (Ephesians 3:2-4)
We simply can’t underestimate the value of Paul’s ministry in the early days of the church. He wrote thirteen of twenty-seven books in the New Testament. He was directly or indirectly instrumental in planting many of the churches. He is the dominant evangelistic figure throughout the book of Acts. More than any other apostle he articulated the mysteries of the gospel and Christ’s kingdom.
Where would the church be today without God’s work through the apostle Paul? It’s hard to imagine.
But Paul isn’t boasting here. He’s not bragging about what God has revealed to him. In fact, he calls himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus (Eph 3:1). That’s the humble testimony of a man who cares more about God’s people than himself. Though a few envious pastors faulted him for landing in jail, he was a prisoner only because he was faithful to do what God called him to do.
He had been a prisoner for years. His trials all began when a few Jews falsely accused him of taking a Gentile into forbidden parts of the temple. It wasn’t true, but the Sanhedrin backed the claim. Given the political climate in Israel, the Roman authorities felt compelled to arrest Paul and detain him indefinitely. Eventually, he was taken to Rome where a soldier guarded him within private quarters.
Notice, however, Paul doesn’t consider himself a prisoner of the Jews or even the Romans. Rather, he was a prisoner of Christ. What does that mean? His Lord bought him with a price. Jesus paid for him. He was subject to Christ’s will. Furthermore, he recognized God’s sovereignty whose plan apparently included his imprisonment.
It’s easy to accept God’s will when everything is going smoothly. But God doesn’t necessarily call us into stress-free lives without struggles and hardships. In fact, he uses trials to refine and sanctify us. He uses them to discipline us.
Several years ago, I discovered an old hymn written by none other than John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace”. I had never heard it before. Maybe it was my mood at the time, but the lyrics overwhelmed me. How often have you prayed for something and it seemed that God gave you the exact opposite?
Consider these words:
I asked the Lord that I might grow In faith and love and ev’ry grace, Might more of His salvation know, And seek more earnestly His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray, And He, I trust, has answered prayer, But it has been in such a way As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour At once He’d answer my request And, by His love’s constraining pow’r, Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel The hidden evils of my heart And let the angry pow’rs of hell Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Yea, more with His own hand He seemed Intent to aggravate my woe, Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, Humbled my heart and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried; “Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?” “’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied, “I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ From self and pride to set thee free And break thy schemes of earthly joy That thou may’st find thy all in Me.” (“I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow” by John Newton)
The prisoner of Christ doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He tries his best to see things with a divine perspective. Like Horatio Spafford, he says, “Whatever my lot, God has taught me to say, It is well with my soul.” He trusts in the sovereign plan of God. He believes Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.“
Paul was a prisoner of Christ. Concerning his unfortunate circumstances, he told the Philippians:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)
Don’t run from your trials. Don’t ignore them. Try to see them as God sees them. What’s he doing? What’s his purpose? What is he trying to tell you? How do your struggles help you? How might they advance the gospel?