Joy in a Prison Cell

Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.

Paul was chained to a Roman soldier, awaiting his day before Caesar, knowing that his life might soon be “poured out like a drink offering” (Phil. 2:17). And yet, he says in the very same verse, “I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” In fact, in the same letter he mentions “joy” or “rejoicing” 14 times! That is more than I’ve probably ever mentioned “joy” on a good day with the sun shining and things going well for me!

Of course, hardships were a constant part of Paul’s life. In 2 Corinthians 6:4- 10 he speaks of having experienced, among other things, troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, hunger and dishonor. Did you notice his use of plural forms? Not a beating, but beatings. Not imprisonment, but imprisonments. And that was before he wrote any of his “prison epistles.”

Later on in that letter he gave more details. He says he had been in prison more frequently than other believers the Corinthians knew and had been “flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (11:23). He says,

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (11:24-27).

And that was before he wrote any of his “prison epistles!”

Typically, however, when Paul thinks of the hardships he has experienced (or is experiencing), he thinks at the same time of God’s strength, support and grace. The hardships are reminders of the power of death. Paul knows full well death’s power and its impact on his life and the lives of others. It is seen not only in failing bodies and funerals at the end of earthly journeys; it is also seen in the trials, tribulations and deprivations that are experienced along the way. Paul, however, knows a power that is much stronger than the power of death. It is the power of God and of the resurrection life that will not only be his and ours on resurrection day, but is already manifest as the Spirit provides life in ways that help him—and us— continue on despite death’s power in the here and now. That point is made over and over in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18.

Note below how Paul alternates back and forth between references to his (and others') challenges and difficulties on the one hand and references to God's sustaining grace on the other. He then ties these to what we know about Christ's death and resurrection as the pattern that makes sense of our own experience as Christians.

In 4:14a and 4:18 Paul breaks away from the alternating pattern to indicate how it relates to his own understanding of Christian hope and endurance. A comparison of 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 with what Paul says in Romans 8:18 reveals that this is Paul's constant way of thinking about the issue:

"Our light and momentary troubles" (2 Cor. 4:17), that is, "our present sufferings" (Rom. 8:18) are "what is seen." But this "is temporary," not that on which we fix our eyes (2 Cor. 4:18). Rather, our focus is on the "eternal glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Cor. 4:17), i.e., "the glory that will be rebealed in us" (Rom. 8:18), that "is unseen" and not temporary, but "eternal."

We don’t lose heart because, although we can’t help but notice the former, we fix our eyes on the latter, and live mindful of the fact that death comes before resurrection glory, and that God’s grace is sufficient (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10) to overcome our present sufferings, which are preludes to the glory. In the strength
God gives us to persevere despite our difficulties, we see the promise of the ultimate victory of resurrection life and glory.

Is there any evidence that this is the same way of looking at things that undergirded Paul’s tenacious faith while in Roman chains, and that allowed him to write the Philippians a letter so marked by the theme of joy? What was the pattern of thought that Paul urged the Philippians to adopt? Their attitude, he said, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). How did he face suffering? He “humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him” (vv. 8-9). Christ was obedient in suffering even unto death, and then was raised to glory.

Of course, Christ’s obedience and glory both outshine any Christian obedience and glory, but the pattern is the same. It is in light of that pattern that Paul can speak, later in that same chapter, of looking forward to “the day of Christ” (v. 16) and of being glad and rejoicing with the Philippians even if he is being “poured out like a drink offering” (v. 17). And he calls on the Philippians to also “be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).

This is confirmed in Philippians 3:8-11 where Paul says he considers all the losses1 experienced in this life “rubbish” (or garbage, or dung) “that I may gain Christ and be found in him” with the righteousness that comes from God by faith (vv. 8-9). Then he explicitly mentions suffering and relates it to the theme of Christ and his resurrection (vv. 10-11): “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul’s tenacious hope, his joy in the midst of the challenges he faced as a follower of Christ, was founded on his understanding that as he followed Christ, his sufferings entailed sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in death, and that it was the power of the resurrection— at work in Christ and now in him—that would see him through his challenges all the way to the ultimate goal of his final resurrection and the glory that awaited him.

For Paul, it was now impossible to think of death and its friends (e.g., difficulties, trials and suffering of various sorts), without being reminded of the resurrection and the power of resurrection life in the present (to get us through the challenges we face) and the future (where we will experience the final victory), with, and thanks to, Christ our Lord. That was a key to his tenacious faith and joy in the midst of trials.