“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)
This is Paul speaking. He’s taking his leave of a group of Christians at Ephesus whom he isn’t sure he’ll ever see again. In fact, he never does.
He travels on to Jerusalem, with a growing sense of impending doom that is strengthened by specific prophecy. He is imprisoned under false charges, and left to languish in various jails for several years; then taken to Rome and eventually executed. This speech in Acts 20 constitutes one of his last experiences of pastoral ministry as a free man.
It’s strangely at odds with our own notions of what constitutes a successful life, isn’t it? Think of that final scene in “It’s a wonderful life” when the hero, despite all his ups and downs, failures and sucesses, is surrounded by adoring wife, children and townspeople, rescued and buoyed up by their love and devotion.
Well, Acts 20 does carry the picture of Paul surrounded by a large group of loving friends; but they are weeping as he leaves them, and as he travels on, the road grows darker and lonelier.
And there lies before him almost six frustrating years before his final execution. His innocence was pretty well established from the start. In Acts 23:29, we read his captors commenting: “I found him to be accused over questions about their Law, but under no accusation deserving death or imprisonment.” Paul knew it himself, of course. In Acts 28:17: “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.”
He used the experience as a metaphor for the way Christ directed his life, repeatedly referring to himself as “the prisoner of the Lord.” And there’s no doubt of the hardships he endured in that capacity. When Paul defended his calling to the church, he defined suffering as a proof of his spiritual office. “I have worked much harder,” he insisted, “been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23).
He claimed that this suffering motivated him to even greater spiritual service: “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
But it was no easy ride. After suffering one rather malicious incident of persecution, Paul admitted he and his companions “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8).
How did he manage? What was “the secret of his success”?
It wasn’t through dint of self-effort. It was through Christ. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
There are four “Prison” letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon which are among the most hopeful and encouraging Paul wrote. They help us understand how we can find joy in our trials and peace in our suffering. The upbeat message contrasts markedly with Paul’s grim physical condition.
That’s how Paul was able to remain assured in his terribly unsure years in prison. We should think of a spiritually joyful Paul in prison, not someone downcast and fearful. He is striding around some small room or dismal cell in Rome, perhaps in the presence of — or even chained to — a Roman soldier. We see Paul carefully dictating a profoundly positive letter to encourage the church. Paul writes hopefully of his future in spite of the obvious hopelessness of his predicament.
A Message of Joy, Peace, Faith, Hope and Love
This contrast between Paul’s rather hopeless physical situation and his hopeful reaction reverberates through a letter he is writing. It is one of the four prison epistles. This one is to the Philippians, and it becomes a message of joy. The word joy occurs 16 times in its various forms in the letter. Spiritual joy, rejoicing in Christ, is a major theme. “I will continue to rejoice,” Paul writes to concerned believers while he is under house arrest in Rome (Philippians 1:18). He continues, “For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (verse 19). Paul has confidence in the outcome of his situation. No matter how bleak it is, no matter what ominous turn it may take, God’s will shall be done.
Meanwhile, the power of the Holy Spirit will see him through his predicament, no matter how difficult. Through Christ, Paul will face the worst and come out the best. What may happen to him in the near future is not the issue.
Paul’s present prison life, admittedly, is less than ideal. However, that is not the issue for the apostle Paul. He learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Encouraging the people he knew and loved, Paul says: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12).
The consequence? “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
It is these gifts — joy, peace, faith, hope — that will get Paul through his trial. Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that God and Christ are the source of all these spiritual blessings — ones we need to support us through life. He writes: “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
That was Paul’s secret. It nourished and sustained him despite all outer circumstances. He finished well, completing the task set before him, testifying “to the good news of God’s grace.”