Some of us reading this have visited someone behind bars before. Some of us may have even spent some time there ourselves. But all of us can at least somewhat imagine what it would be like as we’ve seen movies, TV shows, and even heard first hand descriptions about what it’s like on the inside. Getting locked up can be a badge of honor in the street. It’s often given props in hip-hop music and culture. But even still we all know it’s not good. It’s not a place we’d like to go for any amount of time. It’s ugly.
Just a few minutes ago someone that attends our church sat on my couch in my office. He just got out of jail today at 3am. The conversation talked about the overcrowding and how he had to sleep on an air mattress. Although God used the situation to touch him, he shared the discomfort it brought. I’ve personally done prison ministry in Delaware, Florida, Michigan, and even the notorious Rikers Island in NYC. There is some messed up stuff that goes down behind those walls.
Now imagine being in and out of prison for nearly twenty years. This wasn’t the prison we know today in places like the U.S. or other developed countries. These were some nasty first century Roman prison cells. No electric, no heat, no A/C, no toilets, no TV… you get the picture. It was grimy. On top of all that, you’re not a real criminal – you’re just guilty of telling people about Christ. That’s your crime. This scenario we’re imagining was reality for a dude named Paul from the New Testament. He wrote quite a few letters from lockdown, but the one I want to focus on was the one he wrote to his friends in the city of Philippi aka the book of Philippians.
If we honestly put ourselves in Paul’s shoes – you know we’d be complaining. We probably would have given up this “sharing the gospel” thing by now. It would have seemed too hard. We would have questioned God through all the suffering. But, surprisingly that’s not Paul’s tone in this letter. In fact, scholars say Philippians is considered his happiest letter. What? How could he be happy in his current repetitive situation? Check out his words in Philippians 1:12-14. “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the Christians here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah.” So Paul was turning this messed up situation for the good. He was still reppin’ Christ behind bars and it was affecting people in a huge way. Not only did it touch people on the inside, but as he wrote these letters and people on the outside heard about it they were affected as well. He was determined that they couldn’t imprison the message.
Sometimes there is just that weight of life and circumstances. There are those things that we have no control over. They just happen. God allows them to happen. We lose our job, our car breaks down, or someone we care about gets sick. How do we react to those things? Do we react as a person who has true freedom in Christ, or someone who is on spiritual lockdown? We did a series at Crossover this past summer on the book of Philippians and the third week of the series we were looking at chapter 4 where it talks about rejoicing in the Lord always. It’s easy to rejoice when everything is all good, right? Things were going well at our ministry those past few weeks we were all amped up and we walked into our offices on a Friday morning and found out that we had been robbed. $7,000 worth of equipment was stolen. Bam! That will suck the life and joy out of you real quick. We felt violated and numb and even had this holy anger. How could someone break into a church? As I continued to study for the message that Friday afternoon and looked at the text in chapter four…I knew this message was for me too. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I was like “yeah, I need that peace. I need to still rejoice.” It’s so easy to keep focusing on the ill stuff when something goes wrong. Then I read down to verse 8 and that hit me too! “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” I had to refocus my thoughts on what was good. A hundred good things could happen, but if one or two things go wrong – we’ll usually tend to focus on that. What happened from the break in is a whole different article I know I’ll share later. Let me tell you that God did his thing through that. Wow!
God used this letter from lockdown to rock our world right where we were at in our current circumstances. He loves to do that. You might be reading this right now and going through your storm and you find it tough to rejoice and tough to focus on the good. Remember Christ took care of the sentence for our mistakes so don’t have to be on lockdown. Look at Paul’s example in Philippians - and live free!