15 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
So then (the Holy Spirit using his custody to clarify and enforce this truth), the three main prison letters (to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians) set forth more powerfully than anywhere else the supreme, sovereign, undisputed and unrivalled lordship of Jesus Christ. The person and work of Christ are given cosmic proportions, for God created all things through Christ and has reconciled all things through Christ. The fullness of the Godhead, which dwelt in Christ, had also worked through him. Christ is the agent of all God’s work of creation and redemption. In addition, having humbled himself to the cross, God has highly exalted him. All three prison letters say so. God has given him the name or rank above all others (Phil. 2:9). All things have been put under his feet (Eph. 1:22). It is God’s will that in everything he might have the supremacy (Col. 1:18). Was it not through his very confinement that his eyes were opened to see the victory of Christ and the fullness of life, power and freedom which is given to those who belong to Christ? Paul’s perspective was adjusted, his horizon extended, his vision clarified and his witness enriched by his prison experience.
Thirdly his ministry was authenticated by his sufferings. Nothing proves the sincerity of our beliefs like our willingness to suffer for them. So Paul had to suffer, and be seen to suffer, for the gospel he was preaching. It was not only that in Isaiah the servant who brings light to the nations must suffer, that the vocations to service and to suffering are intertwined, that the witness and the martyr are one (*martys*), and that the seed which multiplies is the seed which dies (Jn. 12:24). It is also that Paul was suffering for ‘his’ gospel (2 Tim. 2:8-9), for the ‘mystery’ revealed to him that Jews and Gentiles were equal members of the body of Christ. That is why he could write of ‘my sufferings for you’ (Eph. 3:13; Col. 1:24), and could describe himself as Christ’s prisoner ‘for the sake of you Gentiles’ (Eph. 3:1; cf. Col. 4:3). Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and trials were all due to his uncompromising espousal of the Gentile cause. It was because of his witness to the Gentiles that the Jews rose up in such fury against him. Paul paid dearly for his loyalty to the freeness and universality of the gospel. But his appeals to the churches to live a life worthy of the gospel were all the more authentic because he was himself a prisoner on account of the gospel (e.g. Eph. 4:1; 6:19-20). He was ready to die for it; they must live to adorn it.
Was Paul released after the ‘two whole years’ Luke mentions (30)? He clearly expected to be (Phil. 1:19-26; Phm. 22). And the pastoral epistles supplies evidence that he was, for he resumed his travels for about two more years before being re-arrested, re-tried, condemned and executed in AD 64. By then he could write that he had fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith (2 Tim. 4:7). Now the next generation must step into his shoes and continue to work. Just as Luke’s Gospel ended with the prospect of a mission to the nations (Lk. 24:47; cf. Acts 1:8), so the Acts ends with the prospect of a mission radiating from Rome to the world. Luke’s description of Paul preaching ‘with boldness’ and ‘without hindrance’ symbolizes a wide open door, through which we in our day have to pass. The Acts of the Apostles have long ago finished. But the acts of the followers of Jesus will continue until the end of the world, and their words will spread to the ends of the earth.