Seeing that our study is taking us into the prison epistles, letters that Paul wrote while being imprisoned for his work as an evangelist and missionary, it pushed my mind to an experience I had the first time I engaged in a prison ministry. Many years ago, one of the elders in my church who was committed to ministering to the inmates of the local county jail asked me to come with him to help lead his weekly Bible study. I never thought to ask him what I should wear or how I should prepare seeing that I had him, the seasoned expert, with me.
When we arrived, we were searched and then escorted to a room where we would meet with the inmates. The men filed in and sat down in a large circle of folding chairs, dressed in their customary orange jumpsuits and flip flops. Many had their Bibles with them, and their faces and words reflected the appreciation they had for the time we would spend with them. I remember thoroughly enjoying the study time and their attention and interest.
When the study was over, the guards returned to escort the men back to their cells. My friend Andy went out of the room first with the inmates trailing behind with me bringing up the rear in the single file line. Andy had a suit and tie on while I was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. There had been a shift change among the guards, so they weren’t the same officers who had escorted us down to the room.
As we approached the barred door that would lead to the exit, I stepped out of line and walked over to the door. That move was met with harsh words from a guard yelling at me to get back in line. Instant panic gripped me as I became aware of my situation. I realized that this guard wasn’t the one who escorted us down, I wasn’t dressed like a pastor, I was separated from my friend who was too far in front of me, and this guy thought I was just another inmate for processing!
I tried to explain to him that I was only there for the Bible study and didn’t belong there. That was met by a cynical laugh and his response, “Yeah . . . right! I said, ‘Get in line!’” My face flushed from the instant panic. A few long moments later, my friend who was too far in front of me to see or communicate, reminded the guards that I was with him. There was no apology for the misunderstanding, but I remember to this day the relief I felt walking out into the free air. On the way home, I shared how much the experience frightened me but instead of consoling me, my friend just laughed and couldn’t wait to tell the other elders that their pastor almost got locked up!
I share that story because the letters in this study were written by a man who didn’t deserve to be where he was, a man who endured continual unfairness not only in imprisonment, but also in beatings, in hardships, and even in execution. I experienced only a few moments of that reality and folded up like a house of cards, but the apostle Paul used the unfairness he endured to deliver timeless and inspired messages not only to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and to Philemon, but also to churches throughout the centuries who have benefitted by his God-breathed words in a harsh and unforgiving place.
As you study through these letters, focus not only on where and to whom they were sent, but also where they came from. Remember the circumstance of their writing and think about things in your life that seem unfair. How are you responding?