I recently did a series of lectures on Paul’s “Prison Epistles” (Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon). I had never taught these letters before, nor had I closely examined them to the level required for a degree course, but what a blessing it has been to have done so. Upon completing the semester, I stood back to reflect on this collection of letters as a whole and something very profound stood out to me. Before we get to it, however, some background discussion of the letters is required.
Background to the Prison Epistles
There is a lot of scholarly debate over the nature of the collection of letters known as the Prison Epistles, such as authorship, time, place of writing, etc. For argument’s sake, we will start from the traditional position that Paul wrote these four letters from a Roman prison somewhere between 60-62 C.E. We read about this incarceration in the closing chapters of Acts. Paul has been forced into appealing his ongoing case to Caesar, which means an expensive and time-consuming trip to Rome (cf. Acts 27-28), followed by an indefinite wait for a hearing. In the closing verses of his narrative, Luke describes this imprisonment:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28:30-31)
Paul’s imprisonment was known as “military custody”. As the name suggests, this is where a person was given to the care of the military in order to ensure the prisoner was delivered for trial. Where a person was held could vary from imprisonment within a barracks or the camp, within one’s own home, or on the road being escorted to provincial capitals or Rome. It was somewhat of a privileged form of custody, but it was also the responsibility of the prisoner to pay his or her own way.
In Rome, Paul was held in his own rented space with only a single guard to whom he was chained. This would have likely been in an apartment in the many blocks of units in Rome, perhaps on a higher level where it was cheaper to rent. Luke tells us that Paul was “unhindered” (akōlutōs). This was a legal term that would infer both freedom to receive guests at his own leisure and freedom to preach the gospel without interference from his guard. In other words, Paul’s situation was not as hellish as it might have been for a typical low status criminal in a state dungeon awaiting execution. Paul was relatively comfortable, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, it was still a dark period in his life.
We could reasonably assume that at this stage Paul is around 60 years old. This is significant when we consider that the mortality rate in the ancient world was somewhere around the mid to late 50s—if you were lucky. Being somewhere above 60 would make Paul a geriatric. Moreover, this imprisonment came after 30-35 years of Christian ministry, in which he had single handedly taken the Gospel to the Gentile world. In modern terms, Paul is well beyond retirement age and at a stage in life where he should be sitting back in a comfortable armchair, sipping brandy, and writing his memoirs. In fact, one only has to read his catalogue of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:24-29 to realize that he deserved such a retirement. Yet here he is in prison. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that his trial could happen at any time and he faces one of two outcomes: release and freedom, or death. In fact, this was something Paul was clearly struggling to come to terms with, as we see from his words to the Philippians:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Phil 1:21-26)
A Profound Glimpse
Paul is literally at the crossroads of life and death. While the ultimate decision is out of his hands, they are nevertheless the two realities that he must face. Not surprisingly, death appears to be the ideal outcome. Given everything that Paul has accomplished to this point, one might say, “Absolutely Paul, you have earned your crown”. Yet in a bizarre twist, Paul concludes that the best thing for everyone is that he lives on. Despite the struggles he presently faces, and the possibility of it all being over so that he can enter into glory, he still sees the need of others as more important than his own.
For example, in Philippi there are a number of issues that Paul needs to address. Firstly, the Christian community was concerned about Paul’s welfare (1:12-14, 30); in response, Paul is even more concerned that they were concerned about him! Again, they were concerned about the health of their emissary, Epaphroditus; this concern also weighed heavily on Paul (3:25-30). Moreover, there is an imminent threat of divisions in the congregation that are weighing on Paul’s mind (2:1-11; 4:2). Finally, there is a potential threat of Judaizers (3:1-2).
In Ephesus (though this letter was a circular letter written to all the churches in Asia Minor) Paul needs to remind them of who they are in Christ, as they are quite possibly struggling with maintaining the Christian life in the face of strong pagan opposition. Interestingly, Paul did not know many of these Christians at all, yet he is still concerned for them.
Still in the region of Asia Minor, Paul writes to the Colossians (another church that he did not personally know) to warn them of the danger of some false teachers who were infiltrating their ranks. Finally, in a very personal correspondence to a member of the Colossian church, Paul writes to his friend and colleague, Philemon, to plead with him to save a young runaway slave from inevitable death.
In other words, despite the very real possibility that Paul could be executed at any moment, his primary concern is still for others, even those who he has never met. But how does this happen? How can someone with every reason to prioritize his own wellbeing be so concerned about everyone but himself? The secret, I think, is found in Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:4-7)
Paul tells them that the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds. In difficult circumstances or dark seasons, it is easy, natural, and perhaps even beneficial, to become inward focused. We need to be aware of our health, both physical and mental, and at times we need to withdraw and rest in order to recover. Yet in this dark place there is the ever-present danger of withdrawing altogether; of becoming altogether self-focused with no concern for others.
Paul says that the peace of God—not the charisma that glosses over suffering, not the self-belief, not more hard work, not “faking it till you make it”—will protect us, but from what? It will protect us from ourselves. That is, the peace of God will protect us from our negative thoughts, our despair, our anxiety; all the things that would seek to keep us down. The peace of God brings calmness in turmoil. It allows clarity in confusion. But most importantly, the peace of God enables us in the darkest times to still be a light, exuding the hope we have in Christ. This is what we see Paul exemplifying time and again, but especially here, in what is perhaps the most difficult situation of his life.
For me this thought brought a lot of encouragement during a particularly turbulent season. Changes in my work responsibilities, a new church plant, a new house, a new baby, and two significant deaths, to mention only the headlines. Yet here I am reminded again of the power of God’s peace to bring clarity and calm to even the most tumultuous of seasons.
 Brian Rapske, Paul in Roman Custody, ed. Bruce W. Winter, vol. 3, The Book of Acts in First Century Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 29.
 Ibid., 3:238–239.
 Cf. Ibid., 3:180–182.