During my regular Bible study recently I came across a surprising passage. I've been following the Apostle Paul traveling across great regions of the world bringing the Gospel to the multitudes. I sat in amazement as the Jesus revealed Himself to Saul in a blinding vision on the road to Damascus and the trajectory of Saul's life was completely and utterly transformed. My heart was full as I read of Saul's healing, filling with the Holy Spirit and calling to the Gentiles as Ananias laid hands on him. I followed as Paul moved forward into the beginning stages of all God has prepared for his life since the creation of the world - preaching across great regions of the earth, bringing the Good News of God's sacrifice to many people for the first time in their lives. Over many years, dutifully fulfilling his calling from heaven and seeing great fruit as result. And then I read this passage ...
"Then he ordered the centurion to keep [Paul] in custody, but to treat him with indulgence [giving him some liberty] and not to hinder his friends from ministering to his needs and serving him .. But when two years had gone by, Felix was succeeded in office by Porcius Festus; and wishing to gain favor with the Jews, Felix left Paul still a prisoner in chains." (Acts 24:24, 27, Amplified).
It hit me, some of God's best people are in chains. (Including thousands of believers around the world today).
The question then begs to be asked: why would God allow this? We know that "the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord" (Psalm 37:23) and that the early Church was most likely interceding on Paul's behalf (see Acts 12). But here Paul is after a lifetime of arguably the most pure-hearted service to the Lord of any human that ever has or will live. My initial reaction was that God should ensure that Paul is out there preaching! God had called and gifted him for the proclamation of the Gospel; already hundreds of thousands of people responding to follow Christ. How many people are missing the Gospel because of this unholy delay? Now an Apostle and pillar of our Church is sitting and rotting in a jail cell for years on end? We know God's arm is not short to deliver - he had done it before. While there are factors at work that we may never understand on this side of heaven, here are several consolations:
1. God held him for one
For nearly two years, Paul held regular conversations with the ruler Felix and his wife Drusilla about the truth of Christianity. Many prisoners for the Lord over Church history and around the world today have brought the truth of Christ to the forgotten prisoners of the world. There are times when our ministry is not advancing because God has us strategically placed to bring His Word to one person.
2. Paul wrote
During Paul's imprisonment in the later years of his life he took time to write to some of his churches around the world. While we don't know if he would have written these "prison epistles" otherwise, we do know his time in prison impacted these letters. We must not miss the multiplication power of writing. Because Paul, sitting in prison, wrote to the Church the message of the Gospel was carried far beyond his actual presence or human capability. Now with scribes copying the Word and carrying it around the world a million times over - these messages are included to this day in the bestselling book of all time - The Holy Bible. His writings in those prison cells influencing billions of people across earth on this very day.
3. God uses His leaders to set an example
11 of 12 of the inner circle of Christ were martyred for their faith. Many other early Church leaders too, including Paul who soon enough was beheaded outside the walls of Rome for his testimony to Jesus Christ. His time in prison and his letters of faith from prison continue to encourage countless billions across earth to stay faithful to the Lord in times of enduring pain and unexplainable circumstance. God doesn't just want to use us to preach - he wants to use us to live out the message we preach.