Last week at Bible study I heard something truly amazing and faith-stirring! We are
going through the book of Acts and we’re almost to the end. At this point in the narrative Paul has been on house arrest for two years awaiting a trial for his alleged crime against the Jewish nation for not obeying the Jewish laws and teaching other not to obey. Paul was falsely accused and given no chance to defend himself until he requested an audience with Caesar. Paul was later granted his request and sent to Rome. We know from history that Paul was again jailed in Rome and spent the rest of his life in prison before he was martyred for his faith.
From prison, Paul wrote a vast majority of the New Testament, including the epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 & 2 Timothy, which were written just before his execution. Paul knows that he will never again be able to visit or preach at the churches he planted throughout his ministry and poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into so he uses his time in prison to impart vital words of wisdom, correction, and encouragement before he departs from this life. People do the same now days also. Often times, when someone knows their time is coming to an end they will do such things as write a last will and testament, give special directions on what to do with property and inheritances, to imparting last words of wisdom. Much like Yoda tells Luke just before he dies that “When gone am I, the last of the Jedi will you be…pass on what you have learned” and “there is another Skywalker”, so too do we do in this world.
Paul’s letters from prison were delivered to the intended person or church where tradition tells us the letter was read aloud to the whole congregation. How sweet a treasure that must have been to receive a letter from their most beloved Apostle, mentor, and friend! Like receiving words of wisdom from beyond this life, it must have been a most joyful moment, yet somber and educational. Paul, writing under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is weaving together the different parts of his ministry to create one giant tapestry of theology and doxology. Later cannonized in the 4th Century, these letters would become the foundation of Christian life and world view.
The amazing experience I was referring to earlier was a Pauline experience my friend Mike had when he was in high school. He shared with us how when he was a sophomore in high school he began writing to a man who was in prison. A member of his church gave him his name and address in the prison and they began to correspond regularly. The prisoner, John, was a man who was on his second sentence for a repeated crime. Since his first stint in the can he had been converted by God and was made a believer. Over the course of about a year and dozens of letters John poured out his heart to Mike and offered countless words of encouragement to a young high school student.
In his letters to Mike were countless scripture references, words of encouragement, exhortations, prayer requests, and godly advice. This man, though locked up and separated from mainstream Christianity certainly knew his Bible and treasured it more than life itself! John describes himself as a hearer of the Word, but not a doer before his conversion; and much like Paul, considered himself a Pharisee zealous for the wrong things that he thought were right. But when faced with the overwhelming conviction of his sins fell to his knees and believed on Christ for his salvation. He recounts his conversion in his letters just like Paul. He offers exhortations to continue the work God has begun in Mike’s life, and gives the hope for why we do the things we do and why we suffer, the glory of the name of God. By far the most enlightening part of the letter was when John revealed to Mike that although he is physically in bondage, he is freer that any of his fellow prisoners because he has been set free from the spiritual bondage that held his soul captive for years. Though he was confined to the walls of the prison, he has access to the throne of God in heaven! He also recalls all the blessing of the outside world and how he no longer takes for granted those blessings now that he no longer enjoys them. The Word of God has also become precious to him. He eagerly looks forward to the church service on his tier and the weekly Bible studies he and the 4 other Christian prisoners have. He is a true embodiment of a man who loves the Lord with all his heart, mind, and soul despite the fact that he is a sinner. He looks to God for help in every aspect of his life because he knows what he was like without God and never wants to go back to his former self. This man’s life resembled Paul’s in so many ways and I was in awe of the heart he has for the things of God and his passion to pass them on to others!
It was amazing sitting there in Bible study listening to Mike read one of those letters to the group. I felt like I was pastor Timothy in Ephesus reading Paul’s letter to fight the good fight of faith. Much like Timothy was receiving priceless words of advice from his mentor and good friend, so too was Mike receiving advice from a mentor, even one whom until then he had never met. I couldn’t help but think about what an awesome experience that must have been for Mike at such a young age to hear words like that coming from a man who had lived a life of decadence and sin and reaped its consequences, but was full of joy in the Lord for his salvation! The letter he read to the group was dated September 22, 1999, and even though it is 12 years old it seems as though John was reaching out to me personally in the present moment and I was suddenly Timothy receiving a cherished letter from my mentor.
That got me thinking, who is my Paul? Who do I look to as an example of godly living and selfless servanthood? To be honest, I’m not sure. I believe we all need to find our “Paul” and like the disciples, sit at the feet of their mentor as soak in as much as possible. Men and women who have gone before us and experienced things we know nothing of are our most valuable resource apart from Scripture and God has sovereignly placed these people in our lives for our benefit. We should earnestly seek them out and learn from them all that we can to train our lives for godliness. As Paul writes, “we must always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in us”, “have this mind that was also in Christ Jesus”, and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. God has unique and surprising ways of teaching us and molding us into the image of His Son Jesus, and if we keep our eyes of faith open and focused we will be able to see all that He intends for us and we will one day receive the reward for our faith and hard work when we meet our Redeemer in heaven.