The Captivity of Paul and Contemporary Imprisonment


Richard Hollerman 

Have you ever wondered how Paul viewed his capture and time in captivity in Rome? The apostle himself gives us a few hints as we read through his captivity letters and his last extant letter, 2 Timothy.

You will notice that I am not calling the four New Testament letters his “Prison Epistles.” When I was in school, this was the title they gave to the epistles or letters written from Rome. You may remember the term also since it is commonly found in books and studies and teachers may refer to it in this way. In reality, the letters were not written from a Roman prison, but came from Paul’s house arrest in the capital city.

Luke’s account of Paul’s captivity and imprisonment is found in the book of Acts.  There we read of the apostle’s arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21:27-40), his stay in jail in Caesarea (23:11-26:32), and his journey to Rome (27:1-28:14). When he arrived at this seat of government, Paul was not placed in a prison but “was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him” (28:16). Luke then tells us what Paul was doing in Rome: “He stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him” (28:30). Although he had some freedom, he was chained to a guard (cf. Ephesians 6:20) and in his second captivity, he was also held with chains (cf. 2 Timothy 1:16). Can you imagine the discomfort that this gave, the embarrassment it brought, and the hindrance to movement it caused!

Thus, Paul was not in jail or prison but was permitted to stay in rented quarters. It was here that the apostle wrote three letters to assemblies of Christians—those in Philippi, Colossae, and Ephesus. He also wrote to Philemon, a brother who lived in Colossae. We may date the writing of these letters about AD 60-62 or AD 61-63.

Let’s examine these letters. Paul wrote an important letter to his beloved brothers in Philippi, to the the first city where he preached in Ephesus, located in Macedonia (see Acts16:9-40), and to a city that apparently he had never visited—Colossae. Now consider Philippi. While preaching in this Roman colony, Paul was beaten with rods (vv. 22-23), thrown into prison (v. 23) and soon was released to go to other cities in the province (v. 40). Just what did Paul write to the Philippian saints some years later?

He said that his circumstances in Roman captivity “turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Other believers in Rome were encouraged to preach while he was in his “imprisonment” (actually, as we noticed earlier, Paul was in his own rented house) (vv. 13-14). Paul hoped and expected to be released from this captivity (vv. 21-26). Paul said that he was “being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service” of the Philippians’ faith (2:17), but he continued to rejoice in the Lord (vv. 17-18).

Even during his limitations in Rome, the apostle rejoiced in his circumstances! Do we do the same? Paul acknowledged the support of the Philippian brothers and assured them that God had given him the contentment to endure poverty when needed (4:10-18).  This letter has been called “the letter of joy” (see 1:4, 25: 2:2, 17, 18, 29; 4:1) since Paul “rejoiced” so frequently in his circumstances (cf. 1:18; 2:17, 18, 28; 3:1, 4:4, 10). We can learn from this! Even when we are in hard circumstances and our freedom is limited, we can rejoice in the Lord Jesus as he did for those two years in Rome.

Another letter that Paul wrote during his captivity was that written to the brothers in Ephesus (some think this was a circular letter sent to other assemblies in the area, since some of the early manuscripts omit “at Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1). Paul tells the saints that he was “the prisoner of the Lord” (4:1) since it was for Christ’s sake that he had been taken captive in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome after two years in the Caesarean jail. In other words, the apostle was not apprehended and kept for these four years (two in Caesarea and two in Rome) because of any crime on his part, but because of his preaching the good news of Christ Jesus. Even today some people are held for crimes they didn’t commit or held for their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is noteworthy that Paul didn’t lament his circumstances in this letter. Instead, he praised God for His salvation (cf. Ephesians 1:3-23; 2:1-10) and went on to describe the effects of the gospel in offering salvation to the Gentiles (2:11-13). He said that his readers should not “lose heart at [his] tribulations” for them (3:13) for they were necessary in his preaching to the Ephesians and others. Paul was too interested in the welfare of his readers and praising God to become engrossed in his own limiting circumstances and personal suffering!

Paul also sent letters to Colossae—one to the assembly (Colossians 1:2) and one to Philemon who lived in Colossae (Philemon 10 with Colossians 4:9).  When he wrote to the Colossians, he referred to his “sufferings” for their sake (Colossians 1:24). He says little about himself but did say that Tychicus and Onesimus would tell the brothers about his “situation” in Rome (Colossians 4:9). He refers to Aristarchus as his “fellow prisoner” (v. 10), apparently meaning that he also was in captivity of some kind. He goes on to say, “Remember my imprisonment” (v. 18). Paul was not above asking for their prayers on his behalf. We can see that the apostle was not dominated by his captivity but didn’t refuse to mention it either. We can learn that we also should not be overcome with sorry because of our trials but neither should we refuse to admit them and request prayers from faithful disciples.

When Paul wrote to Philemon, the brother in Colossae (Philemon 1), he called himself “Paul, the aged” and said that he was “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (v. 9). Thus, he recognized that it was for Christ that he had been apprehended and had been in captivity for going on four long years. But his “imprisonment” had a good effect in one respect. He had brought his “child Onesimus” to faith in Christ (v. 10). Perhaps this could not have happened apart from his time in Roman captivity. He told Philemon that he had wanted to keep Onesimus “that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel” (v. 13). But instead of doing this, Paul was sending Onesimus (the converted run-away slave) back to Philemon. At the conclusion of the letter, Paul refers to “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus” (v. 23). Apparently, this brother also was held captive because of his commitment to the Lord Jesus.

The letters of Colossians and Philemon show us that, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the trials, there are benefits for the gospel of Christ. People may hear of the good news who would not have been reached in another way. Further, one can rejoice in difficult circumstances when we see God’s will in the situation and see how Jesus Christ is glorified (cf. “joy” and “rejoice” at Colossians 2:8 and Philemon 7).

Bible students conclude that Paul was released from this first Roman captivity and traveled for two or three years more (perhaps AD 62 or 63 until about AD 65 to 67). After this, Paul was again captured and spent time in a literal prison in the city of Rome. The letter of 2 Timothy was the last one that the apostle wrote.  He challenges his protégé Timothy with these words: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8). As in his earlier letters, Paul says that he was Christ’s “prisoner” since he had been captured and thrown into jail because of Christ. He went on to say that he was “suffering” for Christ’s sake (cf. 1:12). He wrote that “all who are in Asia” had turned away from him, but Onesiphorus had not been ashamed of his chains (1:15-16).

As he continues to write, Paul urges Timothy to “suffer hardship with [him], as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Apparently, Timothy later was imprisoned himself (cf. Hebrews 13:23), thus Paul’s encouragement here was valuable. The apostle is much freer in mentioning his imprisonment in this last of his letters. He said that because of the gospel, “I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal” (2:9). Since Paul was careful to be a law-abiding person, he must have keenly felt the impression before others that he was a common “criminal.”  He said that he was willing to “endure all things” for the sake of his fellow-believers (v. 10).

Paul also mentions his perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, but he claimed, “Out of them all the Lord rescued me” (3:11). Although he remained a prisoner at this time, he did recognize God’s hand in the situation and inwardly he was free! Toward the end of this significant letter, Paul makes reference to the end that he sees coming: “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (4:6-7). He had the assurance that the end was approaching but he had been faithful during his life, something that must have filled his heart with much confidence as well as comfort.

In one respect, Paul felt alone at this time of his life. It was not easy for anyone to visit him and encourage him, though he wanted Timothy to come with a cloak for the winter, as well as scrolls and parchments for his reading and study (2 Timothy 4:13, 21). He lamented, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me,” but he did not have resentment over those who departed: “May it not be counted against them” (v. 16). A lesser man might have been filled with resentment and self-pity, but Paul would not allow the behavior of others to defeat his joy and assurance.

Paul had complete assurance that even though others might depart, Jesus would be there with him: “The Lord stood with me and strengthened me. . . . The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (v. 18).

Paul’s first captivity in Rome, when he had some freedom to receive visitors as well as his later imprisonment in the dungeon where he awaited trial and eventual death, remind us that God hasn’t promised us “a bed of roses” but, instead, He has forewarned us that our life would be one of hardship and persecution (cf. 2 Timothy 2:3; 4:12).

However, even during these times of trial, difficulty, and suffering, God will be with us, protect us, and give us eternal victory. Although life may not be the kind of pleasant experience that everyone seems to want, it will be one that pleases God and leads to eternal life. Let’s follow Paul’s example and find that the Lord will give us a crown of righteousness on the Great Day of His return (cf. 2 Timothy 4:8).

Some of us don’t often think of imprisonment but we need to remind ourselves that there are hundreds of thousands of prisoners in America who need our interest and concern. While most of these are guilty for certain crimes (some large and some small), there are some who are innocent. Then consider the rest of the world. Think of the millions who have been unjustly imprisoned in Russia, in China, in Muslim lands, and in the former Soviet countries.

Although the experience of Paul may not entirely resemble these modern imprisonments, every prisoner can learn something from the apostle’s experience. Further, everyone can find comfort and encouragement in looking to Paul’s Lord and Savior in faith and complete submission. Let’s determine to do this in our own life. Let’s also be willing to bless those followers of Christ who are suffering for the sake of righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:10-11; 25:34-36; Hebrews 10:34; 13:3). Let’s find Paul’s captivity to be a stimulus for our own life of good deeds.


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