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Prisoners of War
"Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ." Philemon 1:1 .
"There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus." Philemon 1:23 .
"Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner saluteth you." Colossians 4:10 .
"Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners." Romans 16:7 .
WE have only one word where Paul had two. In all these cases we say "prisoner"; Paul did not use the same word in all cases. Paul used two perfectly distinct words; he had therefore two perfectly distinct meanings. "Paul, a prisoner, a δέυμιος of Jesus Christ": this was literal. There was not any doubt that Paul was oftentimes in the most literal sense a prisoner, a man locked up, a bondsman in chains, and his address was the city gaol. "My fellow-prisoner," "my fellow-prisoners": the word which he used in the first instance is not used in these later examples; it is a larger, tenderer, sweeter word, fuller altogether as to thought and music and blessedness of experience. This is the infirmity of language: we speak roughly, we lose much for want of critical discrimination. There are persons, we are told, who are colour-blind, to whom, therefore, the rainbow is nothing; there are others who are indeed word-blind or word-deaf, they do not distinguish between terms, and all voices are alike to them; if they hear the mere sound it is enough, without studying its quality and its suggestiveness. Let there be no doubt about the literal imprisonment of Paul. As a simple matter of fact he was often in gaol. There is no need to disguise that fact. Paul rather magnified it, dwelt upon it with singular complacency, and got out of its bitterness something sweeter than the honeycomb. But Paul never consented to live within the literal meaning of the word "prison." To that term he added others, and thus he glorified it. It is not "Paul, a prisoner," it is "Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ" where is the gaol now? "My fellow-prisoner in Jesus Christ"; "I Paul, the prisoner of the Lord." How much richer we might be, if we drew more heavily upon the bank of the riches of Christ! There would be those who called themselves mere prisoners; they saw nothing but the prison walls, they felt nothing but the prison chains, they spoke of nothing but the prison diet and deprivation of companionship and many of the advantages of civilisation. Paul never talked in a whining tone. He enlarged the gaol by taking Christ into it, and when they were both together, though in prison, they were in heaven. The Apostle Paul always looked beyond the gaoler; he said to him in effect, You are but an instrument; you carry the keys, and yet you are only a key yourself; you do not know what you are doing; I bear you no resentment or animosity, you are in the hands of the king. Men do not come to that high estate of spiritual interpretation and spiritual comfort without undergoing many a drilling process, many a stripping and laceration, many a disappointment, and without much experience of the subtlety and strength of the vanquished enemy. Young Christians need not suppose that they can leap into this high and ennobling ecstasy; it is only to be attained by patience, suffering, sanctified disappointment, and battle.
What was the effect of this magnifying of the prison by associating it with the name of Jesus Christ? It gave Paul all strength. Even his weakness became an element of power. Turning over his chains in the prison, he said, I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me: these are not chains, they are feathers in wings; these are not bonds when properly interpreted; these outside people, Cæsars and kings and rulers and procurators and magistrates, they are only so many pieces which the King himself is moving: all this is educational, it is to have an effect upon myself, and it is to have an effect upon after ages: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me: I even sang at Philippi, and sang, not in the morning dawn, but at the midnight hour. It filled the Apostle with joy. On one occasion his rapture was so great that he said, Yea, we exceedingly glory in tribulations also: we would not be without them; those elements of blackness greatly help the picture: we could not have a complete year without the winter: we have gone so far in the spiritual life that even tribulation itself is one of the black servants in our Father's household.
Then Paul never looked at anything in its simple individuality and solitariness. He did not deal in bonds but in horizons; he said, All things work together for good to them that love God: this prison is one of the "all things"; without this prison experience my education would not be complete: this will sweeten me, this will soften me, this will give me mellowness: I am conscious of a kind of rude strength to be obtained in the schools, but I did want the suppleness, the exquisiteness of humility, and the beauty of chastening which such afflictions alone can give, and now my education is being perfected. No man's education is perfected who has not been stripped naked and left in the wilderness to do the best he could for himself. You cannot pamper a man up to the completeness of his education; he must be left out all night among the rocks, and in the morning you will discover a new tone in the gamut of his utterance. "I have learned," said Paul, making long emphasis upon the word "learned," as if it were a seventy years school-time, "in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." It was not an inspiration, it was a learning; it was not a triumph of genius, it was a result of experience. This is the royal road to contentment, repose, and triumph.
But this is not the only meaning of the word "prisoner." There is a larger word. Paul, by dwelling in the larger prison, made no account of the smaller gaol. What then, is the higher and wider meaning? See a Roman general going forth to war: are his victories counted only by his slain? By no means. His victories are also counted by his prisoners of war. Watch him returning home: see how vast a procession is formed with himself at the head. Who are these men constituting this procession? They are prisoners of war, men who have been taken at the point of the spear. That is the literal meaning: they are not slain men, they are not necessarily wounded men, but they are men who have felt the point of the spear, and have said, We yield: the battle, the victory, is yours. Watch them marching after the great conqueror: he is proud of them, he exhibits them in the city as trophies of war, spoils of a mighty hand. Thus we come to the larger meaning of the term prisoner. Always remember the first and vulgar meaning of a man being haled to prison and shut up with criminals, and chained as if he were a wild beast; that fact must never be lost sight of as one element in the experience of the apostles: but sometimes Paul calls himself a man taken at the point of the spear. Saul was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the Lord, and the Lord held his lightning spear to his breast, and he said, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" He was a prisoner of war, he was captured by the Lord.
Jesus Christ is represented as going forth to war and bringing back his spoils. Imagine the scene: Paul was mad against the Lord, and he went forth to war; there was a tremendous shock of battle, but the Lord conquered at the gate of Damascus, and he who but yesternight was full of storm and fury and tumult was led to-day by the hand into the city, a prisoner of war, one who had fallen beneath the spear of the Saviour. Paul therefore delighted to speak about his fellow-prisoners, not men and women who had necessarily been in gaol with him; they might have been in the literal prison with him, but he uses a totally different word in speaking about this imprisonment, and he says to his fellow-pilgrims on this journey, Brethren, we are fellow-prisoners, we were taken at the point of the spear, we were rebelling against Christ, and defying him, and he conquered. We are fond of speaking about our fellow-students, and our fellow-passengers, and our fellow-travellers: Paul was fond of speaking about his fellow-prisoners, and they went on behind the triumphant Christ, calling him Lord and Master; for in fair fight he had vanquished them, and they were now prisoners of war, spoils of battle. Unless we take in this element we shall lose a great deal of instruction, and shall fall far short of the right conception of Christian relationship and Christian responsibility. Where are the prisoners of war now? Men walk into church supposedly through the gay, brightly coloured door of reason, custom, hereditary habit; men now in a conceited intellectuality accept the Cross. We do not want such acceptance, and the Cross will not take it; it is a battle question, it is a question of man against God, creature against the Creator, self against sacrifice; and every man who is in the right church, and, by right of Christ's sovereignty and permission, was captured at the point of the spear. Here is the heroic element in Christian experience. True Christians are conquered men. They do not walk in with high port and patronising dignity, as who should say, We are willing to accept certain propositions, and to sustain certain relationships. They come in broken-down, captured bound hand and foot, not a limb their own, not a breath their own, spoils of war. If you could have conquered Christ, why did you not carry on the fight to the point of victory? No man can overwhelm omnipotence: everything goes down before the weakness of the Cross, for it is the power of God. So we must relieve the Church of an infinite pile of patronage, and intellectual assent, and respectable endorsement; we must strengthen the Church by thinning its numbers; by reducing the quantity we must get at the reality of the true nature of the Church: quality will conquer. If we have not been conquered by Christ we are not Christians: if we have one pulsation of our own will left in us we are as bad as we ever were. We never can tell whether we are Christ's or not until we have come to the point of absolute bankruptcy of self-trust. If we can utter one wish or will, or signal of desire, and make a point of it, as who should say, Beyond that we cannot go, we know nothing about the Cross. If a man should say to Christ, "I accept the Cross because it is the way to heaven," he does not accept the Cross. There is no bribery in this holy sanctuary of truth. If a man should say, "I will be a Christian, because, if the worst should come to the worst, I have nothing to lose, and if Christianity should be true, I have all to gain," he knows nothing about Christianity: what he says is a fact, but must not be used as a reason; this is trading with heaven, this is proceeding upon the principle of equivalents. A man who says, "I will give you my heart if you will give me your heaven," has no right to speak, and his vain words are not heard, his abominable prayer either dies among the clouds or falls back into his own heart as a burden that will distress him.
If we are prisoners of the Lord in the true sense of the term we are prisoners of love. That is to say, we want to be the Lord's bondsmen, we say, This captivity is freedom; we never knew what it was to be free until we were the slaves of Christ; this is glorious liberty; we have been introduced into the realm and music of the Divine movement; we are now no longer outcast, and alien, and rebellious, and self-idolatrous, we are part of the great scheme of God, let him put us in our places that we may fulfil his decree, and his sovereignty. He who is a prisoner against his will will suffer night and day; the darkness will be oppressive to him, the silence will be an added punishment, his withdrawment from social routine will weigh heavily upon his soul, but he who takes Christ with him into the innermost prison into which Paul and Silas were thrust will sing at midnight. Any man can sing at noonday; he who sings with the soul at midnight is always in summer noontide.
If we are prisoners of the Lord we are no longer our own. The cry of Saul must be the cry of man to the end of his experience "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" The very utterance was a sign of conversion; such words were not natural to such lips. Saul was not the man to give himself over to any other man in heaven or in earth: Saul was a man who relied upon himself; he issued fiats, he did not obey them; he gave orders; when he breathed he breathed out threatenings and slaughter. We must contrast the two utterances if we would know the reality, the depth, and the grandeur of the change: Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter Saul, who said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? When the spear of this Infinite Cæsar was pointed at his heart, when the next stroke meant death, Saul said Lord, Thou hast conquered, I am thine. There is so little of this conquest-experience now; let me repeat, there is far too much intellectual assent, and acceptance of propositions, and endorsements of written orthodoxies: what we should desire is that we should be overwhelmed, overpowered, conquered, and one print of that spear should be the only order of dignity we ask for. Our prisonership in Christ is attested by our scars, and not by our opinions; by our wounds, and not by our intellectual conceits.
Prisoners taken by the great Roman generals had no will of their own which they dared express: prisoners taken by Jesus Christ have no will of their own; it is not a suppression wrought by fear, but a suppression, an annihilation, wrought by supremest, sublimest love. We must in all things consult the Captain of our salvation. He has written his law "He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me, and he shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself unto him." What are the commands of the Captain? What does the conquering Captain want us to be, and to do? Read his Book, study his spirit, invoke his inspiration, and then go forth and fight on the side we once opposed. This is what Saul did; he was no sooner taken captive by Christ and instructed in the Divine way than he began to fight on the other side, and people heard only this about him, that he who once persecuted the Church was now preaching the gospel. A glorious inconsistency! Not an inconsistency representative of intellectual pedantry, but inconsistency equivalent to transformation, conversion, resurrection. There will be great inconsistency between the risen body and the flesh that was laid in the ground, but we must accept some inconsistencies as necessary developments in education, and in spiritual progress. Are we fighting for Christ? Not, Are we talking over him? Are we disputing about him? but, Are we really fighters? Are our blows battles half-won? Do we strike timidly? Do we whisper where we ought to speak in thunder? We are called upon to be soldiers of Christ "Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ"; "Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye should be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." The image is military "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world," wherefore God's panoply be yours. Go out in no leathern armour of your own, but in the solid steel of heaven. The world would then soon become aware of the higher military element that never yet was vanquished, but ever yet came home at night laden with spoil. Christ has never been worsted. He has been in gaol, he has been in hunger and thirst and nakedness, in cold, and weariness; he has not had where to lay his head; he has been houseless when the foxes went home, and the bird nestled in its little house in the tree: but he has never been conquered, he never gave in. Not once did he say, The world is stronger than I am, and I must be overwhelmed by it, and I resign my trust as infinitely beyond my strength. He must reign till he hath put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. The one great voice that brake upon the attentive ear of the listening seer was a voice of thunder and tempest, whirlwinds, and oceans pouring out their thunder-music, crying, Hallelujah! the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth; the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ. There is no craven tone in all the Christian statement. When Christianity has gone back it was but the refluence of the wave that it might return in prouder strength, and assert the sovereignty of God.
Almighty God, we thank thee that thou hast spoken unto us a little at a time. Thou hast given us portions of thy Word in different ways, as we have been able to bear them. Thus hast thou broken bread for our souls, and thus hast thou prevented or satisfied the hunger of our Divinity. We thank thee for all thy music; it is all thine, the great solemnity and the tender whisper are both the Lord's. Give us the listening heart; forbid that thy music should die in our ears; may that music find its way into the soul, and redouble itself according to our necessity and growth. We bless thee for thy Word, a lamp, a glory round about us, a sweet voice within us, a friend, a companion, a counsellor, an angel; all blessings in one great benefaction. May we read thy Word eagerly, may we fix our eyes upon it intently, looking steadfastly, pryingly, penetratingly, into the law of liberty, lest anything should escape our attention. May ours be the steadfast look, the eager expectant glance; then thou wilt show us thy goodness, and that shall be in itself meanwhile as thy glory, thy mercy shall be the pledge of thy majesty. We thank thee that since we have known thy Word we have cared for none other; thou dost fill our souls, yea thy presence doth overflow the vessel of our life, so that we have no more room to contain thee: Lord, withdraw not thyself; increase our capacity. We gather always at the Cross, for there alone may men pray the great prayer of confession and sorrow and self-renunciation and expectancy of redemption. At the Cross we have liberty in our prayer; at the Cross the heart may make its greatest speeches; at the Cross thou didst never deny pardon to any broken heart. We have done the things we ought not to have done; we ask thee to forgive our lawlessness: we have left undone the things that we ought to have done; we ask thee to forgive our neglect. We have sinned against thee thus with both hands: we have broken thy law and we have left it a dead letter: the Lord pity us, the Lord behold us at the Cross, and by the power of the priesthood of Christ come to us and say to each contrite soul, Thy sins which are many are all forgiven thee. Thus shall we have new childhood, new youth, a new glad summer morning, alive with light and music, and we shall run life's race hopefully and successfully. Teach us the meaning of thy providences: we are always misunderstanding God; we affix our interpretations to thy providences and mistake the one for the other: save us from annotating the way of God; may we wait for it, rest in it, be thankful for it, commit ourselves wholly unto it, and save ourselves from the destructiveness of our own opinion. Thou hast done great things for us whereof we are glad. Thou knowest the treachery of the heart; it would count the little things, the adversaries, the disappointments, and add them up to a great charge against the love of God: may we beware of the enemy when he would thus tempt us, and may we turn ourselves to the bright things of life our reason, our health, our friendship, the rivers of life that flow through the meadows of our experience: and thus may we say the Lord hath done great things for us whereof we are glad. Teach us that gratitude is the secret of joy; show us that if we be trustful we shall be successful; teach us that disappointment is an angel of God sent to bring the soul into closer friendship with heaven. Thus give us dominion over the things that should be under our feet; may we keep them there, when our heads are lifted up in the modesty of perfect faith, whilst we see the dawning light which is the beginning of heaven. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Colossians 4". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter