Serving From a Prison Cell

We arrived in Rome, and Paul was allowed to live in a house by himself with a soldier to guard him.

Three days after we got there, Paul called together some of the Jewish leaders and said: My friends, I have never done anything to hurt our people, and I have never gone against the customs of our ancestors. But in Jerusalem I was handed over as a prisoner to the Romans. They looked into the charges against me and wanted to release me. They found that I had not done anything deserving death. The Jewish leaders disagreed, so I asked to be tried by the Emperor. But I don’t have anything to say against my own nation. I am bound by these chains because of what we people of Israel hope for. That’s why I have called you here to talk about this hope of ours.

The leaders replied, “No one from Judea has written us a letter about you. And not one of them has come here to report on you or to say anything against you. But we would like to hear what you have to say. We understand that people everywhere are against this new group.”

They agreed on a time to meet with Paul, and many of them came to his house. From early morning until late in the afternoon, Paul talked to them about God’s kingdom. He used the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets to try to win them over to Jesus. Some of the leaders agreed with what Paul said, but others did not. Since they could not agree among themselves, they started leaving. But Paul said, “The Holy Spirit said the right thing when he sent Isaiah the prophet to tell our ancestors,

‘Go to these people and tell them:
You will listen and listen, but never understand.
You will look and look, but never see.
All of you have stubborn hearts.
Your ears are stopped up,
and your eyes are covered.
You cannot see or hear or understand.
If you could, you would turn to me, and I would heal you.’ ”

Paul said, “You may be sure that God wants to save the Gentiles! And they will listen.”

For two years Paul stayed in a rented house and welcomed everyone who came to see him. He bravely preached about God’s kingdom and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ, and no one tried to stop him. (Acts 28:16-31, Common English Version)

We need to review the history of this text to understand the events described in this portion of Acts. In Acts Chapter 24, we read about how Paul was charged with sedition.1 The story continues for several chapters. Paul is asked if he is willing to go to Jerusalem for trial. As a Roman citizen, Paul asks for his case to be heard by Caesar.2

We pick up the story with Paul having arrived in Rome. Because Paul was not considered to be dangerous and was not a political threat, he was placed under house arrest.3 Since Paul was under house arrest, he had more freedoms than we might think of prisoners having. He was able to minister to the people who came to his home.4

Make no mistake. Paul was in prison. His cell may have been larger and more comfortable than most, but it was still a prison cell.

William Barclay notes that Paul, to the very end of his life, took the gospel to the Jewish people first and then to the Gentiles.5 Barclay comments that, “for over thirty years, some Jewish people tried to hinder his work, to undo his work and to kill him.” But Paul still offers the gospel to Jewish people first.6 That is right. Paul went to his people first, because he loved his people. Paul was not anti-Semitic. He loved Jewish people enough to risk his life, to give up his life, so Jewish people could hear of the Messiah.

Verse 20. I am bound by these chains because of what we people of Israel hope for. That’s why I have called you here to talk about this hope of ours.

Paul makes the point that he is a loyal Jewish man and that is why he is in prison.7 He is in prison, because of the long held hope of Jewish people – the arrival of the Messiah.

When talking to the Jewish leaders in Rome, Paul’s theme was not his personal situation, but was the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.8 The gospel received a mixed reaction. Some people were convinced and others were not.9 Even the best evangelists are not able to turn all hearts and heads toward the Christ.

Verse 23. From early morning until late in the afternoon, Paul talked to them about God’s kingdom.

Paul spent all day serving God. Being in prison did not prevent Paul from serving the Lord full-time. From this verse we can see that the prisons of life that bind us can be a house of liberty that God uses to set others free.

Judy Shepard who lost her son, Matthew Shepard, due to a gruesome crime of hatred. From the cell of emotional pain, Judy Shepard reached out and served others. And from that jail cell, has promoted love, acceptance and understanding. People who have been touched by her speeches.

Clarence M. Hincks experienced periods of mental illness. Dr. Hincks co-founded the organization we currently know as the Canadian Mental Health Association.10 From what may have felt like the prison of mental illness, Dr. Hincks created an organization that is touching many lives.

Barb Tarbox was a smoker. She smoked for at least half of her life. At 41 years of age, Barb was diagnosed with lung cancer. After that diagnosis, she spoke to about 50,000 teenagers about the dangers of smoking.11 Her presentations were emotional and appeared to make a real impact on young people. She continued a schedule of public presentations until she was too sick to continue. Her last presentation was at an Edmonton school. By that stage, cancer had taken an obvious toll. She weighed less than 85 pounds and needed a wheelchair to get around.12

We will never know the long-term results of Barb’s public speaking. But we know she served humanity from the prison cell of sickness.

Troy Perry was a gay pastor. Perhaps, being gay Christian felt like a prison cell to Troy at times too. But he did not let that stop him from serving the Lord. From what might have felt like a prison cell of sexual orientation, Troy Perry was a founder of a denomination that serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world.

God does not hurt people or injure people so they can do wonderful things to serve Him and to touch humanity. That is not the kind of God we serve and love. But the Lord steps into the circumstances of our lives and into the very rough places, places that seem very much like prison cells to us and gives us the strength, the power and the courage to serve. Then He reaches out through us, to touch lives, to change the world, to make the world a better place in which to live.

God does not ask or expect all people to immediately become full-time pastors when they believe Jesus is the Messiah. Most people are called to stay where they are – to not change occupations. A few people, however, choose to willingly take up prison cells to serve others.

In the early church, people sold themselves into slavery, so they could bring the news of the Messiah to slaves. A more current example is Mother Theresa, a lady who chose to do some of the most unpleasant things imaginable to serve the Lord.

Basil Pennington tells a story about Mother Theresa. Where Mother Theresa served the Lord, the second-year novices went out in the morning with the ambulances. They picked up the dying who were abandoned. Mother Theresa often assisted. One man was in very bad condition. Rats and maggots had gnawed at him. Mother Theresa chose to look after him. She cared for him, trying to making him as comfortable as possible. As she was cooling his face, he opened his eyes, said, “Thank you,” and died. Later that day, with a “radiant” face she told Basil Pennington, “I had the privilege of caring for the dying Christ.”13

To reach out in the way Mother Theresa did, one must clearly understand the principle of Matthew 25:40:

Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.

No discussion of reaching out and serving from the prison cells of life would be complete without talking about Jesus. Our Messiah, labored from a prison cell too. That prison cell was a cross and tomb, a cross and tomb He did not deserve, yet He took both the cross and the tomb for you. He took that cross and tomb so you will not be doomed to stay in a tomb. Through His labors, millions and millions of people have been saved, are saved and will be saved.

What appears to be prison cells to us God uses as windows of opportunity. God is definitely in the business of reaching out from prison cells. And He is doing that in your life!

Prayer: Blessed are you O Lord our God, the ruler of the prison cells of life. Lord, even in the situations of deepest despair, you still reach through our lives to touch others. Continue to touch people through us, even when things are desperate for us. Amen.

  1. Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen and Wayne House, eds. The Nelson Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub. 1997), 1867.
  2. Acts 25:12
  3. Radmacher, Allen and House, 1873.
  4. Radmacher, Allen and House, 1875.
  5. William Barclay. The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles. Revised ed. (Burlington, Ontario: G.R. Welch, 1976), 191.
  6. Barclay 191.
  7. I. Howard Marshall. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Acts. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 423.
  8. Marshall, 424.
  9. Marshall, 424.
  10. Our History.” Canadian Mental Health Association.
  11. Anti-smoking Crusader Fights Spreading Cancer.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (March 3, 2003)
  12. Anti-smoking Crusader Tarbox dies.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (May 20, 2003)
  13. M. Basil. Pennington. Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures. (New York: Crossroad Pub. 1998), 62.