The Apostle Paul was essentially handed the baton by Christ to continue sharing the message of love, sacrifice and eternal life with the world. Paul made many mission trips and preached to thousands but this did not come without cost. Paul experienced persecution, shipwreck, beatings, and imprisonment. Four books of the Bible are known as the Prison Epistles. They are: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Nothing can stop the revelation of God and imprisonment did not stop Paul from penning words of hope, wisdom and explanation of God's desire for a relationship with man. Miraculously, these letters were sent forth from the walls of his cell and were eventually included in the Holy Bible, proof that nothing can stop God from working.
The common theme between these four books is hope. In Ephesians, Paul talks about a hope to which we are all called:
having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints
and in Philippians, Paul discusses his hope to bring honor and glory to Christ:
as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.
and in Colossians, Paul points to exactly where our hope is located - in heaven:
because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel...
and finally in Philemon, Paul doesn't use the word hope but his words are saturated with hope even as he writes from prison:
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ...
We think of prison as a very sterile environment with orange jumpsuits, metal bars, cots and cinder block walls. Paul, however, was imprisoned in 1st Century Rome. Paul's prison was build in the middle of the city sewer system. The underground dungeon where Paul sat chained was described by an ancient historian as, "disgusting and vile by reason of the filth, the darkness and the stench". Torture and starvation were regular practices here and when given rest from this, a prisoner was made to sit in sewage. The waste of a city literally flowed by, under and around Paul as he penned words of hope.
The county I live in was recently named one of the happiest places in the country, yet we have an epidemic of young people doing drugs. The news of suicide or suicide attempts no longer shocks our residents as many people are living in despair. Drug use and suicide certainly don't indicate happiness to me.
Several friends of mine have recently been diagnosed with cancer. Most of them are very young and haven't even lived lives that would put them at risk. But now instead of planning summer vacations, they are planning chemo and radiation sessions. One sweet family recently buried their young husband and father because of cancer. It seems every day brings news of more cancer and disease.
Where is the hope? Although we live in a happy and beautiful part of the country, it often feels like we are sitting in a cesspool. A cesspool of depression, drugs, suicide, cancer, and anguish. How do we see the world like Paul? How do we sit in the mess of life and speak words of hope? Why was Paul able to see beyond the sewage?
Paul looked beyond his current situation and like he said in Colossians, his hope was in the place heaven and the person of Jesus. And like Paul, we must look beyond what lies in front of us and remember that there is a place set aside for us by Christ - He has prepared it in advance. We, who trust in Christ, are not at our final destination, so no matter what we face here...heaven is our home, it's where we are meant to live forever and there will be no more tears there.
Paul knew that his happiness was not based on his current circumstances. He knew what Jesus taught: happy are those who hunger, happy are those who mourn, happy are those who are persecuted (Matthew 5). Jesus taught that our true contentment comes from the comfort and closeness of Him and not the situation at hand. A life of love and service to others and Christ brings joy no matter what is set before us. Paul knew his suffering was making him more like his Savior and causing him to rely on him even more and in that he found true happiness and contentment.
Ultimately, Paul could find contentment sitting in the sewage because he knew His savior hung on a cross on top of a trash heap so that sin would no longer separate people from God. Paul called himself the chief among sinners - he had been a murderer and persecutor of the worst kind. Paul fully understood the suffering Jesus endured in his place... our place. He knew that whatever he had to endure for the sake of sharing this love would pale in comparison to the work of Christ. Paul also trusted in the resurrection of Jesus and that no tomb or grave held his savior, that Jesus overcame death and overcame the world.
I pray today that you find hope in whatever situation you find yourself. You may feel as though life is dark and downright filthy. On this Easter Sunday, put your hope not in yourself or some earthly solution to your problems - be like Paul, commit yourself to the One who overcame. Serve and love others and Christ like Paul and perhaps your prison will be a place where you pen your own words of hope and encouragement for someone else.