T. Austin-Sparks

Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; 2 Timothy 1:8; 2:8

THERE is a very real sense in which the apostle Paul, in his own person and experience, was an embodiment of the history of the Church in this age. Indeed it would seem to be a principle in the divine economy that those to whom a revelation has been entrusted should themselves have its truth so wrought into their very being and history that they are able to be a sign to their hearers. So it was that the end of Paul’s life saw a process of seeming limitation, working itself through by a great “falling away” and a closing up from the general to the specific. This shows how he represented the testimony as a whole. It is precisely what is foretold as to the conditions at the end time, and it is significant that it is specially referred to in the prophetic utterances to Timothy — the end letter. So that this phrase: “The prisoner in the Lord”, occurring as it does in the last writings, is prophetic in its meaning and wonderfully explanatory of God’s sovereign working at the end.

What we have here, then, is:

1. The instrument of the Lord’s testimony in a place of limitation by the will of God.

As we read the record of the incidents which led up to Paul’s going to Rome as a prisoner, and especially as we read the words of Agrippa: “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar”, we are not far from feeling that there were mistakes and accidents, but for which there might have been a much greater extension of the apostle’s ministry. There may have been times when Paul himself [7/8] was tempted to wonder if he had not been impulsive in that appeal to the Emperor. But as he went forward, and when the Lord spoke to give him new light from time to time, it became clear that, however the matter might be construed humanly, the sovereign government of God was in it all. He came to know that he was in prison not as the Emperor’s prisoner, but as the prisoner in the Lord.

Perhaps Paul did not accept this all at once. Possibly he did not realise just how it would work out. A more or less quick trial and release may have been in his mind. Some hope of further ministry amongst beloved saints seems not to be absent from his correspondence. (There probably was a short period of release from his first imprisonment.) At length, however, he fully accepted what was becoming increasingly clear as the Lord’s way, and it grew upon him that this way was in the greatest interest of the Body of Christ.

Thus we see that when the time comes for the Lord’s people to be brought face to face with the ultimate and supreme things of the revelation of Jesus Christ, things beyond personal salvation, things which relate to the mind of God from before time eternal; then there has to be a narrowing down and an apparent limitation. Much activity which has been and was quite necessary for the time, now ceases to be of paramount importance. Something more intensive may be called for.

Then that which represents the testimony in its fullest and closest approximation to the ultimate purpose of God has to be shorn of what was good and necessary in God’s work of preparation, so that there may be a concentration on the fulfilment of His final purpose in Christ. God’s servant is held captive not to some doctrinal truth, but to a vital experience which is wrought into the very fibre of his being. It is not a case of championing some special interpretation of the truth, but of being personally conformed to the spiritual reality of that truth. It is not a matter of personal preference or dislike but of knowing oneself to be a prisoner of the sovereignty of God.

2. The importance and value of seeing things in God’s light.

This applied both to Paul and to those who were brought into touch with him. For the apostle, the acceptance of the sovereign ordering of God in his imprisonment issued in increasing illumination and further spiritual emancipation. No one can fail to recognise the tremendous enrichment of ministry which is contained in what are called “The Prison Epistles”. If he had been restive, piqued, rebellious or bitter, there would have been no opened heaven for him. A spirit of controversy with the Lord would surely have closed and bolted the door against any fuller divine unveilings.

When all was accepted according to the mind of the Lord, then “the heavenly places” became the eternal expanses of his activities, and earthly bondage gave place to heavenly freedom. So it must be with every instrument set apart in relation to the higher interests of the Lord’s testimony. The reading of certain passages in his letters and the record of his imprisonment seem to show how such an acceptance applied to others also. “Be not ashamed therefore of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner” (2 Timothy 1:8), and other passages suggests that there had to be a divine apprehension and not merely a human appraisement of Paul’s position. Human levels of reasoning might have produced an atmosphere of doubt, suspicion and questioning and possibly even false imputations. Regarded on merely natural levels, association with the prisoner would have involved such associates in suspicion and prejudice. Doubts about this servant of the Lord were quite widespread, and even many of the other Christians were not sure of him. It was necessary to see the matter from God’s viewpoint.

It seems clear that the Lord’s purpose in so allowing His servant to be shut up was that he was to be given new revelations to meet the spiritual needs of His people who were learning how identification with Christ in death and resurrection was to lead on to throne-union with Him in power over spiritual “principalities and powers” in preparation for ministry in the ages to come. For this there had to be a putting aside of all human, personal and diplomatic considerations, and a standing in spiritual support of the instrument which God had put in honourable imprisonment. Those who are governed by considerations of reputation or popularity will miss God’s purpose in this captivity in the Lord. [8/9]

A further truth which emerges here is that:

3. Shame, reproach and seeming limitation are often God’s ways of enriching the whole body of Christ.

This has always been so. The measure of approximation to the fullness of the revelation has always been accompanied by a relative cost. Every instrument of the testimony has had to bear some suspicion and reproach, often in a measure commensurate with the degree of value to the Lord. This has meant that humanly they may have seemed to be subject to limitation, though in actual fact their imprisonment has produced spiritual enlargement. As Paul would say: “my tribulations for you, which are your glory” (Ephesians 3:13) or “The prisoner of Jesus Christ in behalf of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1); in other words, “The measure of my limitation in the Lord is the measure of spiritual enrichment for His people”. The fuller the revelation, the more likely is it that there will be fewer who appreciate and a greater number of those who will stand aloof. Revelation only comes through sufferings of this kind, but this is God’s way of securing a spiritual seed plot.

A seed plot is an intensive thing. There things are narrowed down to very limited dimensions. It is not an extensive show that is immediately in view, but a preparation for widespread expansion. The immediate impression may be of limitation but you can travel the world over and find a great many gardens which are the fruit of that original intensive cultivation in the seed plot. So it was with the apostle Paul’s prison: saints all over the world have benefitted from that costly sowing.

There is a sense in which this truth may apply to many of us. We tend to chafe at limitation, hankering restlessly for what seems wide and more promising. The question arises as to whether we, also, are prepared to be prisoners to the will of God. If the Lord has willed to have us where we are, then our humble faith acceptance of this “captivity” may prove much more fruitful and profitable to others than human reckoning could ever appreciate. I wonder if Paul had any idea that his prison meant his continuous expansion of value to the Lord through nineteen hundred years! What applies to individuals may also apply to assemblies or companies of the Lord’s people who may be passing through severe periods of oppression and seeming limitation. May the Lord be graciously pleased to cause the merely human aspect of prison walls to be lost sight of in the realisation that theirs is “imprisonment in the Lord“. Values for God through the ages and in every realm may be the outcome of such imprisonment.


Vol. 9, No. 1, Jan. – Feb. 1980



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