PRISONER IN THE LORD


PRISONER IN THE LORD

Roger T. Forster

Reading: Ephesians 3:21 – 4:6

NORMALLY we tend to make a close connection between the ideas of glory and liberty. We assert that it is a glorious thing to be free, never questioning that not to have liberty is surely to be in an inglorious situation. In the Roman letter the apostle tells us that the wonderful new age to be introduced at Christ’s coming again can only be described as “the liberty of the glory of the sons of God”. When there is true freedom then there will be real glory. We also read of the Spirit of the Lord bringing such freedom — “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” — and Peter assures us that the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of glory. It is therefore a natural link to put the ideas of glory and liberty together. We speak of a glorious meeting, a glorious church, and think at once of the coming together of a people who are a free people, a people who are not bound or tied up.

Nevertheless we find, in this close connection between Ephesians 3 and 4, that Paul linked glory with restriction, with being, in fact, a prisoner. What appears at first to be a contradiction is really the other side of the coin, the balancing truth which defines what freedom truly is. This other side is a more difficult aspect for men of the twentieth century with its spirit of permissiveness, anarchy and the throwing off of all restraint. To think as precisely and carefully of the true nature of freedom may be more difficult for us now than it was for those of other ages. Yet it involves the secret of true glory.

Paul follows his prayer that there may be glory in the Church with an immediate self-description as “the prisoner in the Lord”. He has already called himself “the prisoner of Christ Jesus” (3:1), and he concludes the letter with the reminder that as Christ’s ambassador he is “in chains” (6:20). So by the use of the different prepositions Paul declares himself to be the prisoner of the Lord and the prisoner in the Lord.

By his many imprisonments Paul had become familiar with the restrictions which prison life entails. It is true, of course, that it was by being in prison that he found time and opportunity to write those beautiful epistles which were born out of his experiences of Christ. In this way we have all benefited from what God is able to get out of the apostle’s imprisonments, releasing for others, right down to this twentieth century the measure of Christ which was in him as God’s servant. One of the great spiritual truths stressed in this letter to the Ephesians is the eternal purpose of God for the Church. This is that in the Church there might be glory for God, or better still that there might be ‘the glory’ in the Church. Paul had already spoken of “the praise of his glory” (1:12) and also of “my tribulations for you which is your glory” (3:13), but in 3:21 he reached the great climax of what God is after, namely that now there should be glory — or better ‘the glory’ — in the Church. In order, then, that there might be a Church in which the deposit of divine glory should be found, Paul continued: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord …” immediately connecting his restrictions and seaming limitations with ‘the glory’. How different this is from our usual connotations of connecting glory with freedom! It was as though Paul were affirming that in his case glory could only come by imprisonment. He himself was content to be a prisoner, for he was not in prison just as any other captive might be, but was in prison ‘in the Lord’. We note that it was not just that he was a prisoner for the Lord — though he was that — but that he claimed to be a prisoner in the Lord. In other words, as he looked around his cell he did not only see stones and chains and guards, but he saw the Lord. He was enabled to see beyond his circumstances, looking behind them and finding Christ there. So he could claim that in reality he was imprisoned in Christ, confined and restricted in Christ, and he pointed out that the glory will only be found in the Church if its members are men and women who know the spiritual reality of captivity to Christ. Glory is expressed in the Church not by emotional atmospherics or noisy excitement but by those who truly accept the restrictions of being “in Christ”.

And there are restrictions. But before we speak of them we do well to enquire what glory is. It is exceedingly difficult to define. When we encounter something which takes our breath away, filling us with awe and wonder; when we have a sense of deep, satisfying harmony in the presence of what seems so right, so beautiful, so different from all else, then we want to worship. Now it is glory [41/42] which evokes this worship, for true glory is found only in the experienced presence of God Himself. Paul had already told the Ephesians that the riches of the glory of God are given to us by the Spirit. For us, then, the glory of God is His greatness, His wonderful presence, brought into the Church by the Holy Spirit. Now if glory comes to us it always has the effect of provoking us to give glory to God. A really glorious Church in which the glory of God resides is continually glorifying Him — it cannot help doing so. The automatic response to God’s riches and greatness being channelled into us, His people, as He works through one, reveals something of His character in another, overcomes difficulties in another, is that we all give glory to Him.

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord …”. Paul looked around his prison cell and from his familiarity with prison conditions was inspired to use this as a kind of illustration of what it means to be restricted and limited within the sphere of Christ Himself. Some things are obvious. It means that we have no liberty to sin. The restrictions of Christ’s holiness are ours also. Further, it imposes limitations as to whom we depend on. If a man is shut up in prison, he has to depend on whoever governs for supplies, for programme, for food and for exercise in the courtyard. It follows that prison life is free from some of the normal worries of the day, which is a happy aspect for us, but it also means that we have to accept what is provided. If we are prisoners in the Lord then we must expect to be governed by His directions, to be given a programme for our lives and we must learn to be content with the provisions which He supplies. This is no real limitation — far from it. One of the pernicious features of our permissive society is that when men are continually demanding freedoms and calling for their rights, they are trying to strip off restrictions which were never made to be so thrown off. Man was made to be restricted by his real manhood, by his being a human being and eventually a son of God. That is the dignity of a true man. It follows that the person who is all the time seeking an elusive freedom under the guise of permissiveness, finishes up in frustration and bitter disillusionment. Paul had ceased from the quest for false liberty; he had learned in whatsoever state he was to be content; and he had done so by being imprisoned in Christ.

It was for this reason and on this basis that he made his appeal to God’s people to walk worthy of their calling. His prison state was a plea to them to be true to their vocation. And what was this? It was to be prisoners of the Lord too, to proceed as though they were held firmly in the prison of Christ. There were often four guards to whom a prisoner was chained, and in this passage the apostle indicated the four factors which enforce the divine restrictions. We are familiar with the term ‘quaternion’ which denoted a group of four guards. There were four such at the cross and they divided Christ’s garments into four parts. When Peter was imprisoned by Herod, he was chained to four guards. Here, then, in spiritual terms, are four ways by which the Spirit holds us into captivity to Christ.

Guard No. 1

The first is “all lowliness”. The word translated lowliness was originally used in a derogatory sense until Paul began to give it a noble significance. It implied that the one concerned was base-minded, servile, a man who did not think much of his own merits or accomplishments. Such lowly, self-estimation is not base but Christlike, and it is the first of the chains which the Spirit uses to keep us prisoners in the Lord. The result is that every time we want to parade our own merits or think too much of ourselves, He will pull on the chain to restrain us. Unfortunately, although the Spirit of God is so faithful in giving such checks, we can easily learn to ignore them. The inveterate prisoner probably grew accustomed to the jerks of the chain, and perhaps tended to ignore them, but we must be careful to heed the warnings if we are to safeguard God’s purpose of the glory in the Church.

Guard No. 2

The second spiritual guard is meekness, mildness or gentleness; and denotes a spirit which does not take offence at others, and never asserts its own claims. Meekness is not impressed by its own importance: it has no axe to grind. Any attempt to drag this chain by asserting ourselves or taking offence at the way we are treated will be dealt with by a sharp check given by the Holy Spirit, who is faithful in demanding that we do not try to break out of our imprisonment in this way.

Guard No. 3

The third guard is called long-suffering. This means going on and on, bearing with others, not taking vengeance, but putting up with wrongs without indulging in any retaliation. The implication [42/43] is that we may have to go on suffering for a very long time, and shall need much grace to bear it uncomplainingly. I can think of one man in the West Country who for over forty years had a very evil lie spread about him, and only towards the end of his life was he vindicated. But this very trial made him the man of God that he was. Now the impatient prisoner will tug at this chain, finding it intolerable to bear injustice. If, however, there is to be the glory in the Church, it is important for him to heed the Spirit’s restraint and respond to His call to go on patiently enduring suffering.

Guard No. 4

Then there is forbearance. This means putting up with one another’s weaknesses. When we start to despise another brother and are exasperated at his inability to see things as we do, yielding to the temptation to resent his being so slow, then is the time for us to show forbearance in love. Actually all these four are ‘in love’ since the chains are love chains. If they are allowed to hold us, they will always work to produce new expressions of the glory of God. Here we are then, in our prison, checked and held by the four guards, but all to a purpose, the purpose of glory. Although our experiences may be personal, though, they are not merely intended to produce glory in us as individuals, but glory in the Church.

A prison, however, has walls as well as guards, and if we press the analogy further we find according to 4:4-6 that Paul’s prison had seven walls which are listed in these verses. His prison — and ours — has seven sides; It is septenary or, if you like, a heptagon. This may sound unusual, but we will see the point if we appreciate that any attempt on our part to break free from this sacred imprisonment will result in a head-on collision with one of the seven spiritual realities of being in Christ.

(1) “one body”. The first wall is the fact of there being one body. Our attempt to break prison by ignoring the wall of the one body will involve behaving as though there were two or three bodies — or more — whereas in Christ there can only be one. This obliges us to take an attitude to all other believers which is totally, absolutely and completely without any reference to what type of federation or affiliation true believers belong to. This is something more than ‘non-denominational’, for it insists that if there is to be true glory in the Church then there must be a total repudiation of any mental attitude that there might be two or more bodies. It often happens that the sequel to the discovery that the other man is a Christian is the enquiry as to what he belongs to. This is all right when it is merely a question of locality or enjoyment of fellowship, but it is very wrong if it is really aimed at knowing whether the brother is ‘in’ or ‘not in’ from our point of view. We must concentrate on the Lord, and our fellowship in Him. Remember we are in prison; we are restricted by the one body; and we must refuse to have anything to do with ‘in-groups’ or ‘one-up groups’ or special and separate groups. God’s people are one.

(2) “one Spirit”. The second wall is the oneness of the Spirit, for it is He who is the living substance of the one body. If the one Spirit has given us a certain experience, and the one Spirit has given someone else another experience, this does not contradict but rather confirms the oneness of the Spirit. Our second temptation to break prison will be concerned with an effort to emphasise a division caused by one experience of the Spirit being opposed to another, one manifestation of the Spirit being made to clash with another. Immediately we do this, we step outside of our imprisonment in Christ, we step through the wall of the one Spirit. It is a painful thing to collide with a wall, and this kind of clash can not only hurt us but it can also hurt others and, worse still, it can diminish the glory in the Church.

(3) “one hope”. The third wall is the one hope which is common to all believers. What is it? That we shall see Christ, and that when we see Him we shall be like Him. This is the glorious hope of the gospel, and its effect is to make a man purify himself. To have this hope, however, should enable us to endure a lack of Christlikeness in our brother, if necessary, for God is committed to the task of conforming him as well as us to the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. Imprisoned in Christ, we learn to bear with one another; our common hope is the same, so we must not misjudge our brother or question his sincerity.

(4) “one Lord”. The fourth wall is that of the absolute authority of the Lord. This does not mean that what God authorizes my brother to do, He also authorizes me. Nor must I be so pompous [43/44] as to insist that if He has told me to do something, then everybody else must do the same, and do it my way. Such an attitude would divide the body and diminish the glory. What it does mean is that I am responsible to the one Lord, and so is my brother responsible to Him; so we stand or fall to Him. As we hold out hands of helpfulness to each other, responding to the sweet limitations of His lordship, then His glory will be found in the Church.

(5) “one faith”. Here is another wall which marks the limit of movement for the prisoner in the Lord. What is meant by the assertion that there is one faith? Does it mean that there is one credal statement which all must be called upon to accept? Well, it does involve the fact that there must be a complete expression of the true faith with which we shall all eventually agree, but it certainly does not mean that anyone can yet postulate this in a credal statement. We are told that we shall all come finally to the unity of the faith (verse 13), but we have not yet arrived. Statements of faith cannot be rigid in detail, for we begin, grow and develop differently as we move towards perfection in Christ. There is, however, one necessity, and that is the doctrine of Christ. The Church consists of those who are welcomed on the basis of their one faith in the same Person, even the Lord Jesus. We do not see all things as others see them yet, but we do share a common faith in Him.

(6) “one baptism”. It may surprise some to know that there are people who would actually divide God’s people into those who have been baptised in the name of the Trinity and those who have been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. It is fantastic, but all too true, that men are actually ready to split up churches on such an issue. This tendency is rife in all Scandinavia, and it is spreading to this country. The solid wall of the one baptism means that any baptism is valid, provided it is based on true faith in Christ. If we are prisoners in the Lord, then we have to refuse ourselves the indulgence of being superior about our concept of how baptism should be administered. There is no chance of the glory of God resting on partisan groups which are based on a matter of procedure.

(7) “one Father”. The life of the Spirit (v.4); the lordship of the Son (v.5); will lead to worship of the Father (v.6). Here we are brought back to the matter of glory in the Church, for such glory is only possible by the presence of the Father, acknowledged and appreciated in terms of worship. The implications of ‘one Father’ are very far reaching: they exclude and they embrace. This, then, is the final sacred wall which holds us in the blessed imprisonment of being ‘in Christ’.

Seven is a great Bible number, so we are not surprised to find that the glory in the Church calls for a people who are ready willingly, deliberately, and continually to be included within the seven walls of oneness in Christ. The four guards and the seven walls mean such an imprisonment as will produce a wonderful expression of the glory of God. Paul closed another of his prison epistles with the words: “Remember my bonds”. Let us be sure to remember them.
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