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Joy from Behind Bars

How could a man in jail write such an uplifting letter of encouragement to others experiencing freedom? What can we learn from his message?

How can a letter written from a prison cell almost two thousand years ago speak to our hearts today? What we're about to discover is that the enduring Word of God, and its power to be of benefit to the human heart are without end.

This spiritual love-letter (epistle) to the Philippians carried with it, among other things, a strong message of joy …

The prison cell was in Rome. The prisoner was the apostle Paul. The year was about 61—64 A.D. The crime: preaching faith in Christ. The dungeon-like prison conditions of Paul's existence were an unlikely place from which one would express feelings of joy. Yet the Philippian church was the recipient of a letter with just such expressions. This spiritual love-letter (epistle) to the Philippians carried with it, among other things, a strong message of joy, victory and rejoicing: rejoicing in prayer; rejoicing in Christian fellowship; rejoicing in the Lord, and rejoicing in sacrifices made for the cause.

I suppose the question that begs to be asked is, "How could a man who was experiencing obvious hardship in such adverse conditions write such an uplifting letter of encouragement?" What was he talking about and what can we learn from his message?

In this brief letter of only four chapters, Paul uses the word "joy" six times. One way in which he uses the word joy is the Greek word "chara," that can be used to describe a feeling of gladness experienced deep in one's soul. Another word that Paul frequently uses in the letter is the word "rejoice" (used nine times). Paul, who is able to rejoice from behind prison walls, encourages the Philippians to do likewise, as they themselves were experiencing difficulties. The voice of victory we hear in his letter is contagious and is deeply rooted in faith. Paul's ability to write this letter comes from a profound source within. The fulfillment of Paul's life is found in Jesus Christ and in the Gospel's truth. Paul reveals his heart when he utters the words, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain," (Philippians 1:21).

The man who is sitting in this prison cell is communicating feelings that go beyond and are in contrast to happiness that depends on favourable circumstances. What Paul is expressing isn't dependant upon external conditions. He knows the joy of complete personal surrender to the Lord of Life and is content no matter what the circumstances. Paul is confident and fully assured of God's unfailing love. His experience of joy is a feeling in the soul that cannot be passed on or handed down like a garment. It cannot be shared among friends like the sharing of a good meal. However, it is something that is accessible to all and can be experienced by all.

This very attainable place of spiritual joy is for all those who purpose in their hearts to sidestep the trappings of this world; putting themselves in the position of finding fulfillment in Christ, discovering joyful contentment. We can learn and grow in spiritual maturity if we understand and embrace Paul's words with our hearts.

"What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things, I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him … " (Philippians 3:8-9a).

Rev. Diane Makarewicz is a founder of Taking the Gospel Ministries,

Originally published in Off the Fence, February/March 2005.




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