Life Sketches – Though a Prisoner, Still Free

There are many people among the higher classes today to whom vice, presenting its glittering allurements, ends up holding them willing captives. However, the gospel has always achieved its greatest success among the humble class of men and women of this world who are willing to make a break from sin.

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For the Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:18–28).

A good example of how this works is found in the experience of Paul when he was taken to Rome the second time. The first time he arrived in Rome with letters proclaiming his innocence from people like Festus and Felix and Lysias, and at his trial, he was acquitted and set free. But, when Paul was seized in the house of a disciple in Troas and arrested the second time, he was taken to Rome as a poor and friendless prisoner.

That time he would not be able to attract the attention of the wealthy nor the titled class of Roman citizens whose whole lives, physical, mental, and moral, were on a completely different plane than that of the apostle. To them, just as today among the higher classes, vice presented all its glittering allurements and held them willing captives. Within the city of Rome, there were a multitude of servants and slaves who were toil-worn, want-stricken victims of Roman oppression. There were poor slaves who were ignorant and degraded, but in spite of their condition, they were willing to listen to the words of Paul. They found in the faith of Christ a hope and a peace that sustained them and cheered them under the hardships of their lot in life.

So, the apostle’s work in Rome as a prisoner began with the humble and the lowly, the servants, the slaves with whom he came in contact and who visited him at his home. However, this invitation of salvation soon reached the very palace of the emperor.

Rome was at this time the metropolis of the world and the haughty Caesars were making laws for nearly every nation upon the earth. The king and the court were either completely ignorant of who Jesus of Nazareth was, or they regarded Him with hatred and derision. Yet, in less than two years during the time of Paul’s first imprisonment, the gospel found its way from the prisoner’s lowly home into the imperial halls.

Paul was in bonds as an evil doer. His enemies thought that his life work as an apostle was ended, that he could not go out and do public evangelism as he had done in Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, and other cities in the Roman Empire. But, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “the word of God is not bound” (2 Timothy 2:9 KJV). And we find that Paul, in his chains in Rome, in a situation that seemed that it would be impossible for him to do anything for the cause of Christ, became one of the most effective evangelists that there has ever been in the history of the world.

In Philippians 4:22, Paul says, “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household.” Nero was the Roman Caesar at that time. History shows that in no other place existed an atmosphere that was more hostile to Christianity than the Roman court when it was administered by such a monster of wickedness as was Nero.

Nero seemed to have obliterated from his soul every trace of the divine and even the human, and totally bear the impress of that which was Satanic. His attendants and his courtiers in general were of the same character as himself – fierce, debased, and corrupt. To all appearance it would be impossible for Christianity to gain a foothold in such a wicked place. And yet, in this case, as in so many others, Paul’s assertion that he made to the Corinthians in his second letter to them was proved true.

He said, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). Trophies for the cross of Christ were won even in Nero’s household. From the vile attendants of an even more vile king were gained converts who became the sons of God.

These servants in Nero’s household were not Christians secretly. They were Christians openly and were not ashamed of their faith, even though they knew that at any time it could cost them their lives. These converts felt the warmest affection for those who were older in Christian faith and experience, and they were not afraid or ashamed to call them brethren sending special greetings to the other churches that had been raised by Paul.

Paul could no longer publicly proclaim the faith of Christ with winning power and with signs and miracles as he had done in previous years. Because he was under house arrest, he could only proclaim the truth to those who came in contact with him at his own house. He was apparently cut off from public labor, yet it was during that time when the greatest victory was won for the truth of the gospel in the headquarters of the Roman Empire.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12–14).

It was not by his sermons that the apostle gained this great victory, but by his chains. It was by his bonds that the attention of the court of the Caesar had been attracted to Christianity. It was as a captive that he had captured rulers. It was with his chains that he had broken the bonds of so many souls who had been held in the slavery of sin.

The patience and meekness with which Paul submitted to a long and unjust imprisonment resulted in drawing the attention of the public and forced the conviction on many people that where there was such willingness to suffer, there must be an unwavering faith in the doctrines that were being presented.

Paul’s cheerfulness under affliction and imprisonment was completely unlike anything they’d ever seen from other prisoners. People were impressed that there must be a power abiding with this man that is higher than any human influence.

His courage and his faith were a continual sermon. And so it happened that when to all appearance he could do the least, when his power and usefulness seemed to be wholly cut off, it was then that he was gathering souls for Christ from fields from which he was apparently totally excluded.

We need to learn a lesson from his example. When a servant of God is withdrawn from active duty and his voice is no longer heard in encouragement, or reproof, or counsel, as human beings we are short sighted, thinking that his or her usefulness as a servant of God is at an end. However, that is not how God regards it. These mysterious providences that we see, over which we so often lament, are designed by God to do something that otherwise would never get done.

When a Christian manifests patience and cheerfulness under bereavement or suffering and when a Christian meets death with the peace and calmness of an unwavering faith in God, then it is that he or she may accomplish more to subdue the opposition of enemies than could ever be done by active missionary labor.

When through the malice of Satan and his agents God’s children are persecuted and their active labor is hindered, and they are cast into prison as was Paul, or they are dragged to the scaffold or the stake, it is then that the truth gains a greater triumph. Those who before doubted are now convinced of their sincerity, and when a Christian seals his faith with his blood, from the martyr’s ashes spring forth an abundant harvest for the garner of God. As Tertullian said 1800 years ago, “The blood of Christians is seed.”

So, if you are a Christian and find yourself in a situation where you can no longer actively labor for God and His truth, God has not laid you aside. He will use you effectively whether you are well or sick, whether you are in trouble or affliction, trial or persecution. Whatever your situation, if you are trusting in God, He will use you to win other people to the gospel.

When the grave receives a child of God, the Bible says, “He being dead still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Patience as well as courage has its victories. Converts may be made to Christianity by meekness as well as by boldness in enterprise. The Christians had been hoping that when Paul came to Rome, he would be able to hold evangelistic campaigns and win people to Christ and that from Rome, Christians would go out to the whole inhabited world to finish the gospel story. The whole world would then be told the story of the cross and the resurrection and hope of the Christian.

However, their hopes were crushed when the apostle arrived at Rome in chains as a prisoner. Yet, we find it was as a prisoner that he had the greatest success. As a prisoner he gained access to people in the court and in the household of Caesar, that he would never have been able to have access to in any other way. O, friend, we need to learn the lesson from the apostle Paul’s imprisonment, that whatever situation we may be in, if we are put in prison unjustly, if we are treated dishonestly, by the law, by the court, by the government, by whomever, as a Christian, we have a hope in Christ that should never be able to be daunted, whatever other men or groups of men do to us.

It is the witness we provide when we are being treated unjustly which proves that our religion is not just talk, but that it is real, and that the power of God is actually operating in our life. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:21, 22). Whatever difficult or unpromising situation you may find yourself in, you can still be a Christian.

Nero was of a most despicable character. During the first year of his reign he poisoned his own stepbrother who was actually the rightful heir to the throne. After this, he descended from one vice and crime to another even worse than the former, until eventually he murdered his own mother. He then murdered his wife. In fact, there was no atrocity which he was not willing to perpetrate, no vile act to which he would not stoop. Anybody who had a noble mind felt abhorrence and contempt for this person. The details of the iniquity that was practiced in his court are too degrading and horrible for description. His abandoned wickedness created disgust and loathing even among those who were forced to share his crimes.

Even those who were the closest to him were in constant fear as to what atrocities he would suggest next. In a place like that, how could anyone repent of their sins and choose to follow Christ? How could anybody render obedience? But the gospel was presented and there were souls in Caesar’s household who decided that they would obey and follow God at any cost. So, notwithstanding the obstacles and the dangers, they decided that they would walk in the light, trusting in God for an opportunity to let their light shine to others. Who could be placed in circumstances more unfavorable to a religious life or more dangerous for living a Christian life? Who could bring upon himself more fierce opposition than would those who chose to exchange heathenism for Christianity in the court of the Caesar?

The fact of the matter is, friend, that no human being is so situated that he cannot obey God. Today Christians have too little faith. They are willing to work for Christ and His cause only when they themselves see prospects for favorable results. But divine grace is able to aid the efforts of every believer, no matter what the circumstance is, because the Lord said to the apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you.” The Spirit of the Lord will exert its renewing and perfecting power upon every person who chooses to follow Christ and to be obedient and faithful to his divine Lord and Master.

God is the great I Am. He is the source of being, the center of authority and power. Whatever the condition or situation of His creatures, they can have no sufficient excuse for refusing to answer the claims of God. The Lord holds us responsible for the light shining upon our pathway. We may be surrounded by difficulties that appear formidable to us. Because the way they make a living involves disobeying the Lord, people say, “How will I make a living and obey the Lord?” People make all kinds of excuses, but Jesus said to the people that were listening to the Sermon on the Mount, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Paul said, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

God is above all human authority and power. You may be surrounded by all kinds of difficulties, but the Lord is able to give you the grace, the power, the strength to obey Him, and to do His will in any situation. We don’t need to spend our time worrying about the future. All we need to do is remember the words of Jesus when He said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34 KJV). Do not worry about what will happen next month, or ten months from now. Decide to follow the Lord today, and you will find day by day that you will receive all the grace you need to follow the Lord for that day. You do not need the grace of tomorrow today; all you need is grace to follow the Lord today and He is willing to give you all that you need if you are willing to follow and obey as were the servants in Nero’s household.

(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)

Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at:, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.