November 9 – Prison Letters – Your Story

Read Acts 9:1-31

I suppose it is the ultimate irony.  The one, who, for some time, hated anything and anyone having to do with Christ, would himself embrace Jesus as his own Messiah.  The one, who was antagonistic towards any and all who represent Jesus, would himself proclaim the Son of God with joy.  The one, who sought to imprison others, would himself spend time in prison.  The one, who had afflicted others with opposition, threats, and persecution, would himself have be afflicted.

As a chosen instrument of God, Saul would both bear the name of Jesus and suffer for it.  That, my friends, is the ultimate irony and evidence of divine transformation.  Saul’s life reflected an inspiring line in the sand with a clear “before” and “after” part of his story.  Here is the way he described it to Timothy:

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.  Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.  The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.  (1 Tim. 1:12-16)

As we close out this devotional series on the prison letters written by the apostle Paul, don’t forget that Paul was not only one who was placed in prison because of his faith.  Prior to that, he was one who forced people of faith into prison.  But God transformed him.

What does your story of transformation sound like?  What less than admirable (call them “sinful”) aspects of your life used to be part of your life prior to Christ?  What evidences of godly transformation are visible today?  Rather than boasting about an change you might observe, look for opportunity to give credit to the Life Changer!

Steve Kern

November 8 – Prison Letters – The Name of Jesus

Read Acts 3:1-4:31

In anticipation of President Obama’s first inauguration, there were perhaps more questions about the inaugural prayer than any other aspect of the milestone event.  President Obama, you see, had asked evangelical pastor Rick Warren to offer the prayer.  Many wondered, “Will Rick Warren end the prayer ‘in Jesus’ name’?”

There is something both volatile and powerful in the name of Jesus.

That is nothing new.  If you read Acts 3 and 4, you saw that it was because of the name of Jesus that a man who was lame from the time of his birth was healed and able to walk!  That’s powerful!  But, it was also because of this name that Peter and John spent a night in prison.  That’s volatile!

In those two chapters, there are no less than nine direct references to the name of Jesus in eight different verses (3:6, 16; 4:7, 10, 12, 17, 18, 30).  Not only did that name lead to the miraculous healing of a man, but it is also the source of salvation available to all men.  Here is the way that Peter expressed it in 4:12

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”  (Acts 4:12)

Don’t get me wrong.  The name “Jesus” is not a magical word like “hocus pocus” or “abracadabra.”  It is the person behind the name that possesses the power.  It was faith in the person that unleashed the power for healing (3:16).  And it is faith in the person that unleashes the power for salvation (Eph. 2:8, 9).

But be warned.  Neither the name nor the person has a good track record of being politically correct.  It landed Peter and John in prison.  In fact, even upon their release, the Council “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” (4:18)  The politically correct response today heeds that instruction.

Real Jesus followers, however, are not ashamed of their Savior and His name.  Instead, like the two men who spent the night in jail, our response should be “we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (4:20)

Steve Kern

November 7 – Prison Letters – Boldness

Read Matthew 14:1-12

The “Prison Letters” of Paul include those written by the apostle while in a Roman prison:  Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.  Over the past three weeks, we have read through those fascinating books.  Now, over these next few days, we will look at three other New Testament examples of Christ followers who were tried and, ultimately, executed for their faith.  Although they did not write from prison cells, words are recorded about their prison experiences.

John the Baptist is the first.  Born to aged parents (Lk. 1), John’s birth and his unique ministry had been announced before he was even conceived.  He was to be the one who would prepare the way for the Christ.  And, as he later launched his ministry, people traveled out to the wilderness to listen to him and to be baptized by him.  His baptism served as a statement of repentance.  He challenged men and women to turn from their sin in anticipation of the One who came after him – the One whose sandals John was not worthy to remove (Matt. 3).  Though John was widely known and greatly used, he understood that his prominence and ministry was to be eclipsed by the Son of God (Jn. 3).

As Jesus, came on the scene, then, we read less and less about John.  But his death is recorded.  John, you see, had unashamedly spoken out against the sexual immorality of Herod the tetrarch.  This Herod, descendant of Herod the Great, was the Roman ruler over the entire region of Galilee.  But what he was made no difference to John.  John addressed Herod’s sin of taking his brother’s wife.  His boldness in confronting that sin led not only to John’s arrest but ultimately to his horrible execution…a decision that would haunt Herod in the days that followed.

Is your understanding of God’s standards as clearly defined as it was to John?  Are you able to boldly but appropriately help people to recognize their sin and turn to the Savior?  Don’t forget that Jesus came to the earth because of the sin of mankind.  To present Him accurately to others requires that you make the connection between His death and their sin.

“God, grant me opportunity today to help people understand why Jesus came!”

Steve Kern

November 6 – Prison Letters – A Long & Difficult Trip

Read Philemon 1-25

Some of the longest and most difficult trips I have ever made have only been ones across town or to the other side of the room.  These are journeys not measured in terms of miles or hours, but in terms of humility in asking forgiveness from or extending grace to someone else.  Those are not easy trips to make!  And yet, God might prompt you to make one of those trips today.  Those trips are portrayed in this, the last of the prison letters written by Paul.

One of the primary characters in this brief letter is a slave by the name of Onesimus.  Onesimus had been an unbeliever who served as a slave in the home of Philemon in or near the Turkish city of Colosse.  Apparently, Onesimus had been virtually useless (v. 11).  In fact, it seems very possible that he had stolen money or caused damage at his master’s home (v. 13).  This slave had, then, run away and run into the apostle Paul in a Roman prison (v. 1).

While in prison, Paul had the privilege of seeing this obstinate slave come to Christ (v. 10).  The change that took place in the slave’s life was incredible.  This man, useless to Philemon as an unbeliever, became, as a follower of Christ, useful to the apostle.  This man became very special to Paul (v. 12)…so much so that Paul would have loved to keep him as a helper (v. 13).  But Paul realized that two trips were more important than the help he might receive from this man in his newfound faith:

  1. For Onesimus, a trip from a Roman prison to Philemon’s doorstep- Paul was sending Onesimus back to care for some unfinished business (v. 12).  Onesimus had burned some relational bridges with his master.  In humility, he needed to make the long trip back to seek Philemon’s forgiveness.  Do you need to humbly ask someone today for forgiveness?
  2. For Philemon, a trip from his living room to his front door- Paul was asking Philemon to “welcome” Onesimus (v. 17).  Philemon needed to forgive.  Forgiveness essentially means that you will no longer hold a violation against another person.  Do you need to graciously extend forgiveness to someone today?

God can strengthen you for either or both of those long, difficult trips.  Take the first step.

Steve Kern

November 5 – Prison Letters – Feeling Insignificant?

Read Colossians 4:7-18

Chances are, you have been part of a conversation where other people are talking about their mutual friends that you have never met.  Your head probably turned politely in the direction of the person who was talking while your mind wandered to something much different.  In all likelihood, you rationalized to yourself, “I don’t know this person!  I will never meet this person.  It doesn’t really matter if I pay attention.”

I suppose those same kinds of thoughts may have passed through your mind as you read the final verses of Paul’s prison letter to Christ-followers in the city of Colosse.  The apostle wraps up the letter by mentioning no less than eight different people.  But, rather than hitting the mental snooze button, let’s grow to appreciate who these men were.

Tychicus was likely the messenger who carried the prison letters of Paul to their final destinations.  He was also one who gave verbal updates about Paul’s ministry to others.

Onesimus was a slave who had run away from his master in Colosse.  Landing in prison with Paul, Onesimus had come to Christ and was being sent back to reconcile with his master.

Aristarchus was a believer who hailed from Thessalonica.  He had traveled extensively with Paul and was there in prison with the apostle.

Mark was cousin to Barnabas.  Though he had initially accompanied Paul on the first missionary journey, he ended up deserting the mission.  Nevertheless, Paul came to consider him to be a valuable asset to what Christ was doing.

Justus was a Jewish believer who had greatly encouraged Paul and who wanted to greet these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Epaphras was a believer who originally shared the gospel with the Colossians.  Being imprisoned alongside the apostle, he had a deep prayerful concern for those from his hometown and surrounding area.

Luke was a physician . . . probably from Philippi.  He authored the gospel that bears his name and had frequently traveled with Paul on his missionary journeys.

Demas sent greetings to the Colossian believers.  Unfortunately, he would later abandon the mission in favor of the world.

Archippus was likely a church leader in Colosse.

So we can ignore these seemingly insignificant people and finish the book, or we can appreciate their contribution to the work of Christ . . . and realize that even our seemingly small contributions are worthwhile!

Steve Kern

November 4 – Prison Letters – Missional Praying

Read Colossians 4:2-6

Have you ever felt like Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane?  Do you remember their story?  In realization of the full weight of what would transpire on the cross, Jesus invited these three to go with Him and to pray in this, His hour of agony.  What a privilege! Unfortunately, these three were unable to stay awake.  What a shame!

Focused prayer is not easy!  Distraction and even drowsiness can prevent us from participating fruitfully in this important Christian discipline.  From the terminology used by Paul in today’s devotional text, it seems that he also knew this full well!  He invites his readers to…

  1. Be devoted to prayer- There are certain things in life that are easy and that come natural.  Other things require discipline, commitment, and devotion.  Prayer sometimes belongs to the latter group.
  2. Be watchful and thankful- The New American Standard translates this as “keeping alert in [prayer] with an attitude of thanksgiving.”  The apparent answer to the disciples’ inability to stay awake and “watch” and the means by which we will stay focused and undistracted is thanksgiving.

Prayer was the important first focus of the apostle Paul in these few verses.  He invited the Colossian believers to pray for him as a Jesus ambassador.  Though he was in a prison cell, he saw himself as one who was to represent Jesus.  He wanted the opportunity, boldness, and clarity that God could provide.  Are you committed to praying for those who represent Jesus to people you may never meet?

But there was a second aspect of this instruction that was more directly related to the Colossians and their outreach.  Like us, they had contact with those who were “outsiders.”  These are people who have yet to embrace the person and the gospel of Christ.  Every Christ follower is a “missionary” regardless of vocation.  Each of us is to be characterized by compassionate acts and grace-filled speech.  Will those characterize you today?

Will you pause and pray now that God would use missionaries that Grace supports like the Triplehorn’s, Hobert’s, Plaster’s, Farley’s, and Kane’s?  Will you also pray that your words and actions impact those around you towards a relationship with Jesus?

Steve Kern

November 3 – Prison Letters – Relationships Revisited

Read Colossians 3:18-4:6

It is unfortunate that many have the inaccurate stereotype of the Scriptures that it is somehow irrelevant and dominated by seemingly useless historical information.  Paul said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful . . .” (2 Tim. 3:16a)  I can think of nothing more practical and useful than relational instruction like we find in today’s reading.  God, you see, really wanted to give His children clear principles for the key relationships of life.  As we mentioned in our study of Ephesians, this is not an isolated text or topic.  In fact, we find that the Spirit of God gives this kind of instruction in many other biblical texts.

Here is a quick summary of how you and I, as followers of Jesus, are to respond to others and to authority:

Christian to government and its leaders:  We are to pray for and submit to these people in authority as ones appointed by God.  This includes the paying of taxes.  (Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2, 1 Peter 2)

Husbands and wives:  Husbands are to love their wives the way the Christ unconditionally and sacrificially loves the church.  Wives are to respect their husbands the way that the church honors Christ.  (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, 1 Peter 3)

Parents and children:  Children are to obey and honor their parents . . . even providing for them as they age and as their mother might be widowed.  Parents (especially fathers) are to raise their children in God’s instruction without frustrating them (Eph. 6, Colossians 3, 1Timothy 5)

Employee and employer/supervisor (an adaptation of the slave/master relationship described in Ephesians 6, Colossians 3 and 4, and 1 Peter 2):  Employees are to work submissively as unto the Lord.  Employers are to treat their employees with fairness.

Older and younger:  Titus 2 clearly outlines the kind of God-honoring behavior that should characterize both genders and generations.

Church leaders and church participants:  Church leaders are to be characterized by godly qualifications.  They should lead as shepherds calling God’s people to service.  Church participants, meanwhile, are to honor and provide for their leaders.  (1 Timothy 3 and 5, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5)

Chances are, you are implicated in several, if not all, of the aforementioned relationships.  It is always time to take action in your relationships!

Steve Kern

November 2 – Prison Letters – From Death to Life

Read Colossians 3:1-17

“…you were dead in your sins…”  “…God made you alive with Christ…” “…you died with Christ…” (Col. 2:13, 20)

Apart from the written revelation of God in Colossians 2 (with parallel ideas in Ephesians 2 and Romans 6), I don’t think I would be aware of these spiritual realities.  I would likely not have known that I was spiritually dead before I came to Christ.  Or that, at conversion, I was infused with spiritual life.  And when I placed faith in Jesus, the old man and my sinful nature was put to death.  Those are not typically experiences that we “feel” happening as we become Christ followers.  They are not necessarily things, of which we are experientially aware.

But they are true!  Whether you were aware or not, those things really took place.  And, because they are spiritual realities, Paul admonishes readers like you to bring your life conduct in line with them.  Because you have been raised with Christ, your thoughts and your pursuits are to change.  Now, rather than focusing on and seeking after things that the earth offers, you are to raise your sights and energies to bring them in line with those of heaven.

And since, at conversion the old “you” was put to death, your life should reflect that.  Things like immorality, impurity, greed, anger, and slander are to be things that once characterized our past, not the present or the future.  They are replaced by godly qualities like compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, love, and peace.  These are the kinds of qualities that God, through His Spirit, builds into us as you allow the truth of Scripture to “richly dwell” in you.

Don’t misunderstand this.  At conversion, you did not become perfect.  Because of conversion, you will not, in this life, achieve perfection (1 Jn. 1:8-10).  Nevertheless, you are not to throw in the towel in surrender to sinful patterns that have characterized your life.  God wants to bring about practical life change that is consistent with your spiritual experience.  That requires your wholehearted cooperation!

Steve Kern

November 1 – Prison Letters – Move on to Transformation and Maturity!

Read Colossians 2:1-23

Paul wasn’t the only one trying to influence the Colossian believers.  Just as he, from a distance, prayed and wrote in order that they might be “complete in Christ” (1:28), so too, others were also trying to lead the believers, but towards another goal.  These people were attempting to deceive the Christ followers (2:4).  Their goal was to “take them captive” (2:8).  Even though their arguments seemed to somehow sound wise, in the end it was a hollow philosophy that was void of true substance.  In spite of the fact that the rationale was consistent with human traditions and seemed to make sense with its list of rules, still it lacked any eternal, life-transforming power.

Don’t be naïve in thinking that God is the only One desiring to gain access to the way you think, what you do, and what you say.  Satan will use any of a number of influences to draw you away from genuine faith in and reliance upon the powerful, authoritative Son of God.  Christ is the only One who has raised us to life.  It is by the grace of God that you have experienced forgiveness.  Any human, fleshly, rule-based attempt to gain control over your life including your actions and thoughts will fall short.

Paul’s counsel to the Colossians and to us is simple:

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”  (2:6, 7)

Christ was not only adequate for our salvation, He is also the only source for our transformation.  Having begun by the Spirit, we cannot finish by the means of the flesh (Gal. 3:3).  We cannot replace God’s wisdom with human wisdom.  Our new life initiated by faith in Christ will only move forward as we draw from Him as the wellspring of power and wisdom.  This requires that we continue to allow His teaching to permeate our lives rather than listening to other voices, as wise as they may seem to be.

Steve Kern

October 31 – Prison Letters – Stagnation not Allowed

Read Colossians 1:1-2:1

Have you ever received a personal letter or e-mail from a complete stranger?  Have you ever written a letter like that?  If so, it likely started out with something like, “You don’t know me but . . .” or “Hi.  My name is . . .”  Those are awkward letters to write or to receive.

This letter from Paul to the Colossians is somewhat like that.  Paul, you see, had never personally met many of the recipients of the letter (2:1).  Instead, Epaphras had previously gone to them, shared the message of Christ with them, and then informed Paul of their faith in Jesus.  Paul, then, had only heard about these Christ followers in Colossae.

Writing this letter, then, was both bold and awkward.  What was it that prompted him to write?  It was a sense of responsibility.  You see, Paul had been given a stewardship . . . a commission (1:25-29).  God had given him a unique insight and responsibility.  The insight was the mystery of Jews and Gentiles united in one body, the church.  The responsibility was that of establishing believers in their faith and seeing them move to maturity (1:28, 29).

It was towards this end, the maturity of believers, that Paul wrote letters, worked, and prayed (1:9-14).  And his specific prayer for the Colossians reflects for us goals, towards which we too should be striving.  These goals include:

  1. A knowledge of God’s will (1:9).  God’s primary means of communicating His will is through His word.  Do you spend consistent time in the scriptures?
  2. A God-pleasing life (1:10).  This forces us beyond the cognitive awareness of God’s will and into the application of it.  Are you obeying what you know and serving in the opportunities God provides?
  3. A growing appreciation for God Himself (1:10-12).  As we get to know Him better, the value we ascribe to Him increases.  We begin to trust Him more and worship Him better.  Are you learning more about Him and reflecting that in deeper and more sincere worship?

There is much more to learn about ourselves as we give attention to this letter written by Paul to strangers.  But today’s challenge is a warning against stagnation.  There is so much more to learn and to apply as you pursue maturity.  Give yourselves to it!

Steve Kern