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Prison Epistles

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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January 2, 2024 12:01 am

Prison Epistles

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 2, 2024 12:01 am

In his service to Christ, the Apostle Paul suffered many perils and was arrested numerous times. Today, R.C. Sproul considers the edifying theology and wisdom for the Christian life found in the letters Paul wrote from prison.

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Jonathan Edwards says the chief business of the Christian is to press into the kingdom of God, to press onward to that mark, to reach the fullness of maturity in Christ. And the apostle does this while he is rejoicing in his prison.

Many say that it's much easier to be a Christian, to be a faithful witness to the Christian faith when things are going well, when trials come, when we feel imprisoned by circumstances, or literally, we waver. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind as we spend a week surveying the epistles of the New Testament. For the apostle Paul, when he was in prison, he didn't waver, he didn't flinch, and he wrote some of the most beloved books in the New Testament. If you'd like to study the entire New Testament and Old Testament, then I encourage you to request R.C. Sproul's 57-message overview of the entire Bible, Dust to Glory.

You can learn more at Well, here's R.C. Sproul on the four prison epistles of the apostle Paul. From Paul's autobiographical account in 2 Corinthians chapter 11, we understand that he suffered extraordinary levels of peril and that he was arrested many times and had a prison record that was certainly unenviable. Some of those stays in jail were brief, such as his occasion in the Philippian altercation, but he had some rather lengthy times of being incarcerated, one in Caesarea and then a two-year house arrest in Rome that took place during the time of the emperorship of Nero, who ultimately was the one who executed the apostle Paul, and then his final imprisonment in Rome under Nero when he was killed. But at some point during these imprisonments, he wrote four very significant letters that are called the prison epistles of Paul. We don't know for sure which imprisonment was involved, but I think the weight of the evidence favors the first Roman imprisonment, which was a two-year stay in Rome from which the apostle wrote these important letters. And those prison epistles include the epistle to the Philippians, the letter to the Colossians, the letter to the Ephesians, and then the brief letter to Philemon.

And so what we're going to do in this session is to have a little introduction and brief overview to these four letters, and the first of which is the letter to the Philippians. The Philippians is one of my favorite epistles of the apostle Paul and is called in church history the epistle of joy, because again and again in this letter Paul speaks of his own joy, which is infectious. And he then encourages the people at Philippi to participate in the joy that Paul is experiencing, and that while he is writing to them from imprisonment. They said, I rejoice, therefore you rejoice as well. And Paul at that time is anticipating the possibility of his own imminent demise, but he looks forward to the future with joyous anticipation. And this is a theme of course that's not found merely in the Philippian correspondence, but it's found throughout the writings of the apostle. And so frequent is this motif of joy that I think it is safe to say that this fruit of the Holy Spirit is something that should be evidenced and manifest to some significant degree in every true Christian's life. Yes, we are to participate in the mourning and the sorrows of this world and be willing to go through the valley of the shadow of death for the sake of Christ. And yes, there are times when we are cast down but not destroyed and we sorrow, but the basic posture of the Christian should be one of joyous optimism, because we know in whom we have believed, and our trust is in Him, and we know that God certainly will prevail. So there is a reason for our joy. Paul mentions, for example, his own contentment, his inner peace, where he said, I have found whatever state I'm in therewith to be content. He said, I've learned how to abound, and I've learned how to be abased.

And bottom line, it doesn't matter. I can be happy in any of these circumstances. He also encourages the Philippians to remember who it was that started the redemptive work in their souls, and in that recollection reminds them that that which God has started, He will finish. He who has begun a good work in you will perfect it in the end. Now, again, there are some passages that I want to mention briefly in passing that we find in Philippians where he says in the very first chapter in verse 21, For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor. Yet what I shall choose I cannot tell, for I am hard pressed between the two. Having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better, nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.

Paul says, I'm ambivalent. I don't know which I want more, to stay in this world and continue this ministry in the name of Christ for your benefit or to acquiesce to my own personal desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better. Now, Paul's attitude towards life and death was not that this life is bad and the next life is good, but rather Paul's joyous view of living in Christ. He says, for me to live is Christ, and that's good.

This life that we enjoy here is good, but the next one's even better. For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain. It's to the Philippian church that Paul writes the famous canodic hymn, Have this mind among you which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God took as equality with God, not as a thing to be grasped, but as to be jealously held onto tenaciously, but He emptied Himself and took upon Himself the form of a servant and became obedient even unto death. Wherefore, the apostle says, has God highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Here is a call to the Christian church to emulate the humility of Jesus, who emptied Himself not of His deity, as some heretics would suggest, God can't stop being God for a second, but He emptied Himself of His prerogatives, of His rights, of His dignity, and became a servant. And Paul enjoins us to imitate Christ in that regard. Then Paul says later, he said that he himself has not attained to perfection. He says in chapter 3, But what things were gained to me, those I have counted loss for Christ. Yet I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ Jesus, the righteousness which is from God, by faith.

And then he says in verse 12, Not that I have already attained, for I am already perfected, but I press on that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. I do not count myself to have apprehended, but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead. I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. I forget about yesterday. I forget about the past.

I forget about what I was or what I did because I have business to do today. Jonathan Edwards says the chief business of the Christian is to press into the kingdom of God, to press onward to that mark, to reach the fullness of maturity in Christ. And the apostle does this while he is rejoicing in his prison. Now in addition to the Philippians, we have the letter to the Colossians. And the letter to the Colossians is one of the more obscure epistles for some reason in the New Testament. I don't understand why there's not more interest in the book of Colossians because the book of Colossians is another one of those magnificent masterpieces that comes from the pen of the apostle Paul.

And again, we see Paul exercising the role of the task theologian. Again, he sees an early Christian community that is in danger of serious invasion and conquest by heresy. We don't know when Gnosticism arose in the early church in its fullest measure, but Gnostic-like tendencies were certainly infiltrating the Colossian Christian community. And what the Gnostics, and the word Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means to know, and the Gnostics were a kind of mystical group that believed they had a special pipeline to divine knowledge, and their religion was an amalgamation, a blending, a syncretistic merging together of various ideas from Oriental philosophy, from dualistic religion, from Greek philosophy, and a few elements of Christianity. And they introduced a view of theology and religion that in the final analysis diminished the view of Jesus by associating Him with an angel.

And the Gnostics themselves were engaged, at least at a crass level, in various forms of angel worship. And so the apostle, in dealing with the Colossians, had to show the preeminence of Jesus over all angels, and show the distinction between Christ as the Son of God, and those angels who, though they may be higher than men, are nevertheless still creatures. Now one of the shorthand descriptions of the book of Colossians is the description of this book as giving to us a revelation of the cosmic Christ. That Christ is not simply the Redeemer of the Jews or the Messiah of Israel, but like John had unfolded in his gospel, He is the eternal Logos. Whereas the author of Hebrews said, He is the brightness of the glory of God. That this Christ who has come to redeem us is Lord of the universe, Lord of the cosmos.

Now Paul says some things here about his own work and of the work of Christ in the very first chapter in verse 15. He said, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and are on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, dominions, or principalities, or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.

Now here is the cosmic dimension. Here is the Christ who is the very essence of the universe. I mean the universe was made by Him, the universe was made for Him, and the universe is held together by Him. He is the goal of creation. I mean this is one of the things that I think we need to be educated about if we're going to understand the Christian faith, and that is the cosmic dimension of Christ.

Because our culture, which is much more pagan than it is Christian, sees religion as one tiny little compartment for personal comfort and consolation in the lives of people. That if you are into Jesus, that's because Jesus can make you happy or He can give you some kind of personal consolation. But the moment the church begins to preach the cosmic preeminence of Jesus Christ, that He is the King of the universe to whom every world leader is answerable and under whose dominion and authority all the powers of this world are subject.

That's when the church is thrown in prison and becomes human torches for the Caesars of this world. And so the Apostle Paul understood the price tag for preaching a cosmic Christ in his day. He knew that it was going to cost him personally, and he talks about filling up in his own body that which was lacking in the afflictions of Christ. Now, in this epistle, he's not suggesting for a moment that there was any deficiency in merit in the suffering of Jesus. But what he was saying was that the body of Christ, in a very restricted sense, is the continuing incarnation. That's why it's called His body, and if one is going to participate in the body of Christ that's in this world today, it must be willing to embrace His suffering and His affliction and His humiliation, which is a recurring theme in Paul.

Again, where he says, if you participate in the humiliation of Jesus, you will participate in the exaltation of Jesus, but if you refuse to identify with Christ in His suffering, then you will have no part in His exaltation as well. Well, I need to move on quickly to Ephesians. Ephesians is another magnificent letter that comes from the pen of the Apostle. There's something a little bit unusual about Ephesians in that this letter is written to the Ephesian believers, which was a church that Paul established, came back and revisited.

He was intimately acquainted with it, and yet uncharacteristic of his other epistles, there's next to no personal references to people in this letter. And the basic theory in church history is that the original letter to the Ephesians was penned by Paul with the intention of its becoming a circular letter to be read in one church and then sent by emissary to another congregation, and then so round about the circuit of Christian churches. And again, Ephesians is sort of a compendium of Romans, an even shorter version of the book of Romans and the subjects that we find in there, although one of the great motifs of the book of Ephesians is that, again, of the nature of the church.

But the nature of the church not only as the body of Christ, but as the company of the elect. The book of Ephesians reiterates the grand doctrine of justification by faith alone, but it also gives a clear affirmation of the Apostle's understanding of the predestinating grace of God. Sometimes when we're engaged in discussions and often even arguments about that doctrine of predestination, which tends to stir up everybody's juices because it's so difficult and so controversial and everything, sometimes people act as if the idea of predestination was invented by John Calvin or Martin Luther or some other sixteenth-century reformer or even St. Augustine, forgetting that the concept of predestination, the word predestination, is found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, nowhere more clearly than in the book of the Ephesians. And I say to people, if you're going to take the Bible seriously and receive the teaching of the Apostles, you're going to have to have some doctrine of predestination.

We can argue about who has the right doctrine of predestination, but you have to have some doctrine of predestination if you're going to be faithful to the Scriptures. Let me read to you the beginning statements that we have in Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Verse 3 of chapter 1, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. I mean, here the Apostle Paul begins this letter with a statement of the sovereign purpose of God, of choosing His people from the foundation of the world, predestinating them to be adopted into the family of God, to be brought into Christ for what purpose or according to what basis, according to what we do?

No, according to the good pleasure of His will. It's as if when Paul gives this summary of the gospel in Ephesians, he begins by saying, remember who you are and remember what God has done for you, and that what God has done for you in establishing you as a member of His family was not an afterthought in the economy of God's plan. But this is something that God has planned from the foundation of the world, that every believer participates in that eternal plan that God has for His people and for His church. And if there's any doubt about the priority of grace in the New Testament, one ought to look carefully at the second chapter of Ephesians, where the contrast is set before us between what we were like according to our fallen nature, walking according to the prince of the power of the air, walking according to the course of this world, by nature being dead in sin and trespasses.

Yet God in His mercy quickened us, made us alive together with Christ. And then the grand theme is, by grace you have been saved through faith, and that, that is even the faith, is not of yourself but is the gift of God. The life of the Christian is set forth as well in terms of what it means to be imitators of God and what it means to walk by the Spirit.

Some of this is spelled out in terms of relationships and what they are to look like. The authority that God gives parents over to the children, that we are as children to obey our parents, the relationship of the husband and the wife, the relationship of people to their rulers, all of that is spelled out in terms of the practical implications of what it means to be a Christian. And finally, Paul talks about the ongoing struggle with the wiles of Satan that require for the Christian defensive measures. Which defensive measures are made available to us in the armor that God has given to His people? And we have the exhortation to put on, to don the full armor of God that we may quench the fiery darts of the enemy and live as imitators of Christ, even as He was an imitator of the Father.

That was R.C. Sproul with a brief introduction to the prison epistles, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, a daily outreach of Ligonier Ministries for almost 30 years. I'm your host, Nathan W. Bingham. What are you reading in the Bible this week?

Do you have a study plan for 2024? Whether you're beginning in Genesis, reading the New Testament, or slowly working through one book, R.C. Sproul's Dust to Glory series is a helpful companion. Across 57 messages, he surveys the entire Bible, and the special edition DVD set comes with a study guide as well. We'll send it to you for your donation of any amount at You can sign up by calling us at 800 435 4343. In addition to the DVD, we'll give you lifetime digital access in the free Ligonier app to all the messages and the study guide. So give your gift today at And in addition to keeping Renewing Your Mind freely available to listeners around the world, R.C. Sproul benefits to make Ligonier's Reformation Study Bible, with its 1.1 million words of notes and commentary, available in more languages. It's currently being translated into Arabic, so thank you for your generosity. Join us tomorrow as R.C. Sproul introduces you to the two letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-02 02:40:25 / 2024-01-02 02:48:43 / 8

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