The Prison-House.
(Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity.)


"The prisoner of the Lord."

This is what Paul the aged called himself in writing to the Ephesians. He had appealed unto Caesar, and he was a captive at Rome. But he does not style himself Caesar's prisoner, but the prisoner of the Lord, whose he was, and whom he served. Let us think first of the place and manner of St. Paul's imprisonment. The place was Rome, the capital of the world. A city full of glorious memories of the past, and famous in the present for art, and eloquence, and learning. Its soldiers could boast that they had conquered the world, and could point out the tombs of Pompey and of many another hero along the Appian Way. Its streets had been trodden by some of the greatest of poets, and its Senate-House had echoed with the burning words of the first orators of the world. Rome was full of contrasts, wealth and beggary, beauty and squalor, the palace of Caesar, and the haunt of vice and shame, were close together. The city was ruled over by a cruel tyrant, at once a hypocrite and a monster of iniquity.

It was in such a place, so glorious and so shameful, that S. Paul was a prisoner. He was not, however, confined in a dungeon. By the favour of the Praefect of the Praetorian Guard, whose duty it was to take charge of all prisoners awaiting trial before the Emperor, the Apostle was allowed to live in a hired house of his own, to have free access to such friends as he had, and to preach the Gospel freely to those who would hear him. But still S. Paul was a prisoner. After the Roman fashion, he was chained to a soldier, and at night probably two soldiers were linked to him. Perhaps no such wonderful sermons have ever since been preached as those spoken by S. Paul, "the prisoner of the Lord." We can fancy the old man, grey-haired, and bent with suffering, and want, and hardship, bearing on his wrinkled face and scarred body those marks of the Lord Jesus, of which he tells us, and yet brave, unflinching as ever. We can picture him preaching the Gospel of Jesus with the same boldness in his bonds as when at freedom, glorying in the cross of his Master, and rejoicing that he is permitted to enter into the fellowship of His sufferings. We can fancy even the stern Roman soldier watching with admiration, as the old man exhorts his hearers to show themselves good soldiers of Jesus Christ, to fight the good fight, to take unto them the whole armour of God. Whilst many a Christian's heart must have swelled with emotion as the fettered hands were lifted in earnest exhortation, and the blessing was given amid the clanking of the Apostle's chains. And thus all the hearers of S. Paul must have been struck with the wonderful faith and patience of the man; just as we are struck when we read his words to-day. Although he was an exile, a prisoner, waiting for a trial where he would have little chance of justice, knowing that the sword hung above his head ready to fall at any moment, S. Paul utters no complaint, no murmur of discontent. On the contrary, he bids his hearers rejoice in the Lord alway; he himself thanked God, and took courage; he tells his disciples that he has learnt in whatsoever state he is, to be content. He is poor, yet making many rich. He has nothing, yet possesses all things. He has that peace of God which passeth all understanding, that good part which shall not be taken away. The heathen tyrant can make him a prisoner, but his chains cannot keep him from the glorious freedom of the sons of God. Persecution may drive him from his home, but nothing can rob him of his home eternal in the Heavens. The sword of the Roman may slay him, but to him to die is gain, and he is ready to be offered. He has suffered want, and sorrow, and loss; he has endured perils by land and by sea, by robbers, by shipwreck, by the heathen, and by his own countrymen, but for this S. Paul cares not, he has kept the faith, he has run the race set before him, looking unto Jesus, and he knows that the crown of glory is laid up for him. A great preacher of our day tells us how they brought the news to Athens that the battle of Marathon was won. The swiftest runner had come panting and exhausted with the glad tidings of victory, and worn out with exertion, he dropped, and died on the threshold of the first house he reached, sobbing out with dying breath the words -- "Farewell, and rejoice ye, we, too, rejoice." So the Apostle, the prisoner of the Lord, dying daily, and expecting each hour to be his last, tells the glad tidings of Christ's victory over sin and death, and whispers with his dying breath, "rejoice." It is no wonder that such a preacher should have produced marvellous results, and should have begotten many spiritual children, as he tells us, in his bonds. Luke, his fellow traveller through so many varied scenes, was there to comfort Paul the aged in his bonds. Tychicus, who had formerly accompanied him from Corinth to Ephesus, was ready to carry the Apostle's letters to the Churches; and Mark, who had once failed in his ministry, was once more restored to the side of his great teacher. Others, too, were with him, but none perhaps was dearer to S. Paul than a certain slave, Onesimus, who had fled from his master, Philemon, in Colossae. This runaway slave had found his way to Rome, and here probably some one, who had seen him in the house of his Christian master, took pity on the fugitive, and brought him to S. Paul. How tenderly the prisoner of the Lord dealt with the erring slave we can well imagine, as we read the loving words which the Apostle wrote in his Epistle to Philemon. Then, too, we can fancy the prisoner of the Lord talking to his jailor, the stern Roman soldier, who was chained to him night and day. Often in the long night watches, when the care of all the Churches kept S. Paul from sleep, he must have conversed with the warrior so closely linked to him. I think we may believe that a yet closer link than that of the iron chain at last united the prisoner and the guard. I think that the earnest prayers, and burning words, of that brave soldier of Jesus Christ, must have led the soldier of Caesar to take up his cross, and follow Jesus.

And now what lesson can we learn from the prison-house at Rome? We can learn this, that this world in which we live is in one sense a prison-house to all. It is a prison-house of hard work. In our great cities the roar of traffic, the rattle of machinery, the shriek of the steam-whistle, the eager crowds flocking to office and bank and exchange all mean one thing -- work. Every man's talk is of business; he is in the prison-house, and he is chained to his work. Next, this world is a prison-house of sorrow and trial. Every one who has lived any time in the world can show you the marks of his chain. Every one whom we meet is wearing a crown of thorns. It is hidden under the scanty white locks of the old, and the sunny tresses of youth. It is covered by the soldier's helmet, or the peer's coronet, or the widow's cap; but the crown of thorns is there. Specially is this world a prison-house to those who strive to do their duty, and help their fellow men. For them in all ages there have been prison bars, and chains of persecution. Joseph resists temptation, and he is cast into prison. But the iron of his chain made his soul as iron, and changed the spoiled darling of his father into the wise ruler of Egypt. He was the prisoner of the Lord, and this suffering was the way to glory. Truly says a great poet (Milton), "who best can suffer, best can do." If we would look on some of the greatest teachers, philosophers, and benefactors of mankind, we must look for them in a prison-house. Socrates, when seventy-two years old, was a prisoner, and condemned to drink poison, because he taught higher lessons than the mob could understand. He died discussing the immorality of the soul, and his farewell to his judges was full of quiet dignity. "It is now time," he said, "that we depart -- I to die, you to live; but which has the better destiny is unknown to all, except to God." Bruno was burnt at Rome, because he exposed the false philosophy of the day. When Galileo, an old man of seventy, taught the truth about the earth's motion, they cast him into the dungeons of the Inquisition, and after death the Pope refused a tomb for his body. And so for many others who dared to do their duty and to speak the truth, -- reformers in religion, in science, in politics, -- there was a prison-house, there was a chain. But the stone walls could not confine the mind; the iron chain could not bind the truth. Some of the most glorious works in literature were composed in prison. The prison-house at Rome has given us some of those Epistles of S. Paul which have gone far to convert the world; and the finest allegory in the English language was written in Bedford gaol. "If we suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are we." If we are the prisoners of the Lord, let us welcome the chain of trial, of sorrow, of self-denial, of persecution. There are prisoners who are not the Lord's. There are some fast bound in the misery and iron of bad habits, and habitual sin. These are lying in the condemned cell, bound hand and foot with the devil's chain. The drunkard, the impure man, the unbeliever, these are prisoners, but not the Lord's. I do not speak now of them. I speak to you, my brothers, who are trying to live a godly and a Christian life, the life of duty. And I tell you that you will often find this life a prison-house, where you must give up your own will, deny yourselves, learn to endure hardness, and to bear the chain which suffering, or neglect, or ignorance put upon you. If you are indeed the prisoners of the Lord, the iron of your chain will make you brave to suffer and be strong. The same hope which sustained Paul the aged long ago will sustain you now; the glorious certainty that after a while the Lord looseth men out of prison, and receives them into the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

sermon li past knowledge
Top of Page
Top of Page