Among the 13 epistles of the New Testament attributed to Paul (14, if you include Hebrews), five of them were written when Paul was imprisoned. These five letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Timothy can remind Christians how even when circumstances seem impossible (like being in prison), God can still perform miracles through our lives. If Paul had not experienced his various imprisonments, these five epistles ― or letters ― may never have been written. Composed a few decades after the death of Christ, these works have offered Christians inspiring and wonderful truths for nearly 2,000 years now.
Paul spent a fair amount of time in Ephesus (in modern Turkey), so he certainly knew the Christians of the city well. Curiously, however, in his letter to the Ephesians, he did not mention anyone by name, as he did in other letters. This factor has prompted some scholars to consider that Ephesians was perhaps an “encyclical letter” – one that was intended to be copied and passed around to many communities. Some think that maybe Tychicus (the deliverer) brought the letter to Ephesus first and from there it was copied and distributed to various other Christian communities.
Whether or not it was written specifically to the Christians of Ephesus, the letter was written during an imprisonment (Eph. 3:1, 4:1, 6:20) and is chock full of inspiration. Ephesians begins by underscoring the divinity of Christ, and of our salvation through Him. He reminded the readers that the Lord gave them each a gift to use in life. Paul also gave some advice for daily living. By reading and rereading this letter to the Ephesians, we can get encouragement to nurture our families, treat our neighbors with kindness and patience, avoid evil situations, and draw strength from the Lord through frequent prayer. Significant advice for those who lived 2,000 years ago and for those who live today. For further reading, see Ephesians 4:7-12; 5:17; 6:10, 18.
This second prison letter is also sometimes referred to as “the letter of joy.” Within the mere four chapters of the letter to the Philippians, you can find the words joy and rejoice more than a dozen times! It is clear from this letter that Paul and the Christians of Philippi had a happy relationship.
Modern scholars think that Paul was in an Ephesian prison when he wrote this letter and due to some abrupt changes in subject and tone, some claim the letter may actually have been three different letters ― which at some point were put together, making one.
Through this letter, Paul gave the Christians of Philippi (in modern Greece) heartfelt encouragement to stay focused on the Lord and to strive for harmony. He reminded them that the Lord was always with them. Paul encouraged the Christians of Philippi to ignore outside pressures to adopt Mosaic Law; he told these Gentile converts that rejoicing in the Lord should be their main focus. He let them know that Epaphroditus, a Philippian who had brought Paul a gift from the Christians of Philippi, had recovered from a serious illness. Paul also expressed gratitude for their kind generosity. Surely, when Epaphroditus returned to Philippi with Paul’s letter, there was much rejoicing ― for both Epaphroditus’s re-gained health and to receive news and inspirations from their beloved evangelizer. Learn more about Paul’s words to the early Christians of Philippi in Philippians 2:25-30; 3:2; 4:4-6.
Paul’s letter to the Christians of Colossae has somewhat of a “let’s get back to the basics” message. There are no recordings of Paul ever having visited Colossae (about 100 miles east of Ephesus) ― it was a Christian named Epaphras who introduced the people of Colossae to the life and message of Christ. However, after some time, Epaphras could see that his Christian community was shifting away from the essence of the church by letting some pagan-tinged customs seep into their lives. Though not specified, passages in Colossians seem to hint that their practices included strange food regimens, astrological rites, angel worship, and harsh self-mortifications.
Epaphras went to visit the imprisoned Paul (perhaps in Rome), and apparently shared how the people of Colossae were being lured into the cult-like practices by some unnamed people. In response, Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians and strongly encouraged the community to return to lives of deeper spirituality by putting a fuller focus on Christ; he insisted that their shadowy rituals would only tug them away from truth.
With a bit of thought, one can consider that many Catholics of today are also drawn to activities that tend to take away from a healthy spirituality: investing much time and effort into making money and obtaining material goods, striving for power, giving too much attention to sports, politics, TV, etc. Reviewing the Letter to the Colossians once in a while can help Christians stick with the main idea ― to keep our lives focused on the Lord. For further study, read: Colossians 1:7; 2:16-18; 3:15.
The epistle known as Philemon is one of Paul’s more personal letters. It was written to three members of a family: Philemon, Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife), and Archippus (perhaps the couple’s son). This family lived in Colossae and owned a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had run away, met up with the imprisoned Paul (possibly in Rome), and became a Christian. Paul spent some time with the Colossian slave, teaching him about the message of Christ; however, after a while, felt compelled to have Onesimus return to Philemon’s family in Colossae ― with a letter from Paul. Paul’s written plea to this family is touching and heartfelt. He begs for their mercy and forgiveness toward their delinquent slave. Paul also very bravely hints that not only should the run-away slave be forgiven, but that they should welcome him as a Christian brother ― maybe even free him so that he can work for Paul. Paul also shows a bit of clever humor in this letter. The name Onesimus means “useful” and Paul lightheartedly reasoned how Onesimus was once “useless,” but after embracing the ways of a Christian life, he had become “useful” to both the family and Paul. Most traditions assert that the family heeded Paul’s advice, forgave Onesimus and let him go to help Paul in his missionary works. Because Philemon, Apphia and Archippus lived in Colossae, not only did they read their own personal letter, but they most probably read the Letter to the Colossians as well.
The Letter to Philemon can challenge and remind Catholics to accept people of all social standings and backgrounds. Explore this prison letter more through: Philemon 1-2; 9-11; 17.
While Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon are often clumped together and called “Captivity Epistles,” Paul was also in prison when he wrote his second letter to Timothy ― a letter that is often clustered with 1 Timothy and Titus, a grouping called the “Pastoral Letters.” Timothy was a missionary companion to Paul for a while, but eventually, settled in Ephesus to head the new church there. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy offering practical advice, encouragement, and inspiration to effectively lead the Christians of Ephesus. He urged Timothy to remain steadfast, bear trials patiently, and to avoid false teachers. There is also a sense of finality in Paul’s tone; it seems that he felt his life was soon to end. His well-known verse, “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” is found in this letter to Timothy (2Tm. 4:7). Reviewing the Second Letter to Timothy can help Catholics rejuvenate their faith and to patiently accept times of challenge. A few additional reflective verses found within 2 Timothy are ― 1:8; 2:9; 3:1-5; 4:13.
New Readers for Old Letters
- Strive for an awareness of the gifts God gave you, and use them for His glory.
- Always keep a joyful heart for the Lord.
- Keep your heart, mind, soul and strength focused on the Lord and His will.
- Accept all Christian brothers as equals, for we are all equal in the eyes of God.
- Keep the faith, despite hardships.
These are just a handful of the many profound points Paul made in these letters. Without Paul’s time in prison, these and many other themes may not have received the emphasis they deserve. Surely Paul felt thwarted during his imprisonments, but Christians of the past 2,000 years have been blessed for it.
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