Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hard luck and Caesar's household

“Hard luck and bad news have followed me from town to town
All my life my luck’s been down I’m getting so weary
I don’t have one friend, folks turn their backs when I’m around
When I walk by the grass turns brown” [1]

When circumstances in life turn bad, a natural reaction is to become discouraged, angry, depressed, and wonder why God let us down. We may also wonder why our service to God (working in the church, tithing, charity, etc.) has not spared us from hard times. The Apostle Paul certainly could have gone through these emotions and questions when he found himself in prison at Rome for “bringing Greeks into the temple” (Acts 21:28), though essentially, for preaching about Jesus. Rather, he chose to use the imprisonment as an opportunity.

A particularly interesting comment is made by Paul later during his imprisonment: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.” (Philippians 4:22) As Caesar was considered in Roman times to be godlike, it seems unusual for Paul to mention some of his attendants. Craig Keener points out that “It most likely refers here to the Praetorian Guard … if Paul was in Rome at this point, anyone who guarded him … would naturally be exposed to his teaching. Even Caesar’s slaves wielded more power and prestige than most well-off free persons; the Praetorian Guard itself held the prestige of the Roman military’s elite, often rewarded by Caesar himself. Paul’s greeting would impress his readers: his imprisonment has indeed advanced the gospel”. [2] So, Paul had a very unique opening to spread the gospel.

Philip Schaff comments that Paul “often refers to his bonds, and the coupling chain or hand-cuff (ἅλυσις) by which, according to Roman custom, he was with his right wrist fettered day and night to a soldier; one relieving the other and being in turn chained to the apostle, so that his imprisonment became a means for the spread of the gospel…” [3] This was probably not one of the choice assignments for a guard. Imagine being chained to a prisoner in a cell for hours at a time. But Paul, rather than lament his situation, turned it into a chance to talk to each of the guards about Jesus. He likely spoke with many guards over time. At some point, Paul was permitted to live in “his own rented quarters” (Acts 28:30-31). During these two years of imprisonment, from approximately 61-63 A.D., Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and may have also written Titus and I Timothy.

Paul explained, “that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14) Rather than blaming God and giving up when the situation became bad, Paul turned it into a chance to spread the gospel and lead people to salvation. In our lives, a depressing situation may be a unique opportunity to do something significant.

[1] Larry Norman, Hard Luck and Bad News, Something New Under the Son, 1981
[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 567.
[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D.1-100, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), § 93.