I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you…
Ephesians 4:1 ESV
Once, while reading through the book of Ephesians, it struck me as a bit odd that here smack dab in the center of his letter, Paul mentions the fact that he’s in prison. I’d expect maybe that he’d do that at the beginning, perhaps at the end, but to stick it here seems out of place.
Students of the book of Ephesians know it neatly divides into two parts: doctrine (chapters 1-3) and duty (chapters 4-6). The only imperative in the first three chapters is found in 2:11, “remember!” These chapters tell how a church is formed: God has gloriously ordained that some be His children, Christ has died to redeem them, He has granted faith to those He has called, and He has drawn these all into one church, built upon the doctrinal foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, built without reference to ethnicity, sans the hostile dividing wall of Jew/Gentile. It’s a lot about what God did, and He did some amazing things.
Chapters 4-6 on the other hand are full of imperatives. If you look, most of those imperatives are relational. Be humble. Be gentle. Love your wife. Honor your parents. Obey your master, respect your husband, work together. Don’t steal (profound tip of the day: theft damages friendships), lay off the sauce.
Paul begins this section by mentioning that he is in prison. He’s “a prisoner for the Lord.” He’s out there doing what God called him to do and got tossed in jail.
Apparently the Ephesians had a little guilt complex over Paul’s imprisonment:
I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (3:13)
True, his experience in Ephesus wasn’t particularly smooth. His exact words to describe it were “tears and trials” (Acts 20:19). I suspect some of the Ephesian troublemakers ended up converted and not a little ashamed over their former treatment of Paul, as he seemed to be when recalling his days of hell-raising in the church.
The point of 3:13 though is that Paul suffered for the Ephesian church. Paul’s sorrows were the price of ministry in Ephesus, and for Jesus’ sake and their eternal souls, he paid it. So God sending his top man Paul into Ephesus to suffer was their glory, a tangible, measurable price paid for their salvation before their very eyes. They could say something like, “God’s love has been shown to us, in that while we were hating on him, Paul brought the gospel and suffered for our souls’ sake.”
And now, Paul is in prison. He wants them to know he’s in prison. Gospel ministry is difficult and costly. Serving and obeying the Lord is uncomfortable and downright dangerous, even deadly. Suffering for the Ephesians, in prison for the Lord. Welcome to the life of the Illustrious Apostle. Wanna tag along? John Mark sure didn’t.
But this isn’t about Paul, at least not completely. After this ancient Facebook check-in from prison he says, “walk… bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
I like Paul, he’s fearless enough to say it about like it is: bear with one another. Captain Obvious say, “Being around some Christians no fun.” To “bear with” is not precisely the same as “to not help being able to enjoy.” Granted, sometimes being with other Christians is so fun it makes one want to spontaneously break out in song and well-choreographed dance. Technically speaking, dancing in church would be certain cause to cease bearing with one another, but I carelessly digress.
Often, church life is rather reminiscent of the headlines of the AD52 Fall Quarterly Corinth Community Church Chronicle:
“Pastor Secretly Wonders if Softball Games are Proxy Wars Between Cephasites & Paulites,”
“Deacon Sues Worship Leader After Parking Lot Fender Bender,”
“Gladys Jenkins Passed Out Under Back Pew After Guzzling Communion Wine” and
“Gloop Family First in Potluck Line, Take No Hot Dish, Eat All the Meatballs… Again!”
Life together can be really hard. So hard, in fact, that many Christians just up and bail when togetherness gets difficult or unsatisfying.* There’s this expectation that Christianity is supposed to be fun; the church is supposed to be our safe space; it should be like the songs on Christian radio: uplifting & encouraging. Surely Jesus said that somewhere.
Paul is not surprised by the difficulties we face, even if we are. He knows we’re going to be assailed by insufferably annoying Christians who haven’t yet awakened to the glorious truth that my way is the highway. And lest we think our problems are all the other guys’ fault, we’ve got our own troubles: short, hot fuses (be angry, but don’t sin!), dirty minds (Let there be no filthiness nor… crude joking) and acidic tongues (Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths!).
I wanna quit, Paul. You don’t know how hard this Christianity thing is. Jesus & me goes along just fine, I can dig that; Jesus & me & anybody else is pretty tough. You get what I’m saying Paul?
I think that’s why he says something like, “I’m literally in prison, man. I’m in prison just so you could come to know Jesus and even be a church. If you can’t endure some annoyance for Christ’s sake and the sake of the church, then you don’t have a clue what it means that God has called you to his service.”
I wonder if Paul didn’t sometimes get irked when some of those very same people for whom he suffered “tears and trials” and now sat in prison didn’t seem to think they had any obligation to suffer a minor annoyance at the hands of other Christians who were bought at the price of Jesus’ blood and his bonds.
“Be patient. Bear with one another. Be gentle. Don’t quit. I know it’s not easy investing in people – that’s why I’m in prison, for goodness’ sake. Your calling includes a little suffering; mine much more.”
Don’t gripe too loudly that God called you to put up with bothersome people, and don’t flee your calling to those brothers and sisters either. When your ministry to and for the church lands you in prison wondering if you’re about to be executed, then you can complain about it like Paul did. If you can prove he did complain, which I doubt (Phil. 4:12). For Jesus’ sake, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the people who need your ministry, suck it up.
*Of course there are times when “bailing” is the proper thing to do, as when a church ceases to be a church. Jesus Himself threatened to bail on several churches in Rev. 2-3.