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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
 www.oaklawnurc.org/
 
Title:Remember My Chains!
Text:Colossians 4:10-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Persecution
 
Preached:11/08/2015
Added:2015-11-20
Updated:2016-03-17
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


 

Pastor Ted Gray
11/08/15 – a.m.
Remember My Chains!”
Colossians 4:10-18
 
The first and second Sundays of November are designated as International Day(s) of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. On those Sundays we are called to remember in a special way those who are persecuted and imprisoned for their faith.
 
It is hard for those of us living in the United States to comprehend the enormity of the persecution and imprisonment of brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. A Christian organization called “Open Doors” exists to make people aware of the great need to pray for the persecuted church. On their website they note:
 
100 million Christians around the globe are currently suffering persecution for their faith. Most often persecution takes the form of imprisonment, abuse, and hostilities. In some cases, however, Christians are asked to face more than scorn, prison, or the loss of health—they are asked to face death.
 
The article goes on to note how widespread the persecution of believers was in the first century and the centuries that followed:
 
During the first century, almost all of Jesus’ disciples suffered martyrdom for his sake. Peter was crucified upside down, Mark was torn to pieces, and Paul was beheaded. As Christianity spread throughout Europe and the British Isles, countless numbers of Christians were tortured and burned at the stake…(opendoors.org)
 
These verses from Colossians 4 give us a foretaste of the martyrdom that Paul and Mark would face. They are two of the many who are listed in these closing verses as being imprisoned because of their faith in Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel.
 
Onesimus
 
However, in the passage from Colossians 4 we see that those imprisoned include some who have a criminal record.
 
Luke, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Paul and others mentioned in this passage as being imprisoned were there on false charges. Those men had not stolen from others or killed others or done other deeds that deserved prison. They were imprisoned specifically for preaching the gospel and for their faith in Jesus Christ.
 
But Onesimus was in prison with a legitimate charge. He was a slave who had stolen from his master Philemon. When he was apprehended he was sentenced to prison, and it was while he was in prison that he met the apostle Paul. Through Paul’s witness to him, Onesimus came to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. As such he represents the goal of every prison ministry, to see those who had a criminal background radically transformed by the power of the gospel, and leave prison as new creations in Christ.
 
I am thankful for the many prison ministries that we have in the United States, and for the unique prison ministry that has been put before us as a United Reformed congregation. We have wonderful opportunities to be used by the Lord to transform lives through prison ministries such as Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary. We have been blessed as a congregation to hear their instructors preach to us at various times, and also during Mission Emphasis week to hear first-hand of the wonderful ministry that is going on in prisons in Illinois and Indiana through that work.
 
We are always to be in prayer that God would bless those prison ministries and cause many who were convicted of crimes to be transformed as Onesimus was, received into the Church and  received into society, as glowing witnesses to the grace of God.
 
However, those who are in prison include many who seem converted but when released do not prove their repentance with deeds and with the obedience that comes from true faith. One of the greatest challenges of any prison ministry is that those in prison may seem very interested in hearing the gospel, but once they are released the attraction of the world can be more powerful than it was when they committed the crime that sent them to prison in the first place.
 
After all, the attraction of the world is so great that it has led many professing Christians astray. There are many professing Christians on Sunday who during the rest of the week don’t prove their repentance with deeds or exhibit an obedience that comes from true faith. And there are many church leaders who once seemed like such committed Christians who now have left the faith altogether.
 
Demas
 
Demas, mentioned briefly in verse 14, is an example of that. Demas was not in prison because he was a thief like Onesimus. Demas was in prison because of the gospel. He worked closely with Paul and the other apostles and his name comes up in the epistles a number of times.
 
But then we come to a surprise. As Paul closed his second letter to Timothy he writes in 2 Timothy 4:9, Do your best to come to me quickly. That is an example of what it means to visit those who are in prison. Paul is saying, “I really want to see you please come and see me if you are able.” And then in verse 10, he adds, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.
 
Who would have thought that Demas, who had been wrongfully imprisoned with Paul, and worked with Paul faithfully, would be a traitor, – would leave the ministry for the love of the world?
 
Unfortunately, we have all known Christian leaders who have done that. We have all been let down by those Christian leaders who seem to be wholeheartedly committed to the gospel, to living it out in their lives as an example for us to follow, but then show themselves to be charlatans. Now if that was  true of someone like Demas, how much more often is it true of those who are in prison for their crimes, who are in prison because they have lived a life of deceit?
 
And that is why discernment is so crucial in prison ministry. We cannot read someone’s heart; ultimately the human heart is indiscernible to all but God. Jeremiah 17:9 describes the human heart as deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Then Jeremiah asks, Who can know it?
 
However, we may get an indication of someone’s heart by how they act. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.” For instance, if someone is truly repentant then Acts 26:20 says that their repentance will be proved by deeds. Likewise Romans 1:5 describes the obedience that comes from true faith.
 
But if a Christian leader like Demas can fool other Christian leaders like Paul, Luke and Mark, how much easier is it for someone who has a history of conning people to act one way in prison, and then be a totally different people person outside of those prison walls? The warning of Jesus, to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves, applies to all of us, but it certainly applies to those in prison ministry.
 
Discernment
 
In a former church we experienced that need for discernment acutely. We had an active prison ministry run by a man in the church whom we affectionately called, “Big Ben.” He volunteered a lot of his time at the Marion Correctional Institute, a medium secure prison outside of Ocala, Florida. He gave us frequent updates on his work and we prayed for those in prison. We prayed for their conversion as they heard the gospel. We prayed that their profession of faith would be in the heart and not just on their lips. And we also we prayed for their assimilation into society when they were released, as we all recognized what a great challenge that presents to anyone coming out of the prison system.
 
I preached at the prison and was swayed by the enthusiasm of the inmates for the gospel. They were so enthusiastic with their “Amens” and “Hallelujahs”! And their singing was a delight. To this day whenever I hear the old hymn, There’s Power in the Blood  I can see and hear those prisoners belting out “There’s power, power, wonder working power in the precious blood of the Lamb!”
 
After preaching there I enthusiastically mentioned to Ben how moved I was by their emotion and love for the Lord. But Ben cautioned me. He said, “Pastor, some of these guys are here just to make points with the warden. Others are here because they are bored and it gives them something to do. Still others look at chapel as a way to use the system and get benefits when they are released.”  
 
Ben was perceptive and discerning. He was a retired New York City policeman. He had walked the beat. He had done special investigations. He knew the criminal mind. He was not someone who was easily swayed; it was hard to pull the wool over his eyes.
 
Sometimes Ben and his wife, Janie, would take in a released prisoner in their home and help them get a job and try to rebuild their life in the community. When a prisoner was living with them they would come to church and we got to know some of these men. We were so thankful to see that some were indeed like Onesimus, truly transformed by the gospel, proving their repentance with deeds and the obedience that comes from faith.
 
On one occasion one of the prisoners was especially promising. He was as congenial a person you could ever meet, a true pleasure to talk with and he loved to talk about the Scriptures and how the Lord had saved him and given him a new life. He knew his Bible and could quote from it extensively. Although he had been out of prison for a few months he had not been able to get a job and we prayed for him, recognizing that it is hard for a prisoner to be assimilated into society. We thought it was very kind of Ben to let the prisoner borrow his car as he looked for work.
 
During the time that this prisoner was looking for work, there were a series of rapes committed 35 miles north of us in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. The police knew they were dealing with a serial rapist, but quite a number of rapes had been committed before they were able to capture the rapist. But finally they captured him as he fled the scene of his most recent crime. Whose car was he driving? It was Ben’s car. Instead of looking for work, he had been out committing rapes.
 
Even though Ben was wise and perceptive and had spent years in prison ministry, that particular ex-con was able to fool him and all of us in the church. It really shocked us to know that this man who seemed to be such a wonderful example of a converted Christian could come to church on Sunday and speak eloquently about salvation, knowledgeably about the Scripture, and speak so pleasantly to all of us – as though we had known him all our lives – and yet at the same time be committing a series of horrendous crimes.
 
We have seen a similar situation recently with a man who had been in a prison ministry that we support. The man professed his faith in a nearby church but then went out just weeks later and committed a horrific crime. The crime was so brutal that it dominated the local news throughout the Chicago area. 
 
How do you prevent that from happening? Do you give 24-hour constant supervision to make sure that the ex-convict is proving their repentance with their deeds? Do you have to be with the person day and night to see whether they have the obedience that comes from faith?  How do you determine if they were just trying to use the church and Christians to their own advantage?
 
I don’t have the answer to all those questions. But I do know that even though there are these terrible examples where prison ministry doesn’t seem effective, it is still a blessed and necessary ministry to maintain.  
 
However, I also believe that many prison ministries in the United States are built on an incorrect premise. That incorrect premise can cause some in prison ministry to be naïve about the challenges of working with convicts. The incorrect premise can cause some in prison ministry to presume that those they work with will be just like Onesimus. But in reality many will be like Demas, talking a good talk but in love with the world, not Christ.
 
The Premise for Prison Ministry
 
The premise and motivation for prison ministry in nations like our own which currently do not imprison believers for their faith, is the Great Commission. We are to give the free offer of the gospel to all people, trusting that the Lord will work salvation in the lives of His elect.
 
But most prison ministries in the United States go on the premise that their ministry is a fulfillment of Matthew 25:36 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you visited me.” Or they base the premise for prison ministry on Hebrews 13:3 which says, Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
 
Since we don’t have people in prison because of their faith in Jesus Christ here in the United States, we don’t look at the so-called “prison passages” of the Bible in the context in which they were written.
 
For instance, when Jesus said in Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison and you visited me,” He was speaking in the context of visiting those who are believers in Him and therefore are persecuted and imprisoned for their faith. In that sense He is with them in prison and when you visit them – to whatever degree you can – you are visiting Christ who is in them by His Holy Spirit.
 
The same is true for the context of another popular “prison ministry”  Scripture, Hebrew 13:3. It says: Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. The context of that verse is found in a couple of previous chapters. Hebrews 10:34 says, You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. Hebrews 13:3 teaches us to remember those fellow Christians who are in prison, and those who are mistreated for their faith, just as if we ourselves were suffering in those ways here in the United States because of our faith. As the chapter closes, the author also describes how Timothy had just been released (Hebrews 13:23).
 
Hebrews 11 also brings up imprisonment as a reality for many of God’s people. After describing the many blessings of being a person of faith Hebrews 11 gives the other side of the coin when it says: Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated  –  the world was not worthy of them (Hebrews 11:36-38).
 
Christians in the first century were severely persecuted and often imprisoned. Persecuted Christians are the ones Scripture calls us to remember and seek to visit. It is imprisoned people of faith that that “prison passages” refer to.
 
The premise for prison ministry is the same premise as the other outreach ministries of the church. We are to proclaim the gospel to everyone just as Paul and Barnabas did. When they were threatened with prison for preaching the gospel, they replied, in Acts 4:20, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  And the Lord blessed that proclamation. In Acts 13:48 we read, regarding the preaching of the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, All who were appointed to eternal life believed.
 
When we proclaim the gospel to all people, some like Onesimus will be truly transformed into new creations in Christ, while others like Demas put on a good act for a while before the true corrupt nature of their heart is revealed.
 
But that is in God’s hands, not ours. Our responsibility is to present the gospel everywhere to everyone, including those in prison, with the assurance that God’s Word will never return to Him void, but will always accomplish the purpose for which it was sent – either to bring salvation to those like Onesimus or to harden those like Demas.
 
* * *
 
It is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church today. And there is great need for prayers for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted and imprisoned even today for their faith.
 
As most of you are aware, more Christians were martyred during the last century, – the 20th century – then all the other centuries combined. The article from “Open Doors” also addresses that:
 
Today there are still many Christians martyrs, those who give their life for their faith. Every year and on every continent men and women face death because of their belief in Jesus Christ. They are the Christian martyrs of this century; the fathers, mothers, grandparents, and children who have lost their lives for the sake of the gospel. Around the world the light of their testimonies continues to shine. Their impact is immeasurable and their stories should not be forgotten. (Ibid)
 
We are not able to visit most of them in prison. The political regimes that hold Christians as prisoners do not allow them to be visited. Consider Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012.
 
We cannot visit him. But we can support him and his wife and two children who live in Boise, Idaho. His family has been greatly encouraged by Christians who have visited them, sent them cards and letters, reassuring them that they pray for Pastor Abedini and the countless others whose names we may not know and yet are in prison because of their faith.
 
May you and I be faithful in prayer for the persecuted and imprisoned church, not only on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, but each and every day that we have God’s grace to live. Amen.
 
 
- bulletin outline -
 
 
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas... Remember my chains… – Colossians 4:10a-b..18b
 
“Remember My Chains!”
Colossians 4:10-18
 
I.  We are told to remember those in prison (Hebrews 13:3) and to visit them (Matthew 25:36). Those imprisoned include:
      1) Many, like Paul and his colleagues (10-14), who are imprisoned for their faith and proclamation of the gospel (Hebrews 10:34, 11:36)
 
 
 
 
      2) Criminals who are truly converted, like Onesimus (9; Philemon: 10-21)
 
 
 
 
      3) Many who seem converted, like Demas (14), but when released do not prove their repentance with deeds (Acts 26:20) and the obedience that comes
          from true faith (Romans 1:5; 2 Timothy 4:10)
 
 
 
 
II. Applications: 
     1) Discernment is crucial in prison ministry (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 7:16-20)
 
 
 
 
     2) A biblical premise for prison ministry in the United States is that the gospel is to be proclaimed to everyone (Acts 4:20) with the encouragement that God
         will save His elect through the free offer of the gospel to all (Isaiah 55:10-11; Acts 13:48)
 
 
 
 
    3) Scripture instructs us to especially remember in prayer and deed those imprisoned for their faith (10-14; Matthew 25:36; Hebrews 13:3)
 
 
 
 
 
11/08/2015 – a.m.
 



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 11/0, Rev. Ted Gray

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