Why was Paul always in prison? One is reminded of Thoreau’s reply to
Emerson, when Emerson went to see Thoreau and inquired, “What are you
doing in jail?” and Thoreau replied, “. . . [fill in the
2 Corinthians 11:23 Are [the
competing teachers in Corinth] ministers of Christ? . . . I am a
better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless
floggings, and often near death.
To be sure, Paul was not always in prison, though certainly more
frequently than the opponents in his churches; and he was in prison for
Christ and the gospel.
Philippians and Philemon are the two letters we have that were written
from prison. These letters imply an imprisonment of half a year to a year or
more. But in what city was he imprisoned? He knew; his readers knew; but
nowhere in his letters does he say where. Rome (preferred in the older
literature); Caesarea (preferred by some in the 1930’s and 1940’s); and
Ephesus (more recent scholarship) are the leading candidates. There are
well-considered reasons for preferring Ephesus, especially:
distance between prison and the letters’
• The frequency of travel between prison and the letters’
• The likelihood of a Praetorian contingent in Ephesus, as well
as in Rome; and
• The requirements of the travel plans which are stated in the letters.
Distances of Travel
Both Rome and Caesarea are twice as far from Philippi than is Ephesus. As
for Philemon, if his presumed residence was Colossae, the journey for his
escaped slave to reach Paul would have been some seven times greater to Rome
than to Ephesus.
Frequency of Travel
For the situation presupposed in Philippians:
• A trip would be
required from prison
to Philippi, for the Philippians to learn of Paul’s imprisonment;
• A trip,
from Philippi to prison, to send Epaphroditus to assist Paul;
• A trip, from
prison to Philippi, with word of Epaphroditus’ illness;
• A trip, from
Philippi to prison, for Epaphroditus to learn of the Philippians’ concern;
• A trip, for the delivery of the letter, from prison to Philippi.
frequency of travel probably eliminates both Rome and Caesarea.
Philippians 1:13, 16.
|For the situation presupposed
in the letter to Philemon:
the escaped slave, must find his way to the city and prison where Paul is
• Then Onesimus is sent back with the letter.
Rome or Caesarea is not out
of the question, but one must assume more resources than a slave might have
had; whereas a slave could easily travel on foot from the provincial town of
Colossae to Ephesus, the metropolitan center.
Those who know about these matters assure us of the likelihood that a
contingent of the Praetorian Guard would be located in a major metropolitan
center of the Roman empire like Ephesus.
The Praetorian Guard, or praetorium, is mentioned in Philippians 1:13.
Paul’s travel plan when writing Philippians was to visit Philippi.
His travel plan when writing to Philemon was to visit him in Colossae. But
in Romans, the last letter Paul wrote before embarking for Jerusalem and
then Rome, his travel plan was to visit Spain, in quite the opposite
direction from Asia or Macedonia. So if we were to assume the composition of
these prison letters from Rome, the round trip from Rome to Colossae and
back to Rome, and/or from Rome to Philippi and back to Rome, before
departing for his eagerly anticipated trip to Spain, would have sent him
many hundreds of miles out of the way and delayed him six months to a year.
Even the detour from Caesarea to Colossae and/or to Philippi would have been
some hundred of miles out of his way, and a delay of some months.
Philippians 1:26; 2:24.
|The truth is that at the time he wrote Romans, as he was about to depart
for Rome via Jerusalem, he had a sense of having completed his work in the
east and was now ready and anxious to begin his mission to the west. For all
these reasons, one may conclude that the lengthy imprisonment during which
Philippians and Philemon were written was in Ephesus, and that it likely was
closer to the end than to the beginning of his several years’ stay there.
||Romans 15:19, 23, 24 19. . .From
Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good
news of Christ. . . . 23But now, with no further place for me
in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when
I go to Spain. . . .
Assistance from Philippi; News
Word may soon have reached Philippi, perhaps from some Christian
traveling across the Aegean Sea to Philippi, that Paul was in prison; that
he was in need, and that there were serious charges against him, which if
sustained would cost him his life.
Since the prison warden did not supply the necessities of life,
even food, and since Paul was prevented from working at his trade, he was
dependent on friends to supply his needs.
|For the Philippians, it was not a question of whether but of how soon
they could get aid to the apostle. Given the number of trips being made
back and forth between prison and Philippi during this period, we may
reasonably assume that most of this coming and going was happening between
late spring and early autumn, when the shipping lanes would be open.
Epaphroditus, of the Philippian congregation, probably arrived within
weeks, and soon made himself indispensable to Paul. The unfortunate
illness of Epaphroditus certainly cast a further shadow over Paul's imprisonment. When he
had recovered sufficiently to travel, Paul sent him back to Philippi; he
was in all likelihood bearing a letter for the Philippian church.
Do not plan a Greek island cruise in winter, when severe storms can make sea
travel unpleasant, if not dangerous!
When Epaphroditus had first arrived in Ephesus, he brought not only
provisions and a helping hand but also news of the Philippian
congregation. Though we have earlier described the Philippian congregation
as one of Paul’s great success stories, the report of Epaphroditus
brought to light certain problems which Paul believed it was necessary to
Opposition from a source not identified, but likely containing
the threat of persecution (1:28-29);
• The presence of dissolute types that
threatened the moral fabric of the congregation (3:18-19);
false teachers, rather unflatteringly referred to as dogs (3:2); and
of dissension within the community (1:27; 2:2-4; 4:2).
Nowhere else do we find so much about Paul and his developing ideas in
such a brief, and joyful, letter. We have biographical material,
precipitated in part by the work by the work of rigorists (3:2-6); and we
have sly hints about his having infiltrated the praetorian guard and the
imperial establishment (1:13; 4:22)! But the following themes deserve
||Have the rigorists from
Antioch and Galatia arrived?
End-of-Time Views Updated
As Paul faces the end-of-time delay, and now also the prospect of
death, he realizes that he will not likely be among those who are still
alive when the end comes, and that therefore his entrance into eternity
(if we may put it this way) is by the way of death. In typical Pauline
fashion, he is drawn one way and the other by the tension between death
and life, seeing advantages in both.
Though he takes a different route
than in the earlier 1 Thessalonians (4:13-18), he reaches the same
destination and shares the same reality: being with Christ.
Philippians 1:20-25 20. . .
[It is my eager expectation that] Christ will be exalted now as always in
my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, living is
Christ and dying is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that
means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23I
am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with
Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the
flesh is more necessary for you. 25Since I am convinced of
this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your
progress and joy in faith.
1 Thessalonians 4:18 “And so we will be
with the Lord
But Paul has not abandoned entirely the traditional end-of-time
language. He now associates the bodily transformation concept of 1
Corinthians 15:51 with the end-of-time events. He builds upon and extends
his earlier thinking about resurrection in a spiritual
body by explicitly
comparing it to Christ’s own body of glory, that is, a body appropriate
to the glorious age to come.
Philippians 3:20-21 20. . . [From
heaven] we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He
will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the
body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things
subject to himself.
Compare the similar and almost contemporaneous teaching
in 2 Corinthians 4–5
Given the rigorist incursion implied in Philippians 3:2-3, it is not
surprising that Paul offers, as he did in Galatians, a statement of his
doctrine of justification by faith, joining with it as in Galatians the
theme of sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Philippians 3:9-11 9[For
his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, that I may gain Christ]
and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from
the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness
from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power
of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him
in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from
Grace and Works
Over the millenia, no one has improved upon the apostle’s typically
graceful comment on the mysterious interworking of divine grace and human
Philippians 2:12-13 12Therefore,
my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence,
but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and
trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you
both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Grace: God's unmerited favor.
Is it great theology or great poetry? Is it borrowed or original? Is it
intended for the Philippian situation or is it for the ages? Is it
accessible to the unlearned, or is it perhaps the most challenging New
Testament text that interpreters face? The answer is “Yes,” to
all. Divine pre-existence, the mystery of incarnation, servanthood
and suffering, the glory of exaltation, and universal end-of-time
acknowledgement, the raw materials of trinitarian inquiry—they are all
here. How fitting that this crowning tribute to Jesus Christ should happen
in a letter to Paul’s favorite (are apostles supposed to have favorites
among their children?) congregation. He picks up where he left off in
1 Corinthians 8:4-6. Others would take up the task of offering
fitting verbal tribute to Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-18), but none
would surpass this text.
Philippians 2:5-11 5Let
the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though
he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something
to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a
slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he
humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on
a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him
the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of
Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and
every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God
The Philippians as Partners
Curiously, Paul thanks God for the Philippians (1:3-5), and
acknowledges their sacrificial help (4:18), but never thanks them in so
many words. This is not ingratitude, but a quite natural way of
recognizing that they are indeed partners in his apostleship (4:15).
Philippians 1:3-5 3I
thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying
with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of
your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
Philippians 4:15-18 15You Philippians indeed
know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no
church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you
alone. 16For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me
help for my needs more than once. 17Not that I seek the gift,
but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18I
have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied,
now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant
offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.
Another person appeared at Paul’s cell to assist him in his
imprisonment, Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon. Philemon, a
resident of Colossae (compare Colossians 4:9), was one of Paul’s
converts (Philemon 19), perhaps having heard Paul preach in Ephesus. When
Onesimus escaped, we may suppose that he made his way to Ephesus and
sought out Paul, who befriended him, made a convert of him, too, and
benefited from his help. But Paul, unwilling to betray the trust of
Philemon, persuaded Onesimus to return to his master, and wrote this brief
letter to plead with Philemon for humane treatment of his escaped slave
(with perhaps an implied plea for his release).
It is perhaps after the departure of Epaphroditus that Onesimus arrives
In this letter Paul employs a variety of devices in the art of
persuasion to make his case, ranging from flattery (v. 7) and pathos
(“I, Paul, . . . an old man, and now also
. . . a prisoner of Christ Jesus” v. 9) to a
business-like approach (vv. 18-20) and an implied threat (“prepare a
guest room for me,” i.e. “I’m coming to check up on you,” v. 22).
Paul’s efforts must have been successful, since we cannot imagine
Philemon’s keeping and treasuring a letter whose appeal he had refused.
Paul’s Release from Prison
As a corollary of the Ephesian imprisonment theory, we may reasonably
assume that Paul was released from prison and was now free to make his
intermediate visit to Corinth.
button below to continue, Ephesian Headquarters (6).
February 7, 2003