The Dungeon

Be set free. — by Matt Richardson

Philippians 3:12–14

12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting these things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has often struck me as one of the classic “Type A” personalities in scripture. In his ministry he seems to be everywhere at once, tends to details that no one has thought of, speaks out against city and church leaders, has frank discussions about the gifts and shortcomings of his hand-picked team and then travels to stand among Peter and the disciples [Jesus’ A-Team, if you will] to call them out on hypocrisy. Paul even takes control of situations where he would seem completely out of line with the current authority such as…captaining a ship. Paul, the scholarly, law-minded landlubber has words of advice for a seasoned ship captain concerning sailing conditions and seafaring and earns perhaps one of the greatest I-told-you-so moments in history when his advice is not followed and God has to carry them through disaster and shipwreck to the further glory of His grace and power.  

Where does this type of strength come from? You know from experience that people like Paul exist in your life and you may even be one of them. Self-assuredness and conviction of your own principles or the principles you seek to uphold may come easily or difficult for you but you know that in doing this there is a core of strength from experience and confidence that you draw on to get things done.

But as you have seen with Paul and know all too well in yourself, even confidence can fade with self-doubt and often this doubt comes as a result of guilt. Even Paul, for all his energy and sense of call, sometimes seemed to hesitate as the pain of past guilt returned unbidden to be wrestled with and put back in its place.

Acts 8:9 finds Paul ministering in the difficult field of Corinth and despite what may be seen as success his heart is troubled. As he wearily seeks rest he is treated to a vision, Jesus comes to him with words of comfort and encouragement: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not keep silent; for I am with you…” This then is the secret well of Paul’s indomitable energy and drive: he is powered by Christ and the promise of Jesus’ work fulfilled in him.

As Paul pens his epistle to the Philippians he perhaps remembers this vision and the personal call from Jesus to forget the pain of the present and even the past and to look ahead to the great things yet to come—that are being done for him.

At the moment Paul writes these words of comfort to the young Philippian church he is imprisoned. Be it one of the many times Paul and his companions have found themselves locked up for the Gospel or his final death row captivity in Rome may not be certain but no matter, even in the depths of a dungeon Paul finds time to comfort them, and you and me, with words of encouragement to look ahead. Perhaps his words ring extra sharp for the believers in Philippi for it is there that Paul and Silas were jailed only to be freed in the midst of an earthquake while singing hymns. Indeed the classic hymn of the church by Charles Wesley “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” captures this moment:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Paul recalls that “dungeon flamed with light” and knows that his only hope is to look ahead.

Paul urges you and me to “forget these things which are behind” and this includes the guilt of the past. Even “Type A” Paul, driven as he was, struggled with the pain of past guilt as a persecutor of the church and the savior he has come to love with all his heart. He tells you that guilt has no place in your heart, in a heart that has been redeemed by Christ.

This can be easier said than done, of course. A lifetime of struggling against guilt of the past or the constant battle against a sinful nature may fill you with a sense of unworthiness. Paul is not speaking of “guilt feelings” here. What are these?

Often in life we are motivated or manipulated by feelings of guilt and not by a true sense of our own sin. Guilty feelings may be real but are always subjective and can deceive you into not truly dealing with the cause of guilt or the solution. A parent may keep a child in line by manipulating them with guilt. Everyone knows how powerful a cutting word can be on a young heart or a sense of not measuring up to the achievements of others. A spouse may lord a sinful betrayal over the other, dangling trust and peace like a glittering but unobtainable jewel that prevents true forgiveness and a unified married life.

Jesus is not calling you to “feel guilty” about sins you have done but like Paul to actively “reach forward” to grasp His hand and be led on to great things. Never forget that even if Paul seemed like a dynamo of spiritual conviction and energy that you could seemingly never relate, he too had to be led by the hand to overcome!

Is your dungeon a dark place where rats of past sins gnaw and hope drips away in the dampness or is it a place torn apart by the power of Christ’s perfection? Yes, you are guilty. No, you may never be as successful as your brother. Yes, you have ruined a good marriage many times over. No, you alone cannot heal a broken heart, but Jesus can and does.

Just as Paul’s path of escape was lit, so too is yours. Your prison is broken open, put aside guilt and “guilty feelings” and follow the One who has freed you.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.

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