Read His Words Before Ours!
The kind, prodding voice called a welcome down into the inky blackness.
“Brother, it’s Luke.”
Luke plunged his hand into the dank hole in the floor where he knew I sat below, locked inside the lower level of the Mamertine Prison under the fast-paced streets of Italy.
Nero’s iron fisted rule of Rome and his bloodthirsty hatred of Christians had finally landed me here. “Prison”, up until this point, had generally meant “house arrest”. Limited mobility, and chained almost constantly to a Roman guard, but still, the Lord had granted me freedom to write and continue teaching and encouraging churches.
But this prison cell was different.
Marked men like me were brought here short-term, for one purpose: execution.
There was that time Silas and I had been bound together in a cell.
I smiled at the warmth of the memory as I stretched my hand to reach Luke’s above me.
Brothers bound by the gospel.
A gospel that was free despite my chains!
Silas and I had sung together late into the night before the Lord had sent an earthquake to break our physical chains and free the jailer from his spiritual ones. Melodies of rich grace, the deity of Christ, and the unfathomable truth that God had come in the flesh to rescue us.
I grinned, grabbing Luke’s hand and began in a rambling, throaty voice, “He is the image of the invisible God…”
“The firstborn of all creation”, Luke finished the line for me in his lighter voice and back and forth we went.
“For by Him all things were created….”
“In heaven and on earth…”
“Visible and invisible..”
Onward through the glorious mysteries of Christ we sang until we reached the refrain.
Now singing lustily with tears streaming down both our faces at the wonder of it all, “and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.”
The cavernous, stout room amplified our voices making us feel as if we were only 1 voice among hundreds.
“Peace by the blood of His cross.”
The hush enveloped us as words ceased. We squeezed hands and let go, fingers nearly numb as we had stretched to reach the other.
We both knew the days were ending for my pilgrimage here.
My tent of a body would soon lay motionless aside Ostian Road outside of Rome. For a Roman citizen like myself, crucifixion was considered too inhumane, so beheading would take my final breath.
It would be a quick death.
I’d known much worse suffering in the years before now.
Finally, I was going Home.
Home to see again the face of Jesus who had appeared to me so long ago on that road to Damascus.
“I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name”, Christ had told Ananias the day I became blinded.
And suffer I had, but now, now I was nearly Home!
I would have done it all again for “these light and momentary troubles were achieving for me a glory that was unfathomably rich.” The life I’d lived here in the body, I had lived for Christ as I’d sought to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Dead to sin. Alive to Christ.
And now, here I was under the streets, awaiting my final new birth.
The thought of it bubbled up inside me as if I were a young man again and I couldn’t help the chortle of laughter from coming out and echoing around me.
“Paul? Are you… laughing?!” Luke’s incredulous voice belayed a teasing smirk.
He knew me well enough to know that of course I would be laughing.
Nero thought he had me, thought he had killed the Church, but what could possibly end what the Lord had determined would be?! It was as ludicrous as saying there would be an end to the love of the Father. Outlandish!
Nothing could separate us from the love of God, and I told Luke as such.
To which he responded, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth…”
I chimed in victoriously, “nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the Love of God!”
The echoes hammered around us again before fading.
“I will miss you, brother,” said Luke, and I heard his voice catch in the darkness above me.
I reached my hand out again.
That sting of death.
Soon I would gaze upon the glory of the Lord, waking up to endless day, the fullness of God realized in a resurrected body and renewed purposes yet unknown to me, but Luke would still be here, journeying onward. Without me.
“For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ
this will turn out for my deliverance.”
Remember that line in the letter I penned to the Philippians, Luke?
How I love those brothers and sisters!
Their prayers buoyed me as the Spirit strengthened me through them.
“Yes, I remember,” mused Luke thoughtfully. “Deliverance….”, his voice trailing off and his thoughts drifting to a day when suffering would end.
“Brother! You must keep running! Your race is not over yet, but one day it will be.
With full courage now as always
Christ must be honored in our bodies,
whether by life or by death.
As Barnabas encouraged us often with the imagery of a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ cheering us on from glories above, be encouraged you are not alone.
Keep running, brother.
Christ is worth it.
Hold fast to the word of life, Luke, so that in the day of Christ you may be proud that you did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
I felt Luke’s sadness linger, but a steadfast determination filled us both.
We weren’t the first to face the temporary separation of death, or the grand welcome home awaiting us. Brother Peter had traveled Home just a few months before, spending his last days in this same cell. My heart shook for grief at the loss, but then revived nearly immediately with the knowledge I would soon see him whole and healthy as well. Home, I was almost there.
Peter’s words came to me through the Spirit and I lifted my face to speak truth firmly over Luke as an embrace, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
In His mysterious way, the gracious Lord raised our spirits beyond the walls of my confinement, binding us together, reminding us of His mission, strengthening us for the pilgrimage ahead. The unity of His Spirit is unspeakable!
We would each keep running on our journey toward Home, full of faith given by the Father.
Luke leaned his face down as close to the portal as possible, and with a voice full of jubilant victory declared, “To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
To live is Christ…
To die is gain.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come!
We don’t know for certain of Paul’s last days on earth, but historical tradition leaves us with a decent idea. Paul was likely released from house arrest for an undetermined time and then captured again by Nero and placed in the Mamertine prison for a handful of days before execution by beheading. We don’t know if Luke was with him, but his letters to Timothy give a good indication he was. We do know for certain, Paul died a free man on his way Home.
Free because who the Son sets free, is free indeed.
He lived his life for Christ and encourages us, the Church, you and me as sisters, to keep running the race marked out for us, until we too are finally Home!
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