By Dr. Gene Scott
Rome, Italy, January 2. The tears were warm on my face after the biting cold outside. In the chill of the rock hewn cistern they dropped off my chin as I stood quietly, alone and crying, twenty feet underground.
The place was Mamertine Dungeon, Paul’s prison at Rome! I stood there a long time. Tourists came and went. Each time I would turn to face the wall to avoid displaying my emotions. I don’t know all the reasons for my tears - no single explanation is enough. Many feelings were surfacing at the impact of this place.
On New Year’s Eve I had left San Francisco jetting across the pole to greet the New Year in Paris. Twenty hours later I was in Rome. This was a personal spiritual pilgrimage. It follows a year of struggle and conflict in a world which relentlessly pulls the eye of faith off from its course. Like a mariner buffeted by the wind I was rechecking directions. Like a compass needle to its magnet, I was drawn again to this spot. The power of its message gripped me as I stood in the dim light. I came this trip with deeper understanding of Paul as a person. I had preached verse by verse through both Romans and First Corinthians preparing recorded tape studies. I had felt his human hopes for a “prosperous” and “joyful” journey to Rome.
Today I stood and viewed the reality of his journey’s end. It consisted of cold stone walls, less than ten feet high, not twenty feet across and under the ground. The “seen world” would appear to pass him by. His life seemed purposeless, meaningless, and ending in dark failure.
If you ever come to this place, please do what I did. Take a new testament and read the letter he wrote from here known as 2nd Timothy. Questions I had asked myself many times crowded into my mind.
Question Number 1: How can I know that I am in God’s will? More particularly, how can I be sure that I am in God’s will when circumstances are contrary to hopes, against the expectancies of others, and irrevocably different from anticipated plans?
Paul faced this exact problem in the Mamertine Prison. His past hopes were clear in a letter written from Corinth. He had hoped for a prosperous journey to Rome, with joyful temporary fellowship, and then to continue on to preach the gospel in Spain (Romans 1:10; 15:24). Contrary to those hopes he arrived in chains and was locked in a prison.
Against the expectancies of others, Paul had proceeded to Jerusalem in Acts 21, thus beginning his imprisonment. Now in prison, he is still having to defend his path as he pleads for other Christians not to be ashamed of his state (2 Timothy 1:8, 12).
His plans seemed completely thwarted. Above his prison it was “business as usual” and Paul’s voice was buried, seemingly unheard 20 feet underground. The Roman senate met less than 50 yards away carving out its decisions of power. The bank was also less than 50 yards away, storing up the flow of this world’s wealth. The Roman Forum stretched hundreds of yards away to the base of the hill on which Caesar’s palace stood. The palace could provide sensual pleasure unlimited. Looking beyond it, to the left was the Colosseum and to the right Maximus Circus. These last two, for the pleasures of the populace, gave constant testimony to the apparent futility of the Christian faith as believers became victims on display in the arenas.
Paul’s plan to bring the “Power of God” to Rome, and his witness of the gospel, seem painfully dim as one views the walls of his constrictive prison. Paul had every human right to say: “Is THIS really the will of God for me? Cut off from witnessing? Isolated from opportunity? What did I do to cause this to happen to me?” If such questions were in Paul’s mind they don’t show up in his letter to Timothy.
Instead, imagine this: Query: “Am I in God’s will?” (In this prison?) Answer: “Paul an Apostle (i. e., One sent) by the will of God” (In this prison!) Query: “How can I, in such contrary circumstances, know that I am in God’s will?” Answer: “I know in whom I have believed.” Paul’s confidence was in the person of God to whom he had committed himself. The nature of that person remained unchanged in all circumstances.
For many years I have been saying that people worry too much about “how to find God’s will.” God is not a sadist who plays hide-and-seek with his servants. The message of the Bible is that we were lost and God found us. When He hath found us He layeth us on His shoulder rejoicing “I have found my sheep which was lost.” Once having found us, God does not then seek to hide from us. The Bible promise is that “the steps of a good man are ordered of the Lord.” Thus, if a man honestly wants God’s will for his life, commits his life to God in trust, and acknowledges Him in all His ways, then that man will find it harder to get out of God’s will than to stay in it.
In short, quit worrying about God’s will. Trust God, and like Paul, if you trust Him, you too can say “I have learned in whatsoever state I am . . . to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) This is a truth I have been proclaiming long. But eyes on circumstance rather than God can shake the confidence. I thanked God through tears, as I stood again in Paul’s prison, for the example of that faithful servant who willingly took from God’s hand the circumstance of prison because he knew he could trust the God who led him there.
Paul did not seek to know the will of God as imprisonment and then choose to go to prison in obedient action to God’s will. He rather committed his life to God as the master controller and the circumstances that occurred were accepted by him as under God’s master control.
Hence, he found himself in prison. Hence, he was in prison by the will of God. Hence, no complaints, no agonizing questions. Hence, peaceful trust in God saying - “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (2nd Timothy 1:12)
Question Number 2: What relevance has Christianity to today’s World?
As I left San Francisco, that beautiful city infected with the pursuit of “pleasure now,” the ticker tape was on the streets and parties were warming up the New Year revelers. On New Year’s day I was in Paris, the city of light. When I lowered my eyes from the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower, the brilliant fountains, the brightly lighted Arc de Triomphe or Champs Elysees, the people were the same. It was a pressing crowd in search of pleasure. January 2nd I came to Rome. The “Eternal City” showed the scars of a populace still in the pattern of Coliseum crowds in Paul’s day, seeking pleasure.
In such a “now” oriented world the question of relevancy gives serious challenge to the Christian’s faith. Life was no different in Paul’s day. Pleasure was no less pleasing, human senses were no less keen, philosophic rationales for the pursuit of pleasure were, if anything, more articulate. Opportunities for self-expression abounded for the citizens of Rome - in politics, business, philosophy, art, sports, pleasure. It was all available in orgy proportions.
Underneath it all, in a lonely prison cell, Paul had much time to review his broad observance of life in the now of his day. He had seen it all, and spending his last days in that prison cell his letter to Timothy gives evidence of very human sensitivities. He felt loneliness, for he speaks of “greatly desiring to see Timothy.” He felt disapproval, as he pleads with others not to be ashamed of his state. He felt rejection, saying: “ . . . all they which are in Asia be turned away from me . . .;” “all men forsook me . . .”
He had vivid awareness of attitudes dominating the lives of men to whom he preached. There seemed no relevance in the gospel to an audience which he described like this: “. . . know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; . . .” (2nd Timothy 3:1-4)
He had experienced persecutions in his life to date at Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra as a result of preaching his message. He had a clear view of the inevitable lot of a Christian living in a world headed another direction: “Yea, and all that will live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution, but evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse” (2nd Timothy 3:12, 13). His authoritative and towering message seemed totally irrelevant to his personal privation that was pathetic and human. He was cold and asked for “the cloak” he left at Troas.
He knew he faced death with his work apparently unfulfilled. “From the human view it seems not worth it,” I said to myself as I stood in that prison. Paul could easily have had second thoughts about it all. He was only 20 feet beneath the sound of chariots rolling free.
To another young man in a sensual and earthy society he penned his message. As I read that message the issue of relevancy remains the same. It is eternity versus time. Hear him: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus . . .” “To . . . [you?] . . . “Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and Christ . . . “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord . . . but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us . . . according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but is now made manifest by . . . Jesus Christ, Who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel . . . Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou has heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep. Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus . . . endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ . . . I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” 2nd Timothy 1:1, 2, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14; 2:1, 3; 4:6, 7, 8) No second thoughts in that message.
Paul makes the issue further clear in experiential contrast by one brief reference: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world.” (2nd Timothy 4:10) There the issue lies and the Christian message forces its confrontation. The relevancy of the Christian message is thus in its apparent irrelevancy. It unbendingly intrudes into time with the assertion that time must face the judgment of eternity rather than eternity faces the judgment of time. It stubbornly insists that man will relate to either time or eternity. It proclaims that the great opportunity of history is the chance to choose the way of eternal life while in this present life. The presenting of this choice and living the consequences of that choice made is Christianity’s relevancy.
The Christian message is like a beacon light in a dark sea saying: “This Way Out!” If no “way out” is wanted or needed, or if “the light” doesn’t lead home, then “the way” is irrelevant escapism. If a “way out” is necessary and “the light” leads home then this light is the most blessedly relevant news intruding into this confused world.
Take it or leave it - that cold turkey choice is the point of relevancy in the gospel message. It was Jesus who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). And again, “what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
This “futuristic” focus is not too palatable to a “now” oriented generation. That is not new! Such a “let me have it now” view rejected the Christ of the Gospels and let him be “hanged on a tree.” Such a “present world” view ignored Paul in their presence while he wrote words by dim light beneath Rome’s streets.
The choice is the same today - the path of Demas, who “loved this present world,” or Paul, who banked all on a world to come. Demas disappeared from the world view. Paul lives on, and on, and on.
In that dark prison cell, underneath it all, Paul’s voice spoke in words that penetrated the centuries to one Gene Scott, today. “The Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen.” (2nd Timothy 4:18)
Question Number 3: What impact can one lone individual have on an unconcerned world, even if that one is totally identified with the Christian message?
Paul could have asked the same question. The seen world of government, business, pleasure, rolled on over Paul’s head with little apparent cognizance of his existence, much less of his message.
Paul’s answer was the same. From a hole in the ground, with the light of his life and its message apparently smothered, his voice is clear: “I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day . . . I have fought a good fight . . . I have kept the faith.” Succinctly said, “I’m in God’s will. I’ve done my best, I know God, and the rest is up to Him.” Consequences remain with God and He is able to determine the ultimate effect of my faithful effort.
As I write these words daylight is just breaking over the “Eternal City.” The early morning lights flicker out as the red of sunrise rolls in from the east. From the veranda of my hotel room, I look out through the famous Pines of Rome with a breathtaking panorama that extends all the way to the Alban Hills. Rising grandly above the sea of buildings is St. Peter’s Basilica. And it is not alone. All over the city churches rise - from St. Peter’s at Vatican City to St. Paul’s outside the wall; from the cathedral where the Waldensians meet, to little chapels by the hundreds.
On this first Sunday of the New Year, January 3, a significant truth blazes as the rising sun gleams brightest on CHURCH towers. This in the city where 1900 years ago Paul could not see the sun rise in his dark prison. The magnificent Roman Senate, The Forum, The Palace, The Colosseum of Paul’s Day now greet the sun as dead ruins while monuments to the faith that Paul wrote about rise to the sky.
My mind stretched as the sun rose higher and the thought crashed in: This same sun’s rays will stroke the lofty Alps, penetrate to deep valleys and light churches for Sunday morning worship; it will cross the continent to the cathedrals of Paris; then across the channel to warm Big Ben and shine on Westminster Abbey. Over the Atlantic the same sun will bring light to little chapels in the far north and shine on the awe inspiring statue, The Christ of the Andes, in the south continent. It will brighten the isles of the Pacific, churches in India, the Middle East, even behind the Bamboo and Iron Curtains, until once again its rays bathe these same rooftops of Rome tomorrow morning.
Think of it! On this Lord’s Day the sun will always be shining, somewhere, on someone studying words written by Paul from a dark prison cell.
Yes, God is able to keep. With this view glowing I return home saying: “Do your best in whatever place you are and trust the consequences and the impact to God who ‘is able to keep’.”
© 1971 by W. Eugene Scott. Reprinted with permission by Pastor Melissa Scott.
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