4. Prisoners?

Transformation Meditations: 4. Prisoners?

Isa 61:1b   He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners

The work of the Messiah is to transform us, to redeem us, to save us, and we are looking at some of the aspects of his mandate in Isaiah 61 and reiterated by Jesus in Luke 4. Yesterday we considered the broken-hearted; today we consider captives and prisoners.

Perhaps when we think of drug addicts or alcoholics, the concept of someone being a prisoner to their addiction is easy to understand. Thinking about humanity being prisoners needs a little more thought. Accepting that there may still be aspects of our present lives that indicate we are still prisoners, requires honesty and grace.

Now it seems there is specific similarity in these two words – captive and prisoner. They both imply in their meaning having had their freedom taken away by someone or something else. A definition of a ‘captive’ is ‘a person who has been taken prisoner’. Definitions of a ‘prisoner’ include, ‘a person captured and kept confined by another’ and ‘a person who is or feels confined or trapped by a situation’.

The first place we can be captives is in our head. First there are the lies we believe. Someone told us again and again when we were young that we were rubbish, worthless, failures, and so now we believe it; it is ingrained in our thinking, but it is a lie. You are made in the image of God and precious to God, you are someone, someone special. If you’ve become a Christian, God loved you so much that He sent His Son to die for you (Jn 3:16,17)

Second, there is the anguish we feel in our minds as we battle with either guilt or fear. Perhaps we did fail and maybe it was big-time and so yes, we were guilty, but Jesus died for that failure, died for that guilt and shame, and having confessed it to him, you can now be free from it. In fact if you feel it is still there and you have confessed it, realise it is the voice of the enemy you are listening to. Draw near to the Lord, resist the enemy and tell him to leave with his lies (Jas 4:7).

But then we may be captive to bad circumstances. Maybe there are those to whom we are related, or those who are over us at work, who impose on us, abuse us, and demean us. Find a spiritual friend or church leader, share it with them; you probably need support to break free from that relationship. It doesn’t have to continue. Stop being a prisoner to other people.

Some of us will be prisoner to a creeping illness, or an infirmity, or just creeping old age. We can’t escape it. We can pray against it and we can ask others to pray for us, but if at the end of that it still seems that this is the path the Lord wants you to walk, remember that His grace is always there for you and as He said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) Those are not glib or trite words but the truth. Even in weakness, even in limitation, His power can be present.

Be a person who draws near to Him and knows His presence and in that presence, you will find power to cope; not merely to survive but to glow, even in adversity, even in affliction, even in illness. You may be a worn ‘earthen vessel’ but you contain the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6,7). May you know it. “He has sent me to … proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” 

7. The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Focus on Christ Meditations: 7.  The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Isa 61:1,2   The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, .

As we briefly browse some of Isaiah prophecies in our search for hints of the Coming One in the Old Testament, to focus the ‘mystery’ that the apostle Paul spoke about, especially in respect of Christ himself, we cannot move on into the New Testament without first observing this most truly remarkable prophecy, not as remarkable as the Isa 9 word perhaps, but remarkable nevertheless.

Imagine you were a Jew living in Israel, say twenty years before the birth of Christ. You go along to the local synagogue on a Saturday morning to hear the scrolls read, and the rabbi expound the week’s reading before conducting prayers. This morning the scrolls of Isaiah are brought out and the above ‘chapter’ is read. I wonder what you would have thought about it?

Perhaps you hear these words and hear them as Isaiah explaining his own ministry. As a prophet, the Spirit of God is on him and by the Spirit’s enabling he brings God’s word, a word that can bring healing to those with broken hearts who are anguished by the hurts of life. For those who feel prisoners to dark thoughts, to feelings of inadequacy, and to failure, he sometimes had words of comfort and encouragement for those whose hearts were inclined towards the Lord. He proclaims that today is the day of God’s blessing for those same ones who seek the Lord, a day when God comes to judge all the negative things that inhibit our relationship with Him and comfort those who mourn, not only for the loss of loved ones, but for their own state perhaps.

Oh yes, God’s word does all these things but it seems it is limited to the spiritual world. You think of others in your community, the sick, the infirm, the disabled, yes even those troubled by evil spirits (and there do seem to be a lot of them) and you dare to wonder why God’s word, read and expounded every Saturday, seems unable to touch them – but you keep those thoughts to yourself for it seems unworthy of God.

You allow your mind to wander back to those earlier chapters of Isaiah. First there was that tantalising suggestion of a child who would come to bring the presence of God to the land in chapter 7, and yet there was linked with him the thought of judgment, but it was unclear and somewhat of a mystery. And then in chapter 9 there had been those almost unbelievable words about this child being God Himself, an even greater mystery. And then in chapter 11 there were words about a ‘branch’ of the house of David who would come (v.1) with the Spirit of God upon him (v.2,3) and as he rules he will bring justice (v.3-5) and the end result will be a life of incredible peace where, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (v.6) This was all going to be the work of one who was coming with the powerful presence of God upon him to achieve these things. Surely that must be what is being referred to here, now, in Isaiah 61, surely this must be more than just what Isaiah achieved through his ministry?

And so the questions would have hung in the air and fifty years on from this imaginary moment, in the synagogue of Capernaum in the north of Israel, in Galilee, a demon possessed man would cry out in response to the presence of God that had come (see Mk 1:23) and would be delivered by the Coming One. The word of God had been read week by week and expounded week by week and the man had been able to remain there untouched. But now….   A while later, presumably in the same synagogue, a man with a shriveled hand (see Mk 3:1), quite probably a regular attendee of the synagogue who had heard the word being read many times but who had remained unchanged, this man found the presence of God so obviously there that he walked out healed.

The truth was that weeks before, not in Capernaum but in Nazareth, Jesus walked into the synagogue as was his regular custom (Lk 4:16), it being his local synagogue, and whether it was because he volunteered to read the scrolls or whether they had heard of his preaching already (Lk 4:14,15) and they wanted to honour him, he was handed the scroll of the day which just happened to be the Isa 61 prophecy and, after he had read it out loud for all to hear, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) The response to him was one of challenge, not a good start one might think, and anyway what did that actually mean? Was he saying that he has like Isaiah, a prophet-preacher whose words would heal and release – or what?

The ‘what’ we have already seen in the previous paragraph. This child – now grown man – did indeed come with the powerfully presence of God upon him for when he spoke demons were cast out and sick and disabled people were healed. This was not merely a ministry of words, but a ministry of power and authority. No wonder the initial response in the Capernaum synagogue had been, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mk 1;27,28)

Up until now, the ministry of the local synagogue had merely been to read and proclaim the word of God; now Jesus brought a new possibility, it could be (see Jn 14:12) a ministry that changed more than intellects, it changed whole lives – but they weren’t ready for that, for ‘religion’ then and now, wasn’t and so often isn’t open to let Jesus be Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

If there was any doubt about it, Jesus himself spelled it out: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) or, as Peter summarized it on the Day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)

But back in the days before Jesus came, the Isaiah 61 prophecy hung there, so to speak, like a wanted poster; yes, this is what we want, if only it can be, but how can such a thing be? The words only version is pretty good, but is there something more? How can ‘something more’ come about? The mystery tantalizingly hung there, words declared by God, words that stirred questions, words that brought the possibility of hope, words just waiting to be fulfilled. Does that sound familiar?

To reflect upon: Jesus said anyone who believed in him would do the things he had been doing (Jn 14:12). Does our church do that?

55. Care for the suffering church

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  55.  Care for the suffering church

Heb 13:3   Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Prisoners for Faith: Be under no illusion, when the writer says, “Remember those in prison,” he means those who are there for their faith, not those who are there because they are criminals. The first three centuries were centuries of persecution that came and went in waves. The apostle Paul, as he eventually became, was an early instrument of persecution: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”(Acts 8:1-3) The early chapters of Acts show us that the main apostles found themselves in prison, simply for declaring Jesus, more than a few times. Around the world today there are countries where Christians are either banned completely or severely persecuted. The call of this verse is never to forget those fellow believers who are in prison for their faith, and please understand that means people who are there simply because they are Christian believers, and there are many of them today.

Already earlier in this letter, the writer had referred to the difficulties of living as a Christian in those early decades of the first century: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 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.” (Heb 10:32-34) It was a very real problem for the early Christians, as it is for Christians in certain parts of the world today.

Jesus’ Teaching: Jesus referred to such people when he challenged his followers to be caring: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35,36) Indeed his words in the wider context of that passage were quite strong, implying that if we didn’t care for such people, there was a question mark over our faith

The Body of Christ: The apostle Paul, while not directly speaking of persecution, may have had such people in his mind when he spoke in that famous chapter on ‘the body of Christ’, the Church, when he said, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) I have a story so bear with me until we get to the punch line.

The Example of One Man: I happen to have the privilege of having as one of my best friends in the world, an American pastor, now retired, who Skyped me in the UK, back in 2005, I think it was, and said, “I would like to run something past you that has been with me for some time, and see what you think.” He proceeded to share with me that he was certain God was calling him to go and demonstrate at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, on behalf of the persecuted church in China. He was aware it could mean he might end up in prison for ten years for doing what he had in mind. To cut a long story short, he painted slogans calling for release of Christians in prison, in several hotel rooms, videoed them as he did it and had it on the Internet to show it was real, and had a publicity team back in America running press conferences publicizing what he was doing. (He also left money in the hotels for the rooms to be repainted afterwards).

Having got it on the internet, he then went out into the countryside outside Beijing, where he lived under cover for the two week of the Games, so as not to interfere with them, and then on the last evening after the closing of the Games, he went out into Tiananmen Square where he started crying out loud for three quarters of an hour for God’s people to be released – the secret police in the area didn’t know what to do with him.  All this was being recorded back in America because he had a cell phone on him with a live link to the USA. The sound of this all happening, coming through a receiver in the USA, was eerie, as he carried on a running commentary, sharing the Gospel with tourists on the Square, and then carrying on crying out for the church until eventually he was escorted off the square and taken in a car through the back streets until the sounds of him ran out. He was interrogated for twenty four hours and then expelled from the country unharmed. Smart Chinese!

I think it was two years later he felt a similar call to get into Iran and stand outside the most famous prison in the capital of Iran and again in a similar recorded manner call for Christians imprisoned there to be released. He was taken into the prison, interrogated for twenty four hours and then deported.

Quite some time later after each demonstration, he received contact from the persecuted church in both China and Iran and the message was the same: we are just so grateful to you for publicizing our plight. Prisoners from the prison testified, the word spread through the prison that there was this American demonstrating on our behalf and it lifted our spirits and we were all given fresh hope.

Now I am aware that there are other individuals and organizations who give their lives for the persecuted church and I tell of this one simply as an example. The need is real and the church worldwide needs YOU today to remember this call: “Remember those in prison.”   There are many ways you can do it. Contact help organizations through the Internet, write to prisoners, pray for them and so on. The biggest enemies are indifference and the “too busy” syndrome. Persecution around the world is getting worse. Speak up for those  who are suffering before our voices are silenced. This verse is as valid as any other in Scripture: “Remember those in prison.”