4th April 2020
Many people feel great distress because they are “isolated”, “quarantined” and “stuck at home”. During this COVID-19 crisis, when many are dying, the biggest inconvenience to some unconverted men and women, sad to say, is that their weekend partying has been restricted. They are “suffering” because Netflix doesn’t have enough binge-worthy programs to watch. They are b-o-r-e-d because football season is in jeopardy. “Internet influencers” (modern man really is mad, isn’t he?) lament that their influence is being curtailed as virus news sucks up all the available oxygen online and in the newsrooms.
In stark contrast to all this modern anguish and angst is the ancient Mamertine Prison! Banish from your mind any image you may have of modern prison cells. Also known as “The Carcer Tullianum,” the prison into which Paul was unfairly thrust (and some think Peter as well) was nothing like that. There was no bed or cot (however hard today’s metal cots may be) – just a cold, stone floor. The raw dampness must have clawed its way into his bones (“The cloke that I left at Troas…bring with thee.”) Dark. Dank. Lonely. Gloomy. Foreboding. Demoralizing. One could imagine that Dante had this place in mind when he wrote the words “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”) Paul’s life and future seemed to be in the hands of a demented Emperor (Nero). Fellow-workers had deserted him. Demas had forsaken him. The oppressive loneliness is palpable in his words, “All they which are in Asia be turned away from me,” and “Only Luke is with me.” A man who lived to preach the gospel is confined to a prison; a man who devoted himself to serving the saints, is isolated and chained; a man who loved the scriptures (Spurgeon’s words about John Bunyan were certainly true of Paul, “His blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him”) writes with longing, “Bring…the books, but especially the parchments.” A man with a mind for the millenniums is made to molder in the Mamertine Prison.
So our being confined to our homes doesn’t sound so bad now, does it! But perhaps you are starting to feel discouraged, cut off from fellow-saints, and unable to serve the Lord or His people as you once did. Just as Paul’s service shifted to what he still could do, it may be helpful to think of ways in which we can still be useful. The motto of John Wesley’s life was: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” The Word of God contains a surprising number of statements exhorting us to “do good.”
Psalm 34:14, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”
Psalm 37:3, “Trust in the LORD, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.”
Psalm 37:27, “Depart from evil, and do good; and dwell for evermore.”
Matthew 5:44, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
Luke 6:27, “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.”
Luke 6:35, “But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”
Galatians 6:10, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
1Timothy 6:18, “That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate.”
Hebrews 13:16, “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”
James 4:17, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
1Peter 3:11, “Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.”
When Peter wished to sum up the life of His Master, he preached: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: Who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38). Apparently, “doing good” is important to God. Apparently, “doing good” is Christlike.
So what “good” can we still do, even though sequestered in our own personal Mamertine prison? For my own benefit I listed some things (merely suggestive, and certainly not comprehensive). I am aware, even as I type, that many of you are engaged, fully, even now, in serving the Lord and helping others. This email is already too long and it is becoming boring, I’m sure; so let me just point out one thing from that list for now. Paul wrote: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour” (1 Tim 2:1-3).
Warning: Whatever you do, do not read the following books: George Müller of Bristol; The Life and Diary of David Brainerd; The Life of J. O. Fraser of Lisuland; Robert Murray M’Cheyne; or Power through Prayer by E. M. Bounds. Do not read these books unless you want to be stunned by how important prayer is and embarrassed, ashamed, and humbled by how little we know of it.
Have you noticed how much a place prayer has in the writings of the Apostle Paul? In the 4 (earlier) prison epistles, he wrote:
Eph 6:18, 19, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; And for me …” .
Phil 4:6, 7, “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
Col 4:2, “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.”
Phm 1:4, “I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers.”
As one has said, they could wall Paul in but they couldn’t roof him over – they couldn’t eliminate his intercessory prayers. Likely from the loneliness of his Mamertine prison confines he wrote to Timothy:
“I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim 1:3).
The Lord Jesus instructed us to enter our “closet”, shut the door, and pray. Your government has seen to the first thing – we are all “closeted.” So we only have to take care of the door-shutting and the praying. This is an unprecedented time in our life. Apart from 9/11, no other event has so stunned the world and reminded people how fragile life is and how vulnerable they are. Here are some things that should be on our prayer list:
Many believers are in the medical field. They are risking their life daily to selflessly serve those who are ill. They live not only with a threat to their own life but with the fear of bringing an infection home to their spouse and children. Their courage and Christlikeness are humbling to those who have merely been inconvenienced. If you know any in this position, pray for them.
Countless believers are facing increasing financial distress. They have either been laid off (temporarily) or fired, as companies have pared their staff. Self-employed business owners especially have been powerfully affected. If you are familiar with any in this situation, pray for them.
Some have been infected and some are in serious condition, fighting for both breath and life. We should pray for them and for a cure to be found for this virus.
Older saints, often compelled to live alone, are now far lonelier than ever. If you are aware of any, pray for them (and call to speak with them). If it is a long-distance call and there is a toll involved, you can get a full refund at the Bema in a coming day.
In Scotland some years ago, one sister was confined to bed with a lengthy illness. She wrote,
“There was so much I wanted to do, dear Lord, O so much I wanted to do.
And now with most of it still undone, I’m shut in alone with You.
Shut in, but not shut out, from the wonderful power of prayer
For on spiritual wings I can still send aid to the needy ones everywhere.
And sometimes I think as I finger the keys unlocking Thy promises true
That perhaps I am filling a far greater need just shut in alone with You.”
Hudson Taylor once said. “When we work, we work. When we pray, God works.” God gave His ancient people this assurance: “If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chron 7:14).
While we have not replaced the Jewish nation, we are, today God’s redeemed people. If we don’t pray, who will?
New Jersey, USA