Paul’s Iron Chain
June 13th, 1954 @ 10:50 AM
PAUL’S IRON CHAIN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-13-54 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled Paul’s Iron Chain. The message today, the one this morning and tonight, closes the life of the apostle Paul as we have followed him through the Book of Acts. This is in the last chapter, the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Acts; two or three verses. One, the sixteenth [verse] in the twenty-eighth chapter of Acts:
And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard.
And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them,
And then the twentieth verse, this is the close of what he said:
For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you:
because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.
Because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.
When you read the epistles of Paul, when you read the story of his life in the Book of Acts, you will find him frequently referring to that chain. Often times he will speak of himself in prison, in bondage, in bonds—and oft times of that chain. When he stood before King Agrippa [Acts 26:1-27], Agrippa said as Paul preached to him, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” [Acts 26:28]. And you remember Paul’s reply, “I would to God, that not only thou, but that all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” [Acts 26:29]. In the passage in 2 Timothy, out of which we chose our Scripture reading today, Onesiphorus came to Rome and he visited Paul and refreshed him. He did that at the peril and cost of his life. For Paul said, “he was not ashamed of my chain” [2 Timothy 1:16]. In the beginning of that Scripture, Paul’s appeal to his young son Timothy in the eighth verse was this: Timothy, “Be not ashamed of the gospel [of our Lord], nor of me the prisoner of the Lord” [2 Timothy 1:8]. Several times in the epistles will Paul use that expression: “I am a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” He does so in Ephesians 3:1, and in Ephesians 4:1: “I Paul, the prisoner of the Lord Jesus.” And “I Paul, the prisoner of Christ.” Isn’t that a strange thing? Not a prisoner of the Roman government. Not a prisoner of Caesar, he was a prisoner of God. God held the other end of his chain. When Paul said that he wanted to go to Rome, “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome” [Romans 1:15]. It was the ambition of his life to preach the gospel in the imperial city. But he never dreamed, he never supposed how God would answer that prayer. When he came to Rome, he came chained to a Roman soldier [Acts 28:16-20]. And he was delivered to the Praetorian Guard, a prisoner of the state [Philippians 1:13].
It is hard to think of Paul as active as he was, as vigorous as he was, as full of life and quickening spirit as he was, aiming with missionary endeavor— it is hard to think of the eagle in a cage. Heretofore, he has been in prisons oft—in tumult and in peril [2 Corinthians 12:23]. But somehow, we’ve always thought, “Now tomorrow there will be an earthquake, as at Philippi [Acts 16:25-26], and he will be delivered, and he will be on his way to the next province and the next city, to the next people preaching the gospel of the Son of God.” But you know, when you come to this Roman imprisonment, it just sounds different. It has a different feeling about it. “And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered Paul to the captain of the guard” [Acts 28:16]; there is something of a finality about that—this Roman imprisonment is different. And that chain somehow weighs heavier on his hand. There’s a key to the ponderous iron door beyond which Paul has been placed in Rome. And the key hangs in the house of cruel and merciless Nero. You just have the—you have the intuition; you have the feeling that somehow this is the end. He will never be loosed from that chain, and if he is, it will be but for a while, and he will be back in fetters and behind those iron doors once again. So our hero, uncrowned, chained, in prison and chains, comes to the end of the story that we know here recorded in the Book of Acts. He’s bound. He’s chained. He’s in fetters and in manacles [Acts 28:20]. What can he do? What can a man in chains do? What can a prisoner do?
Well, he has a new ministry, a different one; an unusual one; one you would never think for or guess for. The soldier to which he was chained doubtless did not stay more than eight hours. So that would mean that three different soldiers were chained to Paul every day as they took shifts. And when you have a man like Paul—one man, one soldier is a congregation. I can just see Paul chained to that Roman soldier. I can just see him as he sits there in his little hired house at first [Acts 28:20-31], later in the Mamertine prison. As he sits there in his cell, or in his room, chained to that Roman soldier, I can just see Paul as he takes the scroll of the Holy Bible, and to the wide-eyed rapt attention of that heathen man, I can just see Paul as he breaks to him the bread of life; soldier after soldier, as Paul talks to a man about the grace of God in Christ Jesus [Ephesians 2:8-10]. And I can just see that soldier as he sits there or stands there chained to Paul, I can just see him as he listens to what Paul says to others. Epaphras, Epaphroditus, Aristarchus, Onesiphorus, Mark, Luke—I can just see that soldier as he listens to what Paul says to these visitors from Colosse and from Ephesus and from Asia and from afar. So much so was that true, until in one of those prison epistles Paul says to the church at Philippi, I would not have you ignorant, brethren:
I want you to understand how that the things which have happened unto me have fallen out unto the furtherance of the gospel;
So that my chains in Christ are manifest through all the praetorium—
through the Praetorian Guard—
and in all other places:
And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Paul said: Because of that chain, the entire Praetorian Guard has come to know the gospel of the Son of God [Philippians 1:12-13]. There were ten thousand men in that Praetorian Guard. It was a personal corps of the emperor. No Gaul, no Greek, no man of any other nationality could belong to it; no one but a native Roman. They were the elite “SS” troops of the Caesar himself. And chained to those soldiers for two years [Acts 28:30], and then longer again, I would think that all ten thousand of them had sat down by the apostle of Jesus Christ and had heard from the apostle himself the glorious story of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. What can a man do who is chained? What can he do? What can a man in prison do? What did Paul do? Every Roman soldier of the elite that belonged to the Roman Caesar heard the gospel of the Son of God. That’s what a man in chains can do.
One other thing, what can a man’s chain do? What can a prisoner do? What can he do? Had it not been for the bonds of Paul, our New Testament, I suppose under God, would never have been as you hold it in your hands today. I do not know what God would have done. It’s not for me to probe. No man should ever think of that. But just to see what God did do, He put Paul in prison. He fettered him and bound them. He put an iron chain on his hand [Ephesians 6:20]. What can a man in prison do? What can a man chained do? What can he do? He can think. He can meditate. He can pray. He can seek God’s great truths. I don’t think Paul, in this latter years of his life, would have ever taken time out for meditation or solitude, for the writing of those prison epistles—Philemon, Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Timothy. He would’ve never taken time out to write those great truths had God not put him in prison with an iron chain. And there’s another thing about it in passing; I don’t think the letters that he would have written would have had in them that marvelous vivifying, quickening, transcending power had there not been thrust into the life of the man who wrote them that terrible battering and suffering and incarceration, that was inflicted upon him by the rage of man. The prison epistles come from the heart of a man who knew what it was to suffer, to be chained, to be hated, to be despised, and finally to be martyred. Those epistles come from that iron chain. And what our churches yesterday, and today, and forever owe to the imprisonment of Paul, to that chain, is known but to God. What can a man do who is chained and in prison? He can write. He can send letters. Did you ever think how few people there are that ever listen to a man preach, no matter who the man is? No matter what his vast audience, relatively few ever come unto the sound of his voice. But somehow when a man writes a letter, there is embodied the living truth, and it waits, and it stays, and it abides, and generation after generation can read it. So with Paul’s prison epistles, chained to a soldier, fettered and bound, he wrote what he otherwise could not have personally said and delivered. And those letters we have as our encouragement and our inspiration today. What can a man do who is chained? What can a man do who is in prison?
I want to take up Paul’s thought there for the moment. A prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ, God holds the other end of the chain. The Lord put that chain on Paul’s hand [Ephesians 4:1]. It’s a compliment of God, that chain [Ephesians 3:1]. It’s a handicap of heaven, that chain. There are a lot of you fellows that are still in school and in college, and a lot more of us who have been in school and in college. A handicap is a compliment to a real athlete. Do you know that? Here is a race, and you’ve got a runner that can out-distance any field, so in order to make the race equal, they handicap their best runner. They pull him back. All of the rest of them are up there, but they put a handicap on their best runner, and he has to start, oh, twenty feet behind. It’s a compliment to him, a handicap! You call it a handicap. A good golfer—now brother, when you have me out there, which I never go, but when you have me out there, I want the land perfectly level. I want it all fairway. I want the greens to be perfectly level. In fact, I want them to kind of roll in toward that little hole in the field. But a real golfer is challenged by the handicap! Brother, don’t put him on an easy course. Put him out there where every fairway doglegs. Make him shoot around a dogleg. Put him out there where there is a sand trap on every side. Put him out there where there are lakes he has to shoot over. He is complimented by the handicap. I heard of a woman once in a tennis match; she noticed that the ball so many times went into the net and she said, “Why don’t they take down that net?” A handicap, a handicap!
Out here in the West where I grew up; those old cowboys, they looked with contempt on a fellow that when he rode a bucking horse he grabbed for leather, they call it. But a real cowpoke, he liked a horse that would pitch and sidestep and buck, and with one hand he’d wave his hat, with the other hand he’d hold high on the reins. Brother, he could ride them rough and tough— handicap. It was a compliment to him!
Did you ever think about the world of artistry? Man, if I had about an hour this morning, what we would do. Michelangelo passed by and saw an enormous piece of marble, had a big crack in it, in the quarry, rejected for years. He said, “That is what I want.” I went in Florence to see that heroic statue, gigantic in size, Michelangelo’s David. The top of the thing and the bottom of the thing is still rough, so minutely did he put that statue carving out of that great piece of rock; Michelangelo, the handicap of it! The Sodalitan women had in their room for years the Madonna of the Chair, about that big around, one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. I went to see it in the Pitti Palace in Florence. And Raphael drew that glorious picture in a little place—round. It was a handicap! The poet writes with a fettered word; he has to follow the rhythm, and the meter, and the stanza, and the verse. But the handicap is a compliment!
A handicap also is a compliment from God. The chain is a compliment from heaven. What can a crippled man do? What can an invalid do? What can a man afflicted with loneliness and melancholia—what can he do? What can a fellow who has everything against him, what can he do? What can a man in chains do? Handicap, handicap: they are God’s compliments. What can he do? What can he do?
I won’t read it this morning. I brought it here to read though. To me the most beautiful sonnet in the world is Milton’s sonnet on his blindness. There is not a sonnet ever written by Shakespeare, by no one else, that to me rivals in beauty and meaning John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness. He lived in a terrible day. And on behalf of the great Protestant movement under [Oliver] Cromwell, he devoted his life. And his eyes burned out, and he went blind writing—writing for the great Cromwellian Commonwealth in Great Britain, and blinded, blinded:
When I consider how my light is spent
Half my days in this dark world and wide—
and then that beautiful sonnet that ends—
And they also serve who only stand and wait.
[“On His Blindness,” John Milton]
To me, that last verse would be in God’s Bible, well and appropriate, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” I couldn’t tell you the number of times, dear, blessed, sainted members of this church come to me and say, “Pastor, I am invalid and can’t come,” or “I am sick and not able to leave this house. And all I can do is to pray. All I can do is to pray,” as though to stand before the throne of God and intercede for this ministry and this work would be a small, a slight, a little thing to do. Handicap, handicap; it may be the instrument and the means of the greatest blessings our church could ever, ever know! Handicap, not a chain, but I can pray. I can pray. I can telephone. What we can, we do. There is an endless illustration of that; John Bunyan, twelve years God kept him in prison. That’s why you have the incomparable allegory Pilgrim’s Progress—that iron chain. The hymn they were singing when I was converted:
There’s a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath the flood,
Lose all their guilty stains:
[“There is a Fountain,” William Cowper, 1772]
William Cowper, William Cowper; had he not been driven, had he not been lost, had he not been in spiritual despair and then finally, found the Savior, you would have never had that hymn—never. They had a terrible snowstorm, and the organ was ruined. And the choir didn’t have any accompaniment. So the pastor and the organist got together and said, “It’s Christmas, and we don’t have any music in the church.” They wrote a hymn to be sung without accompaniment, and that’s why you have “Silent Night, Holy Night”—the prettiest hymn of them all. Because she didn’t have any nice soft beds to put her little Baby in, she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger [Luke 2:7, 11-16]. And that’s the reason that we have a great High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities [Hebrews 4:14-16]. He knew what it was to be poor and friendless and to struggle; it is a handicap. “Silver and gold have I none; but what I have give I thee” [Acts 3:6]. What I have give I thee.
Dear people, I close. There’s not any one of us but that there is something wrong with us. Did you know that? We all are alike. There’s something wrong with all of us—all of us. Sometimes it’s this and sometimes it’s that. And sometimes it’s the other. But there is something wrong with all of us. And there is not any life that is lived among us but at some time shall know its sorrow, its imprisonment, and its pain. A heart that bleeds and breaks, or feet that can’t walk, or hands that can’t work, or eyes that can’t see; some time, some where it always comes. What do you do? What do you do? What do you do? What can a man with an iron chain do? What can a man who can’t see do? What can a man who can’t walk do? What can a man who is broken do? What can he do? Give it to God and see. Give it to God and see. He will sanctify the handicap. He will consecrate that thing. He will use it as an instrument to the glory and the praise of the great Lord who in His wisdom, wisdom we can’t understand, gave it to us.
And I want us to sing our invitation hymn this morning. You know, sometimes we have the persuasion, “I tell you, preacher, before I come down that aisle, I just got to be just so. It means, when I come down that aisle, I’m the perfect man or the perfect woman. When I come down that aisle, it means that I’ve got everything just right and straight in my life. That’s what it means.” So you don’t come. You don’t come. That is exactly what it doesn’t mean. If a man is all adequate and all-sufficient, he doesn’t need to come. He doesn’t need to come. It’s only the man who is crippled and needs God to help him walk. It’s only the man who is a sinner and needs God to help him, forgive his sin. It’s only the man who is broken and needs God to put him together again. It’s only the man who is weak and needs God’s strength, he is the one that comes. He’s the one to come. It’s because we really need Jesus that we come. We need Him; can’t live without Him, can’t save myself, Lord, I depend on Jesus [Romans 10:9-13]. That’s the reason I wanted you to sing this hymn, “Just As I Am,” don’t even need a book; just as I am, cripple, here I come; broken, here I come; in need, here I come.
Just as I am, just as I am,
O Lamb of God, I come!
Dragging a chain, dragging a chain,
I come; I come, I come.
[“Just As I Am,” Charlotte Elliott in 1835]
In this balcony around and from side to side; wherever God shall say the word of appeal; while we sing it, would you come? Two hundred twenty-five—choir. While we sing it, would you come? Into that aisle and down here to the front, “Pastor, today, this day give I my heart and my life to the Lord God” [Ephesians 2:8]. Or, “I am coming into His church this day, this is my family; here we are, and here we come.” Anybody, somebody you, while we stand and while we sing.