Paul’s Iron Chain


Paul’s Iron Chain

August 12th, 1979 @ 8:15 AM

Acts 28:20

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.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Acts 28:16-20

8-12-79    8:15 a.m.


And welcome, not only the visitors that are present at this service in the house of the Lord, but the vast multitude of you who are also sharing the hour on the two radio stations.  This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Paul’s Iron Chain.  Today concludes three years of preaching through the Book of Acts.  Tonight the title of the sermon is Journey’s End.  It will be an exposition of the concluding verses of the Book of Acts and will conclude the three years that we have been preaching through this marvelous accounting and recounting of the grace of God as the Christian faith was launched in the first Christian century.

May I commend these young people who so faithfully are visiting?  Yesterday, there were twenty-one of us meeting down here at the church.  We knocked at the doors of five hundred twenty-two homes, found thirty-two people whose hearts are open toward the Lord.  We are fast approaching thirty-five thousand homes in the city of Dallas at whose doors we have knocked.  And we have found almost five thousand people who need the Lord and who would be open to our gospel ministry.

I pray that our people will be sensitive and aware of this incomparable open door the Lord has set before us.  And even at this hour, and every service of the church, our deacons and our people are praying that you who are present will openly and publicly avow your faith in Christ Jesus and join heart, home, and life with us in the fellowship of this wonderful church.

Now our reading of the Scripture is in Acts 28, verses 16 through 20.  And on the radio if you will take your Bible and open it at that passage, you can follow the sermon this morning, Paul’s Iron Chain.  Acts 28 beginning at verse 16:


And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him.

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, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.

Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me.

But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto Caesar; not that I had aught to accuse my nation of.

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.

[Acts 28:16-20]


Paul’s Iron Chain: “Because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain” [Acts 28:20].  In the writings of Paul and in the story of the apostle, so oft times does he make mention of those bonds, those chains.  In Acts 26, speaking before Herod Agrippa II, he said, “I would to God, that not only thou, but all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except for this chain, except for these bonds” [Acts 26:29].

In the letter to the Ephesians, he begins the third chapter, “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles” [Ephesians 3:1].  And in the last chapter, verse 20, he avows, “I am an ambassador in bonds, in chains” [Ephesians 6:20].  In the letter to the Philippians, “Even as it is meet for me to think this of you, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you’re all partakers of my grace” [Philippians 1:7].  In that same first chapter:

I would you should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out unto the furtherance of the gospel;

So that my bonds—my chains in Christ—are manifest in all the Praetorian palace, and in all other places;

And many of the brethren in the Lord, are waxing confident by my bonds, and are bold to speak the word … One preached Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds.

[Philippians 1:12-16]

When I turn the page of the Bible to Colossians, in chapter 4, “with all praying for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds, in chains” [Colossians 4:2-3].  And he closes, “The salutation by the hand of me, Paul. Remember my bonds” [Colossians 4:18].

I turn the pages; in Philemon, “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ” [Philemon 1:1].  Verse 10, “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds” [Philemon 1:10].  And the thirteenth verse, “Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel” [Philemon 1:13].  And in the last letter that he wrote, listen to this poignant word in 2 Timothy, the verses that close the first chapter: “The Lord grant mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: But, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me.  The Lord grant unto him that he might find mercy of the Lord in that day” [2 Timothy 1:16-18].  Apparently Onesiphorus lost his life because of his avowed open friendship with Paul.  “The Lord grant unto him that he might find mercy of the Lord, and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well” [2 Timothy 1:18].

Paul’s iron chain: he prayed that he might see Rome [Acts 19:21].  He asked God that he might have privilege to preach the gospel to those who are at Rome [Romans 15:30-32].  And in the letter that he wrote to the church at Rome, many times he mentions his longing to see them, and to be with them [Romans 1:11, 15:30-32].  God fulfilled that prayer, answered it, but in such an unusual way.  When he comes to Rome, he comes laden down with chains.  He is a prisoner of the Lord.  What can a man do who is bound in chains? [Acts 28:20]. What can a man do who is a prisoner?  What can a man do who is incarcerated behind bars, and stone walls, and laden down with chains?

There are two things that came out of the prison ministry of Paul in the city of Rome.  Number one: he was chained to a Roman guard who was changed three times every day [Acts 28:16].  And can you imagine?  It is easily imaginable what happened when those soldiers were chained to the apostle Paul.  Think of that man, chained to the apostle for eight hours a day, and three of them, every eight hours, chained to the apostle Paul.  Think of the words they listened to as Paul spoke to that Roman soldier, and think of the fascination of the soldiers as they listened to the apostle speaking to these Christians who had come to visit him from the ends of the Roman Empire [Acts 28:30-31].

That’s why, in the first chapter of the Book of Philippians, Paul says that his bonds, his chains, are manifest to all the Praetorian Guard and to all the others in the city of Rome [Philippians 1:12-13].  That Praetorian Guard was the most elite of all of the soldiery of the emperor.  Anyone could belong to the Roman army; a Greek, a Gaul, a Scythian, any nationality.  But only those who were born Roman citizens could belong to the Praetorian Guard.  They were attested and tried and found to be true.  They were the personal, elite, guard and soldiers of the emperor himself.  And when Paul came to Rome, as a citizen in his appeal to the emperor, chained to a soldier of the Praetorian Guard [Acts 28:20], no wonder the whole army and the whole city heard about that unusual, apostolic prisoner [Acts 28:30-31].

A second thing that came out of his Roman imprisonment: there were five letters that Paul wrote from the prison in Rome.  He wrote Ephesians, and Philippians, and Colossians, and Philemon, and finally, 2 Timothy.  The vivifying and startling and amazing truth that you find in those letters could have been thought for, and given birth to, in no other way than that those truths were thrust into a human soul by the persecution and imprisonment of a man who felt the wrath of the rage of an enemy.

But in prison, in time to think and to meditate and suffering the cruel blows of those who opposed him, out of that imprisonment and suffering came these words that are immortal.  And when we read these letters they carry with them a deep and moving truth.

Very few people comparatively will ever hear a man in actual life, listen to his voice, no matter to how many people he preaches, or how long that he lives.  But when a man writes the truth in words, it becomes forever immortal.  The letters of Paul hold the truth in a way that they can be delivered to all succeeding generations, and so to us today.  And out of those sufferings of the apostle and out of his imprisonment have come these marvelous, immortal, letters that bring to us the vivifying and sanctifying truth of God.

Another thing that arises out of Paul’s iron chain: he speaks of himself in several places.  For example, in Ephesians 3:1:  “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ” [Philemon 1:1].  And will you notice how he begins his little letter of Philemon, “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”  What an astonishing characterization!  He’s a prisoner of the Roman army [Acts 28:16].  He’s a prisoner of Nero.  He has been arrested by the procurator of Judea [Acts 24:27], and has been delivered into the hands of the Praetorian Guard by a Roman centurion [Acts 27:1].  Yet, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ [Philemon 1:1].  To Paul, that iron chain is held at the other end by the hand of the Lord [Philemon 1:1].  That’s a sanctifying—that is absolutely a marvelously, astonishing delineation and description of our handicaps.

A man with an iron chain in prison—a chain held by the hand of God, it is a handicap from the Lord Himself.  And tell me, a handicap is a compliment in any area of life, and, as such, would be a compliment from God, a handicap.  Look at it.  If a man is in the athletic world, if he is superlative, he will run or play under a handicap.  If you have a race of runners and one of them is unusually gifted, why, he’ll run with a handicap.  They’ll pull him back at the starting point so that the other racers will have somewhat of an opportunity to run against him.  A handicap is a compliment in the athletic world.  If a man is playing golf and one of them is superlative, why, he’ll play under a handicap.  The other fellow will be given an opportunity to play against him equally if one of them, who is superlative, plays with a handicap.  It is a compliment in the athletic world. 

A handicap is a compliment in the artistic world.  I suppose there’s no more famous story told in the world of artistry than the story of Michelangelo, looking at a stone that had been rejected, but found in it the most beautiful carving statue of David the world has ever seen.  Michelangelo carved that out of a stone that had been rejected.  Or, if you visit the Pitti Palace in Florence where Michelangelo’s David is, you’ll also see the Madonna of the Chair, painted under a handicap.  It’s just about that big around, but marvelously wrought with the mother bending over the Christ Child because of the small area in which the painting had to be wrought.  Or, all poetry itself; it is written under a handicap.  Poetry has to follow meter and many times rhyme.  It is a fettered word.  It is a chained word.  Poetry is written under a handicap.  Then how much more are the handicaps of life a blessing from God.  What can a crippled man do?  What can a chained man do?  What can a blind man do?  What can an invalid do?  What can a handicapped man do?  Without doubt some of the greatest things in this earth wrought by men who labored under a great handicap.

I have always been moved by the sonnet of John Milton on his blindness.


When I consider how my light is spent

E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide,

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide—

“Doth God exact day-labour, light deny’d?”

I fondly ask.  But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:—

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

[“On His Blindness,” John Milton, 1655]


You could take that out of the Bible, out of the Psalms.  That last verse is one of the most meaningful in human life.  “They also serve who only stand and wait”; laboring under a handicap, Milton on his blindness.

Robert Louis Stevenson was consumptive and died of it.  He wrote to his friend and literary companion, George Meredith, “For fourteen years I have not had a day’s health.  I have wakened sick and gone to bed weary.  I have written in bed, written in hemorrhages, written in sickness, written torn by coughing, written when my head swam from weakness, my battlefield is this dingy, inglorious, one of the bed and the medicine bottle.”  Anyone who has read the stories and the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson could never forget the beautiful, delightful, things that were born in his gifted mind.  Working under a handicap, and the struggle against it is the most heroic virtue that you’ll find in human life.

I read Demosthenes, the greatest orator who ever lived.  “Demosthenes succeeded in spite of his handicap.”  The man who wrote that doesn’t know Demosthenes succeeded because of his handicap!  Stammering and stuttering but wanting to serve his country, he put pebbles in his mouth and stood by the roaring sea in order to learn how to speak fluently and eloquently and hearingly.

Abraham Lincoln, born in absolute poverty; go to [Hodgenville], Kentucky and see that tiny, tiny place in which he was born.  Failing, and failing, and failing in practically everything to which he placed his hand, Abraham Lincoln said, “I will study and prepare myself and maybe my time will come,” struggling against a handicap.

Marcus Dods, when he was graduated from the seminary in Scotland, waited five years before any kind of a church called him.  Imagine that; graduated from school, five years and no church called him.  But he studied and prepared and waited those five years.  Then when his time came, he became one of the most famous, and gifted, and God-blessed preachers, and expositers, and expounders, and writers, and interpreters of the Holy Scriptures in modern centuries—struggling against a handicap, against a vast discouragement.

This past week, Friday and Saturday, I’ve had one of the most unusual experiences in my life.  Eugene Green and some of these men have asked Mr. Karsh to come down here to Dallas and make a portrait photograph of me, I suppose for our thirty-fifth anniversary.  And this man is by far the most famous portrait photographer in the world.  He has spent time with—there is a big book that thick, of all the great of the world.  There’s his portrait photograph of Albert Einstein, turn the page, Albert Schweitzer, turn the page, Winston Churchill, turn the page, Ernest Hemingway the famous novelist.  Turn the page, Pablo Picasso, the modern artist whose pictures to me are an insult to intelligence, but the greatest modern painter in the world.  Turn the page and there is a portrait of all of these other presidents of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower and all of them.

So, I spent Friday and Saturday with him here at the church, and he’d pick out places to take my photograph.  And he’s a very interesting man.  He’s an Armenian, born over there in Armenia, Turkey.  And his studio is in New York City.  He said that in 1941, he was taking the picture of a famous bishop who was dressed as a chaplain, he had a chaplain’s uniform on.  And the bishop said to Mr. Karsh, the photographer, he said, “You know, I feel very uncomfortable and unaccustomed to this kind of a robe, or this kind of a garment, this chaplain’s uniform.  I don’t feel at home.  I don’t feel comfortable in it.”  And Mr. Karsh said he said to the bishop, “Well, put your hands in your pocket and maybe you’d feel a little more relaxed, and a little more comfortable, and a little more at home.”  And the bishop replied, “Oh, Mr. Karsh,” he said, “being a bishop, I think I’d be a little more at home if I could put my hand in your pocket.”

Well, anyway, as I visited with him, I asked him, “Out of all of these great men whom you have worked with in photographing them, Albert Einstein, or Albert Schweitzer, or Winston Churchill, or Ernest Hemingway, out of all of these multitudes of the greatest of the earth that you have photographed, which one would you pick out as being the greatest of all?  Which one would you have suggested?”  I would have thought he had replied “Winston Churchill.”  Or had you been a great scientist, I would suppose you would say he would have replied, “By all means, Albert Einstein.”  Or if you had that screwball and warped appreciation of modern art, you would have said, “Pablo Picasso.”

You know what he said?  He said to me, “Of my whole life,” and he’s an old, old man now, “out of my whole life, out of all that I have ever worked with in photography, far and above the greatest to me is Helen Keller.”  I said, “Helen Keller?”  He said, “Yes. Helen Keller.”  Blind, born blind; deaf, born deaf; dumb, born without ableness to speak; the only way to touch her and reach her, through the sensitivity of the fingers on her hand.  I said, “Why Helen Keller?”  He said, “You cannot describe the beauty of her character and the gentleness of her spirit.”

Why, I haven’t gotten over that yet.  He’s comparing that woman to Winston Churchill, to Albert Einstein, to Dwight Eisenhower, to the greatest men and women in the world.  A handicap is a compliment from God!


No one is beat ‘til he quits.

No one is through ‘til he stops.

No matter how hard failure hits,

No matter how often he drops,

A fellow’s not down ‘til he lies

In the dust and refuses to rise.

Fate may slap him and bang him around

And batter his frame ‘til he’s sore.

But she can never say that he’s down

When he bobs up serenely for more.

A fellow’s not dead ‘til he dies

Nor done ‘til he no longer tries.

[“Defeat,” Edgar A. Guest]


An iron chain. 

If you think you’re beaten, you are.

If you think you dare not, you don’t.

If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,

It’s almost certain you won’t.

If you think you will lose, you’re lost.

For, out in the world you’ll find

Success begins with a fellow’s will when

Christ has a hold of his mind.

Life’s battles don’t always go to

the stronger or faster man,

but sooner or later, the man who

wins is the man who thinks that he can.

[“The Victor,” C.W. Hongenecken]


Paul’s iron chain, working under a handicap [Acts 28:20]; sweet people, it was because pastor Clement Moore was too poor, too poverty stricken, even to buy a Christmas gift for his little girls, that he presented them with the gift of a poem that he wrote, “‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”  Do you remember that poem?  It was a gift of a poverty stricken pastor to his little girls for whom he couldn’t buy any presents.

Do you know where “Silent Night” came from?  A heavy snowstorm had fallen on the little church in a Tyrolean village and had damaged the organ.  And the pastor, M-o-h-r, Mohr, and the organist, Gruber, the pastor and the organist sat down, and they wrote a carol the choir could sing without accompaniment.  And the carol is “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Because a woman had no place in which to place her newborn Baby, she wrapped the Child in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger [Luke 2:7], that He might be a faithful and High Priest, moved with the feeling of our infirmities [Hebrews 4:14-16].  There is no one who suffers and He did not suffer.  No one poor and He was not poor.  No one weary and He was not weary.  No one filled and encompassed with sorrows and He was not sorrowful.  No one who weeps and He did not weep.  No one who cries and He did not cry.  No one who felt the burden of life’s animosity and He did not feel the hurt of rejection.  And in all things, He might be a faithful High Priest, for He was tried in all areas of His life as we are, and He is moved with the feeling of our infirmities [Hebrews 4:14-16].

That iron chain, that handicap from God, it’s a compliment from heaven.  And whatever it is in our lives, let us receive it, bless the name of God for it, and, as Paul, believe that the end of the chain is held in the hands of God [Philemon 1:1].  Now, may we stand together?

Our dear Lord, bruised and beaten, crucified and dead [Matthew 27:26-50], how much is our living Lord [Matthew 28:5-7; Luke 24:3-6] able to enter into all of the disappointments and hurts and frustrations of our lives? [Hebrews 4:16]. And Thy apostles, how beautifully do they reflect the sufferings of our Lord, and our Savior, if sometimes we are inclined to fret against some of the handicaps and disappointments and hardships we bear in our lives, may the Lord forgive us.  God has complimented us.  Our chain is held in the hand of God [Philemon 1:1], and we are thus being taught the precious things, the meaningful things of life by the sorrows we know and the burdens we bear.

And, our wonderful Lord, what a preciousness to know, that You understand that there are no trials that come upon us that You, Yourself, did not endure.  And as a faithful High Priest, we can come to Thee with every burden, every problem, every hurt, and our blessed Jesus understands [Hebrews 4:14-16].  And, our Lord, what an open door have You set before us today, looking in faith unto Thee as Savior and Lord [Ephesians 2:8-9].  What a privilege, a happy one, to come in humble faith and surrender to Thee!

In a moment, we shall sing our hymn of appeal.  There’ll be a godly deacon down here to welcome you and to bring you to me.  And we’ll pray together, and we’ll rejoice in the favor of God upon you.  Even though, for the moment our trials might be hard, by and by we’ll bless God for every sorrow we’ve ever known and every handicap we’ve ever endured.  Make that decision now in your heart, “Today I accept Jesus as my Savior, I give my life and lot to Him.  I want to place my life in His dear hands.”  Make that decision in your heart and in this moment, down that stairway, down this aisle, “Pastor, here I am.  I have decided for God, and I’m on the way.”  The Lord bless you as you come, while we wait, while we pray, and while we sing.


Dr. W.
A. Criswell



I.          Paul’s iron chain

A.  Spoke
of it often(Acts 26:29, 28:20, Ephesians 6:20,
Philippians 1:7, 14, 16, Colossians 4:3, 18, Philemon 1, 10, 13, 2 Timothy
1:16, 18)

B.   What
can a man do in chains?

The Praetorian guard(Philippians 1:13)

The prison epistles

II.         The chain – God’s handicap

A.  Prisoner of Christ

1.  The
other end of the chain is held by God – a compliment of heaven

B.  Handicap a
compliment in the athletic and artistic worlds

C.  In our lives a
handicap is a compliment from God

      1.  John Milton on
his blindness

      2.  Robert Louis
Stevenson to George Meredith

      3.  It is in the
sufferings of life that our greatest blessings are born

D.  Struggling against
handicap contributes to virtue and heroism in a man

      1.  Demosthenes

      2.  Abraham

      3.  Marcus Dods

      4.  Mr. Karsh
speaking of Helen Keller

E.  Handicap a
compliment from God that brings to us strength

      1.  Poems, “Defeat”,
“The Victor”

      2.  Clement Moore

      3.  Pastor Mohr
writing “Silent Night”

      4.  Mary wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes(Luke
2:7, Hebrews 4:15)