Why is Paul in chains? And what is this mystery that God has now revealed? I believe the answer to both of these questions is the same. And it might not be what we typically think it is. If we miss it, we will miss the importance of Paul’s prison epistles.
When Paul returns to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, the crowds try to have him killed, but he calms the crowd by speaking to them in their language, Aramaic. He concludes his message by saying, “‘Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”’ The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!’” (Acts 22:21-22)
Is Paul taken to prison for believing Jesus is the Messiah? Well, yes, but more importantly because he believes Jesus is the Messiah of Jews and Gentiles! As Paul states in his letter to the Colossians,
I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25-27)
So what, again, is the mystery for which Paul is in chains? Paul writes to the Ephesians, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).
This mystery has now been revealed through Jesus Christ: we are all one body. In Christ there is no longer any distinction. Again, writing to the Colossians from prison, Paul states, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
This passage might remind us of Paul’s message of the true gospel to the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
The implications of this mystery, which has now been revealed, are earth shattering. Paul is stating not only that the separation between God and humans has been removed through Christ, but also that the separation between human and human has been removed. This message has such radical implications that it is all Paul can do to keep Christians from breaking all cultural norms and societal structures. Yes, we know that in Christ there are no distinctions, but given the society these new Christians found themselves in, it is still best for wives to continue to submit to their husbands, for example, or for slaves to continue to obey their masters. But Paul is very clear: we do these things out of reverence for God and deference for each other, not because Christ makes these distinctions.
Indeed, as Christians, Paul exhorts us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). In Christ we know that “there is no favoritism” (Colossians 3:25), and that master and slave alike are both under a greater Master (Colossians 4:1), who is also our loving heavenly Father.
Indeed, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, we find this mystery being lived out. In the Roman Empire, there are still slaves and masters. But in Christ’s kingdom, master and slave are dear brothers in the Lord (Philemon 16). The truth of this “mystery” is captured well in the last verse of that great Christmas hymn, “O Holy Night”:
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord!
Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!