"And Joseph's master
took him, and put him into the prison, the place where the king's
prisoners were bound: and he was there in the prison" (Genesis
"Then Pharaoh sent and
called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon...
and Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I have dreamed a dream... I have
heard say of thee, that when thou hearest a dream thou canst
interpret it. And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in
me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer."
"And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one
as this, a man in whom the spirit of God is?"
"And he [Joseph] gathered up all the food of the seven
years... and Joseph laid up corn as the sand of the sea, very
"And the famine was sore in the land" (Genesis
"...desiring to gain
favour with the Jews, Felix left Paul in bonds" (Acts
"And when we entered
into Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain
of the praetorian guard" (Acts 28:16, margin)
"The prisoner of Jesus
Christ" (Ephesians 4:1).
"I John... was in the
isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God and the testimony
"And I heard... a great voice... saying, What thou seest,
write in a book, and send it to the churches" (Revelation
The passages quoted above are a
summary of the lives and ministries of three of God's servants,
the fruit of whose experience has meant life to the people of God
in a very full way. But that way of God's sovereign choice is not
peculiar to those three alone. It is the story of many more, both
in Bible times and since. To the former we could add Jeremiah and
Daniel, as outstanding cases.
There are many such records in
the 'Book of Remembrance' of those whose hard way has meant - and
is now meaning - bread for the spiritually hungry. The prison has
not always been literal chains and incarceration.
Sometimes it has been a sick room; sometimes the lonely isolation
of a divinely-appointed place of service; sometimes the rejection
and exclusion of a servant of God because of prejudice,
blindness, jealousy, or spiritual smallness on the part of those
who could so force him out. Of many it could - and can - be said:
"for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus".
There are some features of such
'imprisonments' which it may be helpful to note. Inclusively, of
course, we have to have our hearts at rest as to the certainty of
the Divine government. Provided always that such a position is
not due to a wayward, self-willed, or disobedient course on the
part of the one concerned, and their situation is not due to
anything akin to that of Jonah's predicament; although there may
have been human weakness and mistakes, yet God is greater than
all, and given a heart really true to Him, He can turn all things
to serve His main end: "Who worketh all things after
the counsel of his own will".
In difficult and seemingly
impossible situations there will always be much room for
reflection upon the faults and mistakes which could
account for the trouble. 'If only' is a desolating reflection.
'If only Paul had not appealed to Caesar!' 'If only Joseph had
told Potiphar what his wife had really done!' There is no end to
this kind of reflection, and there are very few who, if they had
their time over again, would not - they think - have done
differently, and so have avoided a great deal of trouble. We are
not referring to particular sins, but to 'mistakes'. The matter
of the sins of the past goes without saying that we should - with
our present light - not repeat. With so much of what we now
look upon as mistaken, we then acted according to the best
light that we had. This provides a very large realm for sovereign
grace, and sovereign grace is quite equal to the task.
The adversary of God and of our
walk with Him will flog us hard with accusation to make us
mistrust Him. There is thus a big realm which has to be
definitely committed to the Father's understanding and mercy.
Having said that, we can look
at some of these more comforting features of adversity.
1. God is never overtaken by an
emergency, nor is He the victim of adverse activities. This fact
is so evident in the above instances.
Joseph's classic verdict upon
the whole soul-wracking experience was 'You meant it for evil,
but God meant it for good', and then he gives the all-justifying
reason - "God meant it". Paul and John would
have heartily endorsed that verdict.
The very foreknowledge of God
in choosing and calling His servants, whose hearts He cleanses
from selfish and worldly ambitions, is involved in what befalls
them in the way of their devotion to Him. Even Job, than whom no
one ever had a more bewildering history, could say: "He
knoweth the way that I take".
Not even in the greatest and
most terrible of man's defaultings, and Satan's seeming triumph -
the "Fall" - was God unprepared and unprovided with His
way through. The answer was with Him before the demand was
actually existing - "The Lamb [was] ...slain from the
foundation [the laying down] of the world". God's end
justified His permission. Grace and glory will vastly transcend
the suffering and the sorrow. With God there are no unforeseen
accidents. "He is Lord of all".
2. While the servant in
question is going through the dark, cold, and desolate ordeal of
the 'prison', he does not know what it all means. At best and
most he knows that the Lord is God. All the appearances
are of being cut off, shut up or in; being forgotten; having
suffered through the treachery, disloyalty, cruelty, or
fickleness of men - even of brethren; or the vicious spite of
evil powers, human and satanic. The iron can eat into the soul,
as it did with Joseph. The battle against bitterness of spirit,
disappointment, depression and despair may be fierce. Joseph had
no knowledge of the coming fourteen years of vindication, the
fruit of his sufferings. Disillusionment was a cruel foe, for present
experience gave useful ground for the mocking evil
spirits to make fun of his early dreams of honour.
Paul and John never imagined
that for two thousand years people would read with immense profit
and gain that which came from their prisons. They knew nothing of
making spiritual history for the duration of time and eternity.
But so it was.
3. The major factor in these
imprisonments and apparent limitations was that the fruit was for
a time yet to come. Pharaoh's dreams and Joseph's interpretation
related to a time not yet come and which had to be prepared for
in sheer faith. God knows what is coming, and He Himself prepares
and provides for a situation beyond the present. In the deep dark
night of adversity, God may be doing something, securing
something which will "save much people alive". In our
own time, because of the poverty and shallowness of contemporary
resources, there is a reverting to and reproducing of the deeper,
stronger, and more heart-satisfying ministry of those times when
it cost deeply to be "obedient to the heavenly vision".
The writer included among his
personal friends a servant of God whose name is known worldwide
for his Bible-teaching ministry. That dear man was formerly the
minister of a certain church. There came a time when the
responsible people in that church decided upon adopting policies
and procedures which he believed to be quite contrary to
spiritual principles. The minister withstood this on Scriptural
grounds. He was forced to leave the church, and because 'this
thing was not done in a corner', it was taken up by the secular
and religious press, mostly to his condemnation. For several
years no church or people would have anything to do with him. He
was ostracised, excluded, isolated, and confined to his own home,
coming down - with his wife - to their last two shillings and
sixpence. But, said he to me, 'It was in those years of
imprisonment that I was able to give myself so thoroughly to my
Bible as to lay the ground for the many subsequent years of
worldwide Bible teaching!' There was no church, however
important, and no convention, however large, that would not
welcome him (if they were faithful to the Bible), and the
university of the city of his later ministry honoured him with a
doctorate of divinity.
Not all - in their lifetime
- are given their vindication, but the principle holds good that,
in times of adversity, God prepares and provides for a time to
So, Israel was preserved for
the subsequent centuries, in spite of the brothers' treachery;
because Joseph went to prison and there proved his God.
So we have the infinite
treasures of Paul's prison ministry in his letters. So we have
the priceless wealth of John's Patmos visions and writings. For
these latter there was nothing that they could do but to write;
and the writing - though they did not know it - was to be the
food of saints for many generations to come.
Prison. God only knows
all the exercises of an eager heart when shut out and shut in by
- what seems to be - the unkindness of men, or the
overtaking of adversity!
Vision. And yet such
times can be times of an 'open Heaven' and much spiritual
Provision. And the
fruit may be life to many in a time of spiritual famine.
First published in "A Witness and A
Testimony" magazine, Sep-Oct 1963, Vol 41-5