The apostle Paul in lockdown

Dealing with restrictions and crises


24. March 2020By Karsten Risseeuw13 Minutes

The coronavirus is crippling Europe. More and more countries experience what is called a “lockdown”. Schools are closed, as are shops, restaurants and stores. Whenever possible people work from home. For many, I guess, this situation has come as a surprise. Unfortunately quite a few play down the urgent warnings of the government, even as Switzerland has probably worldwide the second highest rate of infections per million inhabitants at this stage. Some plainly deny what is happening. Conspiracy theories are booming. It doesn’t stop here. Crazy things happen, when people feel the stress and see the dangers. In an effort to make sense of all the fears and uncertainties, religious projections are made: People fear the apocalypse, try to match bible passages with the current events to make the situation bearable and to give it meaning. But what we need most in this chaos is a sound mind.

Restrictions in life

I will not deal in this article with conspiracists and their views. Those interested in debunking myths can find loads of information on the internet. Instead, we should learn to confront our own insecurity and fear and learn to judge the current situation with healthy reasoning. We also should be well aware that everyone is dealing with the same questions and that there are different views. What we need most in these times is a sober approach and the courage to take things seriously.

In this post I would like to talk about a certain aspect. It is about restrictions and lockdowns, which we all experience at different times in our lives. I then want to mention the huge lockdown the apostle Paul experienced in his life.

We are familiar with small lockdowns for our lives. Every night, for example, we are at home in some kind of lockdown. We go to bed and sleep. We do this to recover from the turmoils of the day. Right now, we can capture this aspect of rejuvenation and think of it as a resource and option to interpret the current situation. We should recognize opportunities.

Other situations also can greatly affect our lives. For example, if we get ill, it can keep us in bed for weeks. Though very unpleasant, we usually recover and normality returns. We get healthy. Once we had this experience, we can learn from it and also apply it to the current crisis: the crisis is real, but there will be a time after the crisis. Normality (in whatever form) will return.

We might be familiar with other restrictions as well. While getting older we will experience limitations. Our strength will decrease. We can no longer do everything we probably want to do, or we can’t do it with the same energy as we did at a younger age. Those who have been young for a longer time will frequently spend more time at home. It can be compared to a slow lockdown. It doesn’t have to be all negative. Every age has its own advantage. Sobriety accepts the current situation and makes the best of it in view of the future.

It is also possible to experience a mental or emotional lockdown, for example when loosing a spouse or partner or getting into other difficult situations. Such experiences can block your sense and outlook of life. When friends, family or life partners die, when you experience a divorce, when kids move out or anything else happens which changes the fabric of your very existence, life can get ugly, stressful and depressing. You might feel locked-down in your emotions, as a lockdown of feelings, being refrained of any outlook or hope. The feeling can be very real. These things we also should take into account when considering lockdowns. Life never has been easy. Sometimes it can be really hard.

We know these situations from our own experiences. We all have to face limitations and restrictions at some time during our life. Nevertheless, we don’t want it. No lockdown is desirable. It engulfs us whether we like it or not. This involuntary feeling of being in a lockdown is part of the human experience.

The apostle Paul in lockdown.

Painting of Rembrandt, 1627. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul in lockdown

During the last years of his life (4 to 5 years at least) the apostle Paul was in captivity. This was a severe “lockdown” for the happy Jewish traveler that Paul was. During his travels he had been arrested several times, but only for short terms. But then, towards the end of Acts, he is constantly in captivity. It was forced upon him.

Paul was captured in Jerusalem (Acts 21:30ff) and was in prison for years (Acts 24:27) both in Jerusalem and in the coastal city of Caesarea. The text explicitly speaks of 2 years and that was only a part of his time in prison. It was a strange thing, because he was not interrogated for years. These are conditions that we quickly overlook today, because we do not reckon with these situations. But for Paul it was a reality. He had to deal with the reality in his life, just as we have to do today.

Paul was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:27-29). In a defense he invoked the Roman emperor to decide upon his case (Acts 25:10-11). That was his right. It was then determined that his case had to come before the emperor (Acts 25:12). As a consequence, Paul had to be shipped to Rome as a prisoner.

Thus, Paul went from one lockdown to the next. From Caesarea, Paul is sent by ship to Rome. This trip had some special experiences, and we can read about them in the book of Acts. In the last chapter of Acts the ship finally arrives in Puteoli, not far from Rome (Acts 28:13).

Once in Rome, the apostle was allowed to remain with the soldier who guarded him (Acts 28:16). It can be safely assumed he was not in prison, but in another accommodation, perhaps in military barracks or something similar. He was not free to move as he was in captivity.

Following this short story about what happened when he arrived, the situation changed again. In the last verses of the book we read:

“He [Paul] then stayed in his own rented apartment for two whole years and welcomed all who came to him; he heralded the Kingdom of God and taught with all frankness and without hindrance what concerns the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Acts 28:30-31

In his own rented apartment! Paul was not only in prison in Israel for at least two years, but also in Rome for at least another two years, plus the travels in between and the time we know nothing about as we have no written account. In Rome, he had his own rented apartment. That we know. He seems to have been quite lucky as he was able to do many things during lockdown due to that privilege. He could not get out (there were soldiers at the door), but he could welcome people at his home. Paul was in captivity, but he was not in prison.

This is remarkable: The door did not open out into the world, for example for new journeys, but the door opened towards the inside, for receiving visitors and letters. The apostle welcomed all who wanted to hear more about the Kingdom of God, and he taught with all frankness and without hindrance (!) about the Lord Jesus Christ.

With these words the Book of Acts closes. The last years, however, when he himself could no longer travel, the apostle achieved amazing things by talking and writing letters. This is exactly how we received a treasure of spiritual riches from this time of lockdown. This concerns the so-called “prison letters” (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 2nd Timothy). It was an extremely fruitful time, in which hidden treasures were revealed (Eph 3,2-11) and made known to the believers. The letters he wrote during that time still move Christians today.

Paul’s lockdown – in a way – was a blessing. From one of these letters we know that Paul did not see himself as a prisoner of the Romans, but he rather spoke about himself as being a “captive of Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:1-2). This was the perspective he had chosen for himself and which he counted with. It reflected his view of life and understanding of faith. In a conscious decision he decided to see his life from Gods perspective.

Isn’t this amazing? Which perspective do we choose in the current situation?

© Karsten Risseeuw. Translation from the German original.

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