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Many Soldiers Hear of Christ

Category Articles
Date July 11, 2002


Paul is arrested and taken to Rome and there he meets soldier after soldier. Speaking to them and writing letters becomes his major ministry

by Geoff Thomas

One of the most surprising stories of evangelistic success in the early church is recounted in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The apostle tells them that as a result of his imprisonment in Rome, "it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ" (1:13). The full Praetorian Guard numbered nine thousand men and were the official bodyguard of the emperor. Members of the Philippian congregation would often see the Roman soldiers marching through their town and some of them might have said, "They need the gospel. How could the good news about Jesus break into the world of the Roman army? If only Paul could meet with some of them and talk to them of the Saviour for a long time we are sure many of those battle hardened veterans would start to follow Christ. But how could that be possible? Let’s just pray about it." But Paul is arrested and taken to Rome and there he meets soldier after soldier. Speaking to them and writing letters becomes his major ministry. It’s not raw country-boy recruits who couldn’t read that he is evangelising but the elite company of Caesar’s troops whose barrack rooms and bath houses soon buzz with discussion about religion. All this was because of one single prisoner who was in the custody of the very troops who guarded the emperor.

There had been a period in which Paul had been given a measure of liberty from the jail, and he lived for that time in a private house, but even there a guard would have had to be on duty. The prisoner and the guard were chained together, but Paul didn’t whine to them that it was all so unjust, and that he had grown to hate the sight of the Roman legionnaires. He didn’t bribe them to have wine and women smuggled in, or plot his escape. No, he bore a plain powerful witness to the three or four soldiers who worked the daily shifts and kept an eye on him. He looked forward to the constant new men whose turn it would be to guard him. How wearying the constant conversations, the absence of privacy, the new guard wanting to talk, and Paul tired from the previous four hours of questions and answers. Yet Paul was under obligation to love his guarding neighbour as his guarded self. Over the years he would meet many of the imperial guard in a one-to-one relationship.

An enormous impression was made on them all. Paul told them about a Jew named Jesus from Nazareth. He shared with them some of Christ’s scintillating teaching. He told them of his mighty works, that when he spoke the winds and waves obeyed him. He told these soldiers about the centurions who loved the Lord, one of whose servants he raised from a death bed. He told them how the Lord Jesus was the promised Messiah, God the Son, and that he had died as the lamb of God to take away our sin. "We deserve eternal death because we are sinners," Paul said, "but Jesus, because he loved us, died in our place." He told them that they must repent of their sins, really turn away from them, and turn in faith to the one who said, "Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." The men on guard duty had never met a man so much at peace with himself as this prisoner. They later went back to the barracks thinking over everything they had been told, and they talked to their friends, so that other troops were filled with curiosity to meet this extraordinary man. One man affecting nine thousand, just as Jonah’s words affected the whole city of Nineveh. The good news Paul told them resulted in this achievement of grace; "it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ" (v.13). Paul had put his life at the disposal of Christ, and though he was bound, the word of God is never bound.

Let me illustrate from three sources the power of the providence of restrictions and limitations (if they be received from God); firstly from the English reformer Hugh Latimer, the greatest of all the English preachers of the sixteenth century, the one who eventually was burnt at the stake in Oxford. When he was arrested during the reign of Queen Mary, Latimer was committed to a painful house arrest in the home of the mayor of Oxford, Edmund and Margaret Irish. For 18 months he had to live there with their hatred of all he stood for, their boorish behaviour and foul conversation. Day after day he was called by God to endure it. Latimer was set in that mayor’s house for the defence of the gospel, and at the end of it, just before his martyrdom, Margaret Irish was won over by his faithful and gracious testimony. She not only grew in admiration of his consistent life, but she came to trust in Christ alone for her salvation.

Another illustration of this lesson refers to the late Bob Sheehan’s father. In the second World War he was a stretcher bearer, and God attached to the other end of that stretcher a Scottish Christian who lived for Christ and spoke of him to Mr Sheehan whenever he had an opportunity. That stretcher was the chain that bound those two men together, and by 1945 and VE Day, they were both following Christ. The implications of that ‘chain’ for the Sheehan family and the congregations who heard his son Bob preach at Welwyn were immense. So I am saying to you, ‘Receive your chains from Christ!’

The third illustration of this conduct of Paul being imitated today to the same powerful effect is in the case of the late Martin Burnham, the missionary to the Philippines, murdered last week. Several hostages, including his wife Gracie, testify to his patient Christian response to suffering for those 376 days. Chained to a tree each night, Martin Burnham would thank his guard and then wish him a good night. On their marches through the jungle he would do what the Saviour told us all to do – offering to carry the bags of other hostages and also his captors. He spoke of Christ to them, sharing the message of the gospel with rebel leader Abu Sabaya himself. When the bullets were fired in the rescue attempt he dived across the body of his wife and protected her, but lost his own life.

God has designed some restrictions for every one of us. As I look at a congregation I see everyone in chains. You may be tied to a desk when you would like to be in evangelistic work. You may be tied to a home, with young children in need of constant care. You may be tied to one room, never able to get out of your house. But God has put you there and so God will use you there. Remember that the first prayer to pray is not ‘God use me’, but ‘God make me usable.’ Then seek to speak a word and do something for Jesus Christ where you are. This passage in Philippians may change entirely the way you look at the factors that hem you in. You may be able to say, "what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel" (v.12).

The fascinating greetings at the end of the letter presumably refer to the success of Paul’s evangelising these soldiers: "All the saints send you their greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household" (Phils 4:22). How many of those soldiers were later posted to a tour of duty in the furthest parts of the Roman Empire, to the British Isles? Could some of those once chained to Paul have been later sent to Caerleon, Carmarthen and Chester where they shared with some of our early Welsh men and women the wonderful message of sins forgiven through faith in the Lamb of God?


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