Over my years as a pastor, I have had the opportunity to minister to several fellow believers who made some bad choices and ended up being arrested and imprisoned. In one case, I had a weekly Bible study with one friend in the local jail as he awaited trial. He would, in turn, share the lessons with other prisoners as he had opportunity. He ended up being incarcerated for several years in the state prison. I continued to send him the “Wisdom of the Week” which he would share with fellow inmates. I currently also send the “Wisdom of the Week” to another friend who is serving time in our state prison.
One of the recent issues of the monthly Anchor Devotional from Haven Ministries was written by inmates who also had made some poor decisions in life. Some were believers who got their lives turned around while in prison and others came to know Christ while in prison and had their lives completely transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They may have been behind bars but their souls had been set free by the truth (Jn. 8:32, 36). Yesterday’s devotional in Today in the Word from Moody Bible Institute related the story of Shon Hopwood who was arrested and pled guilty for robbing several banks in Nebraska in 1988. But while in prison his life was changed, and he began studying law in the prison library. He helped several inmates with legal advice, even preparing a court petition for one that ended up going to the Supreme Court! He earned his law degree and is now a professor at Georgetown University and advocates for prison reform.
The late Chuck Colson, who became a Christian just before being incarcerated for his part in the Nixon Watergate scandal, after serving seven months in federal prison, launched Prison Fellowship ministry which has now been reaching prisoners and their families for Christ for some 40 years. “Today, in more than 90 prisons across 27 states, more than 3,300 prisoners participate in the 12-month Prison Fellowship Academy (PFA) where a Biblical worldview is unlocking hope and new life in Christ for inmates. Recidivism rates, or re-arrests, of inmates who complete PFA are demonstrably lower than inmates who don’t go through the program” (Decision magazine, Sept. 2019).
Between Dallas and Houston, just off Interstate 45, “is what is arguably Texas’ toughest prison, the Coffield Unit, a maximum-security facility populated by some 4,000 inmates, most of whom are repeat offenders serving sentences for some of the worst crimes” (Decision). Gateway Church of Dallas now has a church planted inside the prison with its own pastoral staff. Close to 400 inmates gather regularly to hear the gospel and learn how to be disciples and to reach other inmates for Christ. At one worship service this past July, “Gateway pastors baptized 15 inmates from solitary confinement and 22 more from the general prison population” (Decision). Gateway plans to add campuses at other state as well as federal prisons. This was made possible by the signing of “The First Step Act” by President Trump in December 2018 which “says that when someone is incarcerated, we should be working to transform them away from behavior that got them there in the first place.” Never before had faith-based groups had access to federal prisons.
What a mission field exists in our prison system. According to the Bureau of Justice, more than 2 million people are in jail or prison in the U.S., representing the highest incarceration rate in the world! Another 4.5 million are on probation or parole. And one in three Americans has a criminal record! Of the 650,000 inmates who are released each year, two-thirds will be re-arrested within three years. We spend $80 billion a year housing prisoners and, without a transformation of life through the message of the Gospel, most come out likely to commit crime again.
Prison ministry began long before Chuck Colson’s “Prison Fellowship.” When Joseph was in prison in Egypt under false charges by Potiphar’s wife, “The LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. And the chief jailer committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph’s charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper” (Gen. 39:21-23). Joseph had a ministry to the other inmates, especially to the king’s butler and baker who ended up with him in prison (Gen. 40).
In the New Testament, Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi for healing a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and made profit for her masters. Because they lost their source of profit, her masters had Paul and Silas arrested, beaten and thrown into prison and placed in stocks. “But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). God sent an earthquake which shook the prison and opened the doors and loosened the chains. The jailer, thinking the prisoners had escaped was about to commit suicide, “But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!’” (v. 28). The jailer asked Paul and Silas, “ ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household’ ” (vv. 28-31). As a result of the testimony of Paul and Silas in prison, a whole family came to know Christ.
The Apostle Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome for preaching the Gospel. During the first (for two years), he was under house arrest near the barracks of the elite Roman Praetorian Guard. During that time he wrote what we refer to as “the prison epistles” of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Rather than viewing his incarceration with anger and bitterness, Paul saw it as an opportunity to spread the Gospel. In his letter to the Philippian believers he wrote: “Now I want you to know brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole Praetorian guard and to everyone else” (Phil. 1: 12,13). Evidently some of those who guarded him had been saved for as he concludes his letter, he writes: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household” (4:22). Paul didn’t look upon his imprisonments as a “time out” from his ministry, but as a unique opportunity to share the gospel. He referred to himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (not of Rome!). He knew God had him there for a purpose. One of the converts of Paul’s “prison ministry” was a run-away slave, Onesimus, who had stolen from his master, Philemon (of the Colossian church) and made his way to Rome where he encountered Paul (most likely in prison) and was led to Christ (Philemon 1:10).
After his release, Paul wrote I Timothy and Titus and then was arrested again and imprisoned in Rome and this time ended up a martyr for Christ. While in his final imprisonment he wrote II Timothy, saying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:7). Part of “the course” God planned for Paul included time in prison. Not only were many reached for Christ through those difficult times in his life, but we still benefit from it for we have several books of the New Testament which were by-products.
God doesn’t forget those in prison. He, after all is “The God of Second Chances” who loves to transform lives and bring new hope and purpose. Pray for those who have messed up in life and are in our prison system. Pray that they will hear about God’s love and forgiveness and gain eternal and abundant life in Christ. Pray for those who minister inside the prisons, like our chaplains, Prison Fellowship, and churches like Gateway Church in Dallas. If you personally know any who are behind bars, pray for them and write to encourage them, and minister to their families. In doing so, you are really ministering to Jesus (see Matt. 25:35-40).