Lessons from the Mamertine Prison
by Jefferson David Tant
Do you ever feel discouraged, defeated, alone, forsaken, or any other word used to describe one who is “down in the dumps?” I’m sure we have all been affected by one or more of these words in our lifetime. If you are fortunate to have escaped all these negative feelings, just be patient. They will come. But do these feelings need to define who we are? Not if we have the right perspective on life as a child of God.
Some 14 years ago my wife and I were with a group of Christians in Italy, the home of some of my ancestors. My mother’s father was Lorenzo Antonio Gotto, and that’s not Chinese. His family came from Genoa, Italy. We toured the city, including the Vatican, the Colosseum (where Christians were put to death), and we assembled with the saints on Sunday where Stephano Corazzo labored in the Word. Dee Bowman and I were honored to preach to those gathered.
One day I asked our hotel clerk if he knew where the Mamertine Prison was. He pointed to the site just two blocks away. So the group of some 15 to 20 of us walked to this prison. And what was special about it? This is most likely the prison where the apostle Paul spent time, and from which he wrote “the prison epistles.” These are probably Ephesians, Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians.
We entered the prison at street level, then went down the stairs to one level below ground, and then down to a second level below ground to the cell is where it is believed Paul was kept.
As you can see, it is a cell made of stones, and it was dark and cold. We stood there for a time in silent amazement as we thought of Paul and the time he spent in this dark room.
Then a thought struck me, and I started singing a song that Christians are familiar with, and the others joined in.
“Faith of our fathers! Living still in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword.
O how our hearts beat high with joy whene’er we hear that glorious word! –
Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free.
How sweet would be their children’s fate if they, like them, could die for Thee! –
Faith of our fathers! We will love both friend and foe in all our strife,
And preach Thee, too, as love knows how, by kindly words and virtuous life.
(Chorus) Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to Thee till death.”
While our voices sang, our eyes were dampened with tears. And I’ve got tears in my eyes now as I remember that occasion.
In reflecting upon Paul’s time there and the letters he wrote, we never see a defeated attitude. Not a word of “Woe is me,” or “I don’t deserve this, Lord.”
Notice a few things from Paul’s letters.
- “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, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14).
- “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:10-13).
And we remember what happened when Paul and Silas were in a prison and the resultant conversion of the jailor and his household. “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:23-25).
- “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions. Of [this church] I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the [preaching of] the word of God” (Colossians 1:24-25).
- “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved [brother] and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints” (Philemon 1-5).
Paul never gave up. Paul never quit. Was he discouraged at times? Obviously so, but that did not define him.
So, what are we to do when the world turns against us, and everything seems to go dead wrong? We thank God for the blessings we have in Christ. We keep a positive attitude. We pray for strength to endure. We strive to encourage others.
And we remember Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
“’Tis easy to smile when life flows along like a song, but the man worthwhile is the man who can smile when everything goes dead wrong.” [Ella Wheeler Wilcox]