The Prison Epistles refer to four letters in the New Testament written by the apostle Paul during his time under house arrest in Rome between approximately 60—62 AD. They include Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Together they comprise four of the New Testament's 27 books and 15 of its 260 chapters.
The Prison Epistles – What are they?
The first three of these epistles were written to specific local groups of Christians in the cities for which the books were named. Ephesians was written to the believers at Ephesus and covers areas of doctrine (chapters 1—3) and application (chapters 4—6). Of great importance is this letter's emphasis on salvation by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), church unity (Ephesians 4), and spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-18).
Philippians was a mostly positive letter authored to thank the Christians in Philippi for their financial support of Paul's missionary work. Philippians 1:19-26 addressed Paul's circumstances at the time of his writing as well as his hope to see them again. Interestingly, this letter was written with the help of Timothy, indicating Timothy was with Paul some during his imprisonment. This same Timothy would later receive two personal letters from Paul that are included in the New Testament (1 and 2 Timothy).
Colossians, also written with the help of Timothy, was addressed to the Christians in Colossae. It speaks to the deity of Jesus, Jewish rituals that some had attempted to add to the Christian faith, as well as Paul's request for prayer to advance the Gospel message (Colossians 4).
Philemon, in contrast, was a short, personal letter penned regarding a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had apparently run away from Philemon, his owner who had also become a Christian under Paul's ministry. During Paul's time in Rome, he came into contact with Onesimus and led him to faith in Christ. To address his situation properly, Paul wrote to Onesimus about these events, asking Philemon to release Onesimus. Though a brief letter, Philemon offers perhaps the strongest apologetic in the New Testament regarding how Christians viewed slavery in their world and implications for Christians who desire to help in the freedom of slaves today.
Despite Paul's situation during the writing of the Prison Epistles, he was not hindered from sharing the Gospel message with others or writing letters to encourage individuals and churches. Acts 28:30-31 tells us, "He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance." Even in this difficult context, God was at work to empower Paul to change the lives of many during his time and ours through these works now known as the Prison Epistles.
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