Would you visit someone in prison if you could lose your job for it? What if you could end up in prison with them just because you were willing to be associated with them? These are the types of questions that many Christians throughout the world face on a regular basis. Will they care for their imprisoned brothers and sisters in Christ at the risk of being imprisoned themselves? Will they take a risk by doing the right thing?
In Colossians 4:18, Paul closed his letter to the church in Colossae by asking them to “remember his chains.” Traditionally, scholars have understood Paul as writing the letter of Colossians from his imprisonment in Rome. He refers to his imprisonment elsewhere in 2 Timothy 1:8, 16, asking Timothy to “not be ashamed of him as the Lord’s prisoner.”
Most prisoners in the first century depended upon their friends and family members for sustenance while in prison. Without such care, the prospect of making it out of prison alive was grim. However, it was not simply the harsh conditions of first-century prisons that threatened the lives of people like Paul. There was also the social dynamic of shame.
Within Paul’s culture, imprisonment was dishonorable. So, for Christians living in a culture of honor and shame, where value and worth were granted to them on the basis of how well they exemplified certain group characteristics, caring for prisoners was a great social risk. Christians who visited other Christians in prison risked being shamed by their community and potentially ending up in prison themselves. So, when Paul asked the church to “remember his chains,” he was asking for more than a cognitive activity. Given the situation, Paul felt that there was a need to implore Christians to remember those who are in prison for their faith in Christ and to not be ashamed of them.
There’s still a need for us today to remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in chains for their faith. Here are three ways that we can live with them in mind:
1. Prioritize the Kingdom of God: Christ calls us to put his kingdom first. Regardless of the national allegiances that we pledge, our first allegiance is to Christ and his Kingdom. When a woman like Twen Theodros is imprisoned in Eritrea for “meeting with other Christians,” our thoughts should not be: Not my country, not my problem.
Instead, we should recognize that Theodros is more a part of our family than any unbelieving American. Because of Christ, we have more in common with believers who do not speak our language than neighbors who share common interests but do not have faith in Christ. We will never genuinely care for those who are in chains until we prioritize the Kingdom of God.
2. Pray for the persecuted: Following the Apostle Paul’s example, we see that prayer is a means of remembrance. In Philippians 1:3, Paul writes, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you,” which, given the thanksgiving section of his letter, means that Paul prayed every time God brought the Philippian church to his mind.
One of the best ways to keep the persecuted church in your prayer life is to utilize resources like the International Mission Board, the Joshua Project, Barnabas Fund, or Operation World. These resources provide up-to-date details and stories of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering for following Christ.
3. Encourage those imprisoned: Through ministries like Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors, Christians can write letters of encouragement to brothers and sisters who are imprisoned around the world. These ministries provide guidelines for writers and translations for the prisoners. Can you imagine how encouraging it must be to receive a letter from another Christian that is praying for you in a different part of the world? This is a practical way that we can encourage other Christians around the world.
As Paul’s letters reveal, when one member of the body of Christ suffers, we should share in that suffering. We would do well to resolve to remember the chains of our brothers and sisters who are imprisoned and persecuted. And we can do this by prioritizing the Kingdom of God, praying for the persecuted, and encouraging those who are imprisoned, keeping in mind that what we do unto these brothers and sisters of ours, we do unto Jesus (Matt. 25:35-40).