In over thirty years of Christian ministry to the incarcerated of Washington State and now around the world many times I’ve been asked “is it really worthwhile? Do inmates really change? Aren’t there more productive things you could be doing?” These questions come from within and without the Christian camp. Fair enough. An intentional study of prisoners in the scriptures shows another side to the story. This story shows how the Great God and Savior Jesus Christ was a friend of sinners, and a friend to the prisoner. Here are a few passages in the scriptures showing God’s disposition to ministry on behalf of the prisoner:
Hebrews 13:3 Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.
Luke 4:18 Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.
Matthew 25:37-40 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Isaiah 42:6-7 I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; 7 To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.
Psalms 107:10-16 Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron; 11 Because they rebelled against the words of God, and contemned the counsel of the most High: 12 Therefore he brought down their heart with labour; they fell down, and there was none to help. 13 Then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses. 14 He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder. 15 Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men! 16 For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder.
There is a short book in the New Testament, the Book of Philemon, or the Epistle (Letter) to Philemon. This is a letter written by Paul to a man, Philemon, who was a churchman and an owner of a slave. This slave, Onesimus, was a thief and a runaway and wound up in jail (not surprisingly), and while there was led to Christ by Paul the Apostle. In this letter of only a few words we see the heart of God, the way a Christian is supposed to behave, the value of mercy over judgment, the accounting of debts and deeds, and Christian graciousness. Let’s walk through this short book together…
Philemon Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer, 2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house: 3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is always gracious. This former out-of-control home-wrecker and destroyer of the Church of Christ was converted and became a changed man. It’s different in the Kingdom of Light than it is in the kingdom of darkness. To live in the Kingdom of Light requires a change of heart, and then learning. Paul was genuinely changed, and he writes to Philemon, our dearly beloved and wishes upon them God’s very best. Paul, at this time, is sitting in a Roman jail. Yet he is still gracious to others, and he is mindful of the well-being of those to whom he is writing. Whenever I receive a letter from Dr. Prem Raj Varma, our PFC Missionary to prisoners, who works tirelessly in the State of Andhra Predesh from the city of Hyderabad and beyond in the great nation of India, he always takes time to greet me graciously and seeks to know my welfare and the welfare of my family. This is Christian behavior that honors the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, 5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; 6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
Paul was a great man of prayer. Word of the good work of the church in Colossae, where Philemon attends, pleases Paul greatly. Paul notes the love Philemon has toward all the saints. It is well pleasing to God when the brethren dwell together in unity. When in Christian unity, when the bonds of peace are shared, then the sharing of our faith in Christ falls on ears that know our testimony, and it becomes effective, and the will of God is done and God is praised by men when they enter the Kingdom of Light. Good men are well received by good men, and strengthened greatly. Our missionaries in Africa that I’ve personally met, Pastor Jean, Pastor William, Pastor Kiza, Pastor Joseph, and Pastor Willie, are all good men, who receive us with joy, and we them. Indeed the bowels of the saints are refreshed when we meet and embrace and labor together in the white fields of harvest which are the jails and prisons of this world.
8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, 9 Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: 11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: 12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: 13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
Paul has apostolic authority and could have demanded action on the part of Philemon, yet Paul uses the word beseech, which is akin to strongly asking, even bordering on begging, and he does so from a Roman jail. Paul is an older man at this point, and could be brushed of as an old codger who is well past his prime. Yet Paul is no old codger, he’s a Christian man and he’s concerned about the welfare of others, even the prisoner, even the slave. Paul is not a retired missionary, who spends his time on permanent vacation, as it were, but he’s still sharp, he still has a testimony, and he still is able to lead a lost prisoner to the Master, Jesus Christ. What a happy day for Onesimus! Onesimus was before the knowledge of Christ unprofitable, but now after receiving Christ he is profitable. He is profitable to his master Philemon and he is profitable for the work of the kingdom. Paul would have enjoyed keeping Onesimus with him, but rather sends him back to Philemon, with a letter, a letter that would become a part of the canon of scripture, and be a blessing to generation after generation.
15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever; 16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? 17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
One of the realities of life in Christ is that there are no second-class Christians. Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Paul the home-wrecker, all these men were greatly used of God, greatly loved of God, all were leaders, all held great influence, all finished the race. Philemon was not now … a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved. Onesimus had a genuine conversion experience, behind bars, because a preacher in prison had the boldness to speak to him, to get out of his comfort zone, to be inconvenienced, to risk rejection and mockery, such that the Gospel could be presented to him. Onesimus was before a slave, a runaway, a thief, a prisoner – now he is a Christian, a saint, a child of God. Paul is conscience of the debt of Onesimus and says he, Paul, will make it up. He will repay it. This is a picture of the debt we owed for sin, and Christ paid that debt, in full. Paul knows that Onesimus has no earthly goods. He can’t pay as he has nothing, which is what sin eventually leads to, having nothing. Standing Stones Ministries was founded by Prisoners For Christ after the City of Refuge model in the scriptures. By the generosity of donors and other supporters and laborers, a place is made for those overcoming drug and alcohol addiction, even those coming out of jail and prison. If a new resident comes out of jail or prison they are not turned away. Someone else pays the debt. This again is God’s way. This is done on behalf of the addict, and if the addict is from jail or prison, it’s done on behalf of the prisoner.
20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. 21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. 22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you. 23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus; 24Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellow laborers. 25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Paul closes out this short letter by sharing that if Philemon and the company of believers receive back Onesimus as a fellow believer, that Paul will be refreshed and have joy. Surely Philemon, knowing Paul, his ministry, and his suffering, will want to do anything he possibly can do to help lift that load. The more I’m around our foreign missionaries, the more I’m around ministry volunteers in the jails and prison, the more I’m around pastors and teachers and evangelists, the more I see that we all have feet of clay, we’re all weak, we all have shortcomings, and we’re all a work in progress. Whenever we can encourage someone on front-line ministry we should do it. We should do it by visitation, by letter writing, by participating in ministry, especially to the poor, the sick, the weak, the helpless, and the prisoner. In this we are indeed fellow laborers, we are fellow prisoners, and we strengthen the brethren.
Presently there are some 350 million persons in the United States. In Billy Graham Crusades of the past thousands came to Christ in single crusades. In our own work overseas we’ve seen hundreds receive Christ in one prison-wide crusade. In the United States we can see 50 or more come to Christ in a day’s worth of services at some institutions. Yet there is great value in individual ministry, the one-on-one sharing of the Christian faith. One-on-one ministry, such as Paul had with Philemon, was profitable. It is always profitable. What one man can do for Christ is without limits. Consider this… in the United States, there are 350 million persons. If none of them knew Christ, save one person, and on the first day that person led one to Christ. And on the second day each of the two Christians each led another to Christ that would be four Christians. If one-won-one, mathematically, do you know how long it would take to reach 350 million persons? 200 years? 100 years? 50 years? No, it would take one month. One month!! At the same rate of conversion, where one-wins-one and that keeps going, to reach the entire world of 6.3 billion persons would take a mere four more days. Every church in America would double if each member won one person to Christ and brought them into the church for discipleship, baptism, and ministry. The problem of fields that are white unto harvest but have no workers would be solved within two weeks! As wonderful and needful as the large crusades are, it is also wonderful and needful to share our faith at the person-to-person level and teach others to do the same.
The Epistle of Philemon, in the New Testament, is a short 25-verse letter written to a slaveholder, Philemon, on behalf of his slave Onesimus. Philemon was a member of the church at Colossae. Onesimus was a runaway slave who had stolen from Philemon, his master. He made his way to Rome to be, only by God’s providence, in the same prison as Paul. Paul then leads Onesimus to Christ. Paul purposes to send Onesimus home with a letter, a letter imploring Philemon to assign all debt to Paul.
Due to health, finances, obligation, even speaking ability, many will not be able to minster directly in jails, prisons, and juvenile institutions. But I’m persuaded that many Christians can benefit the incarcerated by doing what Paul did on behalf Philemon – he wrote. Letter writing to the inmate can be a source of learning and encouragement for the inmate. It can make a difference. God can use it. God will use it! If one cannot speak for Christ, he or she can write for Christ!
In July 2011 the offices of Prisoners For Christ received a letter that was then forwarded to me. It was from an inmate who had read one of my printed messages. Over the last decades I have published almost 300 messages, and I have printed and handed out tens of thousands of copies of messages in jails and prisons and juvenile institutions over these last many years. It’s not uncommon for me to receive a letter from a prisoner in America, even one I have never met as the messages are passed around within the institution. For the first time I received a letter from an inmate overseas. The inmate was in Bangkok. I have never been to Bangkok. Our ministry has never been to Bangkok. Astonishingly, this inmate had one of my messages. Here is the letter, reproduced with spelling, capitalizations and grammar errors, just as the inmate sent it to me:
Greetings to each one of God’s people who belong to Christ Jesus!
I am Nepalese national, my name is Dharma Maharjan. I was lived in small town of Nepal with my family until I left my country in 2003. Actually I am not part of this drugs world. I come out of my land to come to America for job but I met wrong people in B.K.K. then I started drug trafficking for some reason and it’s doesn’t go long. The month I has started carry drug same month I was arrested in May 2003. And court of Thailand give me 50 years sentence and ended up in jail.
Here I have received a single paper of message “WHY JESUS CHRIST CAME TO EARTH” which is written by Bob Jordan, and this single paper full of message taught me lot. Thank you so much for it. And I have no idea this is church because there is no mention any thing about it. We have here small group Christian brothers we have fellowship in every Sunday Church service.
Well, excuse for my very poor language. I am not write to you in American way. Because I have learn all this here in prison and by the constant love Christ I am able to write as much as learn but I hope you will understand.
If anyone will receive my this letter please at least answer me. And if there is any kindness people wow old like to correspondence with me please they can write me anytime and I would be very glad.
“God bless you all the way through.” In Christ Dharma Maharjan
What is fascinating about this, aside from the fact that a Nepalese man in prison wrote to me, is that the message he referenced, “Why Jesus Christ Came To Earth” is a message I wrote perhaps 20 years ago. It was the eleventh message I wrote for the Snohomish County Jail when I ministered there and, as I said, I have written almost 300 messages over the years. I passed out many copies of this message at the county jail. One doesn’t know what the Holy Spirit will do with our efforts, and I was truly blessed to have been a part of this inmate’s understanding of the message of Jesus Christ. Other Christians there must be reading it also. I sent this inmate dozens of discipleship teachings I’ve written over the years. To my joy he received them and sent me back this letter, dated August 2012. I left in the grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors again. I can say that he has neat handwriting and it is very regrettable that he is in the situation he finds himself. God have mercy on this young man.
Venerable Bob Jordan, Greeting
I am so sorry it’s been so long time that I couldn’t write to you any letter but I have received your mail with so many God’s words, and these God’s words helped me so much. I really appreciated you have sent me these God’s words and I have really regretted I couldn’t answer any of you mail.
And during that time I hope you may know there was deluge in Thailand last year. By that flooding crisis had brought so much costed in Thailand that flood took over almost all Bangkok city. Citizens of Bangkok tried their best to evacuated city and they moved to one to another dry land. They faced so many difficulties situation.
And we also faced so many problems while we have been transferred to other jail and staying 3 months in other prison. I felt so bad, we have to stay under the strict rules and regulation. So horrible foods have provided us.
Thanks God. We came back safely by His grace during all 3 month absent police were come to searched our former Jail, searched our lockers, break down some of lockers. While we came from other prison we that our things were scatter everywhere. I missed so many thing. We can not do nothing except accepting that situation. What authority had done, that was so unfair with us. But fortunately my address book was safe. Therefore I am able to write to you.
Finally God bless you and your families, all the way through. I expecting to hear from you back if it’s possible.
In Christ Brother Dharma Maharjan
# Now also monsoon raining here. I wish that we will not face the problems any more like last year, so we and citizens of Bangkok city may live peaceful.
Again I sent to him another thick packet of materials, including a devotional book provided by my home church, Cedar Park Assembly, in Bothell, Washington. I also sent to him our correspondence course Bible Study starter lesson; perhaps he will be able to begin as an international student, I hope so!
Friends, this is how the kingdom works. God, who knows the end from the beginning and is not limited, is ever moving upon the hearts of men to come to a knowledge of the Savior, Jesus Christ the Righteous. And He uses his people to do this. Jesus himself could have appeared to this Bangkok inmate and explained far better than me why He came to earth. But God uses people. He uses preaching. He uses teaching. He uses writing. He moves on the hearts of His own, like He did to me over 30 years ago when he called me into the ministry to inmates. He then used me to write a message, a message I was able to write because leaders in my church, Randy Dyer, Gene Williams, Don Lee, Ernie Knox, and others, taught me how. And my pastor, Rev. Rollie Capes, the leader of our church, showed me how to behave and how a Christian man carries on and furthers the ministry. I saw his preaching notes, detailed, handwritten, chock full of scripture, and it made an impact on me. Others at my church listed above carried the Gospel weekly into the local jail; they too were organized, had handwritten sermons, again chock full of scripture. One of my teachers, Don Lee, had taught a series on Christian Doctrine and I was allowed later to type up his notes and in doing so soaked up all the more the message of the cross. From these men and their godly wives too, and others in my fellowship, I learned and I was able to put that learning into action. This is how the Gospel, the Good News, is carried locally and abroad.
Since being with Prisoners For Christ it’s been my honor to have preached across Central Africa and major cities in India. I have also travelled to Western Africa, Ghana, to minister to inmates and also to help further train our volunteers. I take printed notes for them, and leave them with printed messages that can be a blessing to them and to the prisoners they serve. All of this on behalf of the prisoner. There is much literature printed by the ministry of Prisoners For Christ as well as by the volunteers in the ministry.
Our Yard Out inmate newspaper goes to every state prison in America, two and three times annually. At this writing we are mailing 46,000 Yard Out newspapers to over 1,000 prisons in all 50 states. We send out thousands and thousands, and each of them likely gets passed around a few times. The stories, the lessons, the testimonies written therein all further the cause of Christ. Another national literature ministry of Prisoners For Christ is our Bible Study Correspondence course. We have many authors of these studies, and they have been used for years to bring new believer inmates to maturity in Christ. Yet someone has to correct them and reply to the inmate. You could do this! You could be a writer for Christ!
Can you write messages? Can you write Bible lessons? Can you correct Bible Lessons that are filled out by inmates? Can you be a pen pal? Your writing can make a big difference, in ways you largely will never know this side of Heaven, but it will make a difference, and God will use it. Can you use your writing skills on behalf of the prisoner? Sure you can. Write to us at the address on the first page of this lesson, or contact me directly. You too can make a difference. Paul wrote on behalf of Onesimus. Something I wrote was used of God for a man in Bangkok in a way only the Holy Spirit could orchestrate. The late Dr. Henrietta C. Mears in her book What The Bible Is All About writes,
The Reverend Sir W. Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923, American Journalist and man of letters and editor of the Expositor’s Bible) once said: “If I were to covet any honor of authorship, it would be this: That some letters of mine might be found in the desks of my friends when their life struggle is ended.”
What a wonderful thought, indeed honor, to have something you wrote to be helpful to someone in their journey through life. It is my habit and practice, and I’ve done it for years and years, to bring a copy of my latest sermon in the jails and prisons for each inmate present. At the end of the message we hand them out as the men are leaving. This is done on behalf of the prisoner. Others in the ministry do this also. Dr. Robert Segress does this. Our president and founder Rev. Greg Von Tobel does this. It is a good habit, and it multiplies the spoken message as inmates can review it and glean yet more, the Holy Spirit leading.
My close friends and fellow minister in prison Dr. Robert Segress wrote a message last year on behalf of the prisoner entitled “Heaven.” He sent it to me just before my trip to India in 2010. I wasn’t able to read it until flying back from the missionary trip to India. While in India I was with our New Delhi host Rev. Joshua Gowda and the North India team, and in Andhra Pradesh with Rev. Dr. Prem Raj Varma and Sister Hoglah and the South India team. In India we see things we don’t see in America, including slums, human deformities, poverty, begging, and rampant idolatry, to name some. Our Christian missionaries labor under very difficult conditions in this second most populated nation on the planet.
After two weeks in India in 2010 and shortly before our plane landed in Amsterdam I read Dr. Bob’s message. The Holy Spirit was all over the message and all over me, and I cried and cried. By the time we landed I was composed and later in the airport I shared the devotional, and I used Bob Segress’s message. I got past the part that caused me to weep on the plane, and I thought I had it made as I shared his writings. Then later in the message everything caught up to me and I wept again as the brothers came around me and laid hands on me and loved me and prayed over me. This is an example of the power of the printed message, something anyone of us can do, with the Holy Spirit blessing it.
You can have a legacy around your writing ability. I have been on the giving end of a writing ministry, and I’ve been on the receiving end of a writing ministry. It’s all good beloved. And to the question of “are you doing any good ministering to prisoners?” consider this – the surgeon who operates to save a life is not always successful, but he operates just the same because some are indeed saved, the teacher who instructs at any level isn’t successful with all of their students, but they teach with fervor and passion just the same and some students go on to great academic success. Every athletic team in a league does not win the championship, but they try, and they work at it, and some win.
Paul gave the letter to Onesimus and sent him away. Fifteen minutes after Onesimus left the jail he could have gone straight to the bar, got drunk, got in a fight, maybe even have gotten killed, and the letter Paul wrote would have wound up in some nondescript grave, lost forever. But the Holy Spirit had other plans for that letter and for Onesimus. The unprofitable thief and runaway slave became a jewel in the crown of Christ, because he made his way back to Colossae, to the church, and to Philemon, all by the will of God, all because Paul, and later Philemon, ministered on behalf of the prisoner.