When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the essay which has come to be known as Letter from the Birmingham Jail, he was alone in the small jail of a small town. He wrote to his fellow clergymen in response to their plea for him to drop his campaign of resistance. The letter is a soaring epistle of intelligence and compelling Christian outrage against the active presence of evil in the world. It focused the world’s attention on Birmingham and spurred the famous March on Washington.
It’s impossible to read the letter and not think of the Apostle Paul, who spent much of his ministry in chains. Dr. King wrote
The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles o popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Since the time of Augustus (and perhaps as far back as 640 BC) the official state prison of Rome has been attributed to the structure (now known as Mamertine Prison) located on the northeast edge of the Roman Forum at the base of Capitoline Hill. Many Bible scholars believe that Second Timothy was written from there, especially given the dire tone of Paul’s writing. Having seen the site, I find it hard to imagine. The cell area itself is a cistern deep in the ground accessible today by modern stairs, but in the time of its use prisoners accessed it by being thrown or lowered through a narrow hole in the ceiling. The conditions were wet, dark and highly unsanitary with little relief offered by the guards.
From these horrific conditions, Paul, facing execution wrote to Timothy
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Let that sink in. I have kept the faith.
Easy to do in Starbucks over a cup of coffee, right?
2 Timothy 4:1-8
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.