I owe this study to our brother Solomon,who, during the course of his recent message, commented, “We have a choice: it’s up to us, whether we are the victims of men, or prisoners of Christ.” He noted that Paul had made exactly that choice when writing from a Roman prison to the brethren in Ephesus (Eph.3:1, 4:1).
Bonds (literally being chained or tied up) and imprisonment were no foreign concept to first-century disciples. It was a fact of life. Not only the Roman occupiers, but also the Jewish hierarchy constantly threatened both – and even summary execution – in their efforts to thwart “the glorious liberty of the sons of God.” And hundreds, then thousands of the faithful made the same choice. Nothing infuriates an oppressor more than “victims” who refuse to be intimidated!
Most of us today do not face such dire circumstances, although we should constantly remember those who do. Oppression takes many forms, and it is not always the result of either faithful or unfaithful behavior. Remember the geopolitical situation in which the New Testament accounts were sited. Although some people were imprisoned for actual crimes (Barabbas, or the thief next to Jesus on the cross), the vast majority had simply run afoul of powerful people (John the Baptist, Paul, and even Jesus himself), or simply succumbed to debt (several parables) due to their abject poverty.
The four words translated “prison” have little ambiguity.
Although oikema – used only once in the New Testament – in addition to “prison” may also refer to a room, a dwelling, a cage or stall, a storeroom, a workshop, a room in a temple, or even a brothel (L/S), its use in Ac.12:7 is clear from the context.
Likewise, teresis, translated once “prison” (Ac.5:19), once “hold” (Ac.4:3), and once “keeping” (I Cor.7:19) the commands of God, although its classical usages extended to “watching, safekeeping, guarding, preservation, observance, vigilance” (L/S) as well as “custody”, has fairly obvious reference in each case. The verb form, tereo, is common with respect to “commandments.”
Desmoterion, appearing only four times, and defined simply as “prison or jail” in all three lexicons, etymologically is composed of desmos (“bonds”) and terion (“place”). It is used of the confinement of John the Baptist (Mt.11:2), Peter and John (Ac.5:21, 23), and Paul and Silas (Ac.16:26).
Phulake, on the other hand, besides being more frequently used (39x), covers considerably more territory. L/S lists “watching or guarding, a station or post, a watch of the night (see #125), a prison, guarding, keeping, or preserving – whether for security or custody, precaution, or safeguard.” The references in Mt.5:25, 18:30, and Lk.12:58, clearly relate to imprisonment for debt. Mt.14:3,10; parallels in Mk.6:17, 27; and the briefer references in Lk.3:20 and Jn.3:24 concern John the Baptist. The reason for the incarceration mentioned in Mt.25:36, 39,43, 44 is not given. Barabbas (Lk.23:19, 25) was in prison for sedition and murder. Although Peter, having boasted of his willingness to follow Jesus to prison (Lk.22:33), soon backed off from that bravado, he later defied the authorities and took the consequences (Ac,5:19, 22, 25 and 12:4, 5, 6, 10, 17), both times experiencing miraculous deliverance. Neither he nor anyone else seems to have expected such rescue to be the norm, however, as attested in Heb.11:36, and evidenced by his own reaction to the second such incident (Ac.12:11).
Paul never tried to deny his former role in dragging the brethren off to prison (Ac.8:3, 22:4, 26:10), but balanced it with accounts of his own “jail time” (II Cor.6:5, 11:23), which Luke augments in Ac.16:23, 24, 27, 37, 40.
One may well wish that Peter (I Pet.3:19) and John (Rv.18:2, 20:7) had been more specific about the “prisons” to which they refer – but then, I guess folks who love to speculate about such things could not spin such fantastic theories, and they would be disappointed! I do not choose to play their games.
Notice, please, however, that God does not imprison anyone! The devil does (Rv.2:10), and so do the agents of civil and religious hierarchies, as noted above. It is never represented as “God’s will!” Jesus announced his mission (Lk.4:18,19) as bringing release to captives!
So who are these captives/prisoners?
Here, we encounter two groups of words.
Aichmalotos (the person) and aichmalosia (his condition), with their verb forms aichmaloteuo and aichmalotizo, refer specifically to “captives” and “captivity” strongly connected to prisoners of war. These unfortunates were usually forced into slavery, rather than being thrown into prison – though neither was a happy lot. (Please see #100 for a treatment of slavery.) These terms are rarely used: Jesus’ “inaugural address” in Lk.4:18,19, and its fulfillment described in Eph.4:8 – note that this happened at his resurrection/ascension – the tenses are past, not future!; Jesus’ warning (Lk.21:24) of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem; Paul’s description of his former enslavement to “sin”/failure (Rom.7:23), and the same brother’s later admonition to “bring every thought into captivity to Christ (II Cor.10:5). Three times, he made reference to those who were his “fellow-prisoners” – sunaichmalotos – Andronicus and Junia (Rom.16:7), Aristarchus (Col.4:10), and Epaphras (Phm.23).
Desmios (L/S) “bound, captive”, (Bauer) “anyone in prison”, appears 15x. It refers to Barabbas (Mt.27:15, 16; Mk.15:6), the others who were in the Philippian jail (Ac.16:25, 27), and Paul (Ac.23:18; 25:14, 27; 28:17). Heb.13:3 expresses concern for all of the faithful who suffer imprisonment.
But most significant are Paul’s statements in Eph.3:1, 4:1; II Tim.1:8, and Phm.1 ,9, where, although confined by the civil authorities at the behest of the Jewish hierarchy, he calls himself “the prisoner of Jesus Christ!” The grammatical form is a simple possessive. Neither civil nor religious oppressors can claim final ownership of one who belongs – by his own deliberate choice – to the King of Kings! Years earlier, Paul had explained, (Rom.6:16) “You are slaves / servants to whomever you (choose to) obey!” And he had made that choice.
Desmos , also refers to imprisonment, either literal or figurative. L/S adds “anything for tying or fastening, a door-latch, mooring cable, bonds, a spell, or a chain.” Bauer notes “the bond that prevents a mute or crippled person from normal function”. Physical restraints are indicated in Lk.8:29, Ac.16:26, 22:30, 26:29, 31; healing in Lk.13:16; and imprisonment in Ac.20:23, Phil.1:7, 13, 14, 16; Col.4:18, II Tim.2:9; Phm.10, 13; Heb.10:34, 11:36. When the English word “bonds” applies to slavery, it is usually taken from doulos (see #100).
Here, as with sunaichmalotos, a prefixed form, sundesmos , is significant. In both cases, the prefix “sun-” which is also the preposition “with”, thereby conveying the sense of “together”, alters the root word. L/S lists “a union, anything that binds together, sinews or ligaments, civil or political union (to form a state), a conspiracy, the fastening of garments, the connection of heavenly bodies.” It appears in Ac.8:23, where Peter diagnoses Simon’s “bondage to iniquity”, but in Paul’s letters the tone is much more positive. In Eph.4:3, he urges the maintenance of “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, in Col.2:19, he emphasizes the need for coordination of the Body of Christ – the faithful – by the proper working of its “joints and ligaments”, and in Col.3:14, describes love as “the bond of maturity [perfection] (see #13.) Paul also reassures Timothy (II Tim.2:9) that despite his own imprisonment, “the word of God is not imprisoned!”
So brother Solomon’s suggestion was not only insightful, but absolutely correct.
Regardless of circumstances – personal, religious, or political – we do have a choice. Not necessarily of the circumstance, but definitely of its interpretation, its effect, and our response.
Whose prisoner are you?