Thursday, February 11, 2010
THE SENTENCE, LIFE AND DEATH
Nineteen plus years ago, while serving as a missionary overseas, I led our mission’s prison ministry. Our target was the prisoners of two prisons, one which was for “lighter” SENTENCES and the other considered maximum security with 8000 men serving twenty to LIFE, and DEATH SENTENCES. My team of eight men, each with different language ability, would enter the steel gates of this facility one Wednesday morning each month, go to its large meeting pavilion, and begin to work with the four to five hundred prisoners who chose to attend. After a combined time of singing and testimonies, the prisoners were divided into language groups to be led in Bible studies by team members. I elected to work with one group and used a prisoner with a good English skills as my translator, as none of the team members were proficient with that group’s language.
After a couple of years of work, and many denied requests to allow us to baptize prisoners in the water canal located inside the prison walls, we were finally granted permission by the warden because, as he said, our team had done much to make their task easier through the changed attitudes of prisoners. That year we baptized eighty-eight prisoners, and three years later, had a total of over four hundred, with a “church” group formed in each of the prison’s eight cells blocks.
As I think back to those experiences, and the feeling I had each time those steel doors slammed shut behind us when we entered, then again when we left, I recall a mixed feeling of despair and relief. One was from my temporary INCARCERATION and the other from my monthly PAROLE into the world outside.
As I think about those experiences I am reminded that I shared, in a spiritual way, in the SENTENCES of those men, all of whom had committed serious crimes. Some were thieves and murderers, many others were those who trafficked in drugs, a significant and serious crime in that part of Asia. Those awaiting DEATH SENTENCES in a worldly sense mirrored my own SENTENCE OF DEATH for my sin, to be carried out at God’s final judgment. Even as a child I had willfully chosen to disobey God’s law and go according to my own way. The SENTENCE OF DEATH was as a result of my sinful choice, as surely as the crimes committed by those prisoners resulted in their scheduled forfeiture of LIFE.
What a paradox! I chose DEATH instead of LIFE and received the just SENTENCE, but now because of Christ’s DEATH, I am PAROLED free of that arm of just retribution. I’ve been given a LIFE SENTENCE, but not one behind bars and high walls, for I am free indeed. It occurs to me that as I stand outside the spiritual prison of my making, that there are many who have that LIFE SENTENCE granted by trust in Christ’s DEATH, but they continue to live inside spiritual prison walls, when by their choice, they could daily accept the PARDON. For them the gates would swing open to freedom.
Stay with me through this analogy. I’m PARDONED free. Correct? Well, hang on, for now that I am free indeed. I’m not on PAROLE but I do need to check in with the One Who granted my PARDON, and it’s His purpose to see that I do not return to the lock-up ever again. So what do I do with this new found freedom? I choose with another former prisoner, Paul, by name, to lay claim to another DEATH SENTENCE. Not one for crimes or sin that I have done, but I choose to DIE to the flesh that attempts to imprison me. I choose to mortify, to put to DEATH this body of DEATH and its claim upon me for these few years of earth bound captivity, that I may spiritually LIVE unto Him Who has rescued me from eternal DEATH and given me eternal LIFE through the Spirit, and a promised new body that will never suffer DEATH. Oh, great Giver of LIFE Who is the Way, the Truth, and the LIFE, help me to daily choose to die to self that Your LIFE will be shown through me to all who are dying and as yet do not even know it.
Oh Father, now I do aspire
To walk with Thee in life up higher.
I now seek to be Your own,
And gladly bow before Your throne,
But help me know, if I would be,
A vessel fit to worship Thee,
That I must daily die to all
That pulls me from Your holy call.
Help me, dear Lord, through deeper trust,
To find life’s higher, heavenly thrust.
Postscript on the prison ministry: My last time into the prison, I was asked to meet with one of the church groups that were trying to practice being the church. They had elected deacons and gave me the privilege of performing the “Laying on of hands” of their ordination. What a scene. Prisoners, serving prison terms, finding LIFE and SERVICE while they SERVE their SENTENCES. Only in God’s Kingdom!
Check out these related passages of Scripture:
11 Corinthians 1:9 – “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us.”
Matthew 10:39 - “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”
11 Corinthians 4:11 – “For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.”
11 Corinthians 12:10 – “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for which I am weak, then am I strong.”
Philippians 1:20-21 – “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
BE ENCOURAGED, MY FRIEND, FOR OUR LIFE SENTENCE WITH CHRIST WILL NOT BE SUFFERING ON THE ROCK (aka, Alcatraz Penitentiary), BUT WITH THE ROCK, JESUS!