What Are the Prison Epistles?

The “Prison Epistles” generally refer to four letters written by the Apostle Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome. Each letter — Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon — is addressed to a specific church or, in the case of Philemon, an individual, and while Paul penned each epistle to address specific needs of first-century Christians and the church, the message of the Prison Epistles is still influential and instructional to Christians living today. 

Joel Ryan
What Are the Prison Epistles?

What Is an Epistle?

The word “epistle” is derived from the Greek word epistole, which translates to “letter” or “message.” More than just a personal correspondence, a first-century epistle was often more instructional and contained a certain level of authority as written by someone generally regarded as a teacher or leader.

Of the 27 books that make up the New Testament, 21 are epistles. Some were written to address specific doctrinal concerns or spiritual malpractice that had arisen in local churches. Others were written to commend or encourage followers of Christ and church leaders in their faith. Of the New Testament epistles, however, all were written by the early apostles, each inspired by the Holy Spirit and carrying the anointing of Jesus Christ in their ministry and writing.

  • The Apostle Paul is generally considered the author of 13 epistles. Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. 
  • The Apostle Peter, who was one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, wrote 1&2 Peter.
  • The Apostle John, also one of the original Twelve, wrote 1, 2, and 3 John as well as the book of Revelation (which is not considered an epistle). 
  • James, most likely the half-brother of Jesus, wrote the book of James. 
  • Jude, most likely the brother of James and half-brother of Jesus, wrote the book of Jude.
  • The book of Hebrews is the only New Testament epistle whose author is unknown.

Paul’s Epistles


Most of Paul’s writings were written over a span of 15 years. In AD 60, he arrived in Rome and was imprisoned later that year. For the next two years, Paul would live under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30-31), but during this time, he continued to minister to those who visited and encourage local churches via letters he wrote from prison. Paul’s four “Prison Epistles,” as they are called, were written during this time.
 

The Letter to the Ephesians


At the time Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written, the city of Ephesus was a commercial and religious center of Asia Minor. Paul had visited Ephesus towards the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:18-21) and again on his third missionary journey, where he had spent nearly three years ministering to the church and its believers there (Acts 19:1-41). 

Unlike many of his letters, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians wasn’t written to correct any wrong behavior or address problems in the church. Instead, he wrote to encourage the Ephesian church and Christians at large to continue to walk in accordance with their calling as followers of Christ. 

Structurally, the book of Ephesians reinforces the believer’s position and role as a Christian (chapters 1-3) before discussing specific practices and the way Christians should behave (chapters 4-6).

Prevalent passages and resounding themes in the book of Ephesians include:

The Letter to the Philippians


Paul had also visited the church in Philippi during his second missionary journey (Acts 16) and again on his third journey through the region (Acts 20:1-6).

Upon learning that Paul had been imprisoned in Rome, the church in Philippi sent Epaphroditus to Rome with financial aid for their brother Paul. Epaphroditus later returned to Philippi with a letter from Paul to that church.

It’s safe to conclude that Paul likely enjoyed a very warm relationship with the church in Philippi as they were likely instrumental in caring for him spiritually and financially during his many missionary journeys. For this reason, the book of Philippians is less structured and more personal than his other letters. 

Similar to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, his letter to the Philippians doesn’t address any major behavioral concerns. It does, however, attempt to encourage the Philippian church, which was facing opposition from the outside as well as a fair amount of strife and division from within. This is why Paul often writes about the need to find “joy” and “peace” in present circumstances. And as someone living under house arrest, he was in a perfect position to address this topic. 

Prevalent passages and resounding themes in the book of Philippians include:

The Letter to the Colossians


The city of Colossae was located 100 miles east of Ephesus. Paul himself never visited Colossae, which was founded by Epaphras, one of his many converts on his third missionary journey.

When Epaphroditus visited Paul in Rome, however, he arrived with concerning news about the Colossian church. False teaching and heresy had taken root in Colossae, which involved a combination of Greek speculation, Oriental mysticism, and Jewish legalism, all of which devalued Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority in matters of faith.

Paul wrote to the Colossians to refute this heresy and encourage believers to continue in their faith grounded in Christ alone.

Prevalent passages and resounding themes in the book of Colossians include:

The Letter to Philemon


The shortest of Paul’s letters, the book of Philemon was written to a fellow believer and wealthy individual named Philemon, who was living in Colossae at the time of its writing. The purpose and style of Paul’s letter was direct but also dealt with a significant social problem of the Roman Empire at the time: slavery.

One of Philemon’s slaves, a man by the name of Onesimus, had recently stolen from his master and escaped to Rome, where he sought refuge with Paul. Paul, however, encouraged Onesimus to return to his master and sent him back to Colossae with a letter to Philemon urging Philemon to forgive Philemon, now a brother in Christ. At the time, runaway slaves of the Roman Empire could be punished or even killed, so Paul’s letter certainly carried a lot of weight.

The Impact of the Prison Epistles

As a prisoner himself, Paul reiterated the power of the Gospel in overcoming sociological barriers. He didn’t defend slavery, nor was he directly attacking it in either. Paul instead spoke to the power of forgiveness and the impact of grace, both of which had life-changing effects on society and the individual. 

Paul’s letter to Philemon demonstrated, as his Prison Epistles also confirmed, that a Christian’s place in the kingdom of God are not determined by their physical circumstances. In many of his letters, Paul often referred to himself as a “prisoner of Christ” (Ephesians 3:1, Philemon 1:1, 9), a position he willingly embraced. Even while imprisoned, Paul still carried the authority of Jesus Christ and ministered to those he was called to. Whether in person or via letter, Paul’s ministry was purposeful and profound, and his writings are just an impactful and instructional for the global church today.
 

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Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s and young adult author who teaches writing at Life Pacific University. Joel is passionate about fueling young people’s passion for the Lord through storytelling and the arts. In his blog, Perspectives Off the Page, he discusses all things writing, the creative process, and what makes movies, comic books, and great stories so impactful.


Originally published December 17, 2019.