Did you know that prison ministry is as old as the Bible itself? In fact, back in the old days, if you were involved in a prison outreach, you were almost guaranteed a seat with the righteous. And there was no need for funding, no need for approval from the church board, no need to climb over the mountain of forms the prison officials place before you just to enter the joint… Hardly so. Back in the day, it was simple: just get kidnapped by your brothers, get sold into slavery, be falsely accused of rape, and land in prison for a decade or two, where you can be a model inmate, rise to the position of an associate warden, and establish a prophetic ministry for the new arrivals. That’s at least, how righteous Joseph did it (Gen. 37-41).
And if that sounds complicated (or, if you’re not at odds with your siblings), then take a cue from the Prophet Jeremiah: he was the founder of the “Miry Pit” prison ministry (Jer. 37-39), and all he had to do was rebuke a couple of kings, lobby for the surrender of his capital to the nation’s worst enemies, and promise that the Lord he would destroy all the guys in charge of his country. Just make sure that, like Jeremiah, you have an Ethiopian on your approved “visiting list,” since you’ll need someone to pull you out of the dungeon: good help is hard to come by in the big house.
In the New Testament, going to prison was practically a required part of “seminary” training for those qualified to preach the Gospel in a fallen world. John the Baptist landed in jail, as did Peter and John. James got the death penalty, Paul had more prison booking numbers than cloaks, and our precious Lord Jesus Christ sanctified with His most pure Blood the grimy walls and floor of the Jerusalem jail, prior to being railroaded by a kangaroo court and torturous passion, as our Lord and Redeemer surrendered His life on behalf of all.
But if we take a closer look at our Savior’s perspective on prison ministry, it appears that He’s more in the business of orchestrating prison breaks, and that’s not only because He’s sending angels (Acts 5 & 12) and earthquakes (Act 16) to spring His chose Apostles, who are imprisoned for righteousness sake.
As odd as it is, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God of all, has a special soft spot for the most vile and undeserving, according to the world’s standard. After all, Jesus didn’t mind “riding the beef” for a murderer named Barabbas (Matt. 27:16), and then opening the gates of Paradise to a thief, and to all people. Legally speaking, Jesus was the Wise Thief’s “accomplice,” since He helped him to pull off the final heist: aiding in the stealing of Paradise from right under the nose of death! (Luke 23:39-42)
Then again, this is hardly surprising when we consider that God is very much concerned with prison ministry. The Holy Spirit did say, “The Lord gives freedom to the prisoner” (Ps. 146:7), and that God “does not despise His prisoners” (Ps.69:33). Notice that they are “His prisoners”—yes, even those whom we “despise.” Their fall, it appears, is His call.
Prophecies about Christ’s mission leave no room for doubt, for the Lord came “to open blind eyes, to bring prisoners–those who sit in darkness–out from the prison house” (Is. 42:7). The Messiah was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Is. 61:1). And to the captives of an exiled nation that sinned against God, the Word declares, “Because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope” (Zech. 9:11-12).
And that has been the essential message of Christian prison ministry, a ministry of reconciliation (2Cor. 5:18-20), which calls the wayward and the fallen to “return,” to repent, to turn to the only “stronghold” in which all men may be saved: the Lord Jesus Christ. There are no two “gospels”—one for the free world, another for the imprisoned one. No, the Gospel is one, and its eternal Truth is aptly summarized by the Apostle who was both a prisoner and a minister to the imprisoned: “For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave” (1Cor. 7:22)
And today’s Christian prison ministry is a sign of the end times. In the parable of the Great Feast, the Master’s servant is told to “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Lk.14:23). Who roams the highways and dwells in the hedges? The fugitives, the vagabonds, the parolees, and those whom you’d never want to invite to a supper, let alone a wedding. And yet, the servant is told to “compel” them, just as “the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if one died for all, then all died; and He died for all…” (2Cor. 5:14-15)
Besides, is there a ministry more overtly “Christian” than prison ministry? It is an outreach to the least deserving, least worthy—from society’s standpoint—who have caused so much harm and pain to others. It is an often thankless task, with no accolades and no awards, but with plenty of obstacles and opposition, both from within the church and prison. There is little opportunity for vainglory, but ample opportunities to practice humility, and to realize that the Christian in prison ministry is called to reach the fallen on Satan’s home turf, in his house, on the threshold of Hell itself. “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20), which is why only Christ the Lord is able to equip the minister to come and “set the captives free” from the demonic bonds of sin’s slavery and criminal addiction.
Through Christian prison ministry, the threshold of Hell is transfigured into a springboard to Heaven, since time in jail is the God-given opportunity for the prisoner to realize the lowly state of his fallenness, the fickle reality of this passing life, and the need to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. As the righteous Joseph is credited with the first prison outreach in the Bible, even so, the Righteous One whom Joseph foreshadowed will complete the final outreach, desiring to leave the pit of imprisonment “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
In short, I write this not as an armchair analyst or spectator, but as one who by God’s grace is that “brand plucked from the fire” (Zech. 3:3), and who came to the Lord through the prayers and outreach of other Christians. As a lifer with more than 20 years in prison, I testify that prison ministry is a living token of God’s goodness and mercy, and those Christians whom I’ve met, from what I’ve learned, by whom I was encouraged, inspired, and influenced, are the living witnesses to a dying world wherein “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).