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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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PRISONER.—The word ‘prisoner’ (δέσμιος) is found in the Gospels only in Matthew 27:15-16, Mark 15:6 (see also, however, Luke 23:17 (Revised Version margin) ), where it is used of the prisoner whom the Roman governor was wont to release to the Jews at the Feast of Passover, and in particular of Barabbas, a ‘notable prisoner’ of the time. But, apart from the word, we read of other prisoners in the Gospels, and both there and elsewhere in the NT we learn something of the attitude of Christ to the prisoner, and the prisoner’s relations and obligations to Christ.

1. Of actual prisoners there are two in the Gospels much more ‘notable’ than Barabbas. The first is John the Baptist, who for righteousness’ sake was ‘cast into prison’ (Matthew 14:3, Mark 6:17, Luke 3:20, John 3:24), and whose imprisonment so affected his strong, free spirit that for a time his faith in Christ appears to have faltered (Matthew 11:2 ff.). The other is Jesus Himself, who was arrested (Matthew 26:50) in the Garden, and taken in bonds (John 18:24 δεδεμένος [which is practically equivalent to δέσμιος; cf. Mark 15:6 with Mark 15:7]) first before the high priest and then before Pilate (Matthew 27:2, Mark 15:1, John 18:12; John 18:24).

2. The fact that the prisoners of the Gospels include a robber (John 18:40) and murderer (Mark 15:7, Luke 23:25) like Barabbas on the one hand, and John the Baptist and Jesus on the other, shows the necessity of discriminating between prisoners, and especially of distinguishing those who deserve their punishment (cf. the admission of the penitent robber, Luke 23:41) from those who ‘suffer wrongfully.’ To the former class Barabbas certainly belonged. His imprisonment was the reward of his crimes (Luke 23:25); and so long as crimes like his are committed against society, imprisonment will still be necessary. With all His pity for the prisoner, Jesus recognizes that there are cases in which a just judge will cast the offender into prison (Matthew 5:25). But there are wrongful imprisonments as well as merited ones; and our Lord warned His disciples that a time would come when they themselves should be cast into prison for His name’s sake (Luke 21:12)—a warning that was soon abundantly fulfilled in the experience of the Apostles and the early Church (Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18; Acts 8:3; Acts 12:4; Acts 16:24 etc.).

3. In the Gospels Jesus comes before us as the prisoner’s Friend. He proves His friendship (1) by the deliverance He brings. In the synagogue at Nazareth, at the very outset of His ministry (Luke 4:17 ff.), He applied to Himself the glowing words of the great Messianic prophet (Isaiah 61:1 f.), and so assumed the office of one who came ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.’ There is, of course, a spiritual sense in which Christ fulfils this promise—by pulling down the dungeon walls of ignorance and error, by giving liberty to the human spirit, by striking off the fetters of sin. But in a more literal fashion Christ brought deliverance to the captives by destroying the very foundations of earthly tyrannies, and making it impossible that in any society which had learned to breathe the air of His gospel men should be cast into prison to gratify the pleasure of a despot or the rage of the persecutor. ‘Christ died on the tree,’ Carlyle said to Emerson: ‘that built Dunscore kirk yonder’ (Emerson, Works, ii. p. 8). And in a like sense we may say that it was Christ’s hand on Calvary that tore down the walls of the Bastille, and abolished the iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition.

(2) Again, Jesus proves His friendship for the prisoner by the sympathy He gives. We see an illustration of this sympathy in the message of consolation and blessing that He sent to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:4-6) when the forerunner’s heart was like to faint in the gloomy vaults of Machaerus. But above all we see it in those haunting words of self-identification with the prisoner: ‘I was in prison, and ye came unto me’ (Matthew 25:36); ‘I was in prison, and ye visited me not’ (Matthew 25:43). It is not merely with the righteous man who suffers wrongfully that our Lord here identifies Himself, but with the prisoner as such—the criminal, it may be, the pest of society, the man who deserves to die. It was Christ’s love and pity for the prisoner that inspired the philanthropic labours of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, and led to that great transformation in the prisoner’s immemorial lot which is as much one of the ‘Gesta Christi’ as the modern missionary movement.

4. In the letters of St. Paul’s captivity we find the Apostle describing himself as ‘the prisoner of Jesus Christ,’ or ‘the prisoner of the Lord’ (Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1, Philemon 1:9; cf. 2 Timothy 1:8). It is a striking expression, which is by no means exhausted when understood to mean that Paul suffered imprisonment for the sake of Christ. It means that, without doubt; but it means much more (cf. Ephesians 3:1 ‘the prisoner of Christ Jesus in behalf of you Gentiles,’ where ‘the δέσμιος of Christ’ represents himself as suffering for the Gentiles’ sake). The man who so describes himself believes that Christ has laid His arresting hand upon him, and put him where he is, and shut to the door of his prison; and that it is no other than the Lord Jesus who carries the key of that door at His girdle. St. Paul, in short, thought of Christ as the Keeper of the prison, and the thought filled him with profound content (cf. Philippians 4:11). Like St. Peter, he had learned in his own experience that the Lord could unlock prison doors at His pleasure and set his servants free (Acts 16:26; cf. Acts 12:6 ff.). And if some day the door should be opened only that the prisoner of Christ might be led forth to die, Paul knew that this would really mean his escape through Christ’s grace to a larger liberty than he could find on earth (2 Corinthians 5:1-8). And so, as the midnight hymns that he and Silas sang to God in the prison at Philippi compelled all the prisoners to listen (Acts 16:25), the world has had to hearken ever since to those notes of wonder, love, and praise that turn St. Paul’s prison-Epistles into prison-songs.

J. C. Lambert.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Prisoner'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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