Even today, many inmates lack the necessary food, water, or clothing in prison. The incarcerated need our compassion. Those in prison need the physical, emotional, and spiritual support of in-person visitation or written correspondence. One of the ways that Christ calls believers to provide evidence of holiness in their lives is through exercising compassion for those imprisoned. To care for the incarcerated is to live in obedience to Christ. Jesus says in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” By ministering to incarcerated brothers and sisters, we minister to Christ. We must recognize that the church behind bars is nevertheless part of the invisible church of Christ.
Jesus commands His church to remember those in prison, especially those who are imprisoned on account of their faith. The author of Hebrews writes to Christians, many of whom were under persecution at the time: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). Throughout the New Testament, we read of the mistreatments and sufferings of Christians (Heb. 10:32–34) and wrongful imprisonments (Acts 5:18; 16:25–31; 28:14–15). Rather than encouraging the church to avoid those in prison, they ought to remember them. Further, we ought to think of ourselves as if we were imprisoned with them. As members of the same body, we are to consider the church behind bars no differently than we consider the active members of the local congregation to which we are committed. As John Calvin wrote, “There is nothing that can give us a more genuine feeling of compassion than to put ourselves in the place of those who are in distress [incarcerated].”
Are there no elect in prison? Surely God’s people are there. So let us consider the church behind bars not as a dying church but as a part of the church, the one body of Christ. The incarcerated are some of the most intentionally forgotten people in our society. Just because the general public cannot see the incarcerated church does not mean that it does not exist. On the contrary, incarcerated Christians are members of Christ’s body. Remembering the incarcerated should be considered a part of building and edifying the local church. The church is blessed as it counsels, reaches, teaches, and preaches to those behind bars. Christ would have His church learn how to sympathize with their Christian brothers and sisters who have been transformed by the power of the gospel behind bars. In most cases, it is only a matter of time before they physically join a local church.
Jesus commands us to welcome those who share our faith in Him, and this includes believers who have been imprisoned. Consider the book of Philemon, a story of reconciliation and restoration. A friend of the Apostle Paul named Onesimus had stolen from his master, Philemon, and escaped. While on the run, Onesimus met Paul and was saved under the Apostle’s ministry, and Paul sent him back (reentry) to Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and Paul urged him to “receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (Philemon 17)—as a fellow partaker of the same grace of the gospel. Paul further explained to Philemon that Onesimus was now more valuable as a Christian than he had been beforehand. If only the church today was as welcoming to those who have come to faith in Christ while in prison as Paul urged Philemon to be toward Onesimus.