For many, jail is a scary place. We would do whatever we could to avoid going there and certainly wouldn’t go there willingly. Incarceration is highly stigmatized in America and the thought of ourselves or a loved one serving time makes us uncomfortable. The thought of having our rights revoked and privileges stripped is never a pleasant one, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, Christians should be concerned with the souls of all; even the most heinous offenders.
I have been involved in jail ministry in Polk County, FL on and off for a couple of years now and have seen the Gospel seed take root in many hearts and change many lives. Here are three reasons why Christians should get involved in a jail ministry near them if they are able.
The New Testament Encourages It
Really, the New Testament encourages evangelism in all of its biblical manifestations. Followers of Christ are commissioned with spreading the good tidings far and wide (Mt. 28:18-20). We are to be lights of the world, the salt of the earth, and our godly influence should result in God’s glorification (Mt. 5:13-16). Beyond the general concept of evangelism, the New Testament specifically mentions Christians ministering to those in prison.
In Hebrews 10:34, the inspired author commends Christians for having “had compassion on those in prison.” Similarly, Christians are told to “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). Also, in the judgment description of the sheep and the goats, Jesus famously states the following:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:31-40 ESV)
Now, there are some Christians who will read the above verses and sections of Scripture and conclude that Jesus and the Hebrews writer were referring to those who are locked up unjustly as Christians. This may be the case. However, I believe the application extends far beyond those who are unjustly in prison as Christians. Part of letting our light shine and extending the ministry of reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:11-21) is going to those places where the scars of sin are most evident. There are people around America who are sin-sick and alone in a cell. Who better to help them than those who wear the name of Christ?
The Harvest Is Plentiful, But the Laborers Are Few
On one occasion Jesus and His disciples were healing the masses and proclaiming the good news to those around them. There were so many who needed help that Jesus was overwhelmed with compassion and told His disciples to pray for more laborers. Notice the text:
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Mt. 9:35-38).
Jesus is the master example for Christians. Are we also stricken with compassion when we are around those who are harassed and helpless, living without a shepherd? We do not need to look very far to find a jail or prison filled with such people.
The harvest is indeed plentiful in the American jail and prison system. There are currently 2.3 million people locked up in American jails or prisons. If America’s prison population was its own country, it would have a larger population than 91 of the world’s countries. Jails and prisons are often viewed with fear and stigma, but they should be viewed as a mission field. With things being as they are, we should be praying for laborers in the field of jails and prisons, supporting them, or becoming one ourselves.
The fields are indeed white (ready) for harvest right here in our backyard (cf. Jn. 4:35-37). There are people suffering the temporal consequences of their sins, but they need not suffer the eternal consequences. Christ died for those in jail and prison the same way He died for those of us with clean records, but we must bring that message to them.
Jesus Is the Ultimate Liberator and Savior
Jesus’ message has always appealed to those who are suffering from sin. Jesus came not to call the righteous, “but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:31-32). He seeks to forgive even those who have a lot to be forgiven for stating that those who are forgiven more love more (Lk. 7:47-48). Jesus once told a group of Pharisees that “the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). Why? Because they’ve had rough lives of sin and social rejection. They are often more receptive to Jesus’ message than those who have had polished lives of perceived righteousness. The same remains true today.
Jesus died to be the sin-atoning sacrifice for all people everywhere (1 Jn. 2:1-2). There is no sin too big for His blood to wash away, no divine divide too big for Him to bridge. It is only through Him that those in prison can experience ultimate, spiritual liberation (Jn. 8:31-32). Indeed, through Jesus, a man can be in jail and free at the same time. There are those in our jails and prisons who desperately need grace, mercy, and help. Thankfully, Jesus supplies just that (Heb. 4:14-16).
The fields are white for harvest, but the laborers are few. May we as Christians do what we can to reach out and help the most deserted and ostracized in our societies. Jesus is more than willing to save those in jail and prison. May we be more than willing to bring that message to them.