Before leaving Corinth and making his way back to Jerusalem to close out his third missionary journey, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome.
While Paul had never visited this city, his letter concludes with personal greetings to nearly two dozen individuals who were now living in the city of Rome. Paul had come to know all of these Christians during the previous decade while doing mission work throughout the Mediterranean. One of those greetings was to “my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia” (Rm. 16:5).
As I read through these greetings recently, it brought to mind the many Christians that I have come to know over the previous two and a half decades of doing mission work in correctional institutions. Like the apostle Paul, I have my own “Epenetus” — that is to say, I have my own “first convert to Christ” in the prison system.
The first time I met my Epenetus, however, was not in the prison system but in the home of a relative whom he was living with. While his relative was a Christian, Epenetus was not. In fact, every time I came to share a devotion with this relative, Epenetus would quickly leave the house. Epenetus wanted nothing to do with God or His Word, at least not until I met him again a few years later in the county jail.
Now, I think Epenetus initially came to my Bible study just to escape the boredom of being locked up, but the Holy Spirit eventually won him over, and his attitude began to change. Before long, Epenetus began looking forward to studying God’s Word, and in time, he even went through an adult instruction class with me and was eventually confirmed.
Many years later, I ran into Epenetus again while visiting one of our churches. By this time, Epenetus was married and had two children attending Christian day school. Not only had the Holy Spirit made a home in Epenetus’ heart, but He had also completely turned around Epenetus’ life.
When Paul finally made it to Rome — years after writing this letter— I wonder what changes he witnessed in the hearts and lives of the people that he had come to know while sharing the gospel. How had the Holy Spirit impacted their lives? What transformations did he observe?
Jesus once said, “You will be my witnesses….” Mindful of these words, we continue to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, shining the light of His love behind the walls.