|Topical Bible Study||September 1958|
The People of the Bible
Article XXXVII—Acts, Chapters 27 and 28
Paul in Protective Custody—Part 3
AFTER Paul’s hearing before Agrippa, it was determined that the only course open was to send him to Rome, since this was what he insisted upon; and together with other prisoners he was turned over to the custody of “one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band.” “And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, we launched [writes Luke], meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia.”—Acts 27:1,2
Luke must have been kept well informed concerning the whereabouts of Paul during the time he was being taken from one ruler to another in an effort to make some disposition of his case. When the decision was made not to delay longer his trip to Rome and he was turned over to Julius, who was to be his guard on the journey, Luke was on hand and ready to embark for Rome on the same ship. This is evident from the reappearance of the pronoun “we” in the narrative.
It was evidently a regular passenger and cargo ship, the prisoners being only part of the passengers. Altogether, counting the soldier-guards and the prisoners, there were 276 people on the ship. (vs. 37) Luke’s loyalty to Paul in this time of great need is touching. How the great apostle must have rejoiced over the realization that there was to be at least one brother in Christ who would make this long, difficult, and even dangerous voyage with him.
In verse 3 we learn that Julius had respect for his noted prisoner and granted him considerable liberty. The ship “touched” at a city called Sidon, where evidently there were brethren in Christ, and Paul was given liberty to leave the ship and visit them. No details of this visit are recorded, but we can imagine it afforded a sweet season of fellowship of kindred minds which is “like to that above.”
The Rome bound prisoners continued in this ship to Myra, a city in Lycia. “There,” Luke writes, “the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing into Italy; and he put us therein.” (vs. 6) The first port of call by this ship was at a place called “The fair havens, nigh whereunto was the city of Lasea.” (vs. 8) “Much time was spent” here, the report adds, so that when they continued the journey the “fast” was over. This is a reference to the yearly Jewish fast on the 10th day of the seventh month, corresponding with our month of October.—vs. 9, margin
This meant that winter was approaching, hence the likelihood of bad weather for navigation, and Paul advised Julius that it would be better not to proceed on the journey until spring. But Julius decided otherwise, having confidence in the opinion of the ship’s master. “The fair havens” was not “commodious to winter in,” and seemingly the opinion of the majority of those on the ship was that they should continue the journey.
The ship’s master hoped that they might be able to reach Phenice, on the Island of Crete, and there put up for the winter. But this plan did not carry through. Unfavorable weather set in, and the ship, together with its crew and passengers, were in grave danger. Apparently Paul had little to say for a while after his advice had been ignored, but finally he spoke saying, “Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss.”—vs. 21
Here a very human aspect is revealed. Seemingly even the great Apostle Paul could not refrain from saying, “I told you so.” But he held no malice and at once added: “I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.”—vss. 22-25
Here again we find Paul utilizing circumstances to assist him in witnessing for his God. It might have been sufficient that Paul himself had been assured that none on the ship would lose their lives. He could have kept this information to himself and rejoiced in it. He could have reasoned that no good purpose would be served by telling his fellow passengers about the assurance he had received from his God. After all, the majority of them had gone against his advice. Why should they not suffer anxiety for a while?
Paul could have been content to take Luke, his brother in Christ, into his confidence and tell him of the visit by the “angel of God.” Luke would understand and appreciate this, while the others might only scoff. But this was not Paul’s way of reasoning. He wanted to comfort even these worldly unbelievers; and besides, he knew that if he told them in advance of the deliverance the “angel of God” had assured, then, when they were all safe, he would be in a favorable position to tell them more about God and about Jesus, the great Messiah whom God had sent.
After being tossed by the winds and the waves for fourteen nights, the ship’s seamen sensed that they were approaching land. By taking occasional soundings of the water’s depth, they proved that this was so. But this presented a danger of the ship’s running onto possible rocky shores and being destroyed. The story of this is told in considerable detail in verses 27 to 44.
In this crisis, when it became apparent that each individual on the ship would need to be “on his own” in order to make it in safety to land, the soldiers in charge suggested that all the prisoners should be killed, lest they escape. But Julius ruled against this, chiefly on account of Paul. The record states that he was “willing to save Paul.”—vs. 43
With all safely ashore, they discovered that the place of their landing was the island of Melita, or Malta. (ch. 27:26; 28:1) Luke writes: “The barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.” (ch. 28:2) This sort of reception does not seem like one that would come from “barbarous people,” but the word “barbarous” in the Bible does not carry the same connotation as it does today.
Actually, a barbarian in Paul’s day was simply a non-Jew or non-Greek. To the Greeks the Romans were barbarians, this distinction calling particular attention to the custom of the Romans of keeping their beards shaved off. It is from this that we now have the word barber. From the standpoint of the ancient Greeks, every man who kept his face smoothly shaved was a barbarian, or “barbarous person.”
The kindness shown by the “barbarous people” of Melita must have been greatly appreciated by the 276 people forced ashore in the cold and rain. Paul, always alert to serve, set himself to work gathering sticks of wood—probably driftwood on the beach—to help keep the fire burning. As he placed an armload of sticks on the fire “there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.”—vs. 3
One of the marvelous things about the Bible is the simple and straightforward manner in which it relates facts, and here we have an example. Picture the situation. The weather was cold, and this “viper,” as is common with some of the animal world, had been made inactive by it. But the fire had brought it back to life, and it suddenly seized upon Paul’s hand. If this entire account were fiction, who would have thought of a story so simple and so true to facts?
But the incident is not related without a purpose. The “barbarous people” of Melita were superstitious. They knew that the bite of this sort of “viper” meant almost certain death. They had learned that Paul was being taken to Rome as a prisoner; and when they realized what had happened, they were certain that the “gods” were seeing to it that he could not escape his just punishment. They concluded that he must be a murderer and was therefore worthy of the death which they were certain had been inflicted upon him by the “viper.”
Paul shook the viper from his hand, and we can imagine the surprise of the “barbarous people” when Paul did not collapse and die. They were sincere people, and when they realized that Paul would not die as a result of the viper’s sting, they “changed their minds, and said he was a god.” (vs. 6) There is a saying that “a wise man changes his mind, but a fool never.” These “barbarous people” of Melita were wise. They recognized that their original appraisal of Paul was wrong, that he was not a murderer whom the gods would destroy, so they “changed their minds.”
But, as so often happens, when these people realized they were wrong, they changed their minds too much. Now, instead of seeing Paul as a murderer, they believed him to be a god. Paul had had this experience before and had denied that he was a god. This was at Lystra (Acts 14:11-15) Luke does not indicate that Paul undertook at once to explain to the “barbarous people” of Melita that he was not a god, although he doubtless disabused their minds of this idea as time went on. In the precarious situation of the moment, he may have used the advantage this viewpoint gave him for the general good of all his shipwrecked traveling companions.
The place of landing on Melita was near where Publius, the “chief man of the island,” had “possessions,” meaning, perhaps, one of his residences. Luke writes that Publius “received us, and lodged us three days courteously.” (ch. 28:7) We need not suppose that Publius entertained all who had been on the ship. The “us” of the narrative probably refers only to Paul and Luke, and possibly the ship’s officers.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that the entire company received better treatment on Melita because of Paul than otherwise would have been the case, and the great apostle was glad to have it so. The “father of Publius” was ill, and Paul healed him. The news of this spread, and others who were ill came to Paul to be healed. And these, Luke writes, “also honored us with many honors; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.”—vss. 8-10
There is a common expression, “under the circumstances,” but Paul had the happy faculty of being able to keep “above” the circumstances in which he found himself and of utilizing them to further the witness of the Gospel. This he did at Melita. Together with his traveling companions on the ship, he had shared the “perils of the sea.” But when cast upon the shores of a strange island, instead of taking time to lament his hardship, he set himself to work to gather wood for the fire, and this led to a chain of circumstances which bettered the lot of all concerned and brought glory to his God.
They were marooned on Melita for three months. Their ship had been destroyed, so they boarded another one, “a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle, whose sign was Castor and Pollux.” (vs. 11) The vessel called at Syracuse and at Rhegium and then sailed to Puteoli. Here the prisoners were put ashore. There were brethren in Christ at Puteoli, so Paul and Luke took the opportunity to visit them and enjoy their fellowship for seven days.
While it is true that in that ancient time travel was slow and difficult and the world did not enjoy any of our modern methods of travel and communication, yet the people seemed to have had ways and means of keeping in touch with one another. For example, Paul and Luke knew that here at Puteoli, in the northeastern area of the Bay of Naples, there were brethren in Christ. They knew their addresses and were able to make contact with them when they arrived. This incidental sidelight in connection with Paul’s journey to Rome helps to reveal the extent to which the brethren in the Early Church maintained contact and communication with one another.
The town of Puteoli still stands, although now a fourth-rate Italian community. Its present name is Pozzuoli. It contains many ancient remains, which Paul and Luke doubtless saw when they visited the brethren there on the way to Rome. There are the reservoirs, the aqueduct, portions (probably) of the baths, the great amphitheatre, and the building called the Temple of Serapis. To see these, or to know that they are still there, makes the experiences of the great apostle and his companion, Luke, seem a little less remote from the standpoint of time.
Paul and Luke remained in this place of landing in Italy for seven days, fellowshipping with the brethren. “And so,” writes Luke, “we went toward Rome.” (vs. 14) And here again we have revealed the close contact the brethren of the then known world maintained with one another; for those in Rome knew that Paul had landed on Italian shores, and a number of them traveled to “Appii forum” and “The three taverns” to meet him.—vs. 15
Did the brethren at Puteoli dispatch a messenger to Rome to inform the brethren that Paul had landed? Evidently so. But did the brethren of all Italy know in advance that he was on his way as a prisoner? We do not know. But we do know that the brethren in Rome displayed much love for the apostle by their zeal in traveling such a distance to meet him.
For a long time Paul had been wanting to visit the brethren in Rome. Years before, while on his third missionary journey, he wrote to the ecclesia at Rome from Corinth. In the opening chapter of this epistle he said: “God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the Gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers; making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you. For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end that ye may be established.”—Rom. 1:9-11
Yes, Paul “longed to see” the brethren at Rome, so much so that he was willing to make the trip “by any means.” He prayed that he might have a “prosperous journey” to Rome. The Greek text does not indicate that Paul prayed for a prosperous journey in the sense that it would be pleasant and comfortable, but rather that he would be successful in reaching Rome, “by any means.”
Probably when he wrote this epistle to the brethren at Rome he did not know that it would be the will of the Lord for him to journey to Rome as a prisoner of Caesar. He did not foresee the rioting against him in Jerusalem and his arrest by the Roman soldiers in order to save his life. Nor did he know in advance of various appearances before kings and governors, the long hazardous journey by sea, the shipwreck, and the three months’ layover at Melita.
Paul had made the most of all these experiences, and while Luke does not directly suggest that the beloved apostle was ever discouraged, we can be sure that this longing to see the brethren at Rome continued and increased. Now Paul was in Italy, and some of the brethren of Rome had traveled many miles to meet him; so Luke writes that when Paul saw these dear ones whom he had longed to see, “he thanked God, and took courage.”—ch. 28:15
From the standpoint of the flesh there was little to be thankful for, even now that they had reached Italy and would shortly be in Rome. After all, Paul was going to Rome as a prisoner. Perhaps this was one reason some of the brethren in the ecclesia journeyed to The three taverns” to meet the apostle. How could they be sure they would have the privilege of seeing him after he arrived in Rome and was shut up behind prison walls?
Nor did Paul know just what awaited him. Caesar’s government could take any action it chose. Later Paul was executed in Rome, but now he did not know just what awaited him. The Lord revealed the way before him one step at a time. That was all Paul needed to see, and he was always ready and willing to take that one step. Paul had learned that with each step of the way there were both trials and joys and that in all these the Lord was with him, standing by to give him strength for his every need.
The Lord had sent the brethren from Rome to meet the apostle. This gave him the needed courage to complete those last miles of the journey and to face whatever experiences awaited him upon arrival in Rome. Reaching Rome, the prisoners were delivered to the captain of the guard, “but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him.” (vs. 16) This was a concession, which, while Paul may have hoped for it, he had no assurance of receiving.
The apostle was permitted to dwell for two years in his own hired house. (vs. 30) While this was much better than being herded with the other prisoners, he was not a free man. He was continuously chained to a soldier. However, he was given freedom of speech and could have his friends visit him; and Paul made full use of these privileges for the further spread of the Gospel and the glory of God.
Paul waited only three days before beginning his activities. (vs. 17) This time would be needed to get adjusted to his new surroundings and to rest from the tiring circumstances of his long journey. But then he was again ready to plunge into the service of his God. First he sent for the “chief of the Jews.” Here Paul could not follow his usual custom of first visiting the synagogue when arriving in new territory, so he sent for the “chief of the Jews” to visit him. To find one of their own people chained to a Roman soldier, and at the same time enjoying the privilege of living in his own hired house, called for an explanation, for they would realize that here was no ordinary Jew, and certainly an unusual prisoner.
So Paul presented the necessary explanation of the circumstances which brought him to Rome as a prisoner. (vss. 17-20) In this explanation Paul stressed that it was for “the hope of Israel” that he was bound with “this chain.” The “chief of the Jews” assured Paul that they had not been warned against him, that, in fact, no information at all had been sent to them concerning him. Paul’s brethren and friends in Rome had been notified concerning his experiences and informed that he was on the way to Rome as a prisoner; but his enemies had not followed through. Perhaps they were satisfied in that they had driven him from Palestine.
Not having heard anything either for or against Paul, “the chief of the Jews” expressed a desire to hear him, “for,” said they, “as concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (vs. 22) They had not heard of Paul, but they did know that there were followers of one Jesus, who it was claimed was the Messiah; and they knew that this “sect” was not at all popular.
They “appointed” a day when they would visit Paul and hear his testimony, and “there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the Law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.” (vs. 23) What a day of witnessing this was for the apostle! The results were as always—“some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.”—vs. 24
After Paul had finished, these chief Jews disputed among themselves. Then, as a final word to them, Paul quoted one of Isaiah’s prophecies, which foretold the failure of the Israelites to accept the Gospel. He explained that because of this the Gospel was going to the Gentiles, to give believers from among them an opportunity to be fellow heirs of the promises.—vss. 25-29
Here Luke brings his record to a close, adding simply that Paul dwelt two years in his own hired house, “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” (vss. 30,31) We know from this that Paul had an active two years, but no details are available except those which we are able to glean from epistles which he wrote during this period.
From Paul’s Epistles
Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was written while he was a prisoner in Rome. In the last chapter, where, after referring to himself as an “ambassador in bonds,” and asking for the prayers of the brethren in Ephesus, he writes: “That ye also may know my affairs, and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things: whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts.” (vss. 19-22) It would be interesting to know what Tychicus reported to the brethren in Ephesus.
The Epistle to the Philippians was also written at Rome. In this we are given a glimpse into Paul’s experiences in his “hired house.” He wrote: “I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the Gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places.” (Phil. 1:12,13) From this it is apparent that Paul’s faithful witness work was very effective, even though he was chained to a Roman soldier night and day.
This epistle to the Philippian brethren was written partly in acknowledgment of a “gift” sent to him by the hand of Epaphroditus. The journey to Rome from Philippi must have been a difficult one for Epaphroditus, for he became ill “night unto death.” So it was at great personal cost that this “gift” was delivered to Paul, and Paul appreciated it and says so in this epistle.—ch. 2:25-30
Paul also wrote the Epistle to the brethren at Colosse while he was a prisoner in Rome. But in this, as in his letter to the Ephesians, he gives little or no information concerning his experiences, saying, “All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.”—ch. 4:7
Paul’s Epistle to Philemon was likewise written while a prisoner at Rome. Philemon was a resident of Colosse and was evidently a man of means and influence. As was the custom of the well-to-do of his day, he was an owner of slaves. One of these, Onesimus, had run away to Rome and, through the ministry of Paul, had accepted Christ and become a faithful disciple. The letter was written as an effort on Paul’s part to effect a reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.
This epistle, therefore, reveals an inspiring incident in the experiences of the great apostle while living as a prisoner in his own house in Rome. He was evidently known by Onesimus through his visits at the home of Philemon. Possibly Onesimus remembered some of the Gospel of Christ as he had heard it preached in the home of his master. Through this, or because of his confidence in Paul as a man, he evidently sought out and visited him. Paul proclaimed the Gospel to him further, and he believed and surrendered himself to the Lord. What a wonderful encouragement this must have been to Paul, to have this happen while he was a prisoner in Rome.
Paul’s second letter to Timothy was also written from Rome, but there is a question as to whether it was during his first imprisonment. Tradition has it that Paul was released from his first imprisonment and for some time served the brethren in freedom. The Bible makes no mention of this. Either Paul was released from his first imprisonment or else, after a second appearance before the Roman Emperor, his situation worsened, for it is evident that when he wrote this letter to Timothy he realized that he did not have long to live.
In view of this, it is inspiring to hear him say: “I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (ch. 1:12) Also: “I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”—ch. 4:6-8
“Only Luke is with me,” Paul wrote to Timothy. (ch. 4:11) Since Luke accompanied Paul to Rome at the time of his first imprisonment, this statement might indicate that Paul had not been released and that from his hired house he had been transferred to the prison. If this was a second imprisonment and Luke was still with him, it seems strange that this faithful historian has recorded nothing of Paul’s experiences while at liberty to revisit the ecclesias and carry on further with the missionary work.
Paul also wrote, “Tychicus have I sent to Ephesus.” (vs. 12) We know that Paul sent Tychicus to Ephesus during his original imprisonment in Rome, the purpose being to deliver his epistle to the Ephesian brethren and to report his experiences. (Eph. 6:21,22) It would seem rather unusual if Paul was released after two years in his own hired house, was free to travel for some time, and then had both Luke and Tychicus again close to him after his re-imprisonment.
It will be remembered that on his first missionary tour Barnabas accompanied Paul, and Mark went with them as a helper but deserted and returned home long before the end of the tour. Barnabas desired to take Mark when they started out the second time, but Paul would not agree. The dispute was so heated that Paul and Barnabas parted company, and Silas went with the apostle instead.
It is a fitting close to our look into the life of this faithful servant of the Lord to see that he had forgiven Mark and again wanted him as a fellow servant. In this last letter which he wrote, Paul said to Timothy, “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”—II Tim. 4:11
Paul doubtless had good reasons for not wanting Mark as a fellow servant when, years before, he disputed with Barnabas concerning him. Meanwhile, he had discerned the spiritual growth in Mark and asked for his help. He held no prejudice against Mark on account of the experiences of the past. In this also we see how wonderfully the love of God triumphed in the heart and life of the great apostle. Truly, Paul was now “ready to be offered,” and we know that his entire lifetime offering, as well as its consummation in Rome, was a sweet-smelling savor unto the Lord.—II Cor. 2:15,16; Eph. 5:2