“I call God to witness … how unceasingly I make mention of you in His presence, always in my prayers entreating that now, at length, if such be His will, the way may by some means be made clear for me to come to you. For I am longing to see you, in order to convey to you some spiritual help, so that you may be strengthened.”
—Romans 1:9-11, Weymouth New Testament
THE APOSTLE PAUL HAD an intense desire to visit the brethren in Rome, as evidenced by his words in our opening text. His epistle to the Romans was penned during his third missionary journey, during his time at Corinth. The Lord’s providences had directed Paul’s ministry to the regions of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece. However, he also felt reasonably certain that it would be the Lord’s will for him, in due time, to visit Rome and the brethren there. In the latter part of his third journey, Luke attests to this, saying that “Paul purposed in the spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia [Greece], to go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”—Acts 19:21
In due course Paul reached Jerusalem, ending his third journey. (chap. 21:15-17) After a short period of time, he was found in the court of the Temple, and the religious leaders of Israel instigated a riot in the hope of killing him. They probably would have accomplished this had not the Roman authorities intervened and placed Paul in protective custody. (vss. 27-36) He then was allowed to speak in defense of his ministry before the Jewish religious leaders. (chap. 22:1-21) This was to no avail, as they rejected his words and were the more intent on doing away with him.
Finally, still under protective guard, the Lord appeared to Paul by night and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” (chap. 23:11) Here the Lord was directly confirming to Paul that it was his will that he should go to Rome. From this point onward—which proved to be the beginning of that long and hazardous journey to Rome—Paul displayed unwavering faith in the Lord’s promise. Accordingly, he was confident and alert to cooperate with the providences of his Heavenly Father, by which he knew he was being overshadowed in the experiences which would soon begin. Though Paul’s freedom was now greatly limited, his part in the search for God’s people would continue for a period.
The morning following the Lord’s appearance to Paul, his life was again in peril. More than forty Jews entered into a vow neither to eat nor drink until they had killed him. Paul’s sister’s son learned of this plot, and hurried to his uncle to inform him. Paul sent this young man to the chief captain to tell him about it. The result was that in the middle of that night a small army was sent to where Paul was being held in protective custody. He was taken from Jerusalem to Caesarea, the home of Felix, the Roman governor for that region, and Paul was turned over to him.—Acts 23:12-33
Luke records Paul’s experiences under the custody of Felix in Acts, chapter 24, and says it covered a period of two years. During that time Paul’s enemies in Jerusalem sent representatives with trumped-up charges against the apostle. These Paul answered in his usual forthright manner. It is evident from the account that these enemies hoped to persuade Felix to release Paul so he could return to Jerusalem to face their charges, thinking that this would give them an opportunity to kill him. Through the Lord’s overruling, however, Paul was kept by the governor, protected from the conspiring Jews.—vss. 5-23
During that two years Felix met and conversed with Paul a number of times. This was not because he wanted especially to be friendly with him, but he hoped that Paul would offer him bribe money to obtain his release. (vss. 24-26) Paul, of course, desired to go to Rome to visit the brethren there, and if he had planned his own journey he doubtless would have visited other brethren in route.
Paul knew, however, the dangers which existed for him should he venture outside the protective arm of Rome. He saw, by faith, that the Lord, who had said to him in a vision that he would bear witness to the Gospel in Rome, had arranged the method by which he could safely reach this destination. Paul now understood that this would be accomplished through the protection of the Roman authorities. Thus, he elected to travel to Rome by the means which God provided, though it would be a long and difficult journey.
After the two years’ protective imprisonment by Felix, Paul was visited by Festus, who evidently was the successor to Felix as governor of the region. Knowing the controversy surrounding Paul, Festus went to Jerusalem before going up to Caesarea. He invited the Jewish religious leaders to accompany him on his visit with Paul. Festus remained in Jerusalem for more than ten days before going on to see Felix, and apparently persuaded some of these enemies of the Apostle to come to Caesarea.—Acts 25:1-7
Paul, as always, gave a good account of himself before Festus and the Jews who had come from Jerusalem. Festus, who was “willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me? Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.”—vss. 9-11
PAUL THE ROMAN
In Paul’s appeal to Caesar we find him, by faith, cooperating with the Lord, who had assured him that he must go to Rome. Two years earlier, while in Jerusalem, one of the Roman guards questioned Paul’s claim to being a Roman citizen. The guard explained that he had purchased this freedom at great cost. To this Paul simply replied that he was born free. (Acts 22:25-28) Paul was born in the city of Tarsus, which Caesar Augustus had declared to be a free city. This meant that those born there were free as citizens of Rome, regardless of their national or cultural background.
Paul knew that appealing his case to Rome assured him that he would not be set free, but it would protect him from his enemies who sought to kill him. He knew also that it placed the Roman government under obligation to provide protected transportation to Rome. It was Paul’s way, by faith, to cooperate with what he now knew to be the Lord’s will for him. He foresaw that the journey would be a difficult one. There would be daily hardships. He would be a prisoner of Rome and therefore under the constant restrictions which his guards put upon him. However, this was the way Paul chose to have it.
King Agrippa, ruler of a large portion of the Roman Empire, had come to Caesarea to visit Festus. While there, he also desired to hear from Paul. The apostle laid out in great detail his manner of life, his previous persecution of the followers of Christ, his conversion on the road to Damascus, and his ministry in the Gospel since that time. (Acts 26:1-23) After hearing Paul’s moving testimony, Agrippa said to Festus, “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.”—vs. 32
At the time of Paul’s conversion, the Lord said to Ananias concerning him, “He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) Now, for considerably more than two years, as a prisoner, Paul had been faithfully bearing witness to the Truth before “kings”—leaders of the Roman Empire. There were Felix, and Festus, and now Agrippa. Agrippa was so stirred by Paul’s words that he replied to him, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” The Apostle answered, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” (Acts 26:28,29) Paul was not enjoying his bonds, but he knew that the enduring of them was the Lord’s method of his reaching Rome. Thus, he was ready to embark on that long voyage by ship, which would provide him further opportunities in the search for God’s people.
The narrative of Paul’s journey to Rome provided by Luke begins in the 27th chapter of Acts. The apostle and other prisoners were given into the custody of “Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band.” (vs. 1) Shortly after the ship sailed, “we touched at Sidon,” Luke says. In this regard it is indicated that Paul was considered in a different class from the other prisoners. As Luke observes, “Julius courteously entreated Paul, and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself.” (vs. 3) Apparently there were brethren in Sidon, and Julius knew of this, reasoning that Paul would be delighted to spend a little time with them. The account does not state so specifically, but it seems that the apostle was permitted to visit his friends unaccompanied by a guard.
Soon after departing Sidon, unfavorable winds delayed the progress of their journey. They went as far as “The fair havens,” a port on the southeastern coast of Crete, where Paul recommended that they stay through the winter. However, the captain and owner of the ship disagreed with Paul, and they did not remain there. (Acts 27:4-12) Upon leaving they encountered a fierce storm, and the ship was in danger of being wrecked. When the outlook was extremely dark, Paul spoke to the ship’s crew, saying, “Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss. And now 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.”—vss. 21-24
Just as Paul kept ever in mind the divinely arranged objective of this journey, God also remembered, and here, through an angel, reminded his faithful servant that his presence would go with him. Paul would not lose his life, and all on the ship would likewise be saved. This assurance gave Paul courage to start directing the rest of the passengers in order that their lives might be saved. For one thing, they must all remain aboard the ship as long as it was afloat. They should also eat, Paul said, in order to be refreshed and strengthened physically.—vss. 31-36
There were a total of 276 on the ship, and the soldiers advised that the prisoners be killed, lest, when the ship was cast on shore, they escape. “But the centurion [Julius], willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose.” (vs. 43) Here again we see the overruling providence of God in connection with the man chosen to be in charge of the prisoners. First he gave Paul liberty to visit the brethren at one port of call, and now he was saving the lives of all aboard the ship, that this special prisoner, who had appealed to Caesar, might not be killed. The ship, unable to withstand the ravages of the storm any longer, was driven ashore and broken to pieces. All who were aboard the ship, however, reached land safely—some by swimming, some on boards, and others on remnants of the ship.—vs. 44
THREE MONTHS IN MELITA
Upon reaching safety, they found that they had landed on the small island of Melita. (Acts 28:1) They had come a long way, but were still some distance from their destination. The winter season had set in, and they decided to remain on the island until spring and then seek passage to Italy on another ship.
The indigenous people on the island were evidently not of Greek or Roman background. Nevertheless, they were kind to the ship’s passengers, and did what they could to make them comfortable. These people, Luke says, “were unusually kind to us. It had started to rain and was cold, so they started a bonfire and invited us to join them around it. Paul gathered a bundle of sticks and put it on the fire. A poisonous snake was forced out by the heat and attached itself to Paul’s hand. When the people who lived there saw the snake hanging from his hand, they told one another, ‘This man must be a murderer! He may have escaped from the sea, but Justice won’t let him live.’”—vss. 2-4, International Standard Version
Their minds reasoned oddly, perhaps controlled by superstitions developed over a long period of time in their island isolation. However, when they saw that Paul was not hurt by the attack of the viper, they quickly changed their opinion of him, which in itself was logical. Yet, now they went to the other extreme. Instead of being a murderer, they believed he was a god. (Acts 28:5,6) Even this, no doubt, worked to Paul’s advantage, as he probably took the opportunity to explain the true source of the power which had prevented his being hurt.
Paul had a busy winter on Melita. The father of the governor was seriously ill, and Paul used his gift of healing to restore the man to health. News of this quickly spread, and Paul had the opportunity of performing many miracles. The attitude of the people is clearly expressed by Luke. After telling of Paul’s healing the governor’s father, he continues, “So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed: Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.”—vss. 7-10
ITALY AND ROME AT LAST
Paul and his company departed from Melita “in a ship of Alexandria.” There were stopovers at Syracuse and Rhegium, and finally, with the help of favorable south winds, they landed at Puteoli, in Italy, about one hundred miles south of Rome. At Puteoli they found brethren with whom they remained seven days. Then they began the final leg of their long journey to Rome. In some way, the brethren at Rome heard that Paul had landed in Italy and would soon arrive. They sent a delegation to the southern outskirts of the city to meet him at “Appii forum, and The three taverns: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage.”—Acts 28:11-15
The depth of feeling expressed in this report by Luke can be appreciated by taking into consideration the experiences through which Paul had passed during the years since his apprehension in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities. There were his confrontations with his enemies, the religious rulers of Israel, and his several hearings before the Roman rulers—Felix, Festus and King Agrippa. Finally, there was that most difficult voyage by ship, first to Melita, and then to Italy. There was little that happened to him in all that time, and in all these experiences, that would be conducive to peace and tranquility. What sustained him through it all was the Lord’s clearly stated will, that he should bear witness to the truth in Rome.
Now Paul had almost reached Rome. He had cooperated, by faith, with the Lord, and was being taken to Rome as a prisoner, yet continuously protected by divine providence. He was almost there—so close that his friends and brethren could walk to meet him. No wonder, Luke says, that Paul “thanked God, and took courage.” It was an encouragement just to see the brethren from Rome, whom he had never seen before. While he knew that as a prisoner he would probably have very limited contact with these brethren after he reached Rome, it was a comfort and encouragement just to see them for a short time, especially since they had made this effort to see and fellowship with him.
This token of Paul’s nearness to his desired destination of Rome was undoubtedly another encouragement to him from the Lord. It assured him in his desire to cooperate with what the Lord had expressed as being his will. This was simply another reminder to Paul that the Lord never fails in the undertaking of his purposes toward those who are submissive to his will. He had brought his beloved apostle to Rome, and Paul knew that his ever-faithful Lord would stand by and help him in all his needs, no matter what occurred in that Roman prison to which he was being taken.
“When we came to Rome,” observes Luke, “the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered [allowed] to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him.” (Acts 28:16) Later, Luke explains that Paul dwelt in his own rented house for two years, “and received all that came in unto him, 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
After his tiring journey, Paul rested for three days, and then sent for the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, that he might bear witness first to them. We recall that when Paul went from city to city as a free man, his usual custom was first to visit the Jewish synagogues. Now, in Rome as a prisoner, he followed a similar procedure. Though he was not free to visit the synagogue, he invited the people of the synagogue to come to him.—vs. 17
Paul seemed to sense that these Jewish leaders might well wonder why a fellow Jew had been brought to Rome as a prisoner, so he immediately explained the circumstances, making it clear that the religious rulers in the Jerusalem area were responsible for it. This brought a positive response from his brethren according to the flesh living in Rome, who said that they had not received any word concerning him, nor heard any report of harm about him. However, they gleaned from what Paul said that he was a follower of Jesus, and they wanted to hear what he had to say about it, explaining, “For as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.”—vss. 17-22
Paul, on a day appointed, gave his usual brilliant testimony concerning Jesus and the kingdom. Some of the Jews accepted what he said, and others did not. (vss. 23,24) This had consistently been Paul’s experience when he witnessed in the Jewish synagogues. After quoting from an Old Testament prophecy concerning the blindness of Israel, Paul said, “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.”—vss. 25-28
A WITNESS TO ALL—JEWS AND GENTILES
Luke closes his record, as previously noted, by telling us that Paul dwelt in his own rented home for two years, and continued preaching the kingdom of God. Here the Book of Acts ends. Just why Luke did not continue with his usual details we can only surmise. Later, after Paul had been transferred to a cell in the Roman prison, he wrote to Timothy and indicated that Luke was with him. This is the last reference made in the Scriptures concerning Luke.—II Tim. 4:11
As to what occurred in the experiences of Paul during those two years, as well as any time beyond that before his death, we may only depend on his own testimony. Much of this is contained in his letter to the brethren at Philippi, one of his final epistles. To them he wrote, “I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. … In every way, … Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice.”—Phil. 1:12-18, New American Standard Bible
Paul’s commission from the Lord, so far as his journey to Rome was concerned, had been abundantly fulfilled. It was simply that he was “to bear witness … at Rome,” and thus continue, even in imprisonment and unto death, the work of searching for God’s people. Paul had indeed done this faithfully. He had borne witness to both Jews and Gentiles, and the effects of that witness most likely spread eventually throughout much of Europe. The witness had not been given under favorable circumstances, but this mattered not to Paul. He had journeyed to Rome under the shadow of death threats from his fellow Jews. He did this by faith, and when he reached Rome, he joyously carried out the purpose for which the Lord sent him there.