A Dangerous Voyage

The prisoner Paul makes his way to Rome for a hearing before the famous Nero. But what might appear to be the end of the story is really just another beginning.

The opportunity to speak before Herod Agrippa II had come to Paul through unusual circumstances. Over the two years or more since his arrest by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem for a riot he did not start, he had been saved from harm by those same authorities. From Claudius Lysias, the tribune and commander of the Jerusalem fortress, to Felix and Festus, successive governors of Palestine, Paul had benefited from Roman protective custody. His accusers, the Jewish religious leaders, had proven no guilt, yet they had twice tried to murder him. Now, as Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar. Festus agreed, but lacking a clear statement as to Paul’s alleged crime, he sought advice from Agrippa, ruler of several territories to the north of Palestine.

Agrippa wanted to listen to Paul’s story for himself, and a hearing was quickly arranged. Standing before Rome’s appointee the next day, Paul began his defense. He noted Agrippa’s familiarity with Jewish customs and controversies, and said that he felt fortunate to be addressing such a well-informed man. He then outlined his history as a Pharisee and his common belief with them in the resurrection of the dead. Yet that very belief was the reason for his arrest. He mentioned his persecution of the early church, authorized by the high priest, and his life-changing experience on the road to Damascus, when Jesus appeared to him. His received commission from that point on was to teach the gentiles Jesus’ message. Paul invited Agrippa to see how it was impossible for him to do other than proclaim what Jesus had commanded—that people should turn to God and change their lives. Jesus had died but was now alive as the savior of “our people and . . . the Gentiles” (Acts 26:1–23).

At this point Festus interrupted, saying that Paul was out of his mind, that his extensive learning had made him mad. No, said Paul, “I am speaking true and rational words.” What is more, “the king knows about these things,” because “this has not been done in a corner” (verses 24–26). Focusing directly on the monarch, Paul asked him boldly, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

Agrippa’s reply was in the form of a cynical question: “Are you trying to quickly make a Christian out of me?” (verse 28, paraphrased). Paul replied that he wished everyone could be as he was, except for the chains.

At this, Agrippa, his sister Bernice, and their entourage got up and left, admitting to each other later that Paul had done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment. In fact, were it not that he had appealed to Caesar, he could have been released, said the king. But the die had been cast.

At Sea Again

Paul was released to Julius, a centurion of the Emperor’s Regiment. As the apostle set sail for Italy along with other prisoners, he had no way of knowing the difficulties ahead. It would be a lengthy voyage with several ports of call. Luke writes in great detail about the journey, demonstrating technical knowledge of travel by sea in those times. There is an authenticity in his record, supporting his claim to have been an eyewitness to much of Paul’s ministry. The apostle’s other companion on this journey was Aristarchus of Thessalonica, in Macedonia (Acts 27:2).

The ship’s first stop was at Sidon, where Paul was allowed to disembark and meet with members of the church. The voyage then continued safely along the northeast coast of Cyprus despite contrary winds, and across the open sea to the coast of Cilicia, Pamphylia and Lycia. There at the port of Myra the party changed ships. Again because of adverse winds, they sailed slowly westward past Rhodes and Cnidus to the leeward side of Crete. They came to one of the island’s harbors, Fair Havens, near Lasea, and spent some time there. At this point Luke makes one of his allusions to the holy days the church observed, noting that it was past the Day of Atonement (September/October), and thus sailing was becoming treacherous (verse 9). Paul’s suggestion that they stay put for the winter was ignored, the Roman officer paying more attention to the pilot and the ship’s owner, who wanted to head for Phoenix, a safer harbor in western Crete.

After a short time at sea, they were caught up in a fierce northeaster that drove them away from Crete. Passing a small island named Clauda, they had just enough respite to get the ship’s small boat aboard before being driven toward the dangerous sandbars off Libya. Escaping this danger, the next day they began to jettison cargo and, on the third day, the ship’s tackle. After many more storm-filled days, when it was hard to distinguish day from night, the crew and most passengers were at the point of giving up all hope. It was then that Paul stood up in their midst, reminding them that they should have listened when he warned of the dangers of sailing past a certain date. But now, he said, they need not fear; they would lose the ship but not their lives. He told them that during the previous night he had experienced a reassuring angelic vision. The message was that he would yet stand before Caesar, and that those traveling with him would be kept safe. All that was necessary was to find an island where they could run aground (verses 13–26).

When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” 

Acts 27:20, New Revised Standard Version

On the 14th night the sailors sensed that land was near. Checking the depth, they found that it was getting more and more shallow, and now they feared running into rocks during the night. Some of the crew tried to escape in the ship’s small lifeboat. But Paul warned that only those who stayed on board would be saved. The soldiers then cut the boat adrift to prevent further escape attempts. In the morning, just before dawn, Paul advised them all to take food to regain strength for what lay ahead. He took some bread himself, gave thanks before them all, and ate it. The 276 people on board were encouraged, and after eating their fill, they threw all remaining grain overboard to lighten the ship. The sailors pointed the ship toward a beach as daylight came and sailed straight ahead. Unfortunately they ran aground on a reef, where the sea was too strong. Soon the stern began to break apart in the pounding surf (verses 27–41).

The panicked soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape. But the centurion wanted to keep Paul alive and so diverted the soldiers from their plan.

Directing those who could swim to jump overboard and head for the beach, he told the rest to take planks and pieces of the ship and float ashore.

They all arrived safely on the island of Malta.

On to Rome

For Paul it was at least his fourth experience of being shipwrecked.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, written well before this journey to Rome, he said, “Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:25). But on this occasion the local people came quickly to the rescue in the cold and rain, making fires to warm them.

Gathering some sticks and putting them on the fire, Paul was bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake, which he shook off into the fire. The superstitious locals thought he must be a murderer to be attacked this way and would therefore soon die. When after some time he didn’t fall down, and in fact suffered no ill effects at all, they decided he must be a god (Acts 28:3–6).

The chief man on the island, Publius, invited Paul and his companions to his home and looked after them for three days. His father, who was very ill with fever and dysentery, recovered after Paul prayed and laid hands on him. As a result, many other sick people sought out the apostle. When after three months of winter it was time to depart, the grateful locals gave Paul and his shipmates the things they needed to continue their journey (verses 7–10).

Finding a ship bound for Italy, they made a three-day stop at Syracuse, in Sicily, before proceeding past Rhegium and on to Puteoli on the Italian mainland. There they found fellow believers, and the centurion allowed them to stay for a week. As they approached Rome, church members who had heard they were coming went to meet them. Some came out of Rome about 43 miles on the Appian Way to the Market of Appius, while others waited closer to the city at the Three Inns. Paul was much encouraged by this welcome.

Thus we came to Rome. And the brethren, when they heard about us, came from there as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet us.”

Acts 28:14–15, New American Standard Bible

Paul the Prisoner

Once in Rome, Paul was lodged temporarily (verse 23)—perhaps at a friend’s house—but guarded by soldiers in rotation, to whom he was attached by a chain (see verses 16 and 20). Before long, however, he was able to live in his own rented accommodation for an extended period (verse 30).

After the first three days, he invited the local Jewish leaders to visit him. Their meeting gave Paul the opportunity to explain the circumstances surrounding his arrest, to proclaim his innocence, and to let his Jewish brothers know about Jesus.

The emperor at the time of Paul’s two-year imprisonment was the infamous Nero. It’s likely that after receiving papers from Porcius Festus, he waited until he had heard from Paul’s Jewish accusers in Jerusalem before meeting him. He perhaps also knew of Paul from his advisor Seneca, whose brother Gallio had heard and dismissed a complaint against the apostle lodged by other Jewish leaders in Corinth a few years earlier (Acts 18:12–16). But clearly, the local Jews knew nothing of any reason for Paul’s arrival in Rome. They said, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you” (Acts 28:21). They were therefore open to hearing more about “this sect” that Paul represented, and which, they said, people were speaking against everywhere.

At a second meeting, many people came to hear Paul, who spoke from morning till night. He explained about the kingdom of God and the recent coming of the Messiah, using Hebrew Scripture (“the Law and the Prophets”) to try to convince his audience. Some were willing to be convinced, while others dismissed his teaching. Paul realized that a prophecy was being fulfilled at that moment and referred his listeners to the words found in Isaiah 6:9–10: “And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’”

Paul felt compelled to state to the Jews that he would now go to the gentile peoples with the message since they did not care to accept his teaching.

The book of Acts closes with the comment that Paul stayed in Rome for two years, receiving all who came and “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). This is an indication that the unusual circumstance of being chained to another did not prevent him speaking out plainly, and that his freedom of speech was not limited. It also tells us that his imprisonment was different than the one he alludes to in a late letter to his helper, Timothy, which he apparently wrote from a Roman jail. (In fact, as we shall see next time, Paul was soon released from custody and traveled further within the empire prior to his final imprisonment.)

At this point Luke discontinues the account of the early church that he has prepared for Theophilus, apparently because it is now current. Did Luke die before he could write a third volume? We simply do not know. But we can discover more about the apostle Paul in Rome, and by implication his release, from the letters he wrote during this two-year period.

Next time, Paul’s correspondence with a disciple named Philemon, and his epistles to church congregations at Colossae, Ephesus and Philippi.