Paul’s Two-Year Roman Imprisonment
It was an amazing series of events that brought Paul to Rome, the great capital city of the empire. One archaeological source suggests that the population of the imperial city in the first century was in excess of four million people, about three times the size of a large, modern city (Unger 1962, 316).
When Paul wrote to the saints in Rome from Corinth (in Greece) during the course of his third missionary journey (cf. Acts 20:2; Rom. 16:23), he had expressed an intense longing to visit these Christians (Rom. 1:10-11; 15:22ff). What an evangelistic opportunity this could be! Little did he realize exactly how, in the providential scheme of things, his goal would be fulfilled.
The Chain of Events that Led to Rome
The apostle’s third missionary campaign ended in Jerusalem, as he, in the company of other brethren (cf. Acts 20:4), brought to the holy city a contribution for the poor of that region (cf. Acts 24:17). Paul was happily embraced by the brothers in Jerusalem, but they presented him with a problem. His reputation had preceded him! The report had spread abroad that the apostle was antagonistic to the Jewish system. Accordingly, in order to disarm a volatile situation, Paul, having been in recent days among the Gentiles, agreed to submit to a ceremonial “cleansing” in the temple (Acts 21:26).
This act of benevolence hardly appeased the Jews. Paul had been seen in the city with Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, and so the rumor quickly spread that the apostle had taken “Greeks” into the temple and “defiled this holy place” (Acts 21:28)—which was a capital offense. Before long, the city was aflame with the “lynch-him” mentality. Paul’s life was saved only when Roman officials intervened and took him to a place of safety.
Eventually, under heavy guard (470 soldiers; Acts 23:23), the apostle was taken to Caesarea over on the coast, where he was confined in Herod’s palace. Over some period of time, Paul was subjected to a series of interrogations. Finally, after two years had lapsed, and it appeared that “justice delayed is justice denied,” the noble preacher concluded that he would never receive a fair hearing under the present circumstances. And so, exercising his right as a Roman citizen, he appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11-12).
The harrowing voyage to Rome is graphically detailed by Luke in Acts 27:1-28:16. This is the most remarkable account of ancient sea navigation in the annals of history. Incidentally, the accuracy of Luke’s record is a striking example of the precision of the biblical narrative.
Rome at Last
One of the more amazing circumstances reflected in the book of Acts is the manner in which Paul endeared himself to a wide variety of Roman officials. Almost without exception, these dignitaries came to respect God’s ambassador to the Gentiles. One really is not surprised, therefore, at the kindly treatment Paul received in the imperial city. Rather than being housed as a common criminal, the apostle was permitted to live in his own rented dwelling, though bound with a chain, and in the company of a guard (Acts 28:16, 30; cf. Eph. 6:20).
The latter portion of Acts 28 summarizes two meetings that Paul had with Rome’s leading Jews. And while some of them stubbornly disbelieved his message, others were persuaded by the things he proclaimed (Acts 28:24). This hints of the commencement of a fruitful ministry in the city. Then, abruptly, the narrative ends: “And he abode two whole years in his own hired dwelling, and received all that went in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him” (Acts 28:30-31).
What happened during this two-year span? Luke leaves the anxious reader hanging. Let us consider this matter from several vantages.
The Mysterious Silence
First, it is obvious that Luke knew how Paul’s case ended; that is evidenced by the historian’s reference to the “two whole years.” Did the apostle ever appear before Caesar? Some have contended that probably he did not. It is surmised that his accusers from Judea never showed up to press their case, hence the charges were dropped. There is no evidence for this view, and it runs counter to the testimony of the angel who informed Paul, “You must stand before Caesar” (Acts 27:24).
Second, by studying the final letters of Paul — 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy — one is able to conclude that the apostle was released from that initial Roman confinement, to further evangelize the antique world of the empire.
Third, but why would a historian, so fastidious for details, deliberately omit virtually the whole of this obviously exciting two-year period, by concluding the Acts narrative so suddenly? Various theories have been proposed by commentators, none of which really satisfies all the facts. Ultimately, the answer has to be: Luke was not writing under the impulses of a natural reporter. The superintending guidance of the Holy Spirit restrained the historical account.
One concept the Bible student must understand is the fact that biblical history is selective. It is designed to trace only that course of events essential to the balanced revelation of redemptive matters. In the composition of the Bible, Heaven was unconcerned with catering to human curiosity. This selective “silence of the Scriptures” is one of the subtle, though profound, evidences of the divine origin of the Book of Books. (For further consideration of this point, see The Silence of Scripture: An Argument for Inspiration*.)
Some Literary “Detective” Work
While it is the case that Luke did not chronicle the events of Paul’s two-year house-arrest in Rome, there are other ways of filling in some of the blanks. For example, it is generally conceded that during this time-frame the apostle penned four epistles—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (though not necessarily in this sequence). Thus, by gleaning data from these letters, one can learn something of the trials and tribulations of God’s apostle during this period. Let us briefly consider several matters relating to this two-year span.
Physical and Emotional Circumstances
First, while it is true that Paul was granted some rather unusual liberties, as mentioned earlier (see Acts 28:16, 30-31), nonetheless, he was still a prisoner. This circumstance in itself imposes considerable stress. Hence, in his correspondence, he refers to himself as “the prisoner of Christ” (Eph. 3:1) or “the prisoner of the Lord” (Eph. 4:1), who is an “ambassador in chains” (6:20). Chains were commonly viewed as an object of shame (cf. 2 Tim. 1:16). Note the multiple references to his “bonds” or to his state as a “prisoner” (Phil. 1:7, 13, 14, 17; Col. 4:18; Phile. 1, 9, 23). It is obvious that the apostle’s status as a prisoner was a constant reminder of the sacrifices that sometimes are a necessary component of the Christian life.
Second, there is another factor which doubtless was a source of considerable grief to this rugged soldier of Jesus—as reflected even in a letter known for its joyful tone (the Philippian epistle). It was a spiritual wound more devastating than any physical injury.
As Paul began his work in the seven-hilled city, he attracted considerable attention and his influence was staggering. The labor of the Christian-prisoner became known “throughout the whole praetorian guard” (Philippians 1:13). The praetorian guard was a body of ten thousand specially selected soldiers in Rome. They had unusual privileges (e.g., double pay), becoming so powerful that even the emperors had to court their favor (Robertson 1931, 438). The apostle’s influence even went beyond this group unto “all the rest,” which probably indicates that his reputation was known throughout the entire city. Amazingly, there is even a reference to saints in “Caesar’s household,” i.e., those in and about the emperor’s palace (Phil. 4:22).
The gospel had penetrated deeply into the heart of this metropolis. Through Paul’s example, the majority of the Roman Christians were “more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear” (Phil. 1:14). What thrilling times these must have been.
But there were disappointments as well. Unfortunately, some members of the Roman congregation apparently did not like the notoriety Paul had generated. They were characterized by “envy” (a feeling of displeasure caused by the success of Paul) and “strife” (selfish ambition) (Phil. 1:15).
Fueled by these base attitudes, this renegade group went forth “preaching Christ.” The content of their message did not warrant censure; rather, it was their motives that elicited the apostle’s rebuke—they were insincere and pretentious. But what was their goal? Incredibly, they hoped “to raise up affliction” for the already-burdened Paul. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario. They might have proclaimed that Jesus Christ is “King”—a point very sensitive to the Roman authorities (cf. Acts 17:7). When interrogated by the officials, these antagonists might well have suggested, “You can take this matter up with Paul, the prisoner. He is the most prominent leader of our movement.” Can anything more wicked be imagined?
Surely the weary apostle spent some sleepless nights praying for the regeneration of these evil hearts. In spite of all this heartache, however, Paul could still muster a generally jubilant spirit. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice,” he would write (Philippians 4:4). As unpleasant as his circumstances sometimes were, he could affirm that the things which had happened to him had worked for the “progress” of the gospel (Phil. 1:12).
“Progress” is from the Greek term
prokopen, derived of two roots (
pro, “forward,” and
kopto, “to cut”). Originally the word was employed of “a pioneer cutting his way through brushwood” (Vine 1991, 334). Paul views his troubles in the most positive light possible; they were like an advance party, preparing the way for the success of the gospel. He even believes that these difficulties will work out to his “salvation” (Phil. 1:19), i.e., his “deliverance” (NASB) from this perilous situation in Rome.
An analysis of contexts of this nature, in these “prison” epistles, therefore, can throw a floodlight on Paul’s trials and his courageous spirit during this two-year confinement period.
Friends Who Sustained
A consideration of the record in Acts, together with references from the four epistles mentioned above, reveals a great deal about certain persons with whom Paul had contact during this initial Roman confinement. Sometimes a few words or phrases speak volumes.
Accompanying Paul on the voyage to Rome were Luke and Aristarchus.
Though Luke is not mentioned by name in the book of Acts, his association with Paul can be established by a detailed argument showing that he is the author of the narrative, and thus, by the use of first person pronouns in the historical record, his movements may be traced (cf. Acts 16:10-12; 20:5-21:17; 27:1-28:16). He was a Greek physician (Col. 4:14) who may have joined himself to Paul to help care for the apostle’s physical infirmities (cf. Gal. 4:13; 2 Cor. 12:7ff), and, as a premier historian, to document the labors of the great apostle to the Gentiles.
Luke journeyed with Paul to Rome (Acts 27:1ff), and was even with him at the very end when, during a second Roman imprisonment, the apostle awaited execution (2 Tim. 4:11). When Paul writes to the Colossians, Luke sends greetings (Col. 4:14; cf. Phile. 24).
Aristarchus was a Jewish convert from Thessalonica (Acts 27:2; Col. 4:10-11). At some point he joined Paul on the apostle’s third missionary journey as a “traveling companion,” and, in Ephesus, was “ruffed up” by an unruly crowd (Acts 19:29). He accompanied Paul back to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4), and then finally on to Rome (Acts 27:2). In some sense, he became a “fellow-prisoner” with the apostle in Rome (Col. 4:10)—perhaps voluntarily. He was also a “fellow-worker” who brought Paul comfort in his distress (Col. 4:11).
Timothy was probably closer to Paul than any other person on earth, and on several occasions he is warmly commended by the great apostle (1 Cor. 16:10; Phil. 2:19ff; 2 Tim. 3:10ff). A native of Lystra, one may infer that he was converted by Paul when the apostle first visited that city (cf. 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:1). He was selected to be a traveling companion with Paul when the apostle passed through the region on his second missionary campaign (Acts 16:1ff). His wide range of movements can be seen in the book of Acts, together with references in Paul’s letters. In spite of the fact that apparently he had a less-than-aggressive personality (cf. 1 Tim. 1:18ff; 4:6ff; 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:7ff), he made his way to Paul’s side in Rome, and the apostle pledged to send his young friend to Philippi to assist the brethren there (Phil. 2:19-20). At some point Timothy himself was imprisoned, but then released (Heb. 13:23). During his final Roman imprisonment, when Paul knew that the executor’s sword was imminent, he called for Timothy to hurry to him (2 Tim. 4:9). Whether the young man made it in time, we do not know.
Tychicus joined up with Paul in Greece on the latter’s third missionary tour (Acts 20:4), and he journeyed east with the apostle to Jerusalem. He was likely a church messenger, responsible for conveying a portion of the benevolent contribution to Judea. He was Paul’s emissary to transport letters, both to the Colossians (Col. 4:7-9), and to the Ephesians (Eph. 6:21-22), hence was in the apostle’s company at Rome. Paul appears to have considered him as a possible relief for Titus on Crete (Tit. 3:12). And there may be evidence that Tychicus bore Paul’s second letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:12). This gentleman is given high praise by Paul as “the beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow-servant in the Lord,” who was capable of comforting the saints at Colossae (Col. 4:7-8), and certainly Paul himself.
A most unlikely candidate as an apostolic associate was a slave from Colossae whose name was Onesimus. Onesimus had abandoned his master, Philemon, and fled to Rome, probably hoping to lose himself in that crowded metropolis, perhaps stealing money from his owner in the process (Phile. 18). In the providential scheme of things—note that “perhaps” (Phile. 15)—he encountered Paul and was led to the Lord (Phile. 10). Eventually, Onesimus (whose name means “useful”) made himself so “useful” (NASB) that Paul was loath to part with him. But the apostle would not retain his services under these circumstances (Roman law required returning a slave to his owner), especially without the permission of Philemon (Phile. 11-14).
And so Paul was sending Onesimus home (in the company of Tychicus) with high praise; he was a “faithful and beloved” kinsman in the Lord (Col. 4:9). Moreover, Paul urged Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a servant, but more than a servant”—as “a beloved brother” (Phile. 16). Indeed, he is encouraged to embrace his servant with the same spirit he would have extended to Paul himself (Phile. 17). If this disposition was adopted, then Onesimus would have remained a slave no longer—at least practically speaking. This is virtually a “proclamation of emancipation” without the specific words, “free him,” being spoken. There may be no document in all history that has done more to remedy the evil of slavery than has Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Another unlikely associate of Paul in Rome was Mark. Mark was the son of Mary (Acts 12:12) and the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). He had started out with Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey, working as their “attendant” (Acts 13:5), but along the way (at Perga in Pamphylia), he left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). It is clear that Paul felt the abandonment was unjustified, for when he and Barnabas were planning a second campaign, the latter wanted to take John Mark again. Paul resisted, however, and a contention so “sharp” developed between the two that these friends went their separate ways (Acts 15:36-39).
But time passes and people change. Now Paul is imprisoned in Rome and Mark is there as a “fellow-worker” (Phile. 24). This is a circumstance that no writer would have invented, and then left “hanging,” without ample explanation. Apparently Paul had plans to send Mark to Colossae and so bade the brethren to “receive” him should the plan materialize (Col. 4:10). During his final imprisonment, the apostle instructs Timothy to bring Mark with him when he comes to Rome, for, says Paul, “he is useful to me” (2 Tim. 4:11). The past was forgotten. Mark had redeemed himself.
Who was Jesus Justus? A companion of Paul’s in Rome. But nothing more is known of him except the fact that he was a valued Jewish co-worker, and the apostle considered him a source of comfort (Col. 4:10-11).
Epaphras was from Colossae, but he was serving with Paul in Rome as a “slave for Christ” (Col. 4:12). This brother was a powerful instrument in spreading the gospel of Christ, apparently having established the churches in Colossae (Col. 1:7), and perhaps in Laodicea and Hierapolis as well (Col. 4:13). Since Paul characterizes him as a “fellow-prisoner,” one may conclude that he was held by the Roman authorities even as the apostle was. It may be that he voluntarily submitted to the incarceration in order to minister to Paul. Apparently Paul’s knowledge of certain problems in Colossae was conveyed by Epaphras, thus motivating the apostle to write his epistle to this church (Col. 1:7-8). Epaphras was a deeply spiritual man (Col. 4:12-13), who obviously was a source of strength to Paul.
Demas is a sad case indeed. This brother is thrice mentioned in the letters of Paul. First, he was with the apostle at some point during Paul’s initial Roman imprisonment. His salutation is conveyed to Philemon, and he is complimented as Paul’s “fellow-worker” (Phile. 24). When the apostle penned his letter to the brethren at Colossae, he strangely says, “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas salute you” (Col. 4:14). Luke is “the beloved,” but Demas, at this point, is just plain Demas. There appears to be a distance—a stiffness—in that. Noted scholar J. B. Lightfoot remarked that the language here is possibly a “foreshadowing” of things to come in connection with Demas. He comments that in this context Demas “is dismissed with a bare mention and without any epithet of commendation” (1892, 240).
In the last epistle he ever wrote before being led to his execution, Paul urged Timothy to “give diligence to come shortly to me.” The reason for the urgency is stated: “[F]or Demas forsook me, having loved this present world, and went to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:9-10). Paul’s word for “loved” is from agape. Scholars have associated this term with an action that tends “to choose its object deliberately . . . a calculated disposition” (Turner 1981, 263). Did Demas grow tired of giving so much of his time to the Lord? Did he resent the deprivation of income? Was he weary of an association with a prisoner? It is not fanciful to conclude that probably he finally tired of the sacrificial life, and so made a calculated decision to follow his heart back into the pleasures of that wicked era.
Finally, there was Epaphroditus, mentioned only in the Philippian letter. He was out of a pagan background (note the relationship of his name to Aphrodite, a heathen goddess), but was somehow converted to Christ. A native of Philippi, he had journeyed to Rome, bringing financial support to Paul on behalf of the Philippian congregation (Phil. 2:25; 4:18). This reveals the esteem in which he was held by his brethren in Philippi. This church had “fellowshipped” with the apostle since he first established the cause in that city (Acts 16:12ff)—a span of some ten years (Phil. 1:5). After delivering the gift, Epaphroditus stayed on, assisting Paul. The apostle characterizes the brother as a “fellow-worker,” “fellow-soldier,” and “minister to my need” (Phil. 2:25). It likely is the case that Epaphroditus labored so diligently that his health was impaired; indeed, he was so ill that he almost died (Phil. 2:26-27, 30). Paul pays high tribute when he says that this brother was “hazarding his life to supply that which was lacking in your service to me” (Phil. 2:30). It is virtually certain that Epaphroditus subsequently returned to Philippi, bearing this letter to the beloved brethren there (Phil. 2:28).
So it is, by weaving together the data found in Paul’s “prison epistles,” one can get some feeling for how things fared for the apostle in Rome. Somewhere along the way, Paul began to get the impression that he would be released from his confinement and be able to freely move about again. To the Philippians he wrote, “I trust in the Lord that I myself also [as well as Timothy] shall come shortly” (Phil. 2:24).
In addition to visiting Philippi, he planned to travel to Colossae, even suggesting that Philemon get “lodging” ready for him (Philemon 22). We know from the material in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy, that Paul was released. He preached several years more, perhaps going all the way to Spain (cf. Rom. 15:24), before being imprisoned again, finally departing to be with the Lord in his “heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18).
- Lightfoot, J. B. 1892. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. London, England: Macmillan.
- Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 4. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
- Turner, Nigel. 1981. Christian Words. Nashville, TN: Nelson.
- Unger, Merrill. 1962. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Vine, W. E. 1991. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World.