Another Attack on Paul
Soon after the refugees from the great tempest gathered on land, they discovered where they were. They were on a major island just south of Italy, the Island of Malta. Such a large company of people arriving onshore could not long remain unnoticed by the local inhabitants. When the people living nearby found the 276 pitiful victims of the pitiless sea, their hearts were moved with compassion. The long days and nights of struggle against certain death had left them cold, wet, weak, and hungry, and the world of nature continued to deny them mercy, for now it was raining, and the air was chill.
The Maltese rushed to give them help. Luke calls them barbarians, but not because they were savages. The habit of a Grecian like Luke was to designate anyone a barbarian who was not Greek or Roman. The Maltese were a civilized people who descended from the Phoenicians and spoke a Phoenician tongue, and they received the castaways not with distrust or annoyance, but with great hospitality. Their first act of kindness was to kindle a fire to combat the cold and dampness that would make people sick.
Always ready to serve the needs of others, Paul joined in the work of building the fire. But when he twisted together a bundle of sticks, he did not notice a snake hiding among them. And when he laid the sticks on the fire, the snake fled out of the flames and "fastened" on Paul’s hand. In other words, it bit Paul. The native Maltese standing nearby saw the snake and recognized it as a viper, a species renowned for its deadly poison. Its bite killed the victim within minutes. These onlookers, expecting Paul to drop dead at any moment, watched him carefully. They said among themselves that a man pursued by vengeance so relentlessly, using first the sea and now the viper to bring him down, must be a terribly wicked man, at least a murderer.
Paul was not concerned about the snake. He simply shook it off into the fire and afterward suffered no effects. The onlookers were amazed. They had never seen a viper's bite fail to do harm. From the suspicion that he was murderer they switched to the suspicion that he was a god. Their reaction was exactly the reverse of what happened years before in Lystra of Lycaonia, a city in Asia Minor. There, after Paul healed a lame man, the people hailed him and Barnabas as gods. But a short while later, after hearing Paul's enemies accuse him of being a troublemaker, the same people allowed him to be stoned.
Harvest in Malta
The plight of the stranded seafarers soon came to the attention of the chief man on the island, whose name was Publius. It so happened that his home was nearby. Moved by a gracious spirit, he extended hospitality to members of the ship's company, among them Luke and Paul and probably the other leading men. For three days they stayed in his home and enjoyed his companionship. An opportunity then arose for Paul to repay his host with a favor. The man's father was seriously sick.
In describing the illness, Luke resorts to the medical language of his day so that we might form a clear idea of the father's condition. He suffered from a "fever" and "bloody flux,"—literally, "fevers" and "dysentery." The use of plural "fevers" probably indicates recurring bouts of the illness. The type of dysentery that was once common on the Island of Malta and in regions nearby is known as Malta fever, caused by bacteria derived from the milk of Maltese goats. In the modern world it is treatable by antibiotics.
After going in to see the sick man, Paul healed him in a way designed to teach two important lessons. He openly prayed for the man to show that the miracle would be a work of God. Then, to show that he was God’s minister, he laid his hands on the man, and immediately the man recovered.
News of the healing spread throughout the island, and many brought their sick to be healed. And many were healed. As a result, the people of the island came to set Paul and Luke in high regard. It is unthinkable that these two emissaries of God did not use their prestige to advance God's work. Undoubtedly, they told many about Christ and brought many into the Kingdom.
When they left the island, the natives heaped honors upon them and gave them everything necessary for their coming journey. In some contexts, the word "honors" refers to money, so it is possible that besides honoring the evangelists with expressions of praise and gratitude, the natives also gave money to meet their expenses. The things necessary that they contributed probably included food and clothing.
Last Leg of a Last Journey
Winter had nearly settled in by the time Paul reached Malta. Therefore, no further movement over the sea was possible until the coming of spring. Finally, after three months of waiting, the return of good sailing weather allowed the centurion to resume travel with his soldiers and prisoners. Upon finding a ship that had been wintering in Malta, no doubt at moorings in the harbor of Malta's capital, Valetta, he arranged for passage. This was a ship from Alexandria, another in the fleet that brought grain to Rome. Its sign, sculpted as a figurehead on its prow, was the twins Castor and Pollux, two mythical sons of Zeus who were regarded as patrons of navigation.
With Paul and Luke on board, the ship set sail as soon as the weather permitted and moved northeastward to Syracuse, capital of the Island of Sicily. Perhaps because the ship was becalmed, the journey suffered a delay of three days. Then the ship moved on to Rhegium, a major port on the toe of Italy. The crossing required the sailors to "fetch a compass." The likely meaning is that the ship could not proceed straight to Rhegium, but had to take a roundabout course dictated by the winds. Then at Rhegium they caught a south wind that took them directly to Puteoli, a port that commonly served as the last stopping place of ships carrying cargo and passengers to Rome. The wind was so favorable that the trip took only one day.
As one of the principal ports of Italy, Puteoli had long been the home of a Jewish community. Now Paul found a body of believers there, and at their insistence and with the centurion's permission, Paul remained with them seven days, no doubt giving them both teaching and encouragement. Then he and his company resumed their journey to Rome. The rest of the trip was on foot. A short distance north of Puteoli they came to the Appian Way, the great road running down the length of Italy. Following this highway north, they soon came to Appii forum (the Forum of Appius), a market town about 43 miles south of their destination. There they met a group of brethren from the church in Rome, which had evidently heard of Paul's coming and sent out delegates to welcome him. More arrived as he walked along, some meeting him when he came to Tres Tabernae (translated "The Three Taverns," but the reference is to shops), a point about 33 miles from the city.
The willingness of these brethren to walk sixty or eighty miles round trip just to greet someone who was coming into their city anyway is a striking testimony of their high regard for Paul. He had sacrificed much in his years of ministry to the churches. The least one church could do was to make some sacrifice for his sake.
The warm greeting that Paul received thrilled his soul. He thanked God for it and derived from it new courage. He was coming into Rome with the formidable prospect of defending himself before Caesar, a wicked and violent man. He did not know whether he would ever leave the city again. As it turned out, he did not, so far as we know, although, as we shall see, some traditions affirm that he did. Whatever truly lay before him, he must have sensed that he was walking into the precincts of his final hours. So at this time he was in special need of encouragement to be brave, and God, as He normally does, provided encouragement through fellow believers.
Upon his arrival in the city, the centurion handed Paul over to a higher officer, a captain of the guard with the Roman title "stratopedarch." The centurion must have spoken highly of Paul, for the captain, rather than casting Paul into a common jail, treated him with great deference, allowing him to live in his own house under guard by a single soldier. The soldier was bound to Paul by a light chain attached to Paul's wrist.
Paul's Meeting with Jewish Leaders
Three days after Paul settled in his new home, he called for the leaders of the local Jewish community, and many promptly answered the summons. Why they came is unclear. In his request for a meeting, he must have been able to establish that he was a person of some importance. Indeed, as a former student of Gamaliel and member of the Sanhedrin, he did have impressive credentials. Moreover, the account suggests that these Roman Jews already knew of him as a leader of the church.
At this meeting, he explained why he had come to Rome for trial. He said that as a result of events in Jerusalem, he became a prisoner of the Romans even though he had committed no offense. The proof of his innocence was that the Romans were willing to release him, but when the Jews protested, Paul had no recourse except to lodge an appeal with Caesar.
Paul emphasized that he had no plan to press a complaint against his own people. In other words, he did not intend while in Rome to file charges against anyone in Jerusalem. Paul gave this assurance to the Jewish leaders so that they would not bridle up against him and treat him as an enemy. He was fostering a friendly reception to what he intended to say about Christ.
To prepare the way for the gospel, he stated that the only reason for his bonds was his zealous testimony to the hope of Israel. By that hope, he meant, as on earlier occasions, the hope fulfilled when Christ came and conquered death by His resurrection (Acts 13:32–33; 23:6; 24:15; 26:6–8). In these words Paul was fanning their desire to hear more. He was seeking opportunity for an extended discussion enabling him to establish by fulfilled prophecy that the conqueror of death, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Jewish Messiah.
The leaders responded that they had heard no evil report about Paul, whether through letters or visitors from Judea. We may conclude that the high priest and his allies had decided not to make trouble for Paul in Rome. If they could not bend the local Roman governor to their will, they could hardly expect to win their case against Paul in the emperor's court, which was hardly friendly to Jewish interests. Any action against Paul was risky. If they pressed their judicial case against him or if they sent letters maligning him to the Jewish leaders in Rome, they might stir up passion and civil disorder in the Jewish community. As a result, the current emperor might expel Jews from Rome, as his predecessor had done about ten years before.
Although these leaders in Rome had heard nothing against Paul, they had heard much against the new "sect," as they called it. The Greek word suggests an unseemly departure from what is generally believed. Knowing that Paul was a leader of this sect, they wanted to hear what he could say in its defense.
At an appointed time, many of the leading Jews in Rome came to hear Paul present the gospel. Although he was a great preacher, his method of witness on this occasion was not preaching. Rather, using teaching as his method, he systematically went through the Old Testament Scriptures and showed that every prophecy was perfectly fulfilled in Jesus. He spent all day, from morning to evening, patiently explaining the prophecies and answering all questions. He was seeking to build faith upon faith. If they had already put their faith in God's Word, it was but a small step to put their faith in the One who was the theme of God's Word.
His method worked for some of his hearers, but not for all. Paul's testimony for Christ divided them into two groups that fell into sharp dispute with each other. One part gladly accepted Paul's message. The other hotly rejected it. In the evening, the company of Jews left without coming to agreement. The debate continued even as they walked away.
Paul's last words addressed the unbelievers. He repeated the solemn verdict brought by Isaiah the prophet against the nation of Israel (Isa. 6:9-10), the same verdict that Paul had already quoted in his epistle to the Romans (Rom. 11:8) and that Jesus Himself had quoted when rebuking the Jews for their unbelief (Matt. 13:14-15). Isaiah predicted that the nation of Israel would turn their backs upon truth. Sin would so weigh upon their hearts and dull their spiritual senses that truth would make no impression on them. Paul warned the unbelievers that by rejecting Jesus, they were fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy.
Paul then announced that God would seek another audience for truth that, unlike the Jews, would receive it. He would send salvation to all the gentile peoples of the world.
Paul's Sojourn in Rome
The Book of Acts comes to an end with a summary of the next two years. Throughout that time Paul remained under guard in his lodgings, a house he himself rented, where he welcomed any visitor who wished to hear about Christ. His fetter kept him from witnessing for Christ in the streets and plazas of the city, but the city could come to him, and presumably many did. He met and taught them freely, without any interference from government officials.
Going to Rome, capital of the civilized gentile world, was a logical final step in the career of the apostle to the gentiles. The concluding verses of Acts are therefore words of triumph, for they affirm that Paul had fulfilled his calling in life. They are the perfect ending of a book primarily intended to lay out Paul's work in expanding gospel witness beyond the narrow world of the Jews to the larger world centered in Rome. Throughout his career, he had always longed to complete the arduous course laid out before him (Phil. 3:13-14). After overcoming all obstacles and gaining Rome, he could say, in his final epistle, that he had run the race and come to the finish line (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
During many hours of his Roman imprisonment, he was busy writing. No less than four of his epistles—Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Second Timothy—were produced during the two years of house arrest (v. 30). Each missive conveys indispensable truth, whether unique, or corroborative of divine revelation elsewhere. Another epistle commonly attributed to Paul is Hebrews. We will omit it from our discussion because, for reasons we will offer in a forthcoming essay, we believe that the author was Barnabas.
Paul's epistle to the Ephesians is filled with special warmth. The recipients lived in the city where he labored longer than anywhere else, with such success that the church he crafted in the midst of this former stronghold of paganism may have been the largest in the Greek-speaking world. Its elders regarded Paul so highly that when he visited them for the last time, they wept sorely at his departure (Acts 20:36-38). We may be sure that their grief displayed how the whole church felt about him.
Among the believers in Ephesus were many who had advanced to strong maturity in Christ. His letter is therefore not sparing of deep discussions. At the beginning he lifts their eyes above this world to see the wonderful eternal future that awaits all of God's people (1:1–2:10). At the end he counsels them on how to conduct the spiritual warfare we cannot avoid so long as we live in this world (6:10–18). In the central portion he seeks to remove possible hindrances to effective witness and service (2:11–6:9).
Near the end of Ephesians, Paul appeals for prayer on his behalf, but, curiously from our mundane perspective, what he sought was not deliverance from prison, but power in witness (6:19–20). After introducing Tychicus, bearer of the epistle (6:21–22), he closes with loving words, expressing his heart's desire that they will know ever more of the peace, grace, and love of God (6:23–24).
Paul's epistle to the Colossians, coming from the same stage of Paul's career, is closely parallel to Ephesians in its central portion giving practical advice on daily living. But otherwise it is strikingly different. Its recipients were not strong Christians ready for meat rather than milk (Heb. 5:12–14), but weak Christians on the verge of falling into heresy. A brand of false teaching had arisen in Colosse that threatened to be the death knell of its church. Scholars have never agreed as to the exact nature of the new doctrinal system, but without doubt, like the legalistic heresy that sprang up in the Galatian churches, it emerged from the Jewish community. In Paul's epistle to the endangered Colossian church, we him either directly or indirectly rebuking four specific deviations from true doctrine. Perhaps a whole book of the New Testament concentrates on the Colossian heresy because in many ways it was a forerunner of the superstitious Catholicism that came to dominate Christendom centuries later and that continues to blind multitudes.
The third epistle written along with Ephesians and Colossians was Philemon, a brief personal letter to a leading member of the church at Colosse. Onesimus, a slave in Philemon's household, had escaped and fled to Rome, where, by some string of events now forgotten, he came into Paul's presence. Perhaps while in Rome he, like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), had found that freedom from proper authority had not exalted him to clouds of joy, but condemned him to dregs of despair, so he deliberately sought Paul's help. Under the apostle's loving influence, he found or renewed faith in Christ (v. 15-16) and consented to return to his master. The epistle, intended to be delivered by Onesimus, is Paul's plea to Philemon that he readmit the slave to his former post, although he might see advantage in selling him off to another master; moreover, that he grant Onesimus a loving welcome. The letter is a remarkable testimony in many respects to the largeness of Paul's heart. He even agrees to offset any financial losses that Philemon sustained as a result of the slave running away (v. 18).
Yet Paul had to make one more contribution to the New Testament, the second epistle to Timothy. It was, according to general opinion, the last epistle that Paul wrote.
Second Timothy may be read as the apostle's last words to his beloved son in the faith. Much of it seeks to comfort Timothy in his great sorrow over Paul's suffering and likely martyrdom (1:1–12). Yet even more of it expresses a father's natural concern that his spiritual son and heir will carry on his work honorably and, at the Day of Judgment, win the Lord's commendation as a good and faithful servant. He emphasizes both the present and the future dangers that Timothy will face. He must beware false teachers like Phygellus and Hermogenes (1:13-15), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2:16–17), and a host of others yet to come (3:13–4:4). He must refuse to leave the front lines for a life of ease (2:1–7). He must resist the false Christianity of all those who hide self-seeking under a mask of religion (3:1–9). He must expect persecution and stand fast whatever happens (3:10–12). In summary, he says, "But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry" (4:5). He closes with a list of instructions, the chief being a plea that Timothy will come for a last visit (4:9). He says, basically, "Hurry," suggesting that he may not have long to live.
A reader in our day, which is the ultimate fulfillment of the last days Paul anticipates (3:1) would do well to view himself as the person Paul addresses as Timothy, a name whose meaning points to anyone who venerates or worships God. He should receive the epistle as a personal letter from the apostle, and he should understand its words as written for his own benefit.
Paul's first appearance before judges was likely what he described as his "first answer" (4:16). He added that "no man stood with me, but all men forsook me" (idem). One obvious exception is Timothy himself, for Paul is telling him what happened. Is it possible that Paul's beloved companion Luke, the writer of Acts, was among those who deserted the apostle's cause? Certainly this loyal helper through countless soul-wrenching crises in the past would not have shrunk from helping Paul at his greatest moment of need. Nor would any of the other well-tested and fully proven men in his immediate company. A few verses later, he specifically praises Luke for his continuing support (4:11). In his words of sad complaint against the disloyal, Paul is evidently assuming that Timothy will understand which people he intends: not such men as Luke, but others in Rome who should have come to his defense. Perhaps the ones he held especially blameworthy were leaders of the Roman church. They should have been willing to testify that Paul was no rabble-rouser against civil authority, but a teacher of godly living which his followers demonstrated in their piety, good works, and cooperation with rulers at all levels of society.
But it may be a mistake to suppose that his first defense was delayed until two years after his arrival in Rome. Yes, the Emperor Nero surely did not view the trial of an obscure religious fanatic as a high priority. Yet we may assume that the Book of Acts continues until it reaches the very moment in Paul's life for which it was prepared—the moment when a laborious survey of Paul's ministry was needed to assist in his defense. The two years of confinement that Luke specifies (v. 30) may therefore measure the interval from Paul's initial imprisonment in Rome to his final defense, when Caesar brought his case to judgment. Until then, Luke stayed at Paul's side and postponed final touches on the Book of Acts, because even they would serve as evidence of Paul's innocence.
Notice what Luke says in the closing verses. He affirms that throughout the two years of waiting, Paul did nothing to destabilize Caesar's firm control of his subjects. He remained contentedly under house arrest. He never tried to escape, or to preach his cause in the streets. He received guests, but never promoted hostile factions in the Jewish community or in the city at large by admitting some while rejecting others. Furthermore, the visitors never came for the purpose of secret plotting against the emperor. Rather, they came only to hear him teach and preach his religion, which in its main message dealt with the kingdom of God, not with the kingdom of man. The final words, "no man forbidding him," stress that he always stayed strictly within the boundaries set by the soldiers guarding him. He never challenged their rules.
In Appendix 3, we will discuss all the legends and theories concerning what happened to Paul after events recorded in the last verses of Acts.