Another Attack on Paul

Acts 28:1-6

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.

Pondering a Question

Was the viper attack simply an accident?

Since it was God's stated will to take Paul before Caesar in Rome, we may assume that the great storm which nearly swamped Paul's ship came from God's enemy, from Satan. It is always Satan's chief aim to frustrate the will of God. Therefore, after God delivered Paul and all his fellow travelers from the mouth of the devouring storm, Satan made another attempt on Paul's life. The viper attack was not an accident. It came from the chief serpent himself. Satan was trying to eliminate Paul before he could preach the gospel in Rome. But even Satan should have known that the attack was futile. Jesus had promised the apostles immunity from the bite of deadly serpents (Mark 16:18).

Harvest in Malta

Acts 28:7-10

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.

Getting Practical

Divine orchestration of our lives

Although the storm kept Paul's ship from following a charted path, it could not blow Paul off course from God's will. God had many of his elect hidden away in an obscure corner of the Roman world, on the small Island of Malta. Since Paul's movements were restricted once he became a Roman prisoner, the only way to bring him to the island was through storm and shipwreck. From Paul's perspective, it was hardly a desirable experience. It must have seemed at times like an unscheduled departure from God's plan, or like a moment of victory in Satan's struggle to take control of events, but it was no such thing. Throughout, a sovereign God kept a firm hand upon what happened, shaping and pointing events so that they perfectly realized His intentions.

When we go through trouble, it is well to remember that the same God who orchestrated the life of Paul also orchestrates our lives to fulfill the promise, "All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

Last Leg of a Last Journey

Acts 28:11-16

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.

Delving Deeper

Castor and Pollux

The Book of Acts contains many accounts of voyages. Yet the account of Paul sailing from Malta to Italy is the only one that tells the sign of his ship. Rather than dismiss the sign as an incidental detail, we should ask why Luke calls it to our attention.

The famous myth of Castor and Pollux had many variants, all equally unedifying. But the story line common to them all treated Castor and Pollux as two men who lived in this world as human brothers, although both were generally regarded as the offspring of the god Zeus by a human mother. Together and separately they accomplished great feats and finished memorable exploits. As an expression of fatherly pride, Zeus granted them eternal possession of two heavenly stars, the pair known as the constellation Gemini.

As Paul and Luke looked upon their ship, they must have seen the figurehead as a touch of divine encouragement. Of course, they did not imagine that God was endorsing the myth. No, it was just pagan fiction. Yet it could also be seen as poetic imagery—as a figurative retelling of their own story. They too lived as men in this world. They too were children of a god, though He was not some inferior being who existed only in men's fancy. He was the real God in heaven. They too were brothers; to be exact, brothers in Christ. They too had done great deeds, yet not in their own strength, but in God's. They too had won the approval of their heavenly father, the one who is Father to all who believe. And they too, after departure from this world, would shine like the stars. The faces on the figurehead must have reminded them of Daniel's prophecy, "And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever" (Dan. 12:3).

As the apostles embarked on the last stage of their journey to Rome, they could not fail to sense that they were entering a a shadowy world filled with whispers of death. Yet as educated men familiar with symbolism as a literary device, they also could not fail to notice the sign and recognize it as a heavenly promise of life forever.

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.

Getting Practical

How we should welcome servants of God

The warm welcome that the Roman church gave Paul is an example for us. How do we treat Christian workers who leave home and family to evangelize the lost in remote corners of the world? Do we support them, pray for them faithfully, and extend hospitality when they visit our churches, or do we struggle to remember their names? How do we regard those who give up lucrative careers so that they might take humble jobs in ministry? Do we thank them and make their work easier, or we do we take them for granted? How do we view those who defend Christian truth and values at the expense of being ridiculed by the world, or who give their wealth to the church and the poor, or who devote themselves to winning souls? Do we pay them respect, or, because they make us uncomfortable in our complacency and refusal to make sacrifices, do we look on them as wearisome fanatics?

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.

Getting Practical

How we should treat upholders of the law

Throughout Paul's story, we see him winning the esteem of professional Roman soldiers. It is our obligation to treat people in military or police roles in such a way that they will respect us as well. We accomplish this by treating them not as potential adversaries and persecutors, but as God-ordained upholders of the law.

Paul's Meeting with Jewish Leaders

Acts 28:17-22

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.

Reasoning Together

Acts 28:23-29

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

Acts 28:30-31

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.

Delving Deeper

The three epistles sent by the same messenger

It is the consensus of Bible scholars that the epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon date from the same time. The chief evidence for linking the first two is as follows:

  1. Paul identifies Tychicus as the bearer of Ephesians (Eph. 6:21–22) and Colossians (Col. 4:7-8). In both epistles, he uses virtually the same wording to describe the man's role.
  2. The middle portion of Colossians closely mirrors, although in abbreviated form, the middle portion of Ephesians.
  3. The circumstances underlying both epistles appear similar. Paul is in bonds, where he needs more courage to witness boldly (Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3-4). The cited texts are again vividly parallel.

There is little doubt that Colossians and Philemon were written concurrently.

  1. At the end of both (Col. 4:10–14; Philem. 23–24), Paul lists almost the same people as his companions, among them Luke, Mark, Epaphras, Aristarchus, and Demas.
  2. Onesimus, the runaway slave who is the subject of Philemon (Philem. 10-12), appears also in Colossians (Col. 4:7–9). Together, the two references reveal that when Onesimus returned with Paul's letter to his master, Philemon, he traveled with Tychicus, on his way to deliver Paul's letter to the Colossians. Philemon evidently lived in Colosse. Both letters must therefore date from the outset of their journey.

Delving Still Deeper

Whereabouts of Timothy

The strongest argument against putting Ephesians and Colossians at the same time is the different greetings we find in their opening verses. Colossians names Timothy as, it would appear, coauthor (Col. 1:1). Ephesians does not (Eph. 1:1). Also, whereas Timothy joins Paul in saluting the Colossians, he was evidently not with Paul in Rome when Tychicus departed to deliver Ephesians, for he needed a letter from Paul to learn of Tychicus's mission (2 Tim. 4:12).

The best explanation for the anomaly is that Timothy, at the time of the Roman epistles, was somewhere far from Rome. Notice that even in Colossians, Paul does not mention Timothy as one of his present companions (Col. 4:10–14). Nor does he in Philemon, written at the same time (vv. 23–24). While in prison at Caesarea, Paul had told the Philippian church that he would soon send Timothy to visit them (Phil. 2:19–23). After fulfilling his mission, perhaps Timothy either stayed in Philippi or traveled through adjoining regions until Paul, after transferal to Rome, summoned him in Second Timothy (2 Tim. 4:9).

When writing this letter, Paul did not think that Timothy was in Ephesus, for surely he would not have wasted words by informing Timothy that Tychicus was in the same city (2 Tim. 4:12). More likely, in light of the clues Paul furnishes, Paul thought that Timothy was someplace to the north, such that before setting sail for Rome, he would pass through the province of Asia (2 Tim. 1:15) and specifically through Troas (2 Tim. 4:13) and Ephesus. Doubtless it was in the latter city where Paul expected him to encounter the household of Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 4:19; cf. 1:16–18) and Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14-15; cf. 1 Tim. 1:3, 20) as well as Tychicus. Perhaps there too he would find Priscilla and Aquila (2 Tim. 4:19). Many years earlier, they had recently come from Rome when Paul met them in Corinth (Acts 18:1–3), and later they accompanied Paul to Ephesus (Acts 18:18–19, 24–26) before eventually returning to Rome (Rom. 16:3–5). Perhaps, after the passage of more years, they had returned to Ephesus. If Priscilla was indeed the offspring of a noble Roman family, her financial resources may have enabled her husband to establish and maintain branches of his business in all three cities.

We may imagine that Timothy indeed found Tychicus in Ephesus and read the letter yet to be carried to Colosse. We may imagine further that he then added his name to the greeting. It was a mark of brotherly feeling, not a claim of joint authorship, since the contents of the epistle left no doubt that they were penned or dictated by Paul alone. The version we now have is not the one sent from Rome, but the one finally delivered to the church.

Delving Deeper

Place of composition for Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon

Some scholars have argued that all three epistles derive from Caesarea, but many clues point to Rome instead.

  1. In Second Corinthians, written when Paul was in Macedonia, he calls himself and his fellow laborers "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Cor. 5:20). The suggestion is that they have traveled to foreign lands, their homeland being Judea. With similar import In Ephesians, Paul calls himself an "ambassador in bonds" (Eph. 6:20). Again he must have been far from home, not in Caesarea but in Rome.
  2. In Colossians, while listing his few companions, Paul mourns that "these only are my fellowworkers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me" (Col. 4:11). Also, in Second Timothy he complains that he has lost any visible support from Christians in the area (2 Tim. 4:16). Such loneliness is not difficult to connect with Rome, where he was an outsider with limited contacts. He had received a warm welcome upon his arrival (Acts 28:14–15), but all life roads tend to scatter in a busy metropolis. Paul's sense of isolation is, however, much harder to connect with Caesarea, the place of composition for Philippians. A vigorous church existed throughout coastal Judea, and the believers in Caesarea itself had in the past shown themselves very friendly to Paul (Acts 21:8–16). Also, while imprisoned in Caesarea, he was attended by domestic servants, called members of Caesar's household, who were openly sympathetic to his cause, and he could relay greetings not only from them, but also from many others, some identified as brethren, some as saints (Phil. 4:21–22).
  3. We will next show that Second Timothy belongs to the same period as Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, although it falls later. The locale of Second Timothy is Rome.

Delving Deeper

Place of composition for Second Timothy

Two asides in the epistle are critical for identifying its milieu.

  1. Paul speaks of Onesiphorus visiting and comforting him during an earlier phase of his Roman imprisonment (2 Tim. 1:16–18). The meaning according to some scholars is that while Onesiphorus was in Rome, he heard about Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea and traveled across the sea to visit him. But we may reject this reading for three reasons.
    1. Advocates of this interpretation insist that the relevant phrase in verse 17 can be translated "having been in Rome," permitting them to treat Onesiphorus's presence in the city as prior to his diligent efforts to find Paul. But the natural sense of the Greek is "when he was in Rome," defining Rome as the arena of searching.
    2. Paul continues in verse 17, "More diligently he sought out me and found me." Visiting Paul in Caesarea would not have required a diligent search. Once having learned of Paul's imprisonment in the provincial capital, Onesiphorus could have found Paul without difficulty. Everyone knew that he was in the governor's palace, which was probably the most visible building in the city.
    3. How would someone in Rome hear what was happening to Paul in Judea? When Paul came to Rome, the leaders of the Jewish community said they knew nothing about the background of Paul's case (Acts 28:21).
  2. Just before his final words, Paul sends greetings from four people otherwise absent from any surviving records (2 Tim. 4:21). All four, identified as belonging to a larger group of brethren, have Roman names. It makes little sense to see them as a random small sample of believers in Caesarea. A better conclusion, given their Roman names, is that they represent a larger group of Roman believers still loyal to Paul.

Delving Still Deeper

Why Onesiphorus needed diligence

Paul's comment that Onesiphorus found him only after a diligent search is one of the chief conundrums that hinders us as we seek to piece together Paul's life story. Some scholars, as we have said, take it as evidence that Paul was in Caesarea—a conclusion we have dismissed for several reasons. Yet others argue that it requires us to place Second Timothy during an imprisonment later than his two years of house arrest. As justification, they say that since Paul was well known both to the Jewish community (Acts 28:30–31) and the Christian community (Rom. 16) in Rome, and since he received many visitors at the house of his confinement, finding him there would have posed no challenge to yet another visitor, Onesiphorus. Then where was his later prison? One tradition favored by the guides serving modern tourists is that in the period just before his martyrdom, he was confined to the dungeon of the Mamertine Prison at the Roman forum. But several considerations weigh against this tradition.

  1. The prison was normally used for high-profile political rivals of the emperor, not cult leaders on the fringes of mainstream society.
  2. The setting of Second Timothy is not a dungeon. The writer speaks of recent and present companions who, by every appearance, are not fellow prisoners (2 Tim. 4:10–11). Demas, for example, could not have forsaken Paul unless he was free to go.
  3. In the circumstances of a dungeon, Paul could not easily have written, or much less dictated, a letter.

Moreover, to hypothesize a later imprisonment does not explain why Onesiphorus had difficulty locating Paul. Even as Paul's death approached, he did not cease to be a prominent figure both among Christians (2 Tim. 4:21) and non-Christian Jews. Also, a public prison might well have been easier to find than a private house.

Before we despair of a solution, however, we should reckon with the complexity of life. Two real-world scenarios and perhaps others might have frustrated Onesiphorus in his search for Paul.

  1. Luke's quick summary of the facts does not demand any inference that Paul always stayed in the same house. It is rather more likely that he did not, since his resources were limited and steadily diminishing. Perhaps Onesiphorus started looking for Paul after he moved to a new place and before his new address had become widely known.
  2. As a newcomer in a major metropolis (by ancient standards), Onesiphorus may have lacked the necessary skill to follow the directions he was given to Paul's house. Somewhere in the maze of streets and alleys he may have become lost, and only by diligent searching did he recover the right path.

Delving Deeper

Time of composition for Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon

The information we have is too meager to set an exact date for these three epistles. When they were written, Onesimus had already spent some time at Paul's side (Philem. 10–13) So perhaps they originated at least a few months after Paul entered imprisonment at Rome, but for a terminal date, the best we can do is to place them at an indefinite time before Second Timothy.

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).

Getting Practical

Lessons for daily life in Ephesians

Ephesians abounds in guidelines for a successful walk with God. Paul is especially concerned to lift believers out of a cultural past mired in paganism or Judaism into the heights of God's kingdom, but what he says is equally helpful to modern readers.

  1. He cautions the gentiles against assuming a secondary role in the body, for underlying the superficial difference between gentile and Jew is an essential oneness in Christ (2:11–3:12). Still today, we who are gentiles should step forward into leadership.
  2. He pleads with them not to be discouraged by the sufferings he was appointed to endure (3:13–21). We should accept the admonition as addressed to us as well. We should look upon Paul's anguish and the anguish visited on a multitude of other saints who preceded us not as an excuse for our gloom, but as an occasion for their noble example—not as a defeat for the cause of Christ, but as the price of a victory advancing His cause and achieving eternal reward.
  3. He frowns upon divisions arising from differences in spiritual background or practice (4:1–6). Nor should these trouble us.
  4. He reviews and authorizes the various distinct offices that God has appointed for efficient cooperative labor (4:7–16). As respect for authority declines in the contemporary world, upholding the rightful position of church leaders is crucial.
  5. He urges clear separation from their sinful lifestyles before conversion (4:17–24). Lingering worldliness remains a serious problem in our day.
  6. He exhorts diligent resistance to the multitude of sins that masquerade as small, but, when indulged, mushroom into serious threats to the welfare not only of the sinner himself, but the whole church (4:25–6:9). Every reader in every age must heed Paul's warning.

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.

Delving Deeper

Embryonic Catholicism

Four particulars errors in the predominant form of historic Catholicism were spoiling the Colossian church.

  1. Catholics view Jesus as a perpetual babe in His mother's arms. Likewise the Colossians lacked a sufficiently exalted conception of Jesus. Exactly what they believed is uncertain, yet Paul is at pains to elaborate the full deity of Christ, telling them that "he is before all things, and by him all things consist" (1:17) and "in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (2:9), besides many other affirmations of the Son's greatness. Paul traced their imperfect understanding of Christ's nature and position to "philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men" (2:8). Perhaps he is referring to a type of Jewish mysticism that relished stories of communication with angels and sought visions of the heavenly throne room filled with angelic beings. The tendency of these mystics may have been to view Christ as a super-angel rather than as fully Jehovah.
  2. Catholics pray to dead human beings that their church has elevated to a sainthood supposedly qualifying them to mediate between God and man. Likewise the Colossians venerated beings who are not divine; specifically, angels (2:18). As good Jews, they doubtless felt innocent of breaking the First Commandment, forbidding worship of any being but God alone, but Paul corrected their fallacy, insisting that what they did was tantamount to worship.
  3. Catholics insist that just taking the sacraments is a sure step toward heaven. As a result of attaching exaggerated value to outward observances, they overly stress mere ritual. Likewise the Colossians believed that their standing before God depended on following dietary laws and keeping holy days (2:16–17).
  4. Catholics believe that ascetic self-denial can defeat man's sinful flesh and win God's approval. Asceticism was the driving force behind the monastic movement. Likewise the Colossians thought that abusing the flesh has spiritual merit (2:20–23).

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.

Delving Deeper

Time of composition for Second Timothy

That Second Timothy followed the other three Roman epistles is unmistakable in light of internal clues.

  1. It is the only epistle that remembers Paul's "first defense," presumably referring to a recent appearance in a Roman court (2 Tim. 4:16).
  2. At the time of its writing, Demas had now deserted Paul (2 Tim. 4:11), whereas he was still by Paul's side when he wrote Colossians (Col. 4:14) and Philemon (Philem. 24).
  3. Subsequent to when Paul produced Colossians (Col. 4:10) and Philemon (Philem. 24), Mark has gone far afield (2 Tim. 4:11). Perhaps he was the messenger Paul used to deliver Second Timothy.
  4. In Philemon, Paul is hopeful of release (Philem. 22). In Second Timothy, he makes a solemn announcement under the Spirit's leading that he has not long to live. From this perspective, he offers a final summary and appraisal of his life's work. "For 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" (2 Tim. 4:6–8).

Delving Still Deeper


Erastus was the name of Timothy's partner in ministry when he toured the Macedonian churches to prepare them for a coming visit by Paul (Acts 19:22). Scholars are generally agreed that this Erastus cannot be the same man that Paul mentions in the closing verses of Romans, saying, "Erastus the chamberlain of the city saluteth you" (Rom. 16:23). The city he was writing from was Corinth. "Chamberlain" is oikonomos, properly translated "steward," "manager," or, perhaps in this case, "treasurer." If the man's office was comparable to a modern city manager, he was a high official indeed. Because of his prestigious position in society, scholars find it hard to believe that formerly he was an itinerant preacher.

Further help as we examine the issue comes from Paul's comment in Second Timothy, "Erastus abode at Corinth" (2 Tim. 4:20). The man he intends is doubtless someone who was of special concern to Timothy. Otherwise, why would he single him out for mention? Doubtless the man was Timothy's friend, although they had lost contact with each other. It is therefore reasonable to identify him as the man who once colabored with Timothy. But notice where the man abode—in Corinth, the same city where the manager was a believer named Erastus. Is it unreasonable to suspect that they were the same man?

In defense of our hypothesis that the New Testament notices only one Erastus, we might suggest possible story lines linking all three references to a person so named, but we would be venturing into groundless and unprofitable speculation. Let us hope that he abode in Corinth to undertake some witness for Christ.

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.

Pondering a Question

Why does the Book of Acts end without telling of Paul's trial before Caesar or of Paul's death?

Many readers have felt that Acts has a strange ending. After creating suspense as to the outcome of Paul's appeal to Caesar, why does it conclude so abruptly, without telling us what happened? It leaves the suspense unresolved. But the book is not a work of fiction. It is true history. Moreover, it is true history inspired by God. Therefore, it tells us not what satisfies us as a good story, but what we need to know.

There is both a historical reason and a spiritual reason for the silence of Scripture concerning the last days of Paul. The historical reason is that, as we noted earlier, the Book of Acts was seemingly written to furnish evidence at Paul's trial. It is addressed to one Theophilus, presumably a Roman official who was looking at Paul's case. It is not surprising, therefore, that such a document is blind to events that took place after it was submitted for consideration. The purpose of the document explains why the author gives a detailed account of Paul's trials in the lower courts. It especially explains why the author dwells at length on the various verdicts—rendered by Lysias, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa—which exonerated Paul.

Scripture denies us the story of Paul's martyrdom for a spiritual reason as well. There is the danger that a stirring account of his noble death in the service of Christ might raise him too high in our esteem. Scripture has but one hero. He is God. The New Testament presents but one character deserving of our worship and adoration. He is Jesus. The central event in the New Testament is Jesus' death on a cross. It withholds the story of any other death that might draw attention away from the cross and create a rival to Christ in our affections. We hear about the death of Stephen, because his conduct set an example for every other martyr who has followed in his footsteps. But many figures whom we esteem as founders of the church—notably, Peter, Paul, and John—died without record not only in Scripture, but also in history. They died in obscurity, under circumstances we can only surmise.

Getting Practical

Seeking the praise of God, not men

The failure of history to remember their deaths is exactly what they would have chosen. They have lost man's honor and tribute, but any glory from man would have counted as payment toward their reward. As it is, much of their reward remains unpaid, and when they stand before God in judgment, they will receive glory from God, which is far better.

Likewise for us, we should seek glory from God rather than glory from man (John 5:44).

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.

Further Reading

Lessons on Acts 1-14 appear not only on this website, but also in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.