Paul, The Prisoner

Acts 16:16 – 40; Acts 21: 15 – 26:32; Acts 28: 16 – 31.

Paul, The Prisoner

In the Acts of the Apostles, the events that delineated a few of the activities of the early Christian church included the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. However, it is significant that about a third of the Book is allocated to Paul’s incarceration in Philippi, Jerusalem, Caesarea, and finally in Rome. Luke’s intent appears to underscore his earlier assertion in his Gospel when Jesus said that His followers would undoubtedly face persecution and imprisonment for their faithful witness (Luke 21:12-15), and he went on to illustrate the fulfillment of that pronouncement; viz., Peter and John (Acts 4:3), the Apostles (Acts 5:12-18), the believers (Acts 8:1-3). As for Paul, Jesus said that he would not only bear His name before the Gentiles, kings and the sons of Israel but also suffer for His name’s sake (Acts 9:15-16). It appears inevitable that we would suffer when we become faithful testimony-bearers for Christ, and like Paul, we should not be surprised but possess the same fortitude as he did when he faced opposition soon after his Damascus encounter, and henceforth, the rest of his life.

The aftermath of a slave girl’s exorcism at Philippi took an unexpected turn when her masters had Silas and Paul arrested, initially accusing the two of depriving them of their future income-generating source. However, before the magistrates, their allegations took a more serious turn, they implied treason against Rome, coloured by racial and cultural biases (Acts 16:19-21). The judgment meted out was for them to be severely beaten and imprisoned in stocks in the inner jailhouse under armed guards. This mode of punishment was only reserved for the worst criminals, including those who were considered security risks. At this point, the apostles still maintained their silence despite their Roman citizenship, possibly assuaging the potential challenge of their loyalty either to Rome or their Saviour! Under adverse circumstances, the discerning ought not to be overtaken by their sufferings, but should wisely seek to parse out the divine intent in their predicament. God’s defined purpose was their witness to the prisoners and the salvation of the jailor and his family, with no loss of life during the earthquake (Acts 16:25-34). After that, the Apostles’ freedom was secured as they were released being unjustly punished as Romans (Acts 16:35-40).

When Paul was seized by a crowd, intent on killing him at the Jerusalem temple, after his seven days of purification, he was accused of blasphemy (due to his teachings) and desecrating the temple (by bringing non-Jews into the inner temple compound). He was rescued and taken into custody by a Roman commander. On this occasion, his Roman citizenship was only divulged when he was being prepared for an interrogation session which usually was accompanied by scourging. Immediately, his chains were removed, and his freedom restored (Acts 21:27-39; Acts 22:22-30). However, when a Jewish conspiracy to assassinate him was discovered, he was transferred under a large Roman military escort to Caesarea, to the governor Claudius Felix. Felix further dithered in his trial, and Paul’s stay was eventually extended by two years until the governorship changed hands. Festus, the new governor, to please the Jewish Council, suggested that Paul be sent back to Jerusalem to face his inquisitors; at which point, Paul appealed to Caesar at Rome. The outcome to his ordeal was filled with uncertainty, due largely to the self-serving vacillations of the governors and the power politics of the Sanhedrin. Despite being adjudicated by Felix and Festus and taking into consideration King Agrippa’s considered opinion of Paul’s innocence, the danger of a betrayal of justice cannot be entirely ruled out (Acts 24:26-27; Acts 25:1-3, 9-12), but these threats did not deter Paul’s explicit testimony to the powers that be, realising that his future lay principally in God’s hands (Eph 6:19-20; Col 4:3-4; 2Tim 1:8-12).

Once safely in Rome, Paul continued to be chained to a Roman guard but allowed to live in rented quarters and to receive visitors. Supported by friends, as tenement houses were never economical, he remained under these circumstances for a further two years (Acts 28:16; Acts 28:30; Phil 4:14-18; 2Tim 1:16-18). Paul went into this segment of his life with his eyes wide open, being warned on more than one occasion by the Holy Spirit during his third missionary journey (Acts 19: 21; Acts 20: 22-24; Acts 21: 8-14; Acts 23:11). Nonetheless, in all his five prison letters written from Rome, his confidence remained steadfast in God’s purpose for him as His chained ambassador. His detention did not deter nor disqualify him from reaching out to everyone who visited him, and he continued preaching boldly the word of God; a model in encouragement to his followers (Acts 20:22-24; Acts 28:30-31). Often it is difficult to fathom what God may be doing in our dire circumstances, and unless we intentionally refocus away from ourselves and onto Him, to seek His purpose within the strictures placed on us, to honour Him in everything we say and do may prove difficult (Phil 4: 12-13).