What do you think of when you hear the name Paul from the Bible?
Many think of the world’s greatest missionary or the world’s greatest evangelist. Others think of the guy that wrote most of the New Testament. Still others think about a Pharisee turned Christian.
But Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, wants us to remember that Paul was imprisoned just as much as he wants us to know he planted a lot of churches. Almost 25% the book is devoted to Paul’s final arrest and imprisonment. If you add all of the information about Paul’s issues in Philippi then you have almost a third of the book dedicated to Paul’s legal problems.
Luke explains, in Luke 21:12 that Jesus prophesied that His people would be imprisoned for their evangelistic efforts.
Luke 21:12 – But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and …
Later, in the book of Acts, Luke shows us the fulfillment of this prophecy. Paul was not only one of those who were imprisoned, but he was done so because of Jesus’ call in his life: to both carry Jesus’ name to the Gentiles and Jews and to suffer for Christ. Paul’s ministry would not only be far-reaching, but it would be filled with suffering.
So, in Paul’s time, why were people imprisoned? There were really several reasons: to protect them from being hurt, to stop them from running away, to hold them while awaiting a trial or execution, or to force them to help in a judicial case.
Unfortunately, the prison system was very backed up and people would be imprisoned for long periods of time. Defendants were put into custody based on their charge. It was also based on the social status of the person. So, for example, if someone murdered another person, that would be serious. But if someone had a low status a lesser crime could be seen as serious.
If a Roman citizen was a high-status offender, they would be treated better than those who had a low status or were not citizens. There were several options available to the magistrates: prison, military custody, trusting to a higher-ranking sponsor, or release to their own reputation. There was a lot of corruption, even though there were laws in place to prevent it.
There is no greater example of how the system worked than Paul’s experiences in Philippi. Paul had removed a demon from a girl there and her owners, upset with the financial turmoil that it caused, have Paul and Silas taken to court where they are accused of being serious criminals.
Acts 16:16-24 – As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
The apostles are seen as low-status strangers. They are considered “these Jews.” The owners of the slave girl accused Paul and Silas of undermining the Roman culture and subverting the religion. They were told they were “advocating unlawful customs.” The owners of the girl use their influence as Roman citizens to get special consideration from the court.
Paul and Silas stay quiet.
For the longest time I wondered why they stayed silent. All they had to do was tell the court that they, too, were Roman citizens. But in this case claiming to be a Roman citizen would hurt the message of the gospel. If they would have said, “we are Romans” would have meant they would have to deny Jesus.
This led to Paul and Silas being publicly stripped, severely beaten, chained, and then put into stocks in an inner prison cell, the cells that were used for dangerous and low-status criminals.
While they don’t turn their back on their faith, it doesn’t mean they aren’t angry from the treatment they have received.
Acts 16:35-40 – But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
When the courts find out they are Romans, Paul and Silas stage a lock-in until the magistrates escort them out of the prison. The magistrates are fearful for the treatment they gave to Roman citizens, which is a serious crime in itself, and they go and escort the apostles out of the prison and ask them to leave the city.
In Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and chained twice at the Jerusalem temple. The commander tries to find out what Paul’s citizenship status is and what crime he has committed. Paul says he is both a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus.
But, yet, what crime has he committed?
The commander sees Paul as a low-class citizen and an overall troublemaker.
Paul is the guy cops don’t like to pull over. They ask for information and get half-stories or no story at all.
He is ordered for interrogation by flogging.
The commander ended up being wrong about Paul’s status.
Acts 22:25 – But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”
The interrogation and flogging stops. The commander is even worried when he learns that Paul’s citizenship status is higher than his own. You see, the commander bought his citizenship while Paul was a citizen at birth.
The commander had a socially superior person flogged!
They remove Paul from the chains and placed in the centurion barracks where he is allowed to receive visitors.
Acts 22:29-30 – So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them.
Paul is then transferred to Caesarea where he stays for 2 years. But what this shows is how your custody is handled is based on your status and your crime.
The Romans bring out a sizeable portion of their army to transfer Paul to ensure his safety. The same commander that had flogged him sends a letter to the governor, Felix, and changes the facts so they don’t show that he had a Roman citizen from birth flogged for no reason.
He says that Paul’s issues are Jewish in nature and that his charges do not warrant death or imprisonment from a Roman standpoint.
Acts 23:29 – I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.
Felix orders Paul to be kept under guard in his own palace.
Acts 23:35 – he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod’s praetorium.
Felix hears the side of Paul and the Sanhedrin. After that he determines that Paul should be kept under house arrest but be able to have friends over and have some other freedoms.
Acts 24:23 – Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs.
More than likely while under arrest Paul was chained.
Over the next several days Felix meets with Paul, hoping he would offer him a bribe. But he wouldn’t. And this shows that Paul’s resistance to judicial corruption was the reason for his 2-year confinement.
Acts 24:26 – At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him.
Felix leaves Paul in confinement as “a favor to the Jews.” In reality, what this did is that it made Paul suspect in the future in case the Jewish leaders wanted to bring other charges against him.
In the meantime, Felix gets replaced by Porcius Festus and his confinement is left in his hands. Likely the Jews attempted to influence this new magistrate through corruption. This led to Festus suggesting a change in the place of trial from Caesarea to Jerusalem.
Paul is not happy.
He cries out for an appeal to Caesar himself!
Acts 25:11 – If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
His appeal is granted.
Paul goes from Jerusalem to Caesarea to Rome. He is a citizen who is under the charge of the Roman centurions. Once he reaches Rome, where citizenship is the norm, Paul goes from an entire garrison down to being chained to a single soldier. He can live on his own and rent a place, which he does for 2 more years.
Being that rental properties in Rome are expensive and very few people could actually afford to rent a private house, Paul most likely found a place in one of the tenement buildings throughout the city. Paul most likely could not afford to continue working as a tentmaker at this time as those tools were costly and security in the area he would have lived was scarce. Since he was a citizen, he would have been eligible for grain rations, but otherwise he was in need of support from others.
Philippians 2:25-30 – I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Paul was in minimum security in Rome. He was able to welcome anyone and everyone to his place and preach as he saw fit, which would have been boldly.
Acts 28:30-31 – He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Paul would have basically had a house church.
After his third missionary journey, while on the way to Jerusalem, Paul was warned by the Holy Spirit that captivity and difficulties awaited him.
He didn’t care.
Acts 20:23 – except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
It was in Rome that Paul told the Jewish leaders that he was in the state he was in because of Jesus.
Acts 28:20 – For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.”
Imprisonment and captivity was not a disqualification for ministry. It was an expression of it!
In his captivity letters, Paul said he was captive for a higher purpose. He is a prisoner for Christ. He shares in His sufferings.
Paul was an ambassador in captivity who preaches the freedom found in Christ.