Journey to Rome
Paul had long wished to visit Rome, but his arrest in Jerusalem changed everything. By giving in to the legalistic pressure of the Jerusalem church leaders, he ended up in Roman custody for almost five years, including the time he spent on the sea journey to Italy. This change represented a severe blow to his missionary plans.
Despite the setback, Jesus Himself promised that the apostle would still testify of Him in Rome (Acts 23:11). Even when we fail Him, God may still give us another chance, though He does not always spare us from the consequences of our actions. Not only was Paul taken to Rome as a prisoner, but there is no biblical evidence that he ever went to Spain, as he had hoped to do (Rom. 15:24). After being released from what is known as the first Roman imprisonment, Paul would be arrested again, this time to suffer martyrdom (2 Tim. 4:6–8) under Nero in a.d. 67.
Yes, Paul made it to Rome, and while waiting in his house-prison to be tried before the emperor, he spoke, despite his chains (Eph. 6:20, Phil. 1:13), without hindrance to whoever came to him (Acts 28:30, 31), including important figures from Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22).
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 29.
After about two years of confinement in Caesarea (Acts 24:27), Paul was to be sent to Rome. Judging by the first person plural and the richness of details used to describe the long and turbulent sea journey to Italy (Acts 27:1–28:16), Luke was accompanying Paul, as was another Christian named Aristarchus (Acts 27:2). Another important character in the story was the Roman centurion, Julius, who had other prisoners as well in his charge (Acts 27:1).
It was late summer when they departed. The Fast (Acts 27:9) refers to the Day of Atonement, in the second half of October. Because of the winter conditions, travel in the Mediterranean was normally avoided between November and March. This time, however, they faced difficulties from the beginning, and only after much delay they reached the small bay of Fair Havens, in the island of Crete (Acts 27:8).
Paul’s warnings went unheeded, and so they decided to sail westward another 40 miles to a harbor (Phoenix) where they could winter with safety. Unfortunately, with a sudden change in the weather, they were caught in such a violent tempest that the crew had no option but to let the ship be driven southwest by the wind, away from land. Soon they began to throw the cargo overboard and even some of the ship’s gear in a frantic attempt to lighten it, as it was already taking on water. The situation was dramatic. After several days of scant daylight, poor visibility, heavy rain, and raging winds, without knowing where they were and in complete exhaustion, they “finally gave up all hope of being saved” (Acts 27:20, NIV).
In prophetic words, Paul told the crew a message he had just received from God. There was no reason to despair or lose hope. There would still be danger and loss, but all of them would survive.
In his second intervention in the story, Paul assured all who were on board—276 people altogether (Acts 27:37)—that, though not everything would come out fine, there would be no casualties; only the ship would go down (Acts 27:22). Fourteen days later, the apostle’s words were fulfilled. Still under a terrible storm and with the ship completely adrift, the sailors sensed land was near, possibly because they could hear the noise of breakers (Acts 27:27). After a series of soundings, and fearing the ship would be driven against the rocks along the shore, they dropped four anchors from the back of the ship in order to reduce their speed; meanwhile, they desperately asked their gods for daylight to come (Acts 27:28, 29).
In the beginning of the journey, the centurion treated Paul well but had no reason to trust the apostle’s nautical judgment earlier in the trip. After two weeks, however, things were different. Paul had already gained the centurion’s respect with his prophetic intervention about the shipwreck (Acts 27:21–26), which was heading now to its fulfillment.
Paul urged the people on board to eat, otherwise they would not have the strength to swim and get ashore. Divine providence does not necessarily exempt us from doing what would normally be our duty.
“Throughout this narrative a nice balance is maintained between God’s assurance of their safety and the efforts of the people involved to ensure it.”—David J. Williams, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), p. 438.
As morning approached, the sailors came in sight of land; it was a bay with a beach, where they decided to run the ship aground. The ship, however, never reached the beach. Instead, it struck a sandbar and ended up breaking apart by the force of the waves. The soldiers’ plan to kill the prisoners to prevent them from escaping was stopped by the centurion, mainly because of Paul. In the end, as God had promised, not a single life was lost.
It was only upon reaching the shore that the survivors learned they were in Malta, a small island in the center of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily. In the two weeks they had been adrift in the sea, yielded to the force of the wind, they had covered about four hundred seventyfive miles since Fair Havens, in Crete. Now they would have to wait out the three months of winter before continuing their journey (Acts 28:11).
The people of Malta were very friendly and hospitable, and their first action toward Paul and his group, who were all wet and cold, was to light a fire to warm them up; the temperature in Malta at this time of the year would not be higher than about 50°F.
The incident of the snake drew the people’s attention to Paul. At first, the local pagans viewed the fact that he was bitten as an act of divine retribution. They thought Paul was a murderer who had managed to escape from death by drowning but was still caught by the gods, or perhaps the Greek goddess Dik - e, the personification of justice and vengeance. Because the apostle did not die, he was hailed as a god, as had happened in Lystra several years before (Acts 14:8–18). Though Luke does not dwell on the episode, it is probably safe to assume that Paul took advantage of this situation to bear witness of the God he served.
Publius was either the Roman procurator of Malta or just a local dignitary, but he welcomed Paul and his companions for three days until they found a more permanent place to stay. At any rate, the healing of this man’s father gave Paul the opportunity to engage in a sort of healing ministry among the Maltese people.
In Luke’s account, there is no mention of a single convert or of any congregation Paul left behind when he departed from Malta. Such omission might be entirely coincidental, but it illustrates the fact that our mission in the world goes beyond baptisms or church planting; it also involves concern for people and their needs. This is the practical aspect of the gospel (Acts 20:35; compare with Titus 3:14).
After three months in Malta, Paul and his companions were finally able to continue their journey (Acts 28:11). They arrived in Puteoli (Acts 28:13)—modern Pozzuoli, in the Bay of Naples—from where they would travel to Rome by road (see Acts 28:11–16).
The news of Paul’s approach quickly reached Rome, and from there a group of believers traveled several miles south to welcome him.
Though he had never been to Rome, the apostle had numerous friends in the city: co-workers, converts, relatives, and many others who were very dear to him (Rom. 16:3–16). The meeting on the Appian Way must have been particularly moving, especially in view of the shipwreck and the fact that Paul was now a prisoner. As a result of such a unique demonstration of love and care on the part of his beloved friends, the apostle thanked God and felt deeply heartened as he was about to face trial before the emperor.
In his official report, Festus certainly must have written that according to Roman law, Paul was not guilty of any significant crime (Acts 25:26, 27; 26:31, 32). This probably explains why he was allowed to rent a private dwelling (Acts 28:30) instead of being sent to a regular prison or military camp, though after Roman fashion he was chained to a soldier the whole time. That Paul was at his own expense implies he was able to carry on his own trade (Acts 18:3).
Though Paul could not go to the synagogue, the synagogue could come to him. So, soon after his arrival, following his policy of going first to the Jews (Rom. 1:16), he called together the local Jewish leaders to state his innocence and explain, as he had done before, that he had been arrested for no reason other than the hope of Israel (Acts 23:6, 24:15, 26:6–8). His intention was not so much to defend himself as to create an atmosphere of trust that allowed him to preach the gospel, showing how Jesus’ resurrection was the fulfillment of Israel’s ancestral hope. Surprised that they had not received any information from Jerusalem about Paul, the Jews decided to hear him.
On a set day, the Jews came in large numbers to hear Paul’s presentation of the gospel (Acts 28:23).
The quotation from Isaiah 6:9, 10 describes what happens when people refuse to accept the divine message. Though some Jews believed, others didn’t, and so, because of this great dispute, the apostle had no choice but once again to turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46, 47; 18:6). Paul had to wait two years to be tried by the emperor. Meanwhile, though restricted to his house-prison, he was still able to share the gospel without hindrance with those who came to him. The last scene of Acts is one that emphasizes the victory of the gospel, as no force, whether Jewish or Roman, had been able to stop its progress.
It is not clear why Luke finishes his book at this point, as there is evidence that, due to the weakness of the case against Paul, he was released from this imprisonment, went on another missionary journey, and was again taken to Rome and executed (2 Tim. 4:6–8). Perhaps, from the standpoint of Luke’s literary purpose, by having preached even in distant Rome, the gospel already had reached the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV).
“Paul’s patience and cheerfulness during his long and unjust imprisonment, his courage and faith, were a continual sermon. His spirit, so unlike the spirit of the world, bore witness that a power higher than that of earth was abiding with him. And by his example, Christians were impelled to greater energy as advocates of the cause from the public labors of which Paul had been withdrawn. In these ways were the apostle’s bonds influential, so that when his power and usefulness seemed cut off, and to all appearance he could do the least, then it was that he gathered sheaves for Christ in fields from which he seemed wholly excluded.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 464. From the standpoint of the church’s mission, however, it could be said that the book of Acts—or the history of the spreading of the gospel— is not yet finished, and it is here that each one of us enters the picture. Many more exciting and dramatic chapters have been written throughout the centuries, sometimes with the blood of God’s faithful witnesses.
Now it is our turn to add one more chapter, the last one (we hope!), and bring the mission Jesus left with the disciples to its full completion— “and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14, NKJV).
Further Thought: “Christ has given to the church a sacred charge. Every member should be a channel through which God can communicate to the world the treasures of His grace, the unsearchable riches of Christ. There is nothing that the Saviour desires so much as agents who will represent to the world His Spirit and His character. There is nothing that the world needs so much as the manifestation through humanity of the Saviour’s love. All heaven is waiting for men and women through whom God can reveal the power of Christianity.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 600.
“Long has God waited for the spirit of service to take possession of the whole church so that everyone shall be working for Him according to his ability. When the members of the church of God do their appointed work in the needy fields at home and abroad, in fulfillment of the gospel commission, the whole world will soon be warned and the Lord Jesus will return to this earth with power and great glory.”—Page 111.