The Imprisonment and Defense of Paul

Acts 21:17—28:31

This last section of the Acts deals almost exclusively with the Apostle Paul. We do not see the church except for a few verses at the beginning and then a few verses at the end. If we are to learn of the church—its structure and function we must learn from Paul as a representative member of the Church. He is a typical priest in action so we learn of our own priesthood in a living way. We also see the authority and power of our priesthood. There are three main parts to this section.

1. Conflict—Civil, Religious and Christian authority 21:17-23:35 (At Jerusalem)

2. Conflict—Civil vs. Christian authority 24:1-26:32 (At Cesarea)

3. Paul’s priesthood—27:1-28:31 (At sea)

At Jerusalem

Authority and power are two of the most basic issues of human life. Parents have authority over children; employers over employees; Governors over citizens, etc. Often authority is founded on power in this world. The strong rule. Sometimes power is controlled by authority. Both are also basic to the Holy Scriptures. God rules with authority and power. Every day of our lives we are involved with this struggle. So was the Apostle Paul.

When he and his party arrived in Jerusalem they were well received (21:17). There was a meeting with the elders (verse 18) in which Paul told of God’s working in power and authority among the Gentiles (verse 19). The church then made a request of Paul aimed at appeasing the Jews. Paul was to join others that had a vow. He was to go to the temple, shave his head and offer the proper sacrifice (verses 20-24). It was to prove that Paul did keep the law (verse 24). The Gentiles however were not bound to do so (verse 25). It seems a strange compromise of true authority to that of religion. Paul obeyed. Rule in the church is not one of force but of submission. It was this act that led to Paul’s imprisonment and trials. God works in every situation. His power is not like man’s though much needless grief results from man’s rebellion.

Paul was taken by force (power) on a charge (authority) of defiling the temple (verses 27-28). Here is religious power at it’s worst. Deceit and force are the root of it all. The noise was so great that the civil rulers interceded (verses 31-33). Here was another form of authority. It too was based on force. Ignorance was also basic as there was no knowledge of the facts. There was only an abstract idea of law and justice. It was less emotional than religious rule but more physically powerful. So we see a great clash between Rome, Jerusalem and Heaven.

On each side we see the priesthood of believers. The Jews, Romans and Christians all believed in different things. Each one did the job of a priest. They sacrificed by laying their lives on the line (or Paul’s). They interceded as when the Captain rescued Paul. In doing so they proclaimed blessing too. We too are priests of God. We are not toys for men to play with. We must live in God’s authority and power as we minister to the world.

The word of the Jew was confused (verse 34). The word of Rome was commanding (verse 33) and ignorant (verse 38). Paul by contrast spoke with an authority that was submissive (verse 27, 39), quiet (verse 40), and truthful (22:1-21). As always God’s rule is rebelled at. When He speaks the response of the world is force and deceit (verses 22-24). Religion opposes head-on (verse 22) and civil rule opposes indirectly seeking more information (verse 24). Notice the power of each—religion; “…not fit that he should live.” (verse 22); civil; “…examined by scourging…” (verse 24). By contrast God’s power is seen in seeming weak things. Paul speaks (verse 25) and it is enough to overcome (verse 26). Paul was in control here for he was God’s priest.

But the world doesn’t give up so easily. Rebels never do. Chapter 23 continues the spiritual warfare. Once again Paul speaks (23:1) and religion answers with force (verse 2). Paul responded with strong words (verse 3) but also submitted to God’s word when it worked against him (verse 5). The result was a great defeat of the evil purpose of these men (verses 7-9). Once again the civil rule intercedes to assert its authority over both (verse 10). It was the authority of force.

That night God spoke to Paul to comfort him (verse 11). He did not promise miraculous release. Nor did He promise any let up in physical suffering. He did promise that Paul would represent Him in Rome. To know God’s will is His leading, strengthening and enabling. He does not live to serve us. We live to serve Him.

The Jews rebellion continues with a plot to kill Paul (verses 12-15). It is the same kind of force we saw in 22:22. As before, God’s priest has nothing to worry about. God’s power (in this case Paul’s nephew) is greater (verse 16). He told Paul who sent him to the Captain (verse 17). The Captain was not about to submit to the Jews rule so he made plans for Paul to be sent away (verses 23-24). Notice the Captains trust in deception (verse 22) and military might (verse 23). The Captain got rid of his problem by referring both parties to the Governor (verse 30). The battle is now fought at a higher level of civil authority.

At Cesarea

The civil rule is clearly winning over the religious but Paul, in quietness, rules over all. Felix the Governor calls a trial when the Jews arrive (24:1-22). The Jews spoke first (verses 2-9). Their speech was more polite at this higher level but their authority was based on flowery words (verse 2) and emotional deceit (verses 5-8). There is no specific charge nor evidence produced.

Paul then spoke in clear, simple words (verses 10-21). His story was true and bare. There were no denials of his faith (verse 14). There was a challenge of truth (verses 13-20). The result was another victory for Paul (verse 22). Felix had no adequate knowledge (verse 22)—only God does—so he kept Paul in prison with privileges (verse 23). Paul and Felix talked together of the truth (verses 24-25). God’s word was so powerful that Felix trembled. But his motives were less than pure. The world is corrupt and so are its rulers (verse 26). Paul remained like that for two years until a new Governor came (verse 27). God’s rule was not under Rome’s power. Paul was right where God wanted him. The two-year confinement was no setback for Paul.

With a new Governor came a new hope for the Jews (25:1-5). Such is the world’s struggle for power. Again Paul is brought to trial (verse 6) and these three forces meet. The Jews effort was as before (verse 7). Paul again speaks with confidence for God’s rule is over all and therefore not against any. His priests have power and authority the world knows nothing of. We can afford to be humble and submissive.

Festus, the Governor, would not submit to God so he offered to give Paul over to the Jews (verse 9). It had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with politics. But it was the wrong direction for Paul. God’s will was Rome not Jerusalem so again Paul speaks (verses 10-11) and God’s will is done (verse 12).

Next, Paul has to face a King (verse 13, 22-23). While his authority was greater than the Governor he had no real jurisdiction in this area. Also, Paul had appealed to the highest Roman authority—Caesar—so Agrippa has no real sway here. There still were no charges against Paul (verses 26-27). Such is the shaky ground of civil rule. Paul states his case (26:1-23) in the same way as before—plain and true. This brings more opposition to God’s authority, which is truth (verse 24). Paul would not be overcome by a lesser authority so he continued to press home his truth with power (verse 27, 29). Paul (a prisoner) could wish the King and Governor to be like him except for the chains. Truly he lived in God’s Kingdom. Both civil rulers had to admit that Paul was innocent (verse 31). They would have set him free (verse 32) but God’s will was Caesar.

At Sea

It becomes increasingly clear that Paul’s witness and his gospel were not some religious doctrine. They were his life. He was a priest of the most high God. Everything was, for Paul, service to his Lord. Every event was a chance to witness and to serve as priest. It is this that we must learn in order to be faithful witnesses and to see souls won for Christ.

The rest of the book tells of Paul’s voyage to Rome (27:1). Most of it takes place at sea. From this point on Paul seems to be more and more in charge of all things. He is constantly interceding and blessing others. His life is in constant danger, offered as a living sacrifice. The civil and the religious rule can never stand before the Christian.

The voyage has a good beginning (verses 2-8) without real danger. Things were about to change so Paul intercedes with words of authority (verse 10). We are not told how Paul knew of the impending trouble except that he “perceived” it. Still, the Centurion would not bow to God’s rule (verse 11) but would rather serve his own comfort (verse 12). They sailed for Phenice (verse 13).

True to Paul’s word a storm hit (verses 14-20) causing much loss and fear of life. Even the forces of nature seemed to resist Paul’s obedience to God’s will. Again Paul has to intercede (verses 21-26). He pronounced words of blessing in the form of an encouragement upon the ship’s crew. God has spoken (verses 23-24) assuring that His will would not fail. Paul told of his faith in God’s revelation (verse 25).

The storm continued (verse 27) and the sailors grew afraid (verse 29). They made plans to desert and save themselves at the expense of the others (verse 30). They used deceit to get their way. It was a desperate attempt to set up their own rule of life. But God was not so easily overthrown. Paul again intercedes (verse 31). Upon his authority the soldiers cut the ropes (verse 32). Paul continues to speak with authority (verses 33-35). He tells them to eat and he eats with them, giving thanks to God. He followed God and they followed him. It is a picture of Christian priesthood in action.

The shipwreck that Paul had foretold now came to pass (verses 40-41). The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners (verse 42) for fear of the civil rulers but they were stopped because of the Centurion’s regard for Paul (verse 43). The result was that all were safe. None died and none escaped. God had done all that He had said through Paul. The ships crew was prepared by encouragement and food. The soldiers and sailors were spared as Paul continually exercised his priesthood. This is the great example of Paul for us today. We too are priests of God.

Once again nature seems to rebel as Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake (28:3). The local people who were so kind to the shipwreck victims thought it was God’s judgment on Paul (verse 4). Paul was preserved from any harm (verses 5-6) so the locals went to the other extreme and said Paul was a God. It is one of the dangers of an effective priest. He becomes what he only represents. Still Paul continued to bless the local people with healing (verses 8-9). The kind locals responded with respect and provisions. It was a more proper response to God’s priests.

They continued on by ship until arriving at Puteoli (verse 13) where they found some fellow-priests (believers) (verse 14). These men desired Christian fellowship so Paul and the rest stayed seven days before continuing to Rome. Every priest is part of the larger priesthood so such a stop was inevitable. By this time it seems even the Centurion was content to do what Paul wanted. Still, God’s will must prevail so they left for Rome.

Another meeting with fellow-priests (believers) took place (verse 15). This time it was Paul who was blessed with encouragement. These believers knew how to function as priests too. They were not limited to a certain building or to formal times of meetings.

So they arrived at Rome (verse 16). God’s authority had prevailed. His power had overcome. Intercession and benediction were constantly carried on at great sacrifice of self for Paul. We begin to see priesthood as involving great humility and the knowledge of God’s will. Of all the prisoners it was Paul who was allowed the freedom of house arrest only. Surely his God was in control.

Paul immediately sets to work. He calls the local Jews to meet with them and explain the situation (verses 17-21). These men knew nothing except there were bad reports about the Christians (verse 22). The world’s rebellion continues in a false authority and power. Still, Paul ministered God’s word to them and some believed (verses 23-29). His authority was still true and powerful. He spoke strong words (verses 26-28). The Jews didn’t know what to think because they had accepted a different rule and lived in rebellion to God.

Paul preached for two years in Rome (verse 30). It was in his own hired house. Paul was still paying his own way and not looking for any handouts. He received all that came because God’s priest is to be a blessing to the whole world. The blessing was all in Christ’s name (verse 31). So the Acts ends with God’s rule strong and active. In fact it says “…no man forbidding him” (verse 31).

The challenge here for us seems to be to practice our priesthood as did Paul. His authority was God’s word. His power was the Holy Spirit. It was always unseen to natural man for Paul was meek and submissive at all times. He respected all men but feared none. He knew God’s will and would do it at any cost to himself. He was a living sacrifice. He offered praise and his own substance to God. He interceded constantly for men and blessed them abundantly, all because he remained separate from false authority and power. Will we do so too?