Paul in Rome: Page 2 of 5 (series: Lessons on Acts)
by John Lowe
He was housed at his own expense. This may have been possible either through the generosity of friends (Philippians 4:10, 14, 18) or because he had resources of his own. He may even have plied his trade of tent making. According to Ulpian, an eminent Roman juror of the third century a.d., prisoners awaiting trial were allowed to work and to live in rented lodging’s. Paul’s condition can be best described as “house arrest” he was still bound to a soldier by a light chain (28:20), so that he could not go in and out as he pleased, but other than that he enjoyed considerable freedom, including the freedom to receive into his small house whomever he pleased.
In city after city it had been his customary policy to evangelize the Jewish community first, before turning to the Gentiles. Rome was to be no exception. The fact that he was in bonds, made no difference. If he could not go to the Jews, then the Jews must be invited to come to him. His first task, then, once he was established in his own home, was to call together “the leaders of the Jews” (“the chief of the Jews”) in order to explain his position to them—his final defense to the Jews. At least 13 synagogues are known to have existed in ancient Rome, though not all may have existed at this time, and not all may have sent representatives to meet with Paul. But those who came would have been drawn from among the Elders and rulers.
The leaders came. Paul began with an explanation of his present status as a prisoner, but he had to be careful. He did not know how much his listeners knew about his case. It could well be that the Sanhedrin had already sent their highly prejudiced version to the Jewish authorities at Rome. Paul did not want to antagonize his listeners by accusing his accusers. Moreover, he was chained to a Roman soldier who might easily be a spy or, at least, who might gossip and say things that would cause him to lose his privileges or affect the outcome of his hearing with Caesar, if he said anything detrimental about Roman justice. Surprisingly, his feelings ran just the opposite, for he was grateful to the Romans. They had saved him from certain death. In any case, it would have been the height of foolishness to speak disparagingly of Rome while wearing a Roman chain.
There was an extensive Jewish community in Rome, but it does not seem to have been well-integrated but rather to have consisted of a number of separate synagogues operating independently. It is unclear exactly who these “leaders” of the Jewish community were—perhaps the ruling Elders of the various Roman synagogues. Paul first pointed out to them the circumstances that had brought him to Rome. He pointed out that he had done nothing against the Jewish people or their ancestral customs. The Asian Jews in Jerusalem might quibble with this statement because they had charged him with exactly the opposite (21:28).
He passed lightly over the circumstances of his arrest. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem had engineered his arrest and plotted his murder, but Paul said nothing about that. On the contrary, he affirmed that he had no accusation to bring against the Jewish people. His language in Romans 9-11 shows his Christlike love even for his enemies among the Jews.
No, Paul was not in Rome to press charges of any kind against his people. He was there simply to get his name cleared of charges that had been brought against him and of which he was completely innocent. Was not he himself a Hebrew of the Hebrews? He had done nothing against “the customs of our fathers.” He might have gone on, indeed, to tell of his own rabbinical training at the feet of Gamaliel, the respected disciple of the famous Hillel. He might also have spoken of his zeal as a Pharisees and his schooling in the law. But instead, he contented himself with an assertion of his innocence. He had committed no crime against the Jews or against their customs.
18 Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me.
His case, having been taken over by Rome, had been tried in Roman courts. He had appeared before Felix, Festus, and Agrippa, and in open court he had been declared innocent of all charges, certainly of any capital offence. We are not told whether or not he mentioned the name of Agrippa, but the Jews would appreciate Agrippa’s grasp of Jewish affairs. The fact that he had recommended that all charges be dropped would certainly carry weight. But if he had been acquitted, why was he still in bonds?
19 But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto Caesar; not that I had ought to accuse my nation of.
Treading lightly still, Paul simply said that the continuing unrest over his case had led him finally to appeal to Caesar, for he believed that he would sooner or later fall victim to their plots, therefore Paul had no option but to appeal to Caesar. But he wanted to assure the Roman Jews that he bore his people no ill will. He still counted himself as one of them. That would make its own mark with his listeners. They as Jews living in Rome would appreciate Paul’s special social status as a Roman citizen. They could not help but respect that.
By now Paul had their sympathetic attention. It was cleverly done. He had won them to a hearing more by what he had left unsaid than by what he had said.
20 For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.
He claimed, in the presence of those of the Jewish synagogue in Rome, that he was wearing the chain “because of the hope of Israel.” That, too, would earn their sympathy. He had their attention now. He immediately moved on to his prime objective which was to talk to them about Jesus. He called Him “the hope of Israel.” The messianic hope burned ever so brightly in the Hebrew heart. Paul’s great message to the Jews was that the Messiah had come, and that all over the world Jews and Gentiles were passing into the kingdom. “For the hope of Israel” (Jesus Christ), for that which had been the central expectation of their religion in bygone days (the coming of the Messiah), for that imperishable home (Heaven) that had been at the heart of all their history, for that he wore the chain. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ did not undermine the Messiah’s ambassadors.
21 And they said unto him, We neither received letters out of Judaea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee.
The response of the Roman Jews is somewhat surprising. They said they had had no official letters or even an oral report blaming the apostle (see note 1). Some interpreters find this inconceivable. Yet it may well be that because of winter travel conditions, no one from Palestine had arrived in Rome prior to Paul. It is also possible that the connections between Jerusalem and the synagogues of Rome were not very strong anyway. Or it may possibly be that the Roman Jews were deliberately disassociating themselves from the trial of Paul, not wishing to be involved in a case that could eventually prove to be an embarrassment to the Jewish accusers. The Roman authorities sometimes dealt harshly with accusers who failed to substantiate their case. Nor could the Sanhedrin have reasonably expected the Jews of Rome to take up their cause, since their own position was a precarious one and they would hardly have wished to draw attention to themselves by prosecuting all. In all likelihood, then, no message had been sent from Judea and none was likely to be.
The Sanhedrin seems to have been content to see Paul called away to Rome in chains to take his chance before Caesar, evidently concluding they had little chance of convincing the Supreme Court in their favor when they had been unable to convince a local court. Moreover, the members of the Sanhedrin might have been intimidated, too, by Paul’s Roman citizenship—something they had probably not bargained for. It was no light thing to ill-treat and falsely accuse a Roman citizen. The attitude of the Philippian magistrates demonstrates the fact that Roman citizens had to be handled with kid gloves. Certainly the Jewish authorities did not really relish the idea of tangling with Paul before Nero in Rome itself. So for one reason or another, the Sanhedrin had been content with getting rid of Paul, and they saw no point and possible harm in pursuing him further.
Thus the Roman Jews denied all knowledge of Paul. Even if rumors of the trouble in Jerusalem had reached their ears, they were too cautious to involve themselves with his case one way or another. They were just as leery as was the Sanhedrin of making derogatory remarks to a Roman citizen whose case had already been favorably adjudicated by several Roman courts.
But they knew about this sect that it was everywhere spoken against (28:22), and that the Apostle Paul was its main advocate and that everywhere he went Jews and Gentiles were joining this new religion. The opinion that they held of the sect was that it was a break with Judaism. There is nothing more interesting in all the addresses and the writings of Paul than his constant effort to show that Christianity was not a break with Judaism, but its fulfillment.
Note: that must have been gratifying to Paul. The Jewish leaders had no knowledge of his case at all.