“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”2 Timothy 4:6-8
Paul’s second letter to Timothy is believed to be the last recorded words of the apostle. He uses the words “on the point of being sacrificed,” which seem to indicate that he is aware of some impending danger. He compares himself to a disciplined athlete. He has “fought the good fight;” like the contestant in the arena, he has done his best. He has “finished the race” – suggesting both the heroic struggle in the race Paul has run and the nearness of its end. He has “kept the faith.” Just as an athlete gains a reward by receiving the victor’s wreath, so Paul need only await the “crown of righteousness” to be bestowed by Christ himself at “his appearing.”
Examining Paul’s courage and deep faith can cause one to lose touch with this apostle. We might ask: “How can anyone ever achieve the spiritual maturity of Paul? How will I ever measure up?” As we retell the story of Paul, it is easy to put him on a pedestal as a super-Christian hero.
A careful reading of Paul’s letters and the historical letters of the early church leaders puts him in proper perspective. Paul was human, just like any other follower of Christ. The writers of that day tell us he was not very attractive. He was argumentative, demanding, ambitious, and often forgetful. Paul himself tells us of his own struggles with sin with these words from Romans 7:15-25: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In 2 Corinthians 12:5-10, Paul speaks of his problems with his ego and pride and how he seems to deal with an emotional or physical ailment. In Acts 15:36-16:5, he has an argument with his friend and traveling companion Barnabas that is so severe that we never hear from Barnabas again.
Paul was a human with faults, just like anyone else. By faith, he faced whatever came. By faith, he overcame his body’s limits, pride, and doubts. The Paul we find in Rome courageously facing death and writing these words to Timothy is far different than the fearful, anxious Paul who was converted on the Damascus Road. From the moment he witnessed the resurrected Christ, Paul began a process of change and transformation – not all at once, but slowly, experience stacked upon experience. As we look back over the life and journeys of Paul, we can see the stages of his development – and find hope for our future with Christ.
Paul’s Arrest, Imprisonment, and Martyrdom
Acts is our only source for the events in Jerusalem leading up to Paul’s appeal to Caesar and the dramatic record of his journey to Rome (21:17-28:31). Even the “prison letters” – Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Timothy – throw almost no light on the Pauline biography.
From Acts, we learn of Paul’s rescue by the Roman soldier from the hands of a temple mob, aroused by the rumor that he had brought Gentiles into the inner court. The soldier granted Paul permission to address his accusers—an address which permits the author to insert the second account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 21:18-22:21) but is difficult to imagine that a Roman officer would allow. Paul’s assertion of Roman citizenship saves him from scourging (22:22-29). Still, he is brought before the Sanhedrin so that the authorities may be enlightened on the real issues involved (22:30). The turn of the controversy to the question of resurrection must have left them uninformed (23:1-10).
Acts 23:12-24:27 reveals a plot to assassinate Paul, his removal to Caesarea, his relationship with the governor (Felix) and the governor’s Jewish wife (Drusilla), the charges brought against Paul by the Jews, and Paul’s defense. The “two years” mentioned in Acts 24:27 are considered the time of Paul’s imprisonment.
Chapters 25-26 give the next act in the drama, with Festus, successor to Felix, Agrippa and Bernice as the actors, and the Jews as the accusers. Given the choice of going to Jerusalem to stand trial before Festus, Paul appeals to Caesar. He makes his final defense before Agrippa; it consists of the third account of his conversion, the three (9:1 ff; 22:3 ff) serving as a type of Greek Chorus to remind the reader of the importance of Paul’s conversion.
The shipwreck on the voyage to Rome gives us further insight into the character of Paul and his passion for sharing the Gospel no matter the circumstances. (Acts 27-28). Paul is at last at Rome (28:14), but the closing words of Acts seem to leave the story of Paul incomplete. “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (28:30-31)
The Events leading up to Paul’s Execution
There are three accepted theories concerning the life of Paul not included in the book of Acts.
First, some believe that Paul’s accusers from Jerusalem never came to Rome to bring a case against Paul. The Roman authorities got tired of waiting and released Paul. There is some evidence to support that Paul may have gone to Spain after his release. There he preached and started churches before returning to Rome.
Second, some believe that the accusers from Jerusalem did go to Rome, and in the trial before the Emperor, Paul was found innocent and released. Again, the belief is that Paul probably traveled to Spain to preach and start churches before returning to Rome.
Third, some believe the trial before the Emperor did not go well, and Paul was sentenced to prison.
All the theories agree that during the persecutions of Christians under the rule of Caesar Nero, Paul somehow ended up in the Mamertine Prison in Rome. No one knows how long Paul stayed there, but at some point, he was identified as one of the leaders of the Christians in Rome and executed.
The fact that he was a Roman citizen kept him from being crucified. Instead, he was beheaded on the banks of the Tiber River outside the walls of Rome at Ad Aquas Salvias. It was renamed Tre Fontane (the place of three fountains) after a legend associated with Paul’s death. The legend claims that when Paul was beheaded, three springs erupted where his head landed. These springs still flow today. He was buried at a cemetery on Ostian Way near Rome. The church, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls (originally built by Constantine in 324 and rebuilt in 1854), stands over the site of Paul’s burial.
This section includes Paul’s arrest and the grounds for charges against him. James, the brother of Jesus, is still the leader of the Jerusalem church. By this time, thousands of Jews had become followers of Jesus. The Jerusalem church leaders were worried about the rumors that Paul was teaching the Gentile converts not to follow the Law of Moses. Paul agrees to a rite of purification in order to calm the rumors. The Jewish High Court went further in their charges, saying that Paul was bringing Gentiles into the holy temple. This offense was punishable by death. Paul is allowed to give his defense before the Jewish High Counsel and, in the process, offers his testimony concerning Christ. The Roman guard takes him into custody, and when they learn of his Roman citizenship, he is carefully protected.
Questions for personal reflection: Would you be willing to risk arrest for your faith in Christ? If not, how far would you go?
Acts 22:30-23:35 and Philippians 1:12-14
Acts 22 includes the account of Paul’s trial before the Jewish High Counsel. These forty men felt so strongly about Paul that they took an oath of fasting until he was executed. Notice the words in Acts 23:11, “the Lord stood near to Paul and encouraged him” – these are powerful words. Philippians 1:12-14 are the words of Paul expressing his view of his various times of imprisonment.
Questions for personal reflection: How do you experience the encouragement of God? Can you identify in your life when times of trouble were “for Christ”?
This section includes Paul’s trials before Felix, then Festus, who replaced Felix as the Roman governor of Judea. Note the charges against Paul included in chapter 24. This time the High Counsel has hired a lawyer – likely one accustomed to arguing in the Roman courts. Use your imagination to envision this scene. Notice also the tragedy of Felix’s response to Paul -when the Holy Spirit was bearing down upon his heart during Paul’s preaching. (Acts 24:25)
Felix dismisses Paul, saying he will call him at a more “convenient” time.” He let the moment pass by in which he might have experienced salvation in Christ. For two years, Paul remains in Caesarea.
Questions for personal reflection: What do you think Paul feels while waiting to testify? Have there been times in your life when you have put off your relationship with Christ because it was not convenient? How can we guard against this in the future?
In this section, we will hear another of Paul’s defenses, now before King Herod Agrippa II, who ruled over the areas in the northern part of Palestine. King Agrippa would have been most familiar with “the Way,” as Christianity was called at the time, as there were now tens of thousands of believers throughout Palestine. Festus was unfamiliar with it, having just come from Rome – a city of over 1,000,000 where there were only a few hundred Christians.
Both Festus and Agrippa want to set Paul free. Yet, the tone in v. 32 may have a bit of sarcasm, that if only Paul had not requested the trial before Caesar, he would go free. Thus it is his own fault that he will be sent away. The most descriptive account of Paul’s conversion is found in this section.
Questions for personal reflection: How would you compare your conversion to Paul’s? Did you grow up in the faith, or did you come to know Christ as an adult? How do you think these two experiences differ?
This section includes Paul’s journey by ship to Rome. The shipwreck is said to be an excellent account of seamanship and first-century shipping practices. In these passages, we see the character of Paul as he continues his ministry to the end – preaching to Jews and Gentiles alike the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
When Paul finally gets to Rome, he remains under house arrest for two years. He could still carry out his work by writing letters and meeting with Christian leaders. Paul was either released at the end of two years (perhaps because his accusers never arrived from Jerusalem), or he was tried and sentenced to prison and executed. Although Acts does not report the execution of Paul, we know from early church records that Paul was beheaded under Caesar Nero around 64 A.D.
Questions for personal reflection: What have you learned about Paul during this sermon series? What have you learned about yourself?