Philippi. Jerusalem. Caesarea. Rome. If you were to visit these places, what kind of accommodations would you book?
Let’s just say that the apostle Paul’s accommodations in those cities weren’t always 5-star. Nor was his cruise on the Mediterranean terribly relaxing. But things did seem to get better over time.
Paul had suffered severely at the hands of the Roman authorities in Philippi. Without due process, he had been arrested, beaten with rods, and tossed into the deepest, darkest cell they had, with his feet fastened in the stocks. It took a divinely delivered earthquake to bust him out.
Later, in Jerusalem, a Jewish mob tried to beat him to death. He was saved by Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune, who held him in protective custody in the military barracks next to the temple. And when the tribune was told of an assassination plot against the apostle, he shipped Paul off to Caesarea for his own good.
In Caesarea, he was again kept in military custody, but at least allowed some freedom; his friends could visit and care for his needs. He was there for over two years while first Governor Felix and then his successor Festus dithered over what to do with him.
When Paul appealed to the emperor, a centurion named Julius was assigned to make sure the apostle got safely to Rome. I imagine the two men developed an interesting relationship through the trials they endured together at sea. But eventually, they arrived in Rome and parted ways.
And according to Luke, his accommodations continued to improve: “When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him” (Acts 28:16, NRSV). It wasn’t quite the St. Regis. But it was the best arrangement he had had in quite a while.
Paul was neither in prison nor, it seems, the barracks. The situation Luke seems to be describing is that Paul was permitted to live in his own rented room or apartment, under minimal guard. The word translated as “soldier” means just that: an ordinary soldier, not a centurion like Julius. And there was only one. Paul would have been chained to this man, so he wasn’t free to come and go. But apparently he was free to receive as many guests as he liked.
Why such minimal security?
Think about the story leading up to this point. In Corinth, the Roman governor Gallio had thrown out the accusations made by angry Jews against Paul, declaring the charges to be of no interest to the empire.
In Ephesus, another angry mob sought Paul but nabbed Gaius and Aristarchus instead. The town clerk quieted the mob down and advised them to follow due process — if indeed there were any legitimate charges to be made! — lest they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
In Jerusalem, Claudius Lysias decided that Paul was innocent of anything “deserving death or imprisonment” (Acts 23:29), and said so in his letter to Felix. Felix apparently agreed with that judgment, as did Festus, as did the visiting King Agrippa. In all likelihood, Festus’ letter to the emperor made this clear. And who knows? By the time Julius had delivered Paul safely to Rome, he may have had the opportunity to add his two cents worth.
At every step along the way in Acts, whenever Paul’s case was actually heard, Roman authority judged him innocent. Moreover, he was a Roman citizen. At this point, the trial he awaited was probably mostly pro forma, since Paul had appealed to have the emperor hear his case. But the signs in the story suggest that no one gave serious credence to the idea that Paul might be guilty of a crime against Rome.
Hence the liberal nature of his house arrest, which gave him the freedom he needed to continue to preach the gospel. The soldiers guarding him would have rotated through four-hour shifts. You can bet that every single one of them heard the story of Jesus.
Paul may have been the one in chains, but his guards were the captive audience. And as we’ll see, the guards weren’t the only ones to hear the gospel from Paul.