Although the Roman governor, Festus, couldn’t find anything wrong with him, Paul feared that Festus might turn him over to the Jews to do them a favour and appealed to have his case heard before the emperor, which was his right as a Roman citizen. Unfortunately the ship on which Paul and other prisoners were being taken to Rome was wrecked off the small island of Malta, but fortunately they along with the soldiers guarding them and the crew of the ship were all able to get to shore safely.
In this article I’ll consider Luke’s record in Acts 28:11-31 of Paul’s journey from Malta to Rome and of the first two years of his stay there. I’ll divide my account into four sections: Paul’s journey to and arrival at Rome, his first meeting with the leaders of the Jews, his second meeting with them, and his life in Rome. In my next article, the last in this series on the life of Paul, I’ll summarize what is known and surmised about Paul’s life after his initial stay in Rome.
Paul’s Journey to and Arrival in Rome
After three months in Malta, its now being safe to navigate the Mediterranean Sea (and thus probably mid February), Paul and those with him set sail for Italy in a ship that had wintered in the island. Like the ship which had been shipwrecked the ship was from Alexandria in Egypt, and probably it was also a grain ship. They put in at Syracuse at the eastern end of the Sicily, the large island southeast of Italy, and stayed there three days. From there they went on to Rhegium on the southern tip of Italy and, when a south wind sprang up a day later, to Puteoli on the Bay of Naples, a major port for Roman traffic.
At Puteoli they met some Christians, showing that Christianity had not only reached Rome but other parts of Italy. Perhaps because the centurion had business there, he allowed Paul to accept their invitation to spend a week with them, undoubtedly accompanied by a guard. As well, in the journey by road from Puteoli to Rome they were met at two places, the Forum of Appius (64 kilometers from Rome) and Three Taverns (48 kilometers from Rome), by Roman Christians who had heard about them. Seeing them caused Paul to thank God and take courage. When they came to Rome, Paul was allowed to live in private quarters (a rented house, Acts 28:30) with a soldier to guard him.
Paul’s First Meeting with the Leaders of the Jews
Three days after arriving in Rome, Paul invited the “local leaders” of the Jews (probably the elders of the synagogues) to meet with him, hoping to defend himself before them and to proclaim the Gospel to them. He told them:
Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain. (Acts 28:17-20, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV. “The hope of Israel” referred to by Paul is the coming of the Messiah; see Acts 23:6; 24:15; and 26:6-8, 23.)
They replied that they hadn’t received any letters from Judea about Paul and that none of the Jews who had come from Judea to Rome had said anything evil about him. However they knew that the Christian sect which he belonged to was spoken against everywhere and they wanted to hear about its views from Paul.
Paul’s Second Meeting with the Jews
Later an even greater number of them spent a day at the place where Paul was staying. He expounded to them about the kingdom of God and about Jesus, trying to persuade them from the Old Testament that Jesus was the messianic Son of David who would lead the kingdom of God against the power of Satan (see Matthew 12:23-29). Some were convinced by what Paul said, but others would not believe. They left after Paul quoted Isaiah 6:9-10, which he attributed to the Holy Spirit’s speaking through Isaiah, to explain their failure to accept the gospel:
Go to this people, and say,
You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.
He concluded, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28:29). However his declaration doesn’t mean that he gave up on the Jews in Rome, and undoubtedly he continued to witness to them as well as to the Gentiles.
Paul’s Life in Rome
Paul spent the next two years in Rome waiting for his accusers to come from Jerusalem to press their case against him. Living in his own rented house and providing for his expenses, he welcomed “all who came to him,” which would likely have included both Jews and Gentiles, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus with boldness and without hindrance.
John Albert Bengel observes: “A victory of God’s Word. Paul at Rome is the crowning point of the Gospel, and the end of Acts…. He began at Jerusalem; he ends at Rome….Thou hast, O Church, thy form. It is thine to preserve it, and to guard thy trust” (Bengel, New Testament Word Studies, translated from the Latin by Charlton T. Lewis and Marvin R. Vincent, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1971, volume 1, page 925).