That which seemed at first to impede Paul's evangelistic efforts must really have deepened the impression of his eloquence; for who could see without emotion that venerable form subjected by iron links to the coarse control of the soldier who stood beside him? How often must the tears of the assembly have been called forth by the upraising of that fettered hand, and the clanking of the chain which checked its energetic action!
We shall see hereafter that these labors of the imprisoned Confessor were not fruitless; in his own words he begot many children in his chains (Philemon 1:10). Meanwhile, he had a wider sphere of action than even the metropolis of the world. Not only "the crowd which pressed upon him daily," (2Corinthians 11:28) but also "the care of all the churches," demanded his constant vigilance and exertion. Though himself tied down to a single spot, he kept up a constant intercourse, by his delegates, with his converts throughout the Empire; and not only with his own converts, but with the other Gentile Churches, who, as yet, had not seen his face in the flesh.
Faithful Christians needed!
To enable the Apostle Paul to maintain this superintendence, he manifestly needed many faithful messengers; men who (as he says of one of them) rendered him profitable service; (2Timothy 4:11) and by some of whom he seems to have been constantly accompanied, wheresoever he went.
Accordingly, we find the Apostle Paul, during this Roman imprisonment, surrounded by many of his oldest and most valued attendants. Luke, his fellow-traveler, remained with him during his bondage; Timothy, (Philemon 1:1; Colossians 1:1; Philippians 1:1) his beloved son in the faith, ministered to him at Rome, as he had done in Asia, in Macedonia, and in Achaia. Tychicus, who had formerly borne him company from Corinth to Ephesus, is now at hand to carry his letters to the shores which they had visited together.
Demas and Mark
But there are two names amongst Paul's Roman companions which excite a peculiar interest, though from opposite reasons. Their names are Demas and of Mark. The latter, when last we heard of him, was the unhappy cause of the separation of Barnabas and Paul. He was rejected by Paul as unworthy to attend him, because he had previously abandoned the work of the Gospel out of timidity or indolence. It is delightful to find him now ministering obediently to the very Apostle who had then repudiated his services; still more, to know that he persevered in this fidelity even to the end, and was sent for by Apostle Paul to cheer his dying hours.
Demas, on the other hand, is now a faithful "fellow laborer" (Philemon 1:24; cf. Colossians 4:14) of the Apostle; but in a few years we shall find that he had "forsaken" him, "having loved this present world." Perhaps we may be allowed to hope, that, as the fault of Demas was the same with that of Mark, so the repentance of Mark may have been paralleled by that of Demas.
Amongst the rest of Apostle Paul's companions at this time, there were two whom he distinguishes by the honorable title of his "fellow-prisoners." One of these is Aristarchus, (Colossians 4:10; cf. Acts 19:29, and Acts 27:2, and Philemon 1:24) the other Epaphras. (Colossians 1:7; Philemon 1:23) With regard to the former, we know that he was a Macedonian of Thessalonica, one of "Paul's companions in travel," whose life was endangered by the mob at Ephesus, and who embarked with Apostle Paul at Caesarea when he set sail for Rome. The other, Epaphras, was a Colossian, who must not be identified with the Philippian Epaphroditus, another of Apostle Paul's fellow-laborers during this time.
It is not easy to say what was the exact sense in which these two disciples were peculiarly fellow-prisoners of Apostle Paul. Perhaps it only implies that they dwelt in his house, which was also his prison.
But of all the disciples now ministering to Apostle Paul at Rome, none has for us a greater interest than the fugitive Asiatic slave Onesimus. He belonged to a Christian named Philemon, a member of the Colossian Church. But he had robbed (Philemon 1:18) his master, and fled from Colossae, and at last found his way to Rome. It is difficult to imagine any portion of mankind more utterly depraved than the associates among whom a runaway pagan slave must have found himself in the capital.
Profligate and unprincipled as we know even the highest and most educated society to have then been, what must have been its dregs and offal? Yet from this lowest depth Onesimus was dragged forth by the hand of Christian love. Perhaps some Asiatic Christian, who had seen him formerly at his master's house, recognized him in the streets of Rome destitute and starving, and had compassion on him; and thus he might have been brought to hear the preaching of the illustrious prisoner. Or it is not impossible that he may have already known Apostle Paul at Ephesus, where his master Philemon had formerly been himself converted by the Apostle. However this may be, it is certain that Onesimus was led by the providence of God to listen to that preaching now which he had formerly despised.
Onesimus was converted to the faith of Christ, and therefore to the morality of Christ. He confessed to Apostle Paul his sins against his master. The Apostle seems to have been peculiarly attracted by the character of Onesimus; and he perceived in him the indications of gifts which fitted him for a more important post than any which he could hold as the slave of Philemon. He wished (Philemon 1:13) to keep him at Rome, and employ him in the service of the Gospel. Yet he would not transgress the law, nor violate the rights of Philemon, by acting in this matter without his consent. He therefore decided that Onesimus must immediately return to his master; and, to make this duty less painful, he undertook himself to discharge the sum of which Philemon had been defrauded.
An opportunity now offered itself for Onesimus to return in good company; for Apostle Paul was sending Tychicus to Asia Minor, charged, amongst other commissions, with an epistle to Colossae, the home of Philemon. Under his care, therefore, he placed the penitent slave, who was now willing to surrender himself to his offended master. Nevertheless, he did not give up the hope of placing his new convert in a position wherein he might minister no longer to a private individual, but to the Church at large.
Paul intimated his wishes regarding Onesimus to Philemon himself, with characteristic delicacy, in a letter which he charged Onesimus to deliver on his arrival at Colossae. This letter is not only a beautiful illustration of the character of Apostle Paul, but also a practical commentary upon the precepts concerning the mutual relations of slaves and masters given in his contemporary Epistles. We see here one of the earliest examples of the mode in which Christianity operated upon these relations; not by any violent disruption of the organization of society, such as could only have produced another Servile War, but by gradually leavening and interpenetrating society with the spirit of a religion which recognized the equality of all men in the sight of God.
While Onesimus, on the arrival of the two companions at Colossae, hurried to the house of his master with Paul's letter, Tychicus proceeded to discharge his commission likewise by delivering to the Presbyters the Epistle with which he was charged, that it might be read to the whole Colossian Church at their next meeting.
Money from Philippi
After the departure of Tychicus and Onesimus, the Apostle's prison was cheered by the arrival of Epaphroditus, who bore a contribution from the Christians of Philippi. We have before seen instances of the noble liberality of that Church, and now once more we find them ministering to the necessities of their beloved teacher.
Epaphroditus, apparently a leading presbyter among the Philippians, had brought on himself, by the fatigues or perils of his journey, a dangerous illness. Apostle Paul speaks of him with touching affection. He calls him his "brother, and companion in labor, and fellow-soldier" (Philippians 2:25); declares that "his labor in the cause of Christ had brought him near to death" (Philippians 2:30), and that he had "hazarded his life" in order to supply the means of communication between the Philippians and himself. And, when speaking of his recovery, he says that God was merciful and compassionate to him (Philippians 2:27).
We must suppose, from the above expressions, that Epaphroditus had exposed himself to some unusual risk in his journey. Perhaps his health was already feeble when he set out, so that he showed self-devotion in encountering fatigues which were certain to injure him.
Meanwhile Apostle Paul continued to preach, and his converts to multiply. We shall find that when he wrote to the Philippians, either towards the close of this year, or at the beginning of the next, great effects had already been produced; and that the Church of Rome was not only enlarged, but encouraged to act with greater boldness upon the surrounding masses of Heathenism (Philippians 1:12 - 14) by the successful energy of the apostolic prisoner. Yet the political occurrences of the year might well have alarmed him for his safety, and counselled a more timid course.
We have seen that prisoners in Apostle Paul's position were under the charge of the Praetorian Prefect; and in this year occurred the death of the virtuous Burrus, under whose authority his imprisonment had been so unusually mild. Upon this event the prefecture was put into commission, and bestowed on Fenius Rufus and Sofonius Tigellinus. The former was respectable, but wanting in force of character, and quite unable to cope with his colleague, who was already notorious for that energetic wickedness which has since made his name proverbial.
Apostle Paul's Christian friends in Rome must have trembled to think of him as subject to the caprice of this most detestable of Nero's satellites. It does not seem, however, that his situation was altered for the worse; possibly he was never brought under the special notice of Tigellinus, who was too intent on court intrigues, at this period, to attend to so trifling a matter as the concerns of a Jewish prisoner.
Nero's adulterous marriage
Another circumstance occurred about the same time, which seemed to threaten still graver mischief to the cause of Paul. This was the marriage of Nero to his adulterous mistress Poppaea, who had become a proselyte to Judaism. Such circumstances fully account for the anticipations of an unfavorable issue to his trial, which we shall find Apostle Paul now expressing (Philippians 2:17, and 3:11) and which contrast remarkably with the confident expectation of release entertained by him when he wrote the letter (Philemon 1:22, 23) to Philemon. When we come to discuss the trial of Apostle Paul, we shall see reason to believe that the providence of God did in fact avert this danger; but at present all things seemed to wear a most threatening aspect.
Perhaps the death of Pallas (which also happened this year) may be considered, on the other hand, as removing an unfavorable influence; for, as the brother of Felix, he would have been willing to soften the Jewish accusers of that profligate governor, by co-operating with their designs against Apostle Paul. But his power had ceased to be formidable, either for good or evil, some time before his death.
Meanwhile, Epaphroditus was fully recovered from his sickness, and able once more to travel; and he willingly prepared to comply with Apostle Paul's request that he would return to Philippi. We are told that he was "filled with longing" to see his friends again, and the more so when he heard that great anxiety had been caused among them by the news of his sickness (Philippians 2:26). Probably he occupied an influential post in the Philippian Church, and Apostle Paul was unwilling to detain him any longer from his duties there. He took the occasion of his return to send a letter of grateful acknowledgment to his Philippian converts.
If there were any soldiers not utterly hardened by a life of cruelty, their hearts must surely have been touched by the character of their prisoner named Paul, brought as they were into so close a contact with him. They must have been at least astonished to see a man, under such circumstances, so utterly careless of selfish interests, and devoting himself with an energy so unaccountable to the teaching of others. Strange indeed to their ears, fresh from the brutality of a Roman barrack, must have been the sound of Christian exhortation, of prayers, and of hymns; stranger still, perhaps, the tender love which bound the converts to their teacher and to one another, and showed itself in every look and tone.
But if the agents of Nero's tyranny seem out of place in such a scene, still more repugnant to the assembled worshippers must have been the instruments of his pleasures, the ministers of his lust. Yet some even among these, the depraved servants of the palace, were redeemed from their degradation by the Spirit of Christ, which spoke to them in the words of Paul. How deep their degradation was we know from authentic records.
We are not left to conjecture the services required from the attendants of Nero. The ancient historians have polluted their pages with details of infamy which no writer in the languages of Christendom may dare to repeat. Thus the very immensity of moral amelioration wrought operates to disguise its own extent, and hides from inexperienced eyes the gulf which separates Heathenism from Christianity.
Suffice it to say that the courtiers of Nero were the spectators, and the members of his household the instruments, of vices so monstrous and so unnatural, that they shocked even the men of that generation, steeped as it was in every species of obscenity. But we must remember that many of those who took part in such abominations were involuntary agents, forced by the compulsion of slavery to do their master's bidding. And the very depth of vileness in which they were plunged must have excited in some of them an indignant disgust and revulsion against vice.
Under such feelings, if curiosity led some to visit the Apostle's prison, they were well qualified to appreciate the purity of its moral atmosphere. And there it was that some of these unhappy bondsmen first tasted of spiritual freedom, and were prepared to brave with patient heroism the tortures under which they soon were destined to expire in the gardens of the Vatican.