The great question which we have to answer concerns the termination of that long imprisonment whose history has occupied the preceding chapters. Luke tells us that Paul remained under military custody in Rome for "two whole years" (Acts 28:16 and 30); but he does not say what followed at the close of that period. Was it ended, we are left to ask, by the Apostle's condemnation and death, or by his acquittal and liberation? Although the answer to this question has been a subject of dispute in modern times, no doubt was entertained about it by the ancient Church.
It was universally believed that Apostle Paul's appeal to Caesar terminated successfully and that he was acquitted of the charges laid against him. He spent some years in freedom before he was again imprisoned and condemned. The evidence on this subject, though (as we have said) not copious, is yet conclusive so far as it goes, and it is all one way.
The most important portion of it is supplied by Clement, the disciple of Paul, mentioned Philippians 4:3, who was afterwards Bishop of Rome. This author, writing from Rome to Corinth, expressly asserts that Paul had preached the Gospel "IN THE EAST AND IN THE WEST;" that "he had instructed the whole world [i. e. the Roman Empire, which was commonly so called] in righteousness;" and that he "had gone to THE EXTREMITY OF THE WEST" before his martyrdom.
Now, in a Roman author, the extremity of the West could mean nothing short of Spain, and the expression is often used by Roman writers to denote Spain. Here, then, we have the express testimony of Apostle Paul's own disciple that he fulfilled his original intention (mentioned Romans 15:24 - 28) of visiting the Spanish peninsula; and consequently that he was liberated from his first imprisonment at Rome.
We also have the statement of Chrysostom, who mentions it as an undoubted historical fact, that "Apostle Paul, after his residence in Rome, departed to Spain." About the same time Jerome bears the same testimony, saying that "Paul was dismissed by Nero, that he might preach Christ's Gospel in the West."
Those who doubt the liberation of Apostle Paul from his imprisonment are obliged to resort to a gratuitous hypothesis, or to inconclusive arguments from probability. Thus they try to account for the tradition of the Spanish journey by the arbitrary supposition that it arose from a wish to represent Paul as having fulfilled his expressed intentions (Romans 15:19) of visiting Spain. Or they say that it is improbable Nero would have liberated him after he had fallen under the influence of Poppaea, the Jewish proselyte. Or, lastly, they urge, that, if he had really been liberated, we must have had some account of his subsequent labors.
The first argument listed above needs no answer, being a mere hypothesis. The second, as to the probability of the matter, may be met by the remark, that we know far too little of the circumstances, and of the motives which weighed with Nero, to judge how he would have been likely to act in the case.
To the third argument we may oppose the fact, that we have no account whatever of Apostle Paul's labors, toils, and sufferings, during several of the most active years of his life, and only learn their existence by a casual allusion in a letter to the Corinthians (2Corinthians 11:24, 25). Moreover, if this argument be worth any thing, it would prove that none of the Apostles except Apostle Paul took any part whatever in the propagation of the Gospel after the first few years; since we have no testimony to their subsequent labors at all more definite than that which we have above quoted concerning his work after his liberation.
But farther, unless we are prepared to dispute the genuineness of the Pastoral Epistles, we must admit not only that Apostle Paul was liberated from his Roman imprisonment, but also that he continued his Apostolic labors for at least some years afterwards.
For it is now admitted by nearly all those who are competent to decide on such a question, first, that the historical facts mentioned in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus cannot be placed in any portion of Apostle Paul's life before or during his first imprisonment in Rome; and, secondly, that the style in which those Epistles are written, and the condition of the Church described in them, forbid the supposition of such a date.
Consequently, we must acknowledge (unless we deny the authenticity of the Pastoral Epistles) that after Paul's Roman imprisonment he was traveling at liberty in Ephesus, (1Timothy 1:3) Crete, (Titus 1:5) Macedonia, (1Timothy 1:3) Miletus, (2Timothy 4:20) and Nicopolis, (Titus 3:12) and that he was afterwards a second time in prison at Rome (2Timothy 1:16, 17).
We are led to fix the last year of Nero as that of Paul's martrydom. And this is the very year assigned to it by Jerome, and the next to that assigned by Eusebius, the two earliest writers who mention the date of his death at all.
In the first place, after the long delay, which we have before endeavored to explain, Apostle Paul's appeal came on for hearing before the Emperor. The appeals from the provinces in civil causes were heard, not by the Emperor himself, but by his delegates, who were persons of consular rank: Augustus had appointed one such delegate to hear appeals from each province respectively.
Criminal appeals, however, appear generally to have been heard by the Emperor in person, assisted by his council of Assessors. Tiberius and Claudius had usually sat for this purpose in the Forum; but Nero, after the example of Augustus, heard these causes in the Imperial Palace, whose ruins still crown the Palatine. Here, at one end of a splendid hall, lined with the precious marbles of Egypt and of Lybia, we must imagine the Caesar seated, in the midst of his Assessors.
These councillors, twenty in number, were men of the highest rank and greatest influence. Among them were the two consuls, and selected representatives of each of the other great magistracies of Rome. The remainder consisted of Senators chosen by lot. Over this distinguished bench of judges presided the representative of the most powerful monarchy which has ever existed - the absolute ruler of the whole civilized world. But the reverential awe which his position naturally suggested was changed into contempt and loathing by the character of the Sovereign who now presided over that supreme tribunal.
For Nero was a man whom even the awful attribute of "power equal to the gods" could not render august, except in title. The fear and horror excited by his omnipotence and his cruelty were blended with contempt for his ignoble lust of praise, and his shameless licentiousness. He had not as yet plunged into that extravagance of tyranny, which, at a later period, exhausted the patience of his subjects, and brought him to destruction. Hitherto his public measures had been guided by sage advisers, and his cruelty had injured his own family rather than the State.
Nero, however, at the age of twenty-five had murdered his innocent wife and his adopted brother, and had dyed his hands in the blood of his mother. Yet even these enormities seem to have disgusted the Romans less than his prostitution of the Imperial purple, by publicly performing as a musician on the stage and a charioteer in the circus. His degrading want of dignity, and insatiable appetite for vulgar applause, drew tears from the councillors and servants of his house, who could see him slaughter his nearest relatives without remonstrance.
Before the tribunal of this blood-stained adulterer, Paul the Apostle was now brought in fetters, under the custody of his military guard. We may be sure that he who had so often stood undaunted before the delegates of the Imperial throne did not quail when he was at last confronted with their master. His life was not in the hands of Nero: he knew that while his Lord had work for him on earth, HE would shield him from the tyrant's sword; and, if his work was over, how gladly would he "depart and be with Christ, which was far better."
To the apostle Paul, all the majesty of Roman despotism was nothing more than an empty pageant; the Imperial demigod himself was but one of "the princes of this world, that come to nought." (1Corinthians 2:6) Thus he stood, calm and collected, ready to answer the charges of his accusers, and knowing that in the hour of his need it should be given him what to speak.
The prosecutors and their witnesses were now called forward to support their accusation: for although the subject matter for decision was contained in the written depositions forwarded from Judea by Festus, yet the Roman law required the personal presence of the accusers and the witnesses, whenever it could be obtained.
We already know the charges brought against the Apostle. He was accused of disturbing the Jews in the exercise of their worship, which was secured to them by law; of desecrating their Temple; and, above all, of violating the public peace of the Empire by perpetual agitation, as the ringleader of a new and factious sect. This charge was the most serious in the view of a Roman statesman; for the crime alleged amounted to majestas, or treason against the Commonwealth, and was punishable with death.
These accusations were supported by the emissaries of the Sanhedrin, and probably by the testimony of witnesses from Judea, Ephesus, Corinth, and the other scenes of Paul's activity. The foreign accusers, however, did not rely on the support of their own unaided eloquence. They doubtless hired the rhetoric of some accomplished Roman pleader (as they had done even before the provincial tribunal of Felix) to set off their cause to the best advantage, and paint the dangerous character of their antagonist in the darkest colors. Nor would it have been difficult to represent the missionary labors of Paul as dangerous to the security of the Roman state.
It is important to remember how ill informed the Roman magistrates, who listened, must have been concerning the questions really at issue between Paul and his opponents; and when we consider how easily the Jews were excited against the government by any fanatical leader who appealed to their nationality, and how readily the kingdom of the Messiah, which Paul proclaimed, might be misrepresented as a temporal monarchy, set up in opposition to the foreign domination of Rome.
We cannot suppose that Apostle Paul had secured the services of any professional advocate to repel such false accusations, and put the truth clearly before his Roman judges. We know that he resorted to no such method on former occasions of a similar kind. And it seems more consistent with his character, and his unwavering reliance on his Master's promised aid, to suppose that he answered the elaborate harangue of the hostile pleader by a plain and simple statement of facts, like that which he addressed to Felix, Festus, and Agrippa.
Paul could easily prove the falsehood of the charge of sacrilege by the testimony of those who were present in the Temple; and perhaps the refutation of this more definite accusation might incline his judges more readily to attribute the vaguer charges to the malice of his opponents.
Paul would show, that, far from being a seditious agitator against the state, he taught his converts everywhere to honor the Imperial Government, and submit to the ordinances (Compare Romans 13:1 - 7) of the magistrate for conscience' sake. And, though he would admit the charge of belonging to the sect of the Nazarenes, yet he would remind his opponents that they themselves acknowledged the division of their nation into various sects, which were equally entitled to the protection of the law; and that the sect of the Nazarenes had a right to the same toleration which was extended to those of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
When the parties on both sides had been heard, and the witnesses all examined and cross examined (a process which perhaps occupied several days), the judgment of the court was taken. Each of the assessors gave his opinion in writing to the Emperor, who never discussed the judgment with his assessors, as had been the practice of better emperors, but, after reading their opinions, gave sentence according to his own pleasure, without reference to the judgment of the majority.
On this occasion, it might have been expected that he would have pronounced the condemnation of the accused; for the influence of Poppaea had now reached its culminating point, and she was, as we have said, a Jewish proselyte.
We can scarcely doubt that the emissaries from Palestine would have sought access to so powerful a protectress, and demanded her aid for the destruction of a traitor to the Jewish faith; nor would any scruples have prevented her from listening to their request, backed as it probably was, according to the Roman usage, by a bribe. If such influence was exerted upon Nero, it might have been expected easily to prevail. But we know not all the complicated intrigues of the Imperial Court.
Perhaps some Christian freedman of Narcissus may have counteracted, through the interest of that powerful favorite, the devices of Apostle Paul's antagonists; or possibly Nero may have been capriciously inclined to act upon his own independent view of the law and justice of the case, or to show his contempt for what he regarded as the petty squabbles of a superstitious people, by "driving the accusers from his judgment-seat" with the same feelings which Gallio had shown on a similar occasion.
However this may be, the trial resulted in the acquittal of Apostle Paul. He was pronounced guiltless of the charges brought against him, his fetters were struck off, and he was liberated from his lengthened captivity. And now at last he was free to realize his long cherished purpose of evangelizing the West. But the immediate execution of this design was for the present postponed, in order that he might first revisit some of his earlier converts, who again needed his presence.
Immediately on his liberation it may reasonably be supposed that he fulfilled the intention which he had lately expressed (Philemon 1:22, and Philippians 2:24), of traveling eastward through Macedonia, and seeking the churches of Asia Minor, some of which, as yet, had not seen his face in the flesh.
We have already learnt, from the Epistle to the Colossians, how much Paul's influence and authority were required among those Asiatic Churches. We must suppose him, therefore, to have gone from Rome by the usual route, crossing the Adriatic from Brundusium to Apollonia, or Dyrrhachium, and proceeding by the great Egnatian road through Macedonia; and we can imagine the joy wherewith he was welcomed by his beloved children at Philippi, when he thus gratified the expectation which he had encouraged them to form.
There is no reason to suppose, however, that Paul lingered in Macedonia. It is more likely that he hastened on to Ephesus, and made that city once more his center of operations. If he effected his purpose, (See Philemon 1:22) he now for the first time visited Colossae, Laodicea, and other churches in that region.
Having accomplished the objects of his visit to Asia Minor, he was at length enabled (perhaps in the year following that of his liberation) to undertake his long-meditated journey to Spain. By what route he went, we know not; he may either have traveled by way of Rome, which had been his original intention, or more probably, avoiding the dangers which at this period (in the height of the Neronian persecution) would have beset him there, he may have gone by sea. There was constant commercial intercourse between the East and Massilia (the modern Marseilles); and Massilia was in daily communication with the Peninsula.
The apostle Paul, soon after we find that he had been in Crete (which seems to imply that, on his way thither, he had passed through Ephesus), and was now again on his way westwards.
Shortly after leaving Crete, Apostle Paul sent a letter to Titus, the outline of which would equally serve for that of the preceding Epistle. But Apostle Paul's letter to Titus seems to have been still further called for, to meet some strong opposition which that disciple had encountered while attempting to carry out his master's directions. This may be inferred from the very severe remarks against the Cretans which occur in the Epistle, and from the statement, at its commencement, that the very object which its writer had in view, in leaving Titus in Crete, was that he might appoint Presbyters in the Cretan Churches; an indication that his claim to exercise this authority had been disputed.
We see from the letter to Titus that Titus desired to join Apostle Paul at Nicopolis, where the Apostle designed to winter. It seems most probable, however, that Apostle Paul was not permitted to spend the whole of this winter in security at Nicopolis.
In this melancholy journey he had but few friends to cheer him. Titus had reached Nicopolis, in obedience to his summons; and there were others also, it would seem, in attendance on him; but they were scattered by the terror of his arrest.
Demas forsook him, "for love of this present world," (2Timothy 4:10) and departed to Thessalonians; Crescens went to Galatia on the same occasion. We are unwilling to suppose that Titus could have yielded to such unworthy fears, and may be allowed to hope that his journey to the neighboring Dalmatia was undertaken by the desire of Apostle Paul. Luke, (2Timothy 4:11) at any rate, remained faithful, accompanied his master once more over the wintry sea, and shared the dangers of his imprisonment at Rome.