Apostle Paul Dies in Rome

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Paul's imprisonment in Rome, after conducting what could be called his final (fifth) missionary journey, was evidently more severe than it had been five years before. Then, though necessarily fettered to his military guard, he had been allowed to live in his own lodgings, and had been suffered to preach the Gospel to a numerous company who came to hear him. Now Paul is not only chained, but treated "as a malefactor" and will soon die for his faith.

Second imprisonment

Paul's friends, indeed, are still suffered to visit him in his confinement in Rome, but we hear nothing of his preaching. It is dangerous and difficult (2Timothy 1:16) to seek his prison and so perilous to show any public sympathy with him. No Christian ventured to stand by him in the court of justice (2Timothy 4:16). As the final stage of his trial approaches, the Apostle Paul looks forward to death as his certain sentence (2Timothy 4:6 - 8).

This alteration in the treatment of Apostle Paul exactly corresponds with that which the history of the times would have led us to expect. We have concluded that his liberation took place early in A.D. 63. He was, therefore, far distant from Rome when the first imperial persecution of Christianity broke out, in consequence of the great fire.

Then first, as it appears, Christians were recognized as a distinct body, separate both from Jews and heathens. Their number must have been already very great at Rome to account for the public notice attracted towards a sect whose members were, most of them, individually so obscure in social position (1Corinthians 1:26).

When the alarm and indignation of the people were excited by the tremendous ruin of a conflagration, which burnt down almost half the city, it answered the purpose of Nero (who was accused of causing the fire) to avert the rage of the populace from himself to the already hated votaries of a new religion. Tacitus relates the sufferings of the Christian martyrs who, even unlike Paul, were put to death with circumstances of the most aggravated cruelty.

Martyrdom of Paul
Martyrdom of Paul
Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330

Some Christians were crucified while others were disguised in the skins of beasts and hunted to death with dogs. Some were wrapped in robes impregnated with inflammable materials and set on fire at night, that they might serve to illuminate the circus of the Vatican and the gardens of Nero. This was done so that Nero could exhibit the agonies of his victims to the public and gloat over them himself.

Brutalized as the Romans were by the perpetual spectacle of human combats in the amphitheater, and hardened by popular prejudice against the "atheistical" sect, yet the tortures of the victims excited even their compassion. "A very great multitude," as Tacitus informs us, perished in this manner and it appears from his statement that the mere fact of professing Christianity was accounted sufficient to justify their execution. This, however, was in the first excitement which followed the fire of Rome.

Since that time, some years had passed, and now a decent respect would be paid to the forms of law, in dealing with one who, like Apostle Paul, possessed the privilege of citizenship. Yet we can quite understand that a leader of so abhorred a sect would be subjected to a severe imprisonment.

Charges against him

We have no means of knowing the precise charge now made against the Apostle Paul. He might certainly be regarded as an offender against the law which prohibited the propagation of a new and illicit religion among the citizens of Rome. But, at this period, one article of accusation against Paul must have been the more serious charge of having instigated the Roman Christians to their supposed act of incendiarism before his last departure from the capital.

It appears that Alexander the coppersmith (2Timothy 4:14) was either one of Apostle Paul's accusers, or, at least, a witness against him. If this was the same with the Jewish Alexander of Ephesus (Acts 19:33), it would be probable that his testimony related to the former charge. But there is no proof that these two Alexanders were identical. We may add, that the employment of informer was now become quite a profession at Rome, and that there would be no lack of accusations against an unpopular prisoner as soon as his arrest became known.

Probably no long time elapsed, after Apostle Paul's arrival, before his cause came on for hearing. The accusers, with their witnesses, would be already on the spot; and on this occasion he was not to be tried by the Emperor in person, so that another cause of delay, which was often interposed by the carelessness or indolence of the Emperor, would be removed.

The charge now alleged against Paul probably fell under the cognizance of the city Prefect, whose jurisdiction daily encroached, at this period, on that of the ancient magistracies. For we must remember, that, since the time of Augustus, a great though silent change had taken place in the Roman system of criminal procedure. The ancient method, though still the regular and legal system, was rapidly becoming obsolete in practice.

Treatment of citizens

Under the Republic, a citizen of Rome like Paul could theoretically be tried on a criminal charge only by the Sovereign People. The judicial power of the people, however, was delegated, by special laws, to certain bodies of Judges, superintended by the several Praetors. Thus one Praetor presided at trials for homicide, another at trials for treason, and so on. But the presiding magistrate did not give the sentence. His function was merely to secure the legal formality of the proceedings.

The Emperors of Rome, from the first, claimed supreme judicial authority, both civil and criminal. And this jurisdiction was exercised not only by themselves, but by the delegates whom they appointed. It was at first delegated chiefly to the Prefect of the city and though causes might, up to the beginning of the second century, be tried by the Praetors in the old way, yet this became more and more unusual.

In the reign of Nero, it was even dangerous for an accuser to prosecute an offender in the Praetor's instead of the Prefect's court. Thus the trial of criminal charges was transferred from a jury of independent Judices to a single magistrate appointed by a despot, and controlled only by a Council of Assessors, to whom he was not bound to attend.

His first hearing

Such was the court before which Apostle Paul was now cited. We have an account of the first hearing of the cause from his own pen. Paul writes thus to Timothy immediately after.

"During my first defense, no one stood with me; instead, everyone deserted me. (I pray that God will not lay it to their charge.) But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully made, and all the Gentiles might hear the gospel; and I was delivered out of the lion's mouth.

And the Lord will deliver me from every wicked deed and will preserve me for His heavenly kingdom; to Whom be the glory into the ages of eternity. Amen." (2Timothy 4:16 - 18, HBFV where noted)

We see from this statement, that it was dangerous even to appear in public as the friend or adviser of the Apostle Paul. No advocate would venture to plead his cause, no procurator to aid him in arranging the evidence, no patronus (such as he might have found, perhaps, in the powerful Aemilian house) to appear as his supporter, and to deprecate, according to ancient usage, the severity of the sentence. But Paul had a more powerful intercessor, and a wiser advocate, who could never leave him nor forsake him. The Lord Jesus was always near him, but now was felt almost visibly present in the hour of his need.

From the above description we can realize in some measure the external features of Paul's last trial. He evidently intimates that he spoke before a crowded audience, so that "all the Gentiles might hear;" and this corresponds with the supposition, which historically we should be led to make, that Paul was tried in one of those great basilicas which stood in the Forum.

Paul's defense

Before such an audience it was that Paul was now called to speak in his defense. His earthly friends had deserted him, but his Heavenly Friend stood by him. He was strengthened by the power of Christ's Spirit, and pleaded the cause not of himself only, but of the Gospel. Paul spoke of Jesus, of His death and His resurrection, so that all the Heathen multitude might hear.

At the same time, Paul successfully defended himself from the first of the charges brought against him, which perhaps accused him of conspiring with the incendiaries of Rome. He was delivered from the immediate peril, and saved from the ignominious and painful death which might have been his doom had he been convicted on such a charge.

Paul was now remanded to prison to wait for the second stage of his trial. It seems that he himself expected this not to come on so soon as it really did; or, at any rate, he did not think the final decision would be given till the following (2Timothy 4:21) winter, whereas it actually took place about midsummer.

Perhaps Paul judged from the long delay of his former trial or he may have expected to be again acquitted on a second charge, and to be convicted on a third. He certainly did not expect a final acquittal, but felt no doubt that the cause would ultimately result in his condemnation.

Waiting for martyrdom

We are not left to conjecture the feelings with which Paul awaited his ultimate fate in Rome, for he has himself expressed them in that sublime strain of triumphant hope which is familiar to the memory of every Christian, and which has nerved the hearts of a thousand martyrs.

For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith.

From this time forward, a crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me in that day - and not to me only, but also to all who love His appearing. (2Timothy 4:6 - 8, HBFV).

Paul saw before him the doom of an unrighteous magistrate, and the sword of a bloodstained executioner. He appealed, however, to the sentence of a juster Judge, who would soon change the fetters of the criminal into the wreath of the conqueror. Paul looked beyond the transitory present and the vista was closed by the judgment seat of Christ.

Abandoned by friends

Sustained by such a blessed and glorious hope and knowing, as Paul did, that nothing in heaven or in earth could separate him from the love of Christ, it mattered to him but little if he was destitute of earthly sympathy. Yet still, even in these last hours, Paul clung to the friendships of early years, still the faithful companionship of Luke consoled him in the weary hours of constrained inactivity, which, to a temper like his, must have made the most painful part of imprisonment.

Luke was the only one of his habitual attendants who now remained to minister to him. Paul's other companions had left him, probably before his arrival at Rome. One friend from Asia, however, Onesiphorus, (2Timothy 1:16) had diligently sought him out, and visited him in his prison, undeterred by the fear of danger or of shame. And there were others, some of them high in station, who came to receive from the chained malefactor blessings infinitely greater than all the favors of the Emperor of the world.

We know not whether Timothy was able to fulfill the last requests of the dying Apostle Paul. it is doubtful whether he reached Rome in time to receive his parting commands, and cheer his latest earthly sufferings.

We may, therefore, hope that Paul's last earthly wish was fulfilled. Yet if Timothy did indeed arrive before the closing scene, there could have been but a very brief interval between his coming and his master's death. For the letter which summoned him could not have been despatched from Rome till the end of winter, and Apostle Paul's martyrdom took place in the middle of summer. We have seen that this was sooner than he had expected. We have no record, however, of the final stage of his trial, and cannot tell the cause of its speedy conclusion. We only know that it resulted in a sentence of the death penalty.

Paying the highest price

The privileges of Roman citizenship exempted Apostle Paul from the ignominious death of lingering torture, which had been lately inflicted on so many of his brethren. He was to die by decapitation. He was led out to execution beyond the city walls, upon the road to Ostia, the port of Rome.

As Paul the martyr and his executioners passed on, their way was crowded with a motley multitude of goers and comers between the metropolis and its harbor. Through the dust and tumult of that busy throng, the small troop of soldiers threaded their way silently, under the bright sky of an Italian midsummer. Their prisoner, now at last and forever delivered from his captivity, rejoiced to follow his Lord "without the gate."

The place of execution in Rome was not far distant. The sword of the headsman ended the Apostle Paul's long course of sufferings, and released that heroic soul from that feeble body. Weeping friends took up his corpse, and carried it for burial to those subterranean labyrinths, where, through many ages of oppression, the persecuted Church found refuge for the living, and sepulchres for the dead. Thus the Apostle Paul dies. He bequeathing to the Church the legacy of his Apostolic labors.


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