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?
Paul's trial before Nero
After a 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.
Paul represents himself
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.