When we read about the apostle Paul in the book of Acts, Luke intends for us to remember Paul the captive as much as or even more than Paul the traveling missionary. Luke devotes almost a quarter of Acts to Paul’s final arrest and imprisonment—and if you include the account of Paul’s troubles in Philippi, the proportion rises to a third!
In his first volume to Theophilus, Luke describes Jesus prophesying that his followers would be imprisoned for their faithful witness (Luke 21:12). In the second volume, Luke shows how this was fulfilled by the 12 apostles (Acts 4:3; 5:18–25; 12:1–19) and by believers generally (8:3; 9:2, 14; 22:4–5; 26:10). But it was especially fulfilled by Paul (16:16–40; 20:23; 21:11–13; 21:27–28:31). As Luke explains, Jesus had made it explicitly clear that Paul was given a dual calling—to “carry” Jesus’ name before gentiles and Jews and to “suffer for” Jesus’ name (Acts 9:15f.; see also Phil. 1:29–30). Paul’s faithful witness would be extensive and painful.
The Greco-Roman world
As we read about Paul the captive, it’s important to consider the ancient Greco-Roman context of Acts. In Paul’s world, people could be taken into custody for several reasons: to protect them from harm; to prevent them from fleeing; to hold them while awaiting their trial, verdict, or execution; or to coerce their participation in a judicial matter. Defendants were assigned to custody based on legal and social factors. Serious charges generally resulted in a heavier custody; less serious charges, a lighter one.
High-status offenders possessing a well-qualified Roman citizenship received better treatment in custody (if they were taken into custody at all); low status and the absence of citizenship resulted in severer forms of custody. From heaviest to lightest, the options were prison, military custody, entrustment to a higher-ranking civilian sponsor, and release on one’s own recognizance.1
Captive for a higher purpose
From Jerusalem to Caesarea to Rome, Paul is a citizen prisoner in the charge of centurions. Once he reaches Rome, he is assigned to a single regular soldier to whom he is chained. Still, Paul’s custody situation is very relaxed. He is “allowed to live by himself” in rented quarters where he stays “for two whole years” (Acts 28:16, 20, 23, 30). He is able to welcome “all” and to preach and teach “boldly and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30–31).
Earlier in Acts, when Paul was traveling to Jerusalem after the third missionary journey, he was repeatedly warned by the Holy Spirit that prison and hardship awaited him. He was undaunted: “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:23).
In Rome, Paul declares to the Jewish leaders, “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain” (28:20). Imprisonment, far from being an interruption to or disqualification from ministry, was a true expression of it.
In his five captivity letters, Paul’s conviction that he is a captive for a higher purpose is even more forcefully expressed. He is a prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ who shares in his Master’s afflictions, an ambassador in chains who preaches the unchained word of God.2
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
1. The Roman jurist Ulpian in Justinian, Digest 48.3.1, ed. T. Mommsen, P. Krueger, and A. Watson, 4 vols. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985).
2. Eph 3:1; 4:1; 6:19–20; Phil 1:29–30; Col 1:24; 2 Tim 1:8; 2:8–9; Phlm 1, 9–10.
—Brian M. Rapske is professor of New Testament at Northwest Baptist Seminary, a member of the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS Seminaries) on the campus of Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.
This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming July/August 2018 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Subscribe at BibleStudyMagazine.com.