A Commentary by John Stott

Conclusion: The providence of God. (continued)

So by God’s providence Paul reached Rome safe and sound. But he arrived as a prisoner! Christ’s promise that he would testify in Rome had not included that information. How was this compatible with the providence of God? It seems to me legitimate to argue that the apostle, who was brought to Rome to witness, found his witness expanded, enriched and authenticated by his two-year custody in the city.

First, his witness was expanded, not only because of the constant flow of people visiting him, but especially because he witnessed to Christ in the presence of Caesar. This has, of course, been questioned. Although ‘down to the time of Nero’, Sherwin-White writes, ‘the emperors themselves heard the cases that fell under their *cognito*’, yet in his early years ‘Nero avoided personal jurisdiction, and then only accepted a case for special reasons’. Instead, he normally delegated the trail of capital cases, even though ‘the sentences were confirmed by him afterwards’. So was the case of Paul one of the exceptions? I think we should argue that it was. Leaving aside the possibility that Paul’s deliverance ‘from the lion’s mouth’ was a reference to his release by Nero (2 Tim. 4:17), the strongest argument is Jesus’ promise to Paul on the ship, ‘You must stand trial before Caesar’ (27:24). If his first promise to Paul (about reaching Rome) was fulfilled, is it likely that Luke would have included his second promise (about standing before Caesar) unless he knew that it too was fulfilled? I think not. In this case we are permitted to imagine that the prisoner who stood before Felix, Festus and Agrippa, stood before Nero also, and that in the world’s most prestigious court, to the world’s most prestigious person, he faithfully proclaimed Christ. Yes, Nero himself, that artistic but bloodthirsty genius, heard the gospel from the lips of the apostle to the Gentiles. That would not have been possible if he were not a prisoner on trial.

Secondly, Paul’s witness was enriched by those two years. It is difficult for us to conceive how such a congenital activist as Paul managed to endure nearly five years of comparative inactivity (two in the Caesarea prison, two under house arrest at Rome, and about six months in between voyaging from Caesarea to Rome). Were they wasted years? Was he champing at the bit and pawing the ground like a restless and rebellious horse? No, his prison letters breathe an atmosphere of joy, peace, patience and contentment, because he believed in the sovereignty of God. Moreover, however much he longed to get out and serve the contemporary church, yet, as a result of his two years’ partial withdrawal in Rome, he has bequeathed to posterity in his four prison letters an even richer spiritual legacy. Probably Paul neither knew nor understood this. But we do.

Of course, Paul did not write all his letters in prison. He wrote to the Galatians in the heat of theological debate on his way up to Jerusalem for the Council; he wrote both letters to the Thessalonians within weeks of his mission in their city; and he wrote to the Corinthians and the Romans in the midst of a relentlessly busy ministry. So he did not find it necessary to have a spell in gaol in order to get his writing done! Nevertheless, I maintain that in God’s providence there is something distinctive and special about those prison letters. It is not only that he had more time now to reflect and to pray; it is also that the substance of these letters owes something to his prison existence. He was facing trial and possible death, but knew that he had already risen with Christ. He was awaiting the emperor’s pleasure, but knew that the supreme authority to whom be bowed was not the Lord Caesar, but the Lord Christ.

Tomorrow: Conclusion: The providence of God (final).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.