Paul's First Trial Before Nero



Close of Luke's history.—A "first answer" implying a first triaL—The trial itself.—Before the emperor.—That emperor, Nero.—The charges. —Treason; heresy; sacrilege.—The defence.—No crime proven.—No judicial opinion unfavourable.—No case for Roman jurisdiction.—The acquittal.—Implied in Scripture.—Affirmed by tradition.—Paul forsaken by his friends.—No uncommon experience.—Some friendships never put to the proof.—Some false. —Some true and self-sacrificing. —Some, though true, may seem for a time to fail.—The disciples.—Cranmer.—The few who have failed, and the many who have been faithful.—Prayer of Paul for those who forsook him.—A forgiving spirit distinctive of Christianity. —The one Friend who never forsakes.

"At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom."

2 T1m. iv. 16—1&


LUKE tells us, in the Acts of the Apostles (xxviii. 30), that Paul remained under military custody in Rome, though "in his own hired house," and with liberty to receive "all that came unto him " for "two whole years." Here he leaves him. He does not say whether he was then tried, or whether he was d1scharged, or whether he was put to death, and the remainder of the history of Paul is obscure. From this point, in relation to the life of this great apostle, and the history of the Church generally, we plunge into darkness.

It is evident that Paul had a trial in Rome, which, in writing to Timothy (2 Tim. iv. 16), he makes mention of as his "first answer;" that is, his first "apology"— airo\oy(a; not an excuse for his conduct, as if it had been wrong, as the word "apology" means now, but a plea; a defence; an answer to charges against him. It is manifest, also, that he either had a second trial, or had reason to look forward to one, for, only in that case, would he refer to the other as the "first" trial. Comp. vers. 6—8. Whether that which he anticipated was simply a second hearing, as if the case were "continued" (in the language of lawyers), "to another term," or whether he had been discharged, had left Rome, had been engaged in missionary labours, and was now to be again brought before the emperor, does not so far appear from the language. It seems probable, however, from what follows, that after the "first" trial he had been released, and that he had been permitted to go abroad again; for he says, as to his having been "delivered out of the mouth of the lion," that the design or reason was, that by him "the preaching might be fully known" (or, that he might have an opportunity of more fully manifesting the power of "preaching"), and that "all the Gentiles might hear the Gospel,"—intimating that he had borne it to them.

We have before us, then, for our meditation THE F1rst Tr1al Of Paul Before The Roman Emperor, —a fact of which we cannot doubt, and which is of sufficient importance to engage our attention, in a review of the "scenes and incidents" in the life of this remarkable man. The points which will bring the case before us in the best order will be—I. The-trial itself; II. The acquittal; III. The fact that he was forsaken, in the trial, by those on whom he supposed he might rely; and, IV. His prayer for those who forsook him.

I. The trial itself. The statement of Luke that Paul "dwelt two whole years in his own hired house" would seem to imply that some important change occurred at the end of that period; and nothing is more probable than the supposition that this change was connected with his trial. Why Luke did not give the history and the results of that trial, and why he did not refer to the causes of its delay, are matters on which conjecture would be useless.

We are not to be surprised, however, at that delay. Paul had been, for very slight causes, kept as a prisoner for just that length of time, by Felix, in Caesarea; and we must bear in remembrance the dilatory steps of justice everywhere, and the mass of business of this kind which must have accumulated at the Roman capital, demanding the attention of the emperor. The case of a Jew,—a Jew unknown,—apparently not of any great importance,—would be likely to be postponed for matters more immediately claiming attention. Nor should we forget the character of the emperor Nero, —a man more devoted to amusement and vice than to the affairs of government.

Trials from the provinces were heard, in criminal casts, before the emperor himself. "Civil causes or appeals from the provinces 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. But criminal appeals appear generally to have been heard by the emperor in person, assisted by his council of 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." 1

The supreme judge in the case before us—the man who was to decide the question of life or death in respect to one of the apostles of Christ,—was as little qualified to determine such a cause as any man who ever sat on a bench of justice. Hitherto, indeed, "his cruelty had injured his own family rather than the state." But we can imagine what must have been the feelings of Paul when he stood before such a man, and felt that he was to plead for his life before one who excited disgust even in Rome by his shameful licentiousness.

We have none of the details of the trial, but we cannot much err in regard to the charges, or to the defence and the reasonable grounds of acquittal.

(1.) The main alleged accusations before Felix and Festus respectively (Acts xxiv. 5, 6; xxv. 7, 8), were doubtless carried up before the Roman emperor; and these were three in number:—first, that of treason against the Roman government, by having caused factious disturbances among the Jews throughout the empire;—

Coiiybtare and Howson, vol. il pp. 465, 466.

"we found this man a pestilent fellow," Xo1fibv, literally a pest or plague, "and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world." Secondly, that of heresy, against the law of Moses, in being a "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes." And thirdly, that of having attempted to profane or defile the temple at Jerusalem (Acts xxiv. 5), which was an offence not only against the Jewish, but also against the Roman law, for the latter protected all persons in the exercise of their religion. Two years had elapsed, but we have no evidence, and no reason to believe, that any addition had been made to the number of these accusations, or that they had been in any way modified. Heresy, sacrilege, treason, "against the law, against the temple, against Caesar,"1—these were still the charges, and were all the charges to be made against him.

(2.) We have not the argument of Paul in his own defence on his first trial at Rome. We have no tradition in regard to it. All that was necessary in the case—all that the interests of justice demanded—was a simple denial of these charges, and a statement (as before Festus), that they had not been proved and could not be proved.

He would urge, we may suppose,

(a.) That no crime, no breach of law, had been proved against him. This he aff1rmed before Felix (Acts xxiv. 13); and it is affirmed in regard to him when on trial before Festus (Acts xxv. 7). It could not even be pretended on the trial at Rome, that he had been proved

1 (l.) lit riv vojiov; (2.) nY To Upiv; (3.) tig Kafoapa.

guilty of any crime. This, before a Roman tribunal— before any tribunal—would have been a sufficient defence. In no system of jurisprudence was the principle that a man is to be regarded as innocent until he is proved to be guilty, more sternly acted on than at Rome.

(£.) Paul might have urged in his defence the favourable judgment of the Roman authorities in Judaea, so far as any judgment had been pronounced. Thus there was the express judgment of the Chiliarch Lysias, that there was "nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds" (Acts xxiii. 27—29). Felix had heard the accusation and the defence of Paul, but he had not condemned him. Paul had been before Festus when alone; he had been before Festus and Agrippa together; but individually, and by concurrence, they had regarded Paul as not proved guilty (Acts xxv. 18, 19, 24, 25; xxvi. 31). If these things were known at Rome,—if they were urged by Paul as they might have been,—it is not difficult to account for the fact that he was acquitted. Even Nero could, on this occasion, find no cause for putting him to death. On what grounds he subsequently condemned him to death, on his second trial, is a matter that does not pertain to the subject which is now before us.

(c.) Paul might have alleged that the whole matter in dispute pertained to the Jews themselves; and he might have cited cases which Roman magistrates had been reluctant, or had refused to notice. Thus Pontius Pilate had been unwilling to pronounce sentence in the case of Jesus, and had endeavoured to have the matter adjudicated by the Jews themselves (John xviii. 31; xix. 6). The case of Gallio, "deputy of Achaia," representing the Roman authority, would be another instance in point (Acts xviii. 14, 15).

II. The acquittal of Paul on this his "first trial."

Of that fact we have, indeed, no direct proof; but we have seen that it is implied in the words of Paul, and we find that it is uniformly affirmed by tradition.

That he was discharged, is fairly implied in the language, "I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion" (ver. 17). These words may either mean that he was delivered from Nero, compared with a lion, or that he was saved from being thrown to lions in the amphitheatre,—a mode of punishment which was not uncommon in Rome, and to which many Christians were subjected in times of persecution. Either of these interpretations would be in accordance with the language used. It is not uncommon in the Scriptures, to compare tyrants and persecutors with ravenous beasts; comp. Ps. xxii. 13, 21 ; Jer. ii. 30. Nero is called a lion by Seneca; and it was usual among heathen writers to apply the term, in various senses, to princes and warriors. Still it is quite as natural to suppose that the punishment to which he would have been subjected if found guilty, was to be thrown to the lions, and that in some way he had been delivered from it. But how or why, must be a matter of conjecture. Paul attributes his deliverance entirely to the Lord :—"The Lord stood with me, and strengthened me ;"—but what instrumental agency there may have been in his deliverance, he does not specify. If he had known it to be through the help of a friend— even of a heathen advocate—it is hardly to be supposed that he would have failed to mention the name of one to whom he owed his deliverance. It seems probable that he had been enabled to plead his own cause with so much ability, and to show his own innocence of the charges against him so clearly, that he found favour with the Roman emperor, and was thus set at liberty. Corrupt as Nero became, we may believe that at that period of his life his sense of public right may not have been wholly extinct; and that, on the ground of justice, Paul was on this occasion acquitted.

Tradition is uniform in the statement that he was acquitted, and that he afterwards took his long-meditated journey to Spain.1 Against this unanimous testimony of the primitive church, there is no external evidence whatever to oppose. At the same time, however, it should be said that there is no evidence to show lunu soon after his liberation he went into Spain; how far he travelled there; how long he remained; what success he met in his labours; whither he went on his return; or why he was again brought to Rome, and subjected to a second and final trial.

1 Euscbius tells us, "after defending himself successfully it is currently reported that the Apostle again went forth to proclaim the Gospel, and afterXi'jrds came to Rome a second time, and was martyred under ATcro" (Hist. Eccl. ii. 21). So Chrysostom says, that "St. Paul, after his residence in Rome, departed to Spain" (Chrysost. on 2 Tim. iv. so). Jerome bears the same testimony, saying that " Paul Tms dismissed by Nero, that he might preach Christ's Gospel in the West (Hieron. CataL Script).—Conybeare and H<rx>son, vol . ii. pp. 462, 463.

It has been supposed that on his liberation he first fulfilled an intention which he had expressed (Phil. ii. 24, and Philem. 22), of travelling through Macedonia, and visiting the churches of Asia Minor; that he then went into Spain; afterwards returned to Ephesus, and then went to Macedonia and Crete; that, soon after, he left Ephesus for Rome by way of Corinth; and that during these travels he wrote the First Epistle to Timothy, and the Epistle to Titus,—the one from Macedonia, and the other from Ephesus.

III. We must go back to notice the fact that Paul was forsaken, when on trial, by those on whose friendship he had a right to rely:—"No man stood with me, but all men forsook me."

That the apostle had friends in Rome we have already seen. That these were true and tried friends is apparent from what he says of one and another; "who have for my life laid down their own necks;" "who bestowed much labour on us;" "my kinsmen and my fellowprisoners;" "of note among the apostles;" "my beloved in the Lord;" "our helper in Christ;" "approved in Christ;" "chosen in Christ" (Rom. xvi. 4—10). We have no reason to doubt, also, that during the two years in which he was at Rome, with the freedom which he then had of " receiving all who came unto him," and of "preaching the kingdom of God with all confidence, no man forbidding him" (Acts xxviii. 30, 31), he had made many additional friends. Even if we suppose that, during the interval which elapsed from the time of writing the Epistle to the Romans till the time of his trial, some of the friends there mentioned had died, or had removed to other places, still the number in Rome at the time of his trial could not have been few, and from them he might have reasonably expected such countenance and support as they could render. He might at least have expected that they would stand by him, and that if they had no power to help, they would, as silent lookers-on, give him the encouragement of their presence and sympathy.

We know not definitely the reasons why they did not thus stand by him; but the fact that they did not furnishes an occasion for some remarks on trials of this kind, and on the nature of true friendship.

(1.) What Paul here refers to has not been uncommon in the world. Thus Job, in a very pathetic description of his own trials, shows that he went through a like experience (xix. 13—19). So the Psalmist was forsaken by his friends in the time of calamity (Ps. xxxv. n—16; xxxviii. 11; xli.9; lv. 12—14). The same thing occurred in the case of the Saviour, and this was one of the severest of His many trials,—for, having taken our nature, He would feel this as acutely as any man. In the Garden of Gcthsemane,—when He had just passed through the scene of unutterable agony,—when He was arrested, and was about to be taken away for trial,—when He was about to be put to death,—then "all the disciples forsook Him and fled" (Matt. xxvi. 56). To such a form of trial as among the most severe that man can endure,—perhaps to that very scene in the Garden of Gethsemane,—there is an allusion in Zechariah (xiii. 6): "And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends." If such things occurred to Job, to the Psalmist, to the Apostle Paul, and even to the Redeemer Himself, we are not to be surprised if they occur to us.

(2.) There is much friendship that will bear the common and ordinary tests or trials to which it may be subjected, but which would not bear a severer trial. Such apparent friendship in the ordinary course of life, requiring little sacrifice, is pleasant rather than otherwise; it is satisfied with small courtesies and kindnesses; it finds expression rather in words than in any acts requiring an expenditure of time or money; it involves no loss of reputation; it perils nothing in regard to character; and it does much to promote the general happiness of mankind. It is dependent often on the period of life; on circumstances of neighbourhood or business; on connexion for a time in a college-class, a clerkship, or a store; or on some temporary object to be accomplished. But under new circumstances, much of this sort of friendship fades from the memory. It never has been put to any strong test. There has been nothing to fix it deep in the soul. We are not to infer that it was insincere, or that it would not have borne the test of a severe trial. But the occasion never occurred, and the bond was easily broken. The world owes much of its happiness to intimacies like these, and they are not to be branded as false and hollow.

(3.) There is, however, much professed friendship that is false and hollow. So plain is this, that it can hardly be necessary to illustrate it. There is professed friendship that is founded on wealth (Prov. xix. 4, 20); and friendship cherished for those in elevated and fashionable circles,—but cherished only while they are in such circles, and no longer. There is that which rests on beauty of person, or gracefulness of manner, rather than on the solid virtues of the heart. There is that which exists in prosperity—in the sunshine of life—the affection of "swallow-friends, who retire in the winter, and return in the spring." There is that which is based cn some hope of advantage, and which ceases when that hope is gratified, or when it must be abandoned. There is that which harbours some evil purpose;—the friendship of him who can "smile, and smile, and be a villain." Such friendships will not bear the test of adversity; and yet so common have they been in the world that we are sometimes disposed to believe there is more of truth than fancy in the representation of the poet,

"And what is friendship but a name,
A charm that lulls to sleep;
A shade that follows wealth or fame,
But leaves the wretch to weep?"

(4.) Yet let us not despair. Let us not come to the conclusion that there is no true friendship; no love which will make sacrifices; no affection that is counted dearer than life itself. Such friendship existed between Damon and Pythias; such friendship was beautifully illustrated in the case of David and Jonathan. In all the trials of David, the son of Saul never forsook him, and never gave him occasion to suspect the reality or the depth of his love. With what exquisite beauty David sang of that attachment when Jonathan was dead !" I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant hast thou been unto me; thy love for me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Sam. i. 26).

(5.) There may even be, however, real piety and real friendship which may shrink back for a time from the pressure of severe trial. We are not to infer that because it thus shrinks back it is not sincere, and that it can never rally. It may not yet be disciplined and confirmed. Thus it was with the disciples of the Saviour. We must not infer that their professions of attachment for Him had been insincere. The love they had for Him soon rose above the sudden shock; when He had expired on the cross, they went forth to proclaim His name in the face of persecution, in the midst of dangers, and in the prospect of death. So Cranmer had shown through a long life, in its ordinary duties and trials that he was a good man, a true friend of the Saviour. The prospect of death by fire for a moment staggered him, and shook his faith, and made him put his hand to the instrument of recantation; but his faith rallied again, and he rose to the well-known manifestation of his real attachment for the Lord Jesus. In like manner, we are not to conclude that because, on the trial of Paul, no man stood with him, but all forsook him, there was no true love for him or for his Master. It was, indeed, sad and painful, and it could not but be interpreted unfavourably to religion; but it is possible that even these persons might on other and even more trying occasions, have subsequently shown true attachment to the Christian cause, and that some of their names may have been enrolled on the honoured list of martyrs as suffering with Paul.

(5.) It is remarkable that amid the severe trials to which the faith of Christians has been subjected, so few have shrunk from avowing their attachment to the Saviour. There is no evidence that there has been, even in the most fiery times, and in the severest forms of persecution, one real apostate from the faith of Christ . If there have been seeming apostasies, even these have been extremely rare, and all such instances may be accounted for on the supposition that such individuals had never been truly converted. Beyond all question, one of the most remarkable facts which have occurred in the world has been the tenacity with which Christians have adhered to their faith,—and that, too, when apostasy was made as easy and as tempting as it could be,—when the slightest possible concession, the simple casting of a grain of incense on a heathen altar, was all that was demanded to save them from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre.

IV. The prayer of the Apostle for those who had forsaken him:—" I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge."

The language and the spirit thus manifested, have a strong resemblance to the words uttered and the spirit manifested by the Saviour Himself: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke xxiii. 34.) Thus Stephen, the first martyr, kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts vii. 60). It was also a proper carrying out of the principles which Paul had enjoined on his friends in this very church at Rome: "Recompense to no man evil for evil; avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good" (chap. xii. 17, 19, 21). It was the spirit inculcated by the Master, and the spirit for which He taught men to pray every day (Matt. vi. 12, 14, 15). This is the very spirit of the Gospel; it is demanded everywhere by our religion; and it constitutes a strong distinction between Christianity and the spirit cherished by the world.

The strong propensity of the human heart is to the opposite feeling; and there has been, and there is, a large growth, so to speak, of customs in society based on the idea that an offence is not to be forgiven, but is to be pursued with a spirit of revenge. To some extent laws are a check upon private vengeance, but there is an "ample margin" left for its secret indulgence. Words, looks, gestures, breaches of etiquette, slander, sudden passion,—these it is difficult or impossible to reduce under any regular control by human government. Now it is on these things that the Gospel acts directly; and it is in respect to them that it has wrought so great changes, and made social life so different from what it would otherwise have been. It has taught men not to be soon angry. It has taught them to restrain their passions when excited, and not to let the sun go down on their wrath. It has taught them to bear and forbear. It has taught them to forgive an offender, not only to the "seventh time," but until "seventy times seven." The world at the present time owes more to the Christian religion than it is willing to acknowledge; and there is no one among us, who, in his domestic and social relations, has not felt the benefit of the command given by the Saviour in regard to the forgiveness of offences, in securing the blessings of peace and good fellowship where otherwise there would be malice and strife.

In conclusion. Paul's friends, we have seen, left him. Not one of them stood by him when they thought he was about to die. When we come to die, we too shall be alone. From all our worldly possessions we shall be about to part. Worldly friends—the friends drawn to us by our position, our wealth, or our social qualities,— will leave us as we enter the dark valley. From those bound to us by stronger ties—our kindred, our loved ones, children, brothers, sisters, and from those not less dear to us who have been made our friends because they and we are the friends of the same Saviour,—from them also we must part. Yet not all will leave us. There is One who "sticketh closer than a brother One who having loved His own which are in the world loves them to the end.