IV. Paul’s Arrest, Trial, and Kingdom Witness in Rome (Acts 21:1–28:31)

21:1-6 Paul and his companions journeyed by ship from port to port until they finally arrived in Tyre on the Mediterranean Coast (21:1-3). There they visited with the local believers for seven days. The Spirit had revealed to them what was awaiting Paul in Jerusalem, so out of fear they kept telling him not to go (21:4). Yet when it was time for him to depart, they all went outside the city and prayed with him (21:5). There was no stopping Paul. He was “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem (20:22).

25:6-9 In Caesarea Festus had Paul brought before him (25:6). The Jews also came forward and accused Paul of serious charges that they were not able to prove (25:7). As he had been in the habit of doing, Paul denied the unsubstantiated charges. He was not guilty of anything against the Jewish law, the Jewish temple, or Caesar (25:8). Like his predecessor, Festus could find no reason to condemn Paul. Nevertheless, he had a province to run, and he wanted his constituents to be peaceable citizens. So as a favor to the Jews, he asked Paul if he’d be willing to stand trial in Jerusalem (25:9).

25:10-12 But Paul had had enough. He had not wronged the Jews, so he argued that he shouldn’t be given over to them (25:10-11). The question before Festus was, “Is Paul guilty of wrongdoing against Rome?” Although Paul was standing at Caesar’s tribunal, being tried before Caesar’s representative, Felix was unwilling to render a verdict (25:10). As a Roman citizen, Paul had the full right of appeal, so he declared, I appeal to Caesar, and Festus consented (25:11-12).

Paul had been exercising every legal right available to him. He wanted to make it clear to all that neither he nor Christianity was guilty of subverting the empire. Moreover, he wanted to go to Rome, the highest level of earthly authority, with a message from the supreme authority: Believe in the Lord Jesus and submit to his kingdom agenda.

25:13-14 King Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II) was the son of Herod Agrippa I (see 12:1-5, 20-23) and the last member of the Herodian dynasty to rule. (The Romans had put him in charge of a few territories that did not include Judea). When he paid a visit to Festus, the Roman governor presented Paul’s case to the king. Since Agrippa was Jewish, Festus hoped he could help him make sense of Paul’s case so that he would know what to communicate to Caesar when he sent him.

25:15-22 Festus laid out the sequence of events for Agrippa. The governor had expected accusations of horrific evils against Paul, but instead the case against him turned out to be one of religious disagreement about a certain Jesus, a dead man Paul claimed to be alive (25:18-19). Not being familiar with Jewish religious teachings, Festus confessed, I was at a loss (25:20). But when he asked Paul if he wanted to be tried in Jerusalem, he instead appealed to Caesar (25:20-21). After listening to the explanation, Agrippa said, I would like to hear the man myself (25:22). Paul was about to have an opportunity to talk to a human king about King Jesus.

25:23-27 The next day, Paul appeared before Festus, Agrippa, and Bernice (25:23). (Bernice was Agrippa’s sister, with whom he was rumored to be in an incestuous relationship.) Festus explained that the Jewish community wanted Paul dead, that he (Festus) had not found him guilty of anything, and that Paul had appealed to the Emperor (25:24-25). Then Festus described his dilemma: I have nothing definite to write to my lord (Caesar) about him. That’s why he wanted Agrippa to listen to Paul and to offer some advice (25:26). Festus was understandably embarrassed to send a prisoner to Caesar without indicating the charges against him (25:27). Doing so was no small matter. In essence Festus was saying, “Help me out, Agrippa. Don’t let me look like a fool in front of the emperor!”

26:1-3 When given a chance to speak, Paul stretched out his hand as a show of respect and expressed his gratefulness for the opportunity to address King Agrippa. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). Paul knew that a government office is to be respected—even if the person holding the office isn’t worthy of respect—because such governmental authorities were established by the Lord.

26:4-8 Paul began by telling the king what none of the Jews could deny—that from [his] youth he had been zealous for the Jewish religion and lived as a Pharisee (26:4-5). The reason he was on trial, though, was for believing in something that had been promised to the Jewish people in the Old Testament Scriptures: the hope of the resurrection of the dead (26:6-7). Paul knew he wasn’t merely bearing witness to his own innocence; ultimately he was bearing witness to Christ. Having raised the topic of resurrection, he wanted his listeners to consider the reality of Jesus’s resurrection and press it on their consciences: Why do any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? (26:8).

26:9-11 Paul confessed that he had opposed Christianity vigorously. He had sought to have Christians locked up and put to death. So, what was his point? Paul wanted Agrippa to know that if anything could transform him from being the chief persecutor of Christianity to its chief advocate, it would have to be miraculous. And it was.

26:12-18 Paul recounted his conversion on the Damascus road when the Lord Jesus appeared to him (see commentary on 9:1-19; 22:6-16). At the moment when he encountered the supernatural vision, he had been on his way—with no intentions of repenting—to arrest believers (26:12). The light from heaven that struck him at midday was brighter than the sun, and then the crucified one whom Paul thought was dead spoke to him (26:13-15)!

Jesus brought both salvation and a purpose to Paul. His mission would be to serve as a witness of what he [had] seen and [would] see of the Lord (26:16). In particular he would take the gospel to the Gentiles, turning them from the power of Satan to God (26:17-18).

Formerly, Paul was an aggressive opponent of Christ; he’d become an aggressive soldier for Christ. Instead of keeping people from the kingdom, Paul’s energies would be redirected toward bringing them into the kingdom.

26:19-23 So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision (28:19). In other words, Paul said, “What did you expect me to do? Say ‘No’ to God?” Paul immediately began preaching, wherever he was, that the Gentiles should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance (26:20). That’s why the Jews seized him and tried to kill him (26:21). They were outraged by his message of salvation for the Gentiles, but Paul hadn’t invented it or pulled it out of thin air. Everything he had preached was consistent with and in fulfillment of what the prophets and Moses said would take place (26:22; see Ps 16:10; Isa 52:13–53:12). Then Paul highlighted the heart of the gospel: the suffering of the Messiah, his resurrection from the dead, and the proclamation in his name of light and forgiveness to Jews and Gentiles alike (26:23).

26:24-25 Divine visions? A voice from heaven? A dead man raised to life? This was too much for Festus, who thought Paul had gone crazy: Too much study is driving you mad (26:24). But Paul was unfazed by Festus’s insult. Far from being out of [his] mind, Paul was speaking words of truth and good judgment (26:25). He would have been crazy not to submit to King Jesus.

26:26-29 Then Paul turned his attention to the king, knowing that none of this had escaped his notice (26:26). Agrippa was well aware of both the message about Jesus and the fact that Paul had been publicly vocal about it. Putting the Jewish king on the spot, Paul asked, Do you believe the prophets? I know you believe (26:27). So although Paul was the one on trial, he turned the tables on Agrippa and played the prosecutor.

The king wondered if Paul thought he could persuade him to become a Christian so easily, and the apostle admitted that he wanted everyone to be saved (26:28-29). Whether someone came to know Jesus easily or with difficulty, it was worth it as far as Paul was concerned. The only thing he didn’t want them to experience was the chains that he had endured (26:29).

To Paul, no one was beyond the reach of the gospel. He was willing to talk to anyone about Jesus, regardless of their social status: government officials (13:7, 12), the lame (14:8-10), women (16:13-15), a jailer (16:25-34), and intellectuals (17:16-34). What about you? Are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone to share the good news with those whom others might avoid?

26:30-32 When Agrippa, Festus, and Bernice conferred privately afterward, they concluded that Paul was innocent (26:30-31). He had certainly committed no crime against Rome. If not for his appeal to Caesar, Paul could have been released (26:32). Yet, more than his freedom, Paul wanted to testify about Jesus to the Roman emperor. And God was going to give him that opportunity.

27:1-8 Eventually, Paul and some other prisoners were placed into the custody of a centurion named Julius, and they set sail for Italy. The use of the first person plural (we) once again indicates that the author, Luke, and a believer from Thessalonica named Aristarchus were with Paul (27:1-2; see 16:8-10; 20:1-6). Julius was kind to Paul and allowed his friends to tend to his needs (27:3). From Caesarea, they sailed north to Sidon, then around the island of Cyprus to land at Myra in Asia Minor. There they transferred to another ship (27:2-6). They had great difficulty reaching the island of Crete, eventually stopping at a port called Fair Havens (27:7-8).

27:9-12 The sailing had been slow going due to the winds, and the voyage had become dangerous. The Day of Atonement was already over, meaning it was late in the year (27:9). So Paul thought it advisable to spend the winter there, foreseeing disaster if they continued—loss of the cargo, the ship, and their lives (27:10). But the centurion listened to the counsel of the captain and the owner of the ship instead of Paul (27:11). They preferred to winter in Phoenix, a harbor that was further west on the coast of Crete (27:12). But listening to the “professional” rather than the man with a connection to God would prove costly.

Notice that Paul was not outside of God’s will. He had been obedient to the Lord, seeking to take his case to Rome, which was exactly where God wanted him to go (see 23:11). Paul gave good advice to the centurion, but it was rejected. As a result, the crew and passengers of the ship were about to enter a terrible storm. So, clearly, being in a storm does not mean you’re out of God’s will. Sometimes, it’s exactly where he wants you to be so that he can accomplish his purposes in you and through you (see commentary on Mark 4:35-37).

27:13-20 Although they set out with a gentle south wind, soon they encountered a fierce wind and were driven along (27:13-15). Having difficulty controlling the heavy ship, the crew tried everything to keep it from running aground (27:16-17). Eventually, they started tossing the cargo and the ship’s tackle (the rigging and equipment) overboard to lighten the load (27:18-19). The storm raged for many days, and finally all hope was fading (27:20).

27:21-26 In the midst of this bleak situation, Paul told them, You men should have followed my advice (27:21)—that is, “I told you so!” But after this slap on the wrist, he urged them to take courage because no lives would be lost, only the ship (27:22). How did he know? God had sent an angel to assure Paul of two things (27:23). First, it was necessary for the apostle to appear before Caesar. God had a mission for Paul, and he wouldn’t die before that mission was accomplished. Second, all of those sailing with Paul would be divinely protected (27:24). They needed no better assurance than that. Paul exhorted them again to have courage because God is faithful to keep his promises (27:25).

27:27-32 During the night, the sailors feared that they were approaching land and might crash on the rocks (27:27-29). So they dropped four anchors to try and keep the ship from running aground (27:29). Panicking, some sailors pretended to let down a smaller boat in order to drop more anchors. But actually they were planning to flee (27:30). When Paul realized what was happening, he warned the centurion that the way to be saved was to remain in the ship, not to abandon it (27:31). So the centurion and his soldiers put a stop to the sailors’ escape plans (27:32). They had finally learned to start listening to Paul.

27:33-38 Two weeks into their ordeal, Paul urged them to eat something, promising them that no one would be harmed (27:33-34). Then he set an example for them by eating some bread himself. Notice that in the midst of their affliction Paul gave thanks to God for the bread in the presence of all of them (27:35). Then they were all encouraged to eat as well (27:36).

When times are hard and you don’t know what God is up to, do you continue to thank him for his provision in your life (see Phil 4:6-7)? Not only will you remind yourself of the goodness of God, but you may also be a witness to those around you that God is worthy of our trust in difficult times. This is why Jesus could give thanks in spite of insufficiency when he fed the five thousand (see John 6:1-14).

27:39-44 At daybreak, they saw a beach, cut loose the anchors, and ran aground on a sandbar (27:39-41). Unfortunately, the stern of the ship began to break up because of the waves, so they would have to swim for shore (27:41). When they realized this, the soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners so that they couldn’t swim away and escape (27:42). After all, a soldier or guard who allowed a prisoner to get away would forfeit his own life (see 12:6-10, 18-19; 16:26-27). But God providentially protected Paul through the centurion who wanted to save him (27:43). So everyone made it to land safely, either by swimming or floating on debris (27:43-44).

28:1-10 They learned that they had arrived on Malta, an island south of Sicily (28:1). The locals were kind and cared for the castaways (28:2). But when they saw a venomous snake bite Paul, the superstitious people were convinced that he must be a murderer because, although he had escaped the sea, Justice (a Greek goddess) had not allowed him to live (28:3-4). However, when Paul didn’t become sick or die, they changed their minds and said he was a god (28:5-6). (How fickle is the human heart!) When Paul miraculously healed the father of the leading man of the island, everyone started bringing those with sickness and disease so that Paul might heal them (28:7-9). As a result, when their visitors sailed away, the natives heaped many honors on them and gave them all the supplies they needed (28:10).

God provided for all of the men’s needs through the island’s inhabitants. Don’t overlook the fact, though, that their admiration for Paul began when he was bitten by a snake. God’s providence sometimes requires that we pass through painful experiences so that he can give us—and even others—his blessing.

28:11-16 From Malta they climbed aboard a ship that took them to Syracuse on the island of Sicily (28:11-12). From there they reached the Italian coast, stopping first at Rhegium and then at Puteoli (28:13). After spending some time with Christian brothers and sisters, they eventually arrived in Rome where Paul was allowed to live by himself with a soldier who guarded him (28:14-16).

28:17-22 Paul gathered the local Jewish leaders and explained all of the events surrounding the circumstances of his case. He wanted them to know that he bore no animosity against his fellow Jews in Jerusalem but instead wanted to talk to the Jews in Rome about why he was in chains (28:17-20). He had been imprisoned because of his belief in the hope of Israel, the resurrection of the dead (28:20; see 23:6; 24:15; 26:23). Although the Jewish leaders hadn’t received any letters from Jerusalem about Paul, they were willing to listen to him because everyone everywhere was talking about this new sect called Christianity (28:21-22).

28:23-24 When the Jewish leaders met with him, Paul talked to them from dawn to dusk, testifying about the kingdom of God and seeking to persuade them that Jesus is the Messiah in fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (28:23). The Old Testament anticipated Jesus and pointed to him. Rightly interpreted, it leads people to the King who came to establish God’s kingdom. Some of the Jews believed, but others did not (28:24).

28:25-28 Those who refused to believe departed in anger when they heard Paul say that the Holy Spirit was right about their ancestors when he chastised them through the prophet Isaiah for failing to believe the Word of God (28:25-27; see Isa 6:6-19). In other words, Paul was telling them, “Don’t be like your foolish forefathers. Believe the Scriptures—all of which point to Jesus as the Messiah.” But since they were unwilling to repent of their stubborn unbelief, the apostle told them that God had sent this message of salvation to the Gentiles, who would listen (28:28). God’s gift of grace will not go unappreciated. If some reject it, there are others who will gladly accept it.

28:30-31 Paul remained in Rome for two whole years in his own rented house, receiving visitors. During that time he engaged in proclaiming (preaching) the kingdom of God and teaching people about the Lord Jesus Christ. Biblical preaching focuses on persuading people with kingdom truth in order to bring about an obedient response. Biblical teaching focuses on delivering a clear understanding of the King. This dual emphasis of the kingdom and its King should dominate every pulpit of every church that truly understands, accepts, and is committed to fulfilling its kingdom calling.

Thus, the book of Acts closes as it opened (see 1:3)—with the proclamation of “the kingdom of God.” Though Paul was a prisoner, the Word of God was unhindered and flourishing through his ministry (see 2 Tim 2:9). Throughout Acts, we have seen the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would enable his servants to be his “witnesses” to all people everywhere (1:8).

The Holy Spirit will do his greatest work in your life when you bear witness to Jesus Christ and live in submission to his kingdom rule. When you live under the umbrella of God’s kingdom agenda, the Holy Spirit is free to take you on your own life’s journey—sometimes it will be frustrating; sometimes it will prove frightening; but God will always fulfill his purposes for you.

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