Paul's Journey to Rome

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Dec 31st 2017
Luke's excellent historical and nautical record of Paul's voyage to Rome and final scene preaching and teaching while awaiting trial.

Paul has been languishing under house arrest in Herod's palace at Caesarea by the Sea. He has not been charged with any crime. He has appeared before three different Roman governors during that time (Felix, Festus and Agrippa) but none of them have been able to determine any Roman law he has broken, aside from the many unsubstantiated accusations hurled at him by the Jews. This has caused a stalemate in the proceedings causing Paul's continued confinement because the Roman officials fear that the Jewish leaders will create trouble if he is released.

Paul breaks this logjam by demanding, as a Roman citizen, his right to appeal his case to Cesar's court in Rome. This frees him from an undetermined amount of time spent in confinement at Caesarea, provides a resolution for his case in the Roman judicial system and distances him from the murderous Jews in Jerusalem who want him killed.

Voyage to Rome - Acts 27:1-28:16

Departure from Caesarea

1When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, they proceeded to deliver Paul and some other prisoners to a centurion of the Augustan cohort named Julius. 2And embarking in an Adramyttian ship, which was about to sail to the regions along the coast of Asia, we put out to sea accompanied by Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica. 3The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul with consideration and allowed him to go to his friends and receive care. 4From there we put out to sea and sailed under the shelter of Cyprus because the winds were contrary. 5When we had sailed through the sea along the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy, and he put us aboard it. 7When we had sailed slowly for a good many days, and with difficulty had arrived off Cnidus, since the wind did not permit us to go farther, we sailed under the shelter of Crete, off Salmone; 8and with difficulty sailing past it we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lasea.
- Acts 27:1-8

Once again we see Luke's attention to social and historical detail as he chronicles Paul's voyage to Rome. He names the centurion, Julius, and the Augustan cohort he commanded who acted much like Deputy Marshals or Sheriff Department Officers working across various lines of law enforcement. They were responsible for communications between Rome and its armies in foreign lands as well as the transfer of prisoners as was the case here.

Like travel today where you cannot always get a direct flight to your destination but have to have a connecting flight, during that time you could not sail directly to Italy from a port in Judea or Syria. The centurion and his soldiers, Paul and other prisoners (probably sent to Rome for execution), as well as Luke (he says "we" in verse 2) and another brother, Aristarchus from the church at Thessalonica, set sail on a ship that normally berthed at Mysia, a Roman province in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey.

The first stop on the journey was Sidon where Paul was allowed to go ashore with friends, a gracious act on the part of the centurion. Hugging the coastline and using Cyprus as a cover from powerful winds they made their way to Myra, a port city in the province of Lydia, a journey of about 15 days. Here they found a larger ship able to transport them all the way to Italy. This ship made slow progress, avoiding the shorter and more direct route on the northern side of the island of Crete, sailing instead on the southern side of the island where there was less wind and better harbors for large commercial vessels like theirs. They eventually arrived at Lasea, a port city in Southern Crete.

Paul's Warning

9When considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul began to admonish them, 10and said to them, "Men, I perceive that the voyage will certainly be with damage and great loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives." 11But the centurion was more persuaded by the pilot and the captain of the ship than by what was being said by Paul. 12Because the harbor was not suitable for wintering, the majority reached a decision to put out to sea from there, if somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest, and spend the winter there.
- Acts 27:9-12

Luke's mention of the "fast" helps us determine the time of year that this voyage was being taken. The "fast" referred to the fasting done by Jews on the Day of Atonement, a time when they would fast and pray as the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem in order to offer a sacrifice for sin, first for himself and then for the people. Since these events were taking place in 59 or 60 AD we know, according to the Jewish religious calendar, that the Day of Atonement for those years was in early October. Maritime historians tell us that sea voyages in that region were considered dangerous if undertaken between mid-September to early November and not possible after November 10th when all sea traffic was suspended until March 10th (Lenski, p.1069).

Paul warns of the danger in continuing the journey. This was not prophecy but an opinion based on Paul's experience in traveling by sea. After all, he claimed that he had been shipwrecked and left adrift three times in his life (II Corinthians 11:25). There is no suggestion of divine or angelic help here. The manner in which Luke describes the scene suggests that the sailors, captain as well as Paul were experienced travelers and aware of the risks in sailing at that time of year and so Paul gives his opinion on the matter. Luke describes, in part, the winning argument of the captain that their present location was not suitable for wintering the ship and based on this they set sail for a better harbor located further up the coast of Crete at Phoenix.

The Storm

13When a moderate south wind came up, supposing that they had attained their purpose, they weighed anchor and began sailing along Crete, close inshore.
14 But before very long there rushed down from the land a violent wind, called Euraquilo; 15and when the ship was caught in it and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and let ourselves be driven along. 16Running under the shelter of a small island called Clauda, we were scarcely able to get the ship's boat under control. 17After they had hoisted it up, they used supporting cables in undergirding the ship; and fearing that they might run aground on the shallows of Syrtis, they let down the sea anchor and in this way let themselves be driven along. 18The next day as we were being violently storm-tossed, they began to jettison the cargo; 19and on the third day they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. 20Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing us, from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned.
- Acts 27:13-20

All goes well as they have a good wind to sail by and cautiously hug the coastline making their way some 40 miles (64 kilometers) to Phoenix. Soon after their departure they were hit with what Paul calls a typhoon or what we refer to as a hurricane. The term "euraquilo" or "noreaster" is the nickname given to this type of storm that the sailors were familiar with. The wind now drove the ship, and the sailors were in emergency mode trying to avoid it capsizing. One problem was that their lifeboat, normally tied to the ship and pulled along behind, was now full of water and jeopardizing the main vessel because of its weight, drag and lack of control. They did not want to cut it free since it was their only means of escape should the ship sink, so they managed to hoist it up and secure it to the main vessel.

Another problem they encountered was the separation of the wooden planks with which the ship was built. Gale force winds, crashing waves and the stress on the pole that held the mainsail would cause the planks, especially those of the hull or front of the ship, to separate causing the vessel to take on water and sink. Luke describes how the sailors used cables to hold the ship together and avoid these planks from coming apart.

The next challenge was that they needed to make a course correction because the wind was driving them towards the notorious sandbanks located between Carthage and Cyrene known as Syrtis. In order to accomplish this they slowed the ship down by allowing it's anchor to drag in the sea and also threw their cargo and heavy equipment overboard. We know now that their strategy worked and the ship's course was changed enough, despite the storm, that they avoided the Syrtis sandbars and sailed 13 more days and 480 miles (772 kilometers) close to the island of Malta. At this point, however, they had done all they could humanly do and for the moment were stranded at sea in the middle of a terrible storm not able to navigate or know where they were regardless of the time of day or night. Luke describes the consensus of the sailors, soldiers and prisoners who accepted their seeming fate and were now resigned to the fact that they would probably die in this storm.

Paul's Exhortation

21When they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, "Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete and incurred this damage and loss. 22Yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, 24saying, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.' 25Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. 26But we must run aground on a certain island."
- Acts 27:21-26

In this speech we see the difference between Paul's earlier caution about the risk they were taking and possible loss in sailing at that time of the year (an opinion based on experience). Note that in verse 21 he tells them that what he had previously said was advice, not prophecy. By reminding them of this he sets up the basis for what he will tell them now, which will be miraculous and prophetic in nature.

He then assures them that their lives will be saved and describes the vision he has had of an angel from God and the message that this angel delivered to him. He (Paul) will indeed stand before Caesar (Nero at that time) and plead his case. In addition to this, everyone with him (not only the Christians) will be saved.

The way this promise is worded can lead to several conclusions:

  1. Paul had already been praying for everyone to be saved and God was telling him that his prayer on their behalf was being answered.
  2. These men now owed their lives to Paul.
  3. Paul was using this entire episode as a way of witnessing to these pagan men about the true God in heaven.

Note that Paul's encouragement is not a banal platitude (i.e. "Do not worry, everything will be alright"). His encouragement is specific: they will all be saved; the ship, however, will be lost; they will run aground near an island. Specificity about future events is what makes this a prophecy. Paul's witness about everything else will be worthless if any details of his prophecy are wrong or different in the end.

Rescue (27:27-44)

Luke continues his description of the 14 days that the ship was driven about by the wind, eventually approaching land. At this point the sailors attempt to take the life boat and abandon the ship, but Paul warns the centurion that if the sailors escape, everyone will be lost. This time the soldier listens to Paul and thwarts the escape by cutting away the empty lifeboat and setting it adrift.

At the dawn of the 15th day of the storm Paul encourages them to eat some food and reminds them of God's promise after which he leads a prayer in the presence of everyone (Luke notes that there are 276 people in all). Sensing that they are nearing land, they further lighten the ship in order to help them steer it closer to shore. It is at this point that one of Paul's prophecies about the vessel is fulfilled.

39When day came, they could not recognize the land; but they did observe a bay with a beach, and they resolved to drive the ship onto it if they could. 40And casting off the anchors, they left them in the sea while at the same time they were loosening the ropes of the rudders; and hoisting the foresail to the wind, they were heading for the beach. 41But striking a reef where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern began to be broken up by the force of the waves. 42The soldiers' plan was to kill the prisoners, so that none of them would swim away and escape; 43but the centurion, wanting to bring Paul safely through, kept them from their intention, and commanded that those who could swim should jump overboard first and get to land, 44and the rest should follow, some on planks, and others on various things from the ship. And so it happened that they all were brought safely to land.
- Acts 27:39-44

Upon seeing the beach the sailors make a dash trying to steer the ship into the bay in an effort to save the vessel, but they run it aground, stuck on a shallow sand bar. The bow of the ship is caught in a reef and the violent wind and waves battering it from the rear effectively tear it apart. The soldiers, knowing that they would be held responsible if any prisoners escaped, prepare to kill all of them (including Paul) but are stopped by the centurion who wanted to save Paul who had no charges against him. The centurion orders everyone to abandon ship and, as Paul had said, all were saved, the ship was lost as it ran aground on a sandbar near the island where they would find safety (Malta).

Paul's Stay in Malta - Acts 28:1-10

Luke records that the ship's passengers spent three months on the island and while there Paul's normal pattern of ministry was established for a brief time (the performance of miracles and healings followed by teaching).

Luke describes one such event. While building a fire on the beach Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake but suffers no ill effects. This amazes the locals who witness this and who then ask him to heal the father of the island's leader, which he does. Later on Luke writes that all the inhabitants came to him for healing, and because of this the ship's entire company was honored, treated well by the people of the island and provided with supplies when they left.

Luke does not mention it specifically but it would be hard to imagine that Paul would be performing miraculous healings without preaching the gospel, which was the purpose for the healing ministry to begin with.

Paul in Rome - Acts 28:11-31

11At the end of three months we set sail on an Alexandrian ship which had wintered at the island, and which had the Twin Brothers for its figurehead. 12After we put in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. 13From there we sailed around and arrived at Rhegium, and a day later a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. 14There we found some brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days; and thus we came to Rome. 15And the brethren, when they heard about us, came from there as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet us; and when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage.
16When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.
- Acts 28:11-16

Luke quickly summarizes the final leg of the journey and Paul's meeting with brethren who lived in the region. The fact that he stayed with them for a week demonstrates the trust that had built up between himself and Julius the centurion assigned to guard and transport him to Rome. Eventually Julius handed Paul over to the Imperial officer along with Festus' letter containing the particulars of the case and the centurion's own report. Festus' letter contained no criminal charges and Julius' report surely described Paul in a positive light so that he was not confined to the barracks with the other prisoners, but allowed to live in private quarters (probably with Luke and Aristarchus) for two years when his case finally came before Caesar. Luke notes that only one soldier guarded him.

Paul and the Jews in Rome (28:17-28)

It does not take long for a familiar scene to take place as Paul begins his ministry while under Roman house arrest. His first action (on the third day after his arrival) is to call on the Jewish leaders to try and explain why he has been arrested, before troublemakers from Jerusalem show up and continue their attacks against him. Surprisingly, they say that they are not aware of any trouble he has had with the leaders in Jerusalem, but they do know that he has joined the 'sect' that he used to persecute and are curious about this.

At that time, many Jews saw Christianity as merely an extension or sect of Judaism. This changed drastically after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

The leaders return with many other Jews and Paul preaches the gospel to them with the same results he had experienced when he preached in synagogues in Judea, Syria and other places throughout the Roman Empire.

23When they had set a day for Paul, they came to him at his lodging in large numbers; and he was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening. 24Some were being persuaded by the things spoken, but others would not believe. 25And when they did not agree with one another, they began leaving after Paul had spoken one parting word, "The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, 26saying, 'Go to this people and say, "You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive;
27 For the heart of this people has become dull, And with their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes; Otherwise they might see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I would heal them."'
28Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen."
- Acts 28:23-28

Aside from the gospel message, Paul tells his Jewish audience that he plans to preach this same gospel to the Gentiles because God meant it for them as well and, according to his experience, he is assured that they will believe it even if the Jews do not.

Epilogue (28:29-31)

29[When he had spoken these words, the Jews departed, having a great dispute among themselves.]
30And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, 31preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.
- Acts 28:29-31

Luke finishes by reporting that the Jews left divided, some believed and some did not. Over a two year period Paul continued to preach to both Jews and Gentiles from his confined position in Roman detention. The results?

  1. It would be from these Jewish and Gentile converts in Rome that the gospel would go forth from the capital city of the empire to all corners of the world.
  2. It would be from this confined place that even Paul's elite Praetorian guards would become Christians (Philippians 1:13), as well as many in Caesar's household.
  3. While under arrest in Rome, Paul wrote letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and to Philemon.

In both Philippians 1:23 and Philemon 22, written near the end of his second year of imprisonment, Paul writes that he was confidently expecting to be freed. Uncontradicted tradition tells us that after his acquittal he planned for a trip to Spain (Romans 15:24,28) and also revisited several of the congregations he had previously established on his first and second journeys.

In 66 AD, in prison for a second time during the persecution of Christians under Nero, he wrote his final epistle, II Timothy. Paul was beheaded in Rome in 67 AD.

Main Lesson: God Can Use You

There are so many characters, events and details about church life, work and people in the book of Acts that it is hard to select one overarching lesson or theme. One that does come to mind is that no matter who or where you are, God can use you.

For example, Peter, an uneducated fisherman living far away from the seat of Jewish religious and political power, is used by God to proclaim the most important message in history to his nation and its rulers. Paul, a Jewish religious fanatic, is used by God to teach and mature the believers of a religion he hated and tried to destroy. Both men served from a position of weakness (one a poor fisherman, the other a practitioner of a strange religion) and yet both used by God to establish a faith and religious practice that today covers the world.

The lesson here? God can use you, if you let Him. The promise here? God can use you to do things you never could imagine, if you let Him. The question here? Can God use you, will you let Him? The prayer here? Lord, here am I, please use me.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your "go-to" emotion when facing trouble or danger? Why is this so? What can you learn about facing trouble or danger from Paul's life?
  2. Describe an instance from your past where you believe God used you. What talent or resource do you have that has not yet been offered to God for His use? How do you think He would use you today if you let Him?

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Chris Hill
Minister, Luther Church of Christ