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New Testament Overview IV - Paul's Imprisonment

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

I: Life and Ministry of Jesus II: Birth of the church
III: Paul's Missionary Journeys IV: Paul's Imprisonment
V: John and the Later New Testament

Prev - NT Overview III Next - NT Overview V

Paul's Arrest, and Trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea (Acts 21-27, AD 58-60)

Arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17 - 23:30)

Paul was worried about his reception in Jerusalem, particularly as he had received a prediction from the prophet Agabus, and people had tried to persuade him not to go. There were many Jewish believers who could not accept his ministry to the Gentiles, because they were zealous for the Jewish law. There was also always the threat from the unbelieving Jews who wanted to kill him.

On arrival in Jerusalem, Paul visited James, the leader of the church, and presumably delivered the collection for the saints. He told James and the other leaders about the great things God had done among the Gentiles, but they seemed more interested in keeping the Jews who were zealous about the law happy. To demonstrate that Paul had not forsaken the law of Moses, James suggested that he pay for the vows some Jews were making in the temple. Paul was willing to do this, but it led to his arrest and imprisonment.

Some Jews from Asia seized Paul, and accused him of bringing Gentiles into the inner sanctuary of the temple. This quickly led to a disturbance, so the Romans sent the soldiers to arrest Paul and bring him before the governor. On his way into the Roman barracks, Paul asked to speak to the people. On the steps, he gave an account of his testimony of Jesus meeting him on the road to Damascus. The people were happy to listen until he told them of his calling to preach to the Gentiles, after which they went wild. To find out why he got this response, the Romans intended to flog him, until they discovered to their embarrassment that he was a Roman Citizen by birth.

The following day he was brought before the Jewish court, where he managed to bring division between the Pharisees and Sadducees by saying he was here because he preached about the resurrection from the dead. After the Jews made plots against his life, he was moved to a safer place in Caesarea, where he could be guarded by the Romans.

Prison in Caesarea (Acts 24 - 26)

For the next two years he was in prison in Caesarea, and had a series of trials before the Roman governors, Felix and Festus, who threatened to send Paul to trial in Jerusalem before the Jews. Because he did not think he would get a fair trial there, he took up his right as a Roman Citizen to demand that his case to be heard by the Emperor himself. Finally he was brought before King Agrippa II, who listened to Paul's testimony, and thought that Paul was insane. Agrippa declared Paul to be innocent, and would have released him, had he not already appealed to the Emperor.

Luke's Gospel

Luke was probably the only Gentile writer of the New Testament. He was a doctor, and very interested in people. In Acts, we see from the "we passages" that he travelled with Paul. In his introduction and dedication to Theophilus, Luke declares that he carefully investigated what had happened, and wrote an orderly account. It is likely that while Paul was languishing in prison in Caesarea, Luke had been busy gathering material for his gospel. He probably travelled around interviewing people who would have known Jesus. These would have included Mary, from whom he learnt about the events of Jesus's birth, which he describes from Mary's point of view. In Luke, Jesus is described as the Saviour of the lost, particularly interested in people who were normally despised, or were outcasts of society, including the women, and the poor.

Paul's House Arrest in Rome (Acts 27-28, AD 60-62)

Voyage to Rome and shipwreck (Acts 27-28)

As an eye-witness, Luke describes the details of Paul's sea voyage and shipwreck on the way to Rome as a prisoner. This is one of the best records of 1st century navigation that exists, and shows Luke's accuracy as a historian.

Two years Prison in Rome (Acts 28)

The book of Acts finishes with Paul in house arrest in Rome, waiting for his case to be heard by the emperor Nero. He was living in a house at his own expense, with a Roman soldier guarding him, where he welcomed many visitors. Even though he had lost his freedom and was in prison, Luke still ends the book of Acts on a victorious note, describing how Paul was freely proclaiming the Gospel in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.

While in prison, Paul probably wrote the following 4 letters:

Letter to Philippi

When Paul had been in Philippi with Silas on the second missionary journey, he had miraculously escaped from prison through the earthquake. It is likely that the Philippians had been concerned that Paul had been in prison for so long, and perhaps wondered why a similar miracle had not occurred again. Paul wrote to them to show that his imprisonment had actually helped to spread the gospel. Under house arrest, Paul was continually guarded by a Roman soldier, so we can safely guess that Paul took the advantage to preach to them. His evangelism had clearly been very effective, in that Paul had been able to plant a church amongst the imperial guard in the emperor's palace in Rome (Phil 4:22).

The Philippians had sent Paul a financial gift, which he was thanking them for, as well as commending Epaphroditus, who he was sending back to them because of ill-health.

The city of Philippi prided itself in being a Roman colony, a sort of mini-Rome in the provinces, which had a Roman system of town government, freedom from paying taxes, and its people had the privilege of being Roman citizens. Paul addresses this pride in the church, giving himself as an example of service and humility, and the ultimate example being that of Jesus, who although by rights had everything, he gave that all up, to death on a cross.

Letter to Ephesus

The letters to Ephesus, Colossians and Philemon were probably written and delivered together by Tychicus. There are many similarities between Ephesians and Colossians.

Because of the worship of Artemis, and practice of occult and magic, the city of Ephesus was one of the darkest cities in the first century. In the letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul teaches believers how to live in a place of great spiritual darkness. He begins with declaring the believer's new position in Christ, that together as a church, are made alive in Christ and are SEATED in heavenly places. He then teaches them how to live together in unity in the church and how to live a godly life, in the Christian WALK. Finally he teaches them how to STAND against the devil, using the armour of God. He probably developed the image of the armour of God, by observing the armour worn by the Roman soldier guarding him in prison.

The letter to Ephesus has no greetings and does not directly address problems in the church, so it is often thought that the letter was a general letter intended to be read by all the churches in the area of Asia.

Letter to Colossae

The church in Colossae was started when Epaphras brought the Gospel, while Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19), so it was not planted by Paul, and Paul had not yet visited Colossae. It is clear that Paul is writing against a false teaching which had spread through the church, although it is difficult to identify exactly what the false teachers were saying. It appears to be a mixture of Jewish legalism, Pagan mysticism and Greek dualism (saying spirit is good, and physical is evil). It has strong parallels with New Age teaching of today, particularly in saying that Jesus is not the only way to God.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul responds by proclaiming the supremacy and uniqueness of Jesus, and using one of their slogans, declares that the fullness of God dwells in him. He calls them not to follow Jewish legalism, worship of angels, or ascetic practices, but to clothe themselves with Christ-like character.

The letter to Philemon

One of Paul's visitors in Rome was a young man called Onesimus, who Paul led to Christ and discipled. It became apparent to Paul that this Onesimus actually was a slave belonging to a friend of his called Philemon, who lived in Colossae. Onesimus had been useless in his service to Philemon, had stolen money from Philemon and had run away to Rome, where he somehow came into contact with Paul. In his letter to Philemon, Paul describes the close relationship he has with Philemon as a brother in the Lord, then goes on to describe the close relationship he has with Onesimus as a brother in the Lord. The useless slave now lived up to the meaning of his name (Onesimus is the Greek word meaning 'useful' v10). He reminds Philemon of the debt that he owes to Paul, probably meaning that Paul had been instrumental in leading Philemon to Christ, and appeals to Philemon to recognise his former slave as a brother in Christ, and to demonstrate his love by welcoming him back. Probably Paul is also asking that Philemon would send Onesimus back to be part of his ministry team in Rome.

Paul's Fourth Missionary Journey? (AD 63-65)

The Book of Acts concludes with Paul being in prison in Rome for two years, but we are not at all certain what happened to him after that. From church history, we know that Paul was martyred in Rome around AD 66, but Acts finishes around AD 62. It is most likely that he was acquitted at his trial before Emperor Nero and released.

Following his release, it seems that Paul continued with further travels, which are sometimes called his 'Fourth Missionary Journey'. In his letter to the Romans, Paul expressed his intention to preach the Gospel in Spain. According to church tradition, he did reach Spain, and preached there. From a careful reading of his letters, we can see that he also visited Crete, Ephesus, Macedonia and Nicopolis.

The circumstances described in the three 'Pastoral Letters' (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) do not seem to fit any of the accounts of Paul's travels in Acts, so it is most likely that all three were written between the end of Acts and Paul's martyrdom in Rome.

First Letter to Timothy

Paul wrote this letter to his co-worker, Timothy, who he had left in charge of the church in Ephesus. As he had a tendency to be timid, Paul had to encourage Timothy personally, not to allow people to despise his youth, and to use his spiritual gifts. He gave him instructions for his own life, and for his leadership of the church. Timothy's main job was to deal with the problem of false teachers in the church. It is quite likely that these were leaders and elders, some of whom may be women, who were causing much trouble in the church. He had to remove these elders, and appoint elders, and deacons in their place, and enrol true widows for support from the church.

The letter to Titus

Evidently, Paul visited the island of Crete during this time, together with Titus. Titus was also one of Paul's co-workers, whom he left as his representative in charge of the churches on the island. Paul wrote a letter to Titus in response to some questions, reminding that he had left him on Crete to set the churches in order and to appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). This was an extremely challenging job for Titus, as he had to find godly elders on an island where the population was known for being liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons (1:12). He also had to silence the false teachers, who were causing disruption in the churches, and splitting families. Paul gave instructions to Titus concerning what he should teach the different groups of people in the church, and how he himself should live as a model of good deeds. The main theme of Titus is that the grace of God not only saves us, but also trains us to live godly lives characterised by self-control and good deeds.

The Fire of Rome and the First Persecution by Rome (AD 64-67)

Nero and the fire of Rome (AD 64)

Nero began his reign as a good emperor. His early years were remembered as a 'golden age' in Rome. However, after AD 60, he began to go mad. He was totally convinced that he was divine, he introduced severe laws, including outrageous taxation. He desired to rebuild Rome as a monument to himself, with an extravagant building programme, which would have entailed knocking down most of the existing city. One night fire mysteriously broke out, and destroyed the majority of the city. It also became evident that Nero had done nothing to encourage the fire-fighting. Because of this, people began to blame him for starting the fire. Nero could not allow this rumour to spread, so he looked for someone else to blame, and finally picked the Christians, and accused them of starting the fire. This began a brief but dreadful period of persecution of the church, but localised to the city of Rome. In this persecution, many Christians were martyred by being thrown to the lions or tortured in many dreadful ways. Both Peter and Paul lost their lives, together with other important church leaders.

This was the first of ten periods of persecution of the church by the Roman empire, and marked a turning point in the relationship between the church and the empire. Before this, the Roman government saw Christianity as merely a sect within Judaism. This meant that the church enjoyed the same favoured status of Judaism. The Jews were the only registered legal religion other than paganism. They were exempt from military service because they would not fight on the Sabbath, and were allowed to pay their tax to the temple in Jerusalem. Following the fire, the church was seen as distinct from Judaism, and automatically became an illegal organisation, and continually liable to attack from the Roman government.

Second letter to Timothy

We do not know how Paul came to be in prison again in Rome, but shortly before his martyrdom, Paul wrote his last letter to his faithful co-worker, Timothy. His case had been heard and had gone against him, so Paul knew that he did not have long to live, and looked back over his life, knowing that he had run the race, and had completed the work God had given his to do. The main purpose of the letter was hand over his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles to Timothy, and charge him to guard the gospel, which had been entrusted by God to Paul.

Mark's Gospel

John Mark was only a young man during the ministry of Jesus, and not one of the twelve disciples. It is possible that Mark was the young man who followed Jesus into the Garden and ran away without his clothes (Mk 14:51). His mother was Mary, who owned the upper room where Jesus celebrated the last Passover, and where the early church met. In Acts, he went with Paul on his first missionary journey, but went home early, much to Paul's annoyance. Later he worked closely with Peter, and wrote down what Peter taught about Jesus.

Mark's gospel was written to a predominantly Gentile audience, as Mark carefully explains Jewish terms and customs for his readers. For Mark, Jesus was the suffering servant, who served the people, then suffered and gave his life. The original readers of Mark's gospel were experiencing persecution, probably in Rome, under Nero after AD 64. Mark describes how Jesus frequently predicted his suffering, then predicted suffering for his disciples as well. However this suffering will be followed by glory, both for Jesus, and for his disciples.

The book of Hebrews

It is difficult to determine whom the letter to Hebrews was written to, or even who wrote it. Numerous authors have been suggested, the favourites being Barnabas or Apollos. It is most unlikely to be Paul, as the style of writing is quite different. What is more certain is that the readers were Christians who had converted from Judaism, but in the face of persecution, they were tempted to leave the dangers of being a Christian and return to the physical safety of Judaism. It is possible that they lived in Rome during the period of persecution by Nero, following the fire of Rome, when only Christians were persecuted, not Jews. Very systematically, the author demonstrates the superiority of Jesus over all the different aspects of Old Testament religion, showing how that it all pointed towards Jesus, and was fulfilled in him. Jesus was 'better than' the angels, Moses, Joshua and the promised land, the priesthood, the old covenant, and the sacrifices. Interwoven with this are several strong warnings and exhortations, in which he very strongly urged them not to fall back, and warned them of the irreversible spiritual consequences of doing so. Instead, he urges them, saying, 'let us' approach through the curtain and enter the sanctuary with confidence and hold fast to the confession of our hope, and not to neglect to meet together (10:19-25).

1 Peter

Peter wrote his first letter to encourage Christians in churches in several provinces in northern and western Turkey who were facing persecution for their faith. Peter urges his readers to see these trials as God testing their faith, so it can be shown to be genuine, more precious than gold, so they can experience the joy of their salvation, and hold on to the great hope of Jesus' return. He also includes many practical instructions for holy living and responding in the right way to the persecution.

2 Peter

Peter knew his death was coming soon when he wrote his second letter shortly before his martyrdom in Rome, after AD 64. He urges his readers to grow in Christian character so they can be effective for Christ. He warns that false teachers will arise from among the churches, who will deceive the believers by denying Jesus and teaching that lifestyle does not matter. Using vivid metaphors, he condemns these false teachers, particularly as they are scoffing at the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus, teaching that life will always continue on the earth. In reply, Peter explains that the delay in Jesus returning is because he is waiting for more people to repent, but he will come like a thief, and his people must be ready to be found by him living a godly life.


The short book of Jude is similar to the second chapter of 2 Peter. Jude was probably one of the other half-brothers of Jesus. He also makes a severe attack on false teachers, who he warns from stories in the Old Testament, and condemns using a series of vivid metaphors. They are teachers who deny the uniqueness of Jesus, and pervert the grace of God into licentiousness by preaching that lifestyle does not matter as we are now free from the law.

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I: Life and Ministry of Jesus II: Birth of the church
III: Paul's Missionary Journeys IV: Paul's Imprisonment
V: John and the Later New Testament

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