We have in the Acts of the Apostles the names of seven Roman officials more or less distinguished, each of whom had some personal dealing with the apostle Paul. This was no small privilege; but although they had an opportunity thus of hearing the truth from the lips of this honoured servant of our Lord, yet, so far as their history tells us, only one of them appears to have been savingly benefited thereby. I do not mean to say that each of them had the gospel presented to him in exactly the same way, or in equal fullness, but at any rate the path of each happened to lie providentially across that of the apostle in a way that was more or less public and responsible.
The first comes before us in Acts 13:6-12. It is the case of Sergius Paulus, who was deputy governor, or proconsul, of the island of Cyprus. Of him we read that he was a prudent man, “intelligent,” and therefore, we may be assured, selected for his post as possessing all the necessary qualifications.
But there happened to be with this man—in what capacity we are not told—a certain false prophet, a magician, called Bar-jesus. He was, moreover, a Jew, who, finding that the proconsul had called for Barnabas and Saul to hear from them the word of God, not only withstood them, but sought to turn away the proconsul from the faith. His object was plain. Sergius Paulus was placed thus in a position of no small difficulty. He had to discriminate between rival claims and discover, if possible, where the truth lay. Each advocate was Jewish, and could appeal equally to the Scriptures. Yet, whilst the one presented the gospel, the other endeavoured to hinder its reception. The action of the one was positive in the administration of good, that of the other was negative in the effort to prevent its acceptance. This last, in some form, is always Satan’s way. God graciously seeks our blessing—the devil our curse. Here, then, we find a man desirous to hear the word of God, and Satan using one of his children—a magician—to turn him away. The moment was most critical for Sergius Paulus, lest his incipient, and no doubt divinely-created, desire should be quenched by the enemy; and the salvation of his soul hung on the issue.
But this blessing is God’s work, nor will He permit even Satan to hinder it, and therefore Paul was allowed in the exercise of governmental authority to strike the tool of Satan with blindness, and thus to carry to the mind of the seeker an overwhelming evidence of the source of his mission, and of the power of God that lay behind His word; and so we read that “the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.” This first official then comes before us as a believer, and that as the direct result of the faithful service of the apostle. What strikes one in Sergius Paulus is his evident desire to hear. His mind was open. A clash of different doctrines did not deter him from listening to both sides, but grace enabled him to believe the truth. His is, alas! the only one of the seven who responded to the word of God by believing, and presents a vivid contrast to the case by which he is now followed.
2. It is that of Gallio. This man was proconsul of Achaia, and was brother of the famous philosopher Seneca, who had been tutor of the Emperor Nero. His connections were therefore high, and his ability no doubt conspicuous.
Paul had been labouring for long in Corinth, where God had wrought mightily in blessing many of the inhabitants of that wicked city. Such grace displeased the Jews, envious as ever of the favour thus shown to Gentiles. They made insurrection against Paul, and brought him to the judgment-seat, saying that he persuaded men to worship God contrary to the law.
This charge they preferred before Gallio, who, instead of paying attention to it, dismissed them summarily, stating that had it been a matter of wrong he would have borne with them, but since it was a question of words and names, and of their law, he would be no judge of such matters. These were apparently beneath his notice, and if the Greeks should beat Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, in his presence, it little mattered to him. “Gallio cared for none of those things.” (See Acts 18:12-17.) Gallio was not the “prudent man” that Sergius Paulus was! He paid attention to the questions placed before him; Gallio, with his philosophic taint, could treat them with disdain. To him a “matter of wrong,” be it never so small, was of more importance than the “worship of God,” which he regarded as a “question of words and names”—a veritable trifle, unworthy of a philosophic intellect. The settlement of a seditious uprising against Caesar claimed his devotion; the adjustment of the right of the King of kings he could afford to ignore. But intellectualism as well as Judaism—the working of the mind rationalistically as well as ritualistically—is fatal to the welfare of the soul. Elymas, the Jew, sought to turn away Sergius Paulus, but failed; the wisdom of the world appears to have effectually turned away Gallio. Both forms of evil are condemned as injurious to the Church in Colossians 2; none the less they are rampant in Christendom today, to the ruin of the profession of Christ. The only remedy is a heart truly subject to the Word of God, one that, unlike Gallio, finds its pleasure in the worship of God as revealed in His Son, and in maintaining His rights and His glory in the world.
3. Our next case is that of Claudius Lysias, styled the “chief captain,” or commander of a thousand men. To him Paul was indebted for a double rescue from the hands of the Jews (see Acts 21-23); first, when they drew him out of the temple, shut the doors, and went about to kill him; and second, when he stood in the midst of their council and declared that for the hope of the resurrection of the dead he was called in question.
In the first instance Lysias came with an army and delivered him, and in the second he commanded his soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them. On the first occasion Lysias understood him to be an Egyptian, who had headed a band of 4000 murderers, but on the second he knew him to be a free-born Roman citizen. He heard Paul’s defence delivered in the Hebrew tongue, and did not apparently understand it. He could but witness the uncontrolled fury of the audience, and feel persuaded that such a storm must have an adequate cause. He would have examined him by scourging, but on learning that he was a Roman he desisted and loosed his bands.
A similar whirlwind of passion was let loose in the council next day; and, but for the interposition of the chief captain, Paul would have been killed. Paul was thus indebted to Claudius Lysias, and not Paul only, but ourselves and the whole Church of God! The conduct of this Roman soldier too in the matter of Paul’s sister’s son is very grateful.
This lad, being let into the secret of a conspiracy to slay his uncle, carried the report to Lysias, who, with a gentleness that contrasts brightly with ordinary military manners, took him by the hand, and then received his communication. That done, Lysias makes ample provision for the safeguarding of Paul from the stealth and power of his enemies, and sends him off under a strong escort to Felix, the chief governor, at Caesarea.
To Felix he writes a letter, alleging that the only ostensible cause of such inexplicable opposition on the part of the Jews was an accusation of questions of their laws—that was the whole charge—but that he had done nothing worthy of death or even of bonds. True, but there the curtain falls on Lysias. Would that this fine, able, tender-hearted Roman soldier had looked beyond the war of words and learned the eternal truth of which Paul was at once the champion and the suffering witness; that heavenly light was breaking in upon the darkness, and the voice of God was stirring the slumbering conscience of man. To this phase of the question Lysias, alas! was blind.
Felix is our fourth official: Paul recognises a man who had “been of many years a judge unto this nation,” and before whom, on the occasion of his trial, he could the more cheerfully answer for himself. This he did, clearing himself of the charge of sedition which Tertullus had brought against him, and stating that his only object in going to Jerusalem at that time was that he might distribute to the poor brethren in Jerusalem the alms which he had been instrumental in collecting from the Gentiles. He denied tumult or uproar, or anything akin to sedition, whilst in the performance of his business, in the temple, admitting only, as before, that he had “cried, standing among them,” in the council, “Touching the resurrection of the dead I am called in question by you this day.”
Here his trial ends before Felix. His accusers are silenced, though not vanquished. Felix gives Paul into the charge of a centurion who should make his imprisonment as easy as possible. The governor had, however, “more perfect knowledge of that way.” He had heard of Christianity, or “the way” as then designated, and took the opportunity “the oftener” to hear from Paul “concerning the faith in Christ.” This faith Paul presented in living power and personal application. It was to him no theory, no clever speculation, no unmeaning or unimportant dream. Nay, he “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” before this exalted but terribly sinful man.
Felix trembled! The Word told on his conscience, but, alas! he turned aside its edge, he temporised, he pleaded for a “convenient season”; and, so far as we read, he remained an unbeliever. He left Paul bound. What a load of responsibility thus rested on the soul of Felix! It was no small privilege to enjoy such direct personal contact with this servant of Christ. What an opportunity for him! It was despised.
Again, how grandly does Paul shine here! There was no pandering to Felix, no effort to obtain, by friends or money, release from his captivity, no lessening of the afflictions of the gospel; but rather did he evince his devotedness to his Lord by a fearless exposure of the judgment that must follow sin. The result in the case of this Roman dignitary was terror of conscience, but, alas! no turning to God.
5. Porcius Festus succeeds Felix in the governorship, and finds Paul a prisoner at Caesarea. Information is given by the chief of the Jews, who desire that Paul should be sent to Jerusalem, in order that he may be killed on the way. To this desire, however, Festus does not yield, being prevented by the hand of God; but he goes down to Caesarea from Jerusalem, taking with him Paul’s accusers. To their “many and grievous complaints” Paul makes answer, admitting that, if he had committed anything worthy of death, he did not refuse to die; but otherwise he would exercise his right of appealing to Caesar rather than be delivered to them. This appeal Festus confirmed, and in so doing frustrated the unwearied malice of the Jews. Meantime, however, King Agrippa comes to salute Festus, who in due course lays before him the case of this remarkable prisoner. Why the Jews should have condemned him Festus could not understand, for they made no accusation of such things as he had supposed, only “certain questions of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive.” Questions, nothing but questions! Just a speculation as to the life and death of “one Jesus”: That was all that Festus could say or see.
Yet in the death and resurrection of Christ lies the only hope of man. Had He never died, there were no remission; had He not risen, there were no salvation. His precious blood alone can cleanse. His life in glory guarantees eternal bliss to the believer; just as, on the other hand, His resurrection is the pledge of judgment on the sinner. The issues of an eternal future hang on a matter which Festus would regard as but a “question.” How blind, alas! is the wisdom of the world; how morally dark are its princes!
This leads to the memorable “apology” of Paul before Agrippa, Festus, the chief captains, and principal men of the city. What an audience! What a moment! It was seized by Paul most profitably. A brief account of his life, and of the “heavenly vision” which presented to him the Lord Jesus in glory, opened the way for personal dealings, first with Festus, then with Agrippa, and finally with all that heard him that day.
The governor, unable to follow God’s dealings with Paul, could but cry aloud, “Thou art beside thyself” (Acts 26:24); “much learning makes thee mad.” To this wanton interruption Paul replied with charming Christian grace, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” But there the appeal to Festus ends, who thus comes before us as another witness to the absolute inability of world-wisdom, or rank, or earthly position, or favoured circumstances, to grasp what is of God, or to discriminate between His truth and a mere human superstition. Sovereign grace is needed for this.
Paul is sent to Rome under the charge of Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band, who furnishes our sixth case. This soldier must have seen much of the apostle during that long and stormy voyage, even as he heard from his lips words of faith in God, words that proved to be true when the voyage was safely over (Acts 27). Julius, though at first treating Paul courteously, giving him liberty to see his friends when the ship touched at Sidon, preferred, nevertheless, to believe the master of the ship rather than Paul when he advised not to leave Crete until the season had advanced. The counsel of the master was faulty, the vessel was overtaken by the euroclydon, driven to Malta, and wrecked on its shores.
We can notice, however, that Paul had worked himself into the esteem of the centurion, for when the sailors attempted to launch the boat, and by it make their escape from the foundering vessel, Paul said to him, “Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.” This advice was followed at once, the ropes of the boat were cut off, and the seamen detained on board. Again, when the soldiers suggested killing the prisoners lest they should effect their escape, “Julius, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose.” This was an act of consideration on the part of the centurion, for which, as in the case of Claudius Lysias, the whole Church may be thankful.
We hear no more, however, of this kindly Roman soldier. He had been brought into circumstances of very close intimacy with and high respect for the apostle; but having said that of Julius we have said all.
The last-named official is Publius (Acts 28). He was the chief man of the island of Malta. “The chief man” was an official title. He had acquired it under the Roman power, and he too was brought into close contact with Paul. “The father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.” And by this seemly act of praying did he bring the power and mercy of God into the presence of this “chief” man. And surely the healing touch of divine pity might well plead that the healed should seek a saving knowledge of the blessed Healer, for it is the goodness of God that leadeth to repentance (Rom. 2:4). And He who can cure the suffering body can also save the guilty soul. “God is love.” And happy that servant of Christ, whether free of foot or bound of hand, who was thus allowed to speak and act for God in the sight and hearing of these men, who occupied in their day places of power and dignity! His the honour, theirs the responsibility. The result, in either case, awaits the verdict of the soon-coming day of divine award.