According to Roman law, the trial of the apostle Paul could not take place until his accusers were able to present in person their charges against him. Because his accusers were in Jerusalem they were allowed time to make the journey to the city of Rome. In those days, little regard was shown for the rights of prisoners. An accused person could be kept in prison for a prolonged time due to the delay of the prosecutors to proffer their charges, or the trial could be deferred by the caprice of those in power.
A corrupt judge could hold a prisoner in custody for years without a trial as Felix did in the case of Paul. These judges, however, were at least amenable to a higher tribunal and that would serve, in a sense, to put some restraint upon them. But the emperor was not subject to any such restraint. His authority was, from a worldly point of view, virtually unlimited. The emperor of Rome often permitted caprice or malice or even indolence to hinder or prevent the administration of justice. The Jews in Jerusalem were not in any hurry to come to the city of Rome. They knew the odds against them for Lysias, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa, had all pronounced their accused innocent.
Paul’s enemies could hope for success only in seeking by intrigue to influence the emperor in their favor. Delay would actually further their objective and would afford them time to perfect and execute their plans. This would seem to be a terrible setback to the apostle who had been in Rome for about two years before his trial. Acts chapter 28, verses 30, 31 say, “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”
Paul did not live a life of inactivity even though he was under what we would call house arrest. In the providence of God, this very delay resulted in the furtherance of the gospel in Rome and from there to all parts of the world. He was allowed to freely receive friends and guests. He was daily presenting the truth to those who flocked to hear his words. In addition to this, he still had the care of the churches resting upon him. He supplied by written communications his personal instruction which they had formerly received. And so, from Rome, Paul sent out authorized delegates to labor among the churches that he had raised up.
These messengers rendered to him faithful service, and being in communication with them, he was informed about the condition and the dangers of the churches and was enabled to exercise a constant supervision over them. So, while he was apparently cut off from labor, he actually had a more powerful and more extensive influence during this period than any previous time of his life. He had a firmer hold upon the affections of his brethren in the faith. His words commanded even more interest, attention, and respect than when he was free and had been traveling among them.
When the Christians first learned that their beloved teacher had been made a prisoner, they mourned, they were despondent and would not be comforted, and they realized how heavy were the burdens that he had borne on their behalf. But now, they prized his counsel, his warnings and his instructions more than ever before. As they learned that their teacher still had courage, faith meekness, and gentleness in his long imprisonment, they also were stimulated to greater fidelity and zeal in the cause of Christ.
Among the assistance Paul had during this period of time was his fellow companion, Luke, the beloved physician, who had attended him on his journey from Jerusalem. Luke had been with him in Jerusalem. He had been with him on the ship when they had been shipwrecked. He had also been with him in Caesarea and remained a loyal companion and friend while in Rome. Timothy, one of his associate ministers that he himself had trained, also ministered to his comfort, and then there was Tychicus, his mail bearer who sent his messages to all the different churches that they had visited on their journey.
At the first, Demas and Mark were with him. Mark had once been refused by Paul as an unworthy Christian missionary, but since that time, Mark had reevaluated his position. He had come to see that the claims of God are above every other and that there is no release from the Christian warfare. Mark had obtained a more accurate and closer view of Paul’s Pattern, the man Jesus Christ.
Mark had seen in his mind’s eye the hands that were scarred from the conflict to save the lost and perishing and decided that he was going to follow his Master in a life of self-sacrifice and service. He understood, better than ever before, that it is infinite gain to win Christ at whatever cost. It is infinite loss to win the whole world and lose your soul for whose redemption Christ has paid the purchase price on the cross of Calvary. Through Mark’s experience he had become a faithful helper of the apostle.
In 2 Timothy chapter 4, Paul said, “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (verse 11). There was another person that did not remain faithful. His name was Demas. Paul said, “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica” (verse 10). Demas had been a faithful helper of the apostle, but for worldly gain he bartered away every high and noble consideration. Millions of people are making this same short-sighted exchange today. If you possess only worldly wealth or honor, you are poor indeed, however much you may proudly call your own, while those who choose to suffer for Christ’s sake will have eternal riches. They will be heirs of God, joint heirs with His Son. Like their loving Saviour, they may not have on this earth even a place to lay their head, but in heaven, He is preparing for them mansions.
Many in their pride and ignorance forget that even if you gain the whole world, if you lose your own soul, you have not really gained anything, because what you have gained you will soon have to give up. Everything on this planet is temporary. In order to be happy, we all must learn the lesson of self-denial at the foot of the cross. We don’t want to have anything in this earth that is so firmly rooted to us that we cannot transplant it to paradise.
Paul’s experience during this time has been shared ever since by others who are faithful in God’s service. There are people who see that if you follow Christ all the way, there are going to be some trials to meet in this world. They seek to find for themselves some easier path where there are fewer risks and fewer dangers to meet by selfishly shunning the responsibilities that somebody needs to bear and thus increasing the burdens for the faithful Christian workers. At the same time they separate themselves from God and forfeit the reward that they might have won.
We need to always remember that Christ has hired us by the price of His own blood and of every one of His followers He requires effort that shall in some degree correspond with the price that has been paid and the infinite reward offered. It was during this period of time of his confinement that Paul wrote some of his most powerful epistles in the New Testament such as Philippians and Colossians.
It was also during this time that we get an inside view about how the apostle Paul dealt with the subject of slavery. Throughout the Roman Empire less than 50% of the people were free while the majority were slaves. The laws concerning slaves were very rigid and unfortunately for them also unjust and cruel.
During this two year period while the apostle was living in a rented house under house arrest by the Roman government, one of the persons that found the gospel through his teaching and preaching was a fugitive, a man by the name of Onesimus, who had been a slave. His master, Philemon, was a Christian who lived in the city of Colossae. Onesimus had stolen from his master and had fled to the city of Rome where he was a fugitive. While in Rome he heard the gospel. The truths of the gospel had touched his heart and when he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour and was converted to the faith of Christ, he then confessed his sin against his master and gratefully accepted the counsel of the apostle.
There is no such thing as being converted to Christ and choosing to follow Him if we do not repent of and confess our past sins. The apostle sought to relieve Onesimus’ poverty and the distress of the wretched fugitive and he endeavored to shed the light of truth into his mind. Paul endeared himself to this fugitive by his piety, meekness, and sincerity.
Onesimus was faced with a problem. He was a slave who had stolen from his master and was now a fugitive. If he should go back, his master could do anything with him that he pleased. But Paul told Onesimus to go back to his master and that he, Paul, would be responsible for the amount that had been robbed from Philemon. Onesimus did not have the money to pay for it. So Paul sent Tychicus with letters to various churches in Asia minor, and he sent Onesimus in his company, and under his care.
This was a severe test for this servant to thus deliver himself back to his master that he had wronged. But he had been truly converted and as painful as it was, he did not shrink from doing his duty. He knew that if he was going to be part of the kingdom of Christ, he must make things right.
Paul made Onesimus the bearer of a letter to Philemon, in which the apostle Paul with great delicacy and yet kindness, pleaded the cause of the repentant slave, and intimated his own wishes concerning him. He wrote, “To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgement of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
“For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:1–9).
Paul could have commanded this Christian what he should do, but instead he decided to entreat Philemon. He said, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
“For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer a slave but more than a slave—as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (verses 10–16).
Paul requests Philemon to receive this repentant slave as his own child, and then he says, in verses 17 and 18, “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes you anything, put that on my account.”
This, by the way, is a wonderful illustration of the love of Christ toward a repenting sinner. As the servant who had defrauded his master, and had nothing with which to make restitution, so the sinner who has robbed God of years of service, has no means of cancelling the debt. But Jesus interposes, and appoints His mercy to the sinner’s account, and says, “I will pay the debt. Let the sinner be spared the punishment of his guilt. I will suffer in his stead.”
After assuming the debt of Onesimus, Paul gently reminded Philemon how greatly he himself was indebted to the apostle. He owed to him his own self in a special sense since God had made Paul the instrument of his conversion. So then in a most tender appeal, he says, “I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord: refresh my heart in the Lord.
“Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted [or released] to you” (verses 19–22). This epistle of Philemon has great value as a practical illustration of the influence of the gospel in the relation between a master and a servant. Slave-holding was an established institution throughout the Roman empire. And there were both masters and slaves found in most of the Christian churches for whom Paul labored. In the cities, the slaves often outnumbered the free population and laws of the most terrible severity were considered necessary to keep them in subjection. A wealthy Roman often owned hundreds of slaves of every rank, of every nation, and of every accomplishment. The master had full control upon the souls and bodies of these helpless beings. He could inflict upon them any suffering he chose, but if one of them in retaliation or self-defense ventured to raise a hand against his owner the slave’s whole family could be inhumanly sacrificed as a result, even if they were totally innocent.
Even the slightest mistake, accident, or carelessness could be punished without mercy. There were some masters who were more humane than others. They were more indulgent to their servants, but the vast majority of slave-owners in the Roman empire, the wealthy and the noble, gave themselves up without restraint to the indulgence of lust, passion, and appetite, and they made their slaves the wretched victims of caprice and tyranny.
The tendency of the whole system was hopelessly degrading. It was not the apostle Paul’s work to violently overturn at that time the established order of society. If he had attempted that, he would have prevented the success of the gospel. But he taught principles that struck at the very foundation of slavery, and that if carried into effect, would undermine the whole system. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). The religion of Christ has a transforming power upon the receiver. And the converted slave becomes a member of the body of Christ and as such is to be loved and treated as a brother, a fellow heir with his Master, of the blessings of God and the privileges of the gospel.
At the same time, the converted slave was to perform his duties with fidelity, doing the will of God from the heart. Paul says in Ephesians 6, “Bondservants, be obedient [subject] to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (verses 5–9).
And then to the church at Colossae, the very same area where Philemon lived, Paul said, “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 3:22–25; 4:1).
You see, Christianity makes a strong bond of union between master and slave, king and subject. The gospel minister and the most degraded sinner, who has found Christ, is relieved of the burden of crime. They have been washed, all in the same blood. They are quickened by the same Spirit and they are made one in Christ Jesus. Remember what Paul said, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.