What would you expect to happen if those who were guilty were to pass judgment and determine the sentence of the innocent? This is not a foreign occurrence and has happened many times in this world. The Bible records several famous instances of this happening in the life of Jesus and also in the life of Paul.
When Paul was set free after his first imprisonment in Rome, the Jews were still determined to rid themselves of what they considered a nuisance. Everything that they had tried had failed. More than once they had plotted to assassinate him, but their efforts had always come to naught. They had tried to get him convicted in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome, and every attempt had failed. However, they never ceased trying to find a way that they could end his life because of their hatred against the gospel of Jesus Christ that he proclaimed wherever he went resulting in many people, both Jews and Gentiles becoming Christians.
The story that he would tell of his encounter with Jesus Christ in person on the Damascus road was convincing. It was an eyewitness testimony backed up by a change in his life that nobody could contradict. Those who did not accept this testimony became furious with rage because of the effect that it was having all over the world and resulted in the Jews’ determination to find some pretext by which they could cause him to be killed.
Rome, at that time, was involved in a terrible fire, for which Nero was blamed. Deciding to clear himself, he caused the Christians to be blamed for instigating the burning of the city. This gave opportunity for the Jews to lay a plot by which the apostle Paul was blamed for instigating the burning of the city of Rome. Again, he was to appear before Nero on trial for his life.
At this time, Paul had the prospect of almost certain death. First because of the aggravated nature of the crime charged against him. Second, because of the prevailing animosity toward the Christians which had resulted from their being blamed for burning the city. Then last, because of the very character of Nero himself, who was attempting to relieve himself of the real blame for the fire for which he certainly was responsible.
It was customary among both the Greeks and the Romans to allow a person in this situation who was accused to have an advocate, an attorney, present his case in a court of justice to plead in his behalf. By force of argument or impassioned eloquence, and appeal, entreaties, or even tears, such an advocate could often secure a reversal of the sentence, or if he failed in that, at least have the sentence mitigated to avoid a severe judgment.
But in this case there was no man who ventured to act as Paul’s counsel or advocate. He had no legal counsel. He had no friend at hand, even to preserve a record of the charges that were leveled against him. There is no written human record of the arguments that he urged in his own defense. Among the Christians who lived in the city of Rome, there was not one who came forward to stand by him at this time.
Down through the centuries, thousands, probably more accurately, millions of Christians have been in similar situations with no legal counsel and all manner of accusations being made against them. There have been many courts in which a person needed to prove their innocence, but how do you prove that the accusations are false? How do you prove your innocence? Now it’s one thing if you are considered innocent until you are proved guilty. It is entirely something else if you are considered guilty unless you can prove your innocence. Even if you are innocent, it may be very difficult to prove it.
However, if you are a Christian and find yourself in a situation like this, you do have Someone who has promised to never leave you or forsake you and to help you. For the apostle Paul, though all humans had forsaken him, he was aware that Somebody had stood by him. Writing to Timothy he said, “The Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also, I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion” (2 Timothy 4:17).
Here we see the faithful apostle standing before Nero with no counsel, no human help, standing all alone accused of an aggravated crime in a pagan court having to defend himself. But, unseen by his accusers, there was One who stood with him and strengthened him that the preaching might be fully known.
Here was Paul standing before Nero. How striking would be the contest and the contrast. Nero was a person who had the very height of earthly power, wealth, and authority and had also participated in the lowest depths of crime and iniquity. This man, Nero, before whom Paul was answering for his faith, stood unrivaled and unapproached in the world. There was no one in this world to question his authority or resist his will. The kings of the earth laid their crowns at his feet. The most powerful armies marched at his command. The ensigns of his navies betokened victory. His statue was set up in courts of justice and the decrees of senators and the decisions of judges were but the echo of his will. Over a hundred million subjects bowed in obedience to his mandates. The name of Nero made the world tremble. To incur his displeasure was to lose property, liberty, and life. His frown was to be dreaded more than the pestilence, and yet while he was surrounded by all this earthly pomp, wealth, and authority, and reverenced as a god in human form, he had the heart of a demon.
Before this man seated on his throne, stood the apostle Paul, a calm, aged prisoner, whose face told of the peace of God that reigned within. He was without money, without friends, without legal counsel, brought from a loathsome dungeon to be tried for his life. The apostle Paul had lived a life of poverty, of self-denial, and of suffering. He had a sensitive nature which thirsted for love and sympathy, but all he had was grave misrepresentation, reproach, hatred, and abuse, like his Master. He had been a homeless wanderer in this world. He had lived and suffered for the truth’s sake. He had sought to relieve the burdens of others around him. He had sought to exemplify the life of Christ in his life. Who can imagine the contrast between these two people, Paul and Nero, face to face, the youthful monarch bearing upon his countenance the shameful record of the passions that surged within?
We see in this picture the result of opposite systems: opposite systems of education, opposite systems of philosophy, opposite systems of training. On one hand you have the life of unbounded self-indulgence, and on the other you have a life of utter self-sacrifice. Here were the representatives of the two religions, Christianity and paganism – the representatives of two theories of life – the simplicity of self-denying endurance, ready to give up life itself if necessary for the good of others, and on the other hand, the luxury of all-absorbing selfishness that counts nothing too valuable to sacrifice for momentary gratification.
Here also were the representatives of two spiritual powers – the ambassador of Christ and the slave of Satan. Their relative positions showed to what extent the course of this world was under the rule of the prince of darkness. The wretch who sat upon the throne, his soul stained with the crime of incest and matricide robed in purple. Before him stood the purest and noblest of human beings, to be judged for his life, a man who is despised, hated, and fettered. Around them was a vast throng gathered to witness the judgment scene. Again, the Jews urge against the prisoner their old charges of sedition against the government and heresy, and both Jews and Romans accuse him of instigating the burning of the city.
While they vehemently urged their accusations, Paul stood there with no shade of fear or anger. The judges beheld this man with surprise. They had been present at many trials and had looked upon many criminals, but never had they seen a man who had such a look of holy calmness as did this prisoner before them. The keen eyes of the judges, accustomed to searching for character in the human face, search the face of Paul for some evidence of crime, but in vain.
Finally, the apostle Paul, after he had received all of the accusations, was allowed to speak for himself.
As he looked, not just at Nero and his accusers, but also at the large crowd of people that had gathered to watch his trial, he decided to lift once more before the wondering multitude, the banner of the cross of Christ. And with more than human eloquence and power, he began to explain to them the truths of the gospel. His words were true, clear, and convincing, overthrowing error and falsehood, and the people in that company had never before heard anything like this.
They had come to hear the utterance of a feeble and aged prisoner, but they heard words that were destined to shake nations. Paul’s speech on this occasion, was endowed with power that would through all time influence the hearts and lives of men. He later wrote to Timothy, “The Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear” (2 Timothy 4:17). Paul was stirred with a longing to see these people receive the truth of salvation, and he had an intense desire that they would not perish. He lost sight of the occasion and of the perils that were surrounding him, and of the terrible fate which seemed so near, and he looked to Jesus, his Advocate, his Intercessor in the courts above.
He pled with them and showed them that there was an Advocate that they had at the throne of God and pointed his hearers to the fact that an infinite sacrifice had been made on behalf of the fallen race. He presented before them man in his true dignity and value, because an infinite price had been paid for his redemption. Provision had been made that every human being might finally be exalted to share the throne of God and to become an heir of immortal riches. Not only this, but by angel messengers, earth and heaven were connected, and all the deeds of men, both good and evil, were open before the eye of infinite justice. As he was explaining this to them, there was no trace of fear. There was no sadness or discouragement on his countenance. He was strong in his conscious innocence. He was clothed with the panoply of truth, and rejoiced that he was a son of God. His words were like a shout of victory above the noise of the battle.
He told them that the cause of truth to which he had dedicated his life is the only cause that can never fail. He may perish for the truth’s sake, as would millions of human beings, but the gospel will not perish, because God lives and reigns, and eventually the truth will triumph. As he speaks to them, his countenance is lighted up. They see that he is not afraid of anything, perhaps realizing now that he is on God’s side of the question. Through this trial, the gospel message found its way into minds that had never before heard the truth. Never had Nero listened to any speech like this. Never before had the enormous guilt of his life been revealed to him as it was revealed that day, because the light of heaven pierced the sin polluted chambers of his mind and soul. He was terrified. He quaked with terror at the thought that there was a tribunal before which he, the ruler of the world, should be arraigned, and where his deeds would meet a just reward. He was afraid of the apostle’s God, and he dared not pass a sentence on Paul, against whom no crime, no accusation, had been sustained.
Nero had a sense of awe and as he was thinking about it, heaven opened before his mind, the truth of what the apostle Paul had been saying, and for a moment it seemed that the peace and purity of heaven would be something desirable. That was his moment of mercy. That was the moment, when, if he had made the decision, he could have turned his life around and chosen to repent and confess his sins and follow Jesus.
For a moment, the hope of eternal life was offered to probably the most wicked man in the world at that time, but the offer was only for a moment. Catching his composure, he gave orders for Paul to be returned to his dungeon. When the dungeon door was closed, that was the end of the opportunity for the emperor of Rome to have eternal life. Never again would there be a ray of light or mercy from God that would shine into his darkened soul.
It was not long after this that Nero sailed on his expedition to Greece, and there he disgraced himself and his kingdom by the most contemptible and debasing crimes and frivolity. He returned to Rome with great pomp and engaged in scenes of revolting debauchery, but in the midst of the revelry, a voice was heard out in the streets and a messenger was dispelled to enquire of the matter. The messenger returned with the appalling news that Galba, at the head of an army, was marching rapidly upon Rome. Insurrection had already broken out in the city and the streets were filled with an enraged mob, threatening death to the emperor.
The wretched tyrant, who was just as cowardly as he was cruel, was completely unmanned. He sprang up from the table at which he had been feasting and drinking and overturning it in his blind terror, he sent the costly wares to the floor, dashed to fragments. Like one beside himself, he ran here and there, saying, “I am lost. I am lost.” He did not have, like the faithful Paul, a compassionate God to rely upon in his hour of peril.
He knew that if he was taken prisoner, he would be subjected to torture. So considering how he might end his miserable life with as little pain as possible, he asked for poison. When the poison was brought, he was afraid to take it and called for a sword, but he was also afraid to use it on himself. Then, disguised in women’s clothing, he rushed from the palace and dashed through the dark, narrow streets to the Tiber River. But as he looked into its depths, his courage failed again.
One of Nero’s friends that was with him, suggested that he escape to a country seat a few miles away where he might find safety. So, concealing his face, he leaped on a horse and succeeded in making his escape, but the senate had passed a decree declaring Nero to be the enemy of his country and condemning him to death. The sentence that was passed against him was that he was to be stripped naked, fastened by his head to the pillory, and scourged to death. When he found this out, the monster, who had delighted to inflict death upon Christians by most inhuman torture, shrank with horror at the mere thought of enduring like torture himself. In a groan of despair he said, “What shall I do?” In a few moments he knew he would be under the power of his enemies. Terrified alike by the thought of suicide or torture, he at last let a slave help his trembling hand force a dagger into his throat and perished at the age of 32.
God in his infinite mercy bears long with the transgressors of His law, but He keeps a record of the impiety of nations and individuals. Long is mercy tendered toward us, but when our guilt reaches a certain limit, which God has fixed, then mercy ceases her pleading and the ministration of wrath begins.
Friend, every one of us has a case at the bar of God. What will the sentence be when your number comes up?
(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.