Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 26: Sojourn at Rome
According to Roman law, the trial of Paul could not take place until his accusers should be present in person to state their charges against him. They had not yet come from Palestine, nor was it known at Rome whether they had even started on the long journey. Therefore the trial might be postponed indefinitely. Little regard was shown for the rights of those supposed to have violated the law. It was often the case that an accused person was kept in prison a long time, by the delay of the prosecutors to prefer their charges; or his trial might be deferred by the caprice of those in power. A corrupt judge could hold a prisoner in custody for years, as did Felix in the case of Paul, to gratify popular prejudice, or in hope of securing a bribe. These judges were, however, amenable to a higher tribunal, and this would in some measure serve as a restraint upon them. But the emperor was subjected to no such restraint. His authority was virtually unlimited, and he often permitted caprice, malice, or even indolence, to hinder or prevent the administration of justice.
The Jews of Jerusalem were in no haste to present their accusations against Paul. They had been repeatedly thwarted in their designs, and had no desire to risk another defeat. Lysias, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa had all declared their belief in his innocence. His enemies could hope for success only in seeking by intrigue to influence the emperor in their favor. Delay would further their object, as it would afford them time to perfect and execute their plans. [p. 281]
In the providence of God, all this delay resulted in the furtherance of the gospel. Paul was not condemned to a life of inactivity. He was allowed free intercourse with his friends, and was permitted to dwell in a commodious house, where he daily presented the truth to those who flocked to listen to his words. Thus for two years he continued, "preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, will all confidence, no man forbidding him." And his labors were not confined to the preaching of the gospel. The "care of all the churches" still rested upon him. He deeply felt the danger that threatened those for whom he had labored so earnestly, and he sought as far as possible to supply by written communications the place of his personal instruction. He also sent out authorized delegates to labor among the churches he had raised up, and also in fields which he had not visited. These messengers rendered him faithful service, and being in communication with them, he was informed concerning the condition and dangers of the churches, and was enabled to exercise a constant supervision over them.
Thus while apparently cut off from active labor, Paul exerted a wider and more lasting influence than he could have exerted had he been free to travel among the churches as in former years. As a prisoner of the Lord, he had a firmer hold upon the affections of his brethren in the faith, and his words commanded even greater attention and respect than when he was personally with them. When they first learned that their beloved teacher had been made a prisoner, they mourned and would not be comforted. Not [p. 282] until he was removed from them, did they realize how heavy were the burdens which he had borne in their behalf. Heretofore they had largely excused themselves from responsibility and burden-bearing because they lacked his wisdom, tact, and indomitable energy; and now, left in their inexperience to learn the lessons they had shunned, and feeling that they were never more to be benefited by the apostle's labors, they prized the warning, counsel, and instruction which he sent them, as they had never before prized his teachings. And as they learned of his courage, faith, and meekness in his long imprisonment, they also were stimulated to greater fidelity and zeal in the cause of Christ.
Among the assistants of Paul in his labors were many of his former companions and fellow-workers. Luke, "the beloved physician," who had attended him in the journey to Jerusalem, through the two years' imprisonment at Caesarea, and upon his last perilous voyage, was with him still. Timothy also ministered to his comfort. Tychicus was his mail-bearer, taking his messages to the different churches which they had visited together. Demas and Mark also were with him.
Mark had once been refused by Paul as unworthy to accompany him, because, when his help was much needed, he had left the apostle and returned to his home. He saw that, as Paul's companion, his life must be one of constant toil, anxiety, and self-denial; and he desired an easier path. This led the apostle to feel that he could not be trusted, and that decision caused the unhappy dissension between Paul and Barnabas.
Mark had since learned the lesson which all [p. 283] must learn, that God's claims are above every other. He saw that there is no release in the Christian warfare. He had obtained a closer and more perfect view of his Pattern, and had seen upon his hands the scars of his conflict to save the lost and perishing. He was willing to follow his Master's example of earnestness and self-sacrifice, that he might win souls to Jesus and the blessedness of Heaven. And now, while sharing the lot of Paul the prisoner, Mark understood better than ever before, that it is infinite gain to win Christ at whatever cost, and infinite loss to win the world and lose the soul for whose redemption the blood of Christ was shed. Mark was now a useful and beloved helper of the apostle, and he continued faithful even unto the end. In writing from Rome just prior to his martyrdom, Paul bade Timothy, "Take Mark, and bring him with thee; for he is profitable to me for the ministry."
Demas was now a faithful helper of the apostle. A few years afterward, however, in the same letter to Timothy which commends Mark's fidelity, Paul writes, "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world." For worldly gain, Demas bartered every higher and nobler consideration. How short-sighted, how unwise the exchange! Those who possess only worldly wealth or honor are poor indeed, however much they may proudly call their own. Those who choose to suffer for Christ's sake, will win eternal riches; they will be heirs of God, and joint-heirs with his Son. They may not have on earth a place to lay their heads; but in Heaven the Saviour whom they love is preparing mansions for them. Many, in their pride and ignorance, forget [p. 284] that lowly things are mighty. In order to be happy, we must learn self-denial at the foot of the cross. We want no earthly hope so firmly rooted that we cannot transplant it to paradise.
Paul was not alone in the trials which he endured from the love of ease and desire for worldly gain in his professed brethren. His experience is still shared by the faithful servants of Christ. Many, even of those who profess to believe the solemn truths for this time, feel but little moral responsibility. When they see that the path of duty is beset with perplexities and trials, they choose a way for themselves, where there is less effort needed; where there are fewer risks to run, fewer dangers to meet. By selfishly shunning responsibilities, they increase the burdens of the faithful workers, and at the same time separate themselves from God, and forfeit the reward they might have won. All who will work earnestly and disinterestedly, in his love and fear, God will make co-laborers with himself. Christ has hired them at the price of his own blood, the pledge of an eternal weight of glory. Of every one of his followers he requires efforts that shall in some degree correspond with the price paid and the infinite reward offered.
Among the disciples who ministered to Paul at Rome was Onesimus, a fugitive slave from the city of Colosse. He belonged to a Christian named Philemon, a member of the Colossian church. But he had robbed his master and fled to Rome. Here this pagan slave, profligate and unprincipled, was reached by the truths of the gospel. He had seen and heard Paul at Ephesus, and now, in the providence of God, he met him again in Rome. In the kindness of his heart, the [p. 285] apostle sought to relieve the poverty and distress of the wretched fugitive, and then endeavored to shed the light of truth into his darkened mind. Onesimus listened attentively to the words of life which he had once despised, and was converted to the faith of Christ. He now confessed his sin against his master, and gratefully accepted the counsel of the apostle.
He had endeared himself to Paul by his piety, meekness, and sincerity, no less than by his tender care for the apostle's comfort and his zeal to promote the work of the gospel. Paul saw in him traits of character that would render him a useful helper in missionary labor, and he would gladly have kept him at Rome. But he would not do this without the full consent of Philemon. He therefore decided that Onesimus should at once return to his master, and promised to hold himself responsible for the sum of which Philemon had been robbed. Being about to despatch Tychicus with letters to various churches of Asia Minor, he sent Onesimus in his company and under his care. It was a severe test for this servant to thus deliver himself up to the master he had wronged; but he had been truly converted, and, painful as it was, he did not shrink from this duty.
Paul made Onesimus the bearer of a letter to Philemon, in which he with great delicacy and kindness pleaded the cause of the repentant slave, and intimated his own wishes concerning him. The letter began with an affectionate greeting to Philemon as a friend and fellow-laborer:—
"Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, [p. 286] hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus." The apostle sought gently to remind Philemon that every good purpose and trait of character which he possessed must be accredited to the grace of Christ; for this alone caused him to differ from the perverse and sinful. The same grace could make the debased criminal a child of God and a useful laborer in the gospel.
Though Paul might with authority have urged upon Philemon his duty as a Christian, yet because of his love for him he would not command, but chose rather the language of entreaty: "As Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ, I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds, which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me."
He requests Philemon to receive him as his own child. He says that it was his desire to retain Onesimus, that he might act the same part in ministering to him in his bonds as Philemon would have done. But he did not desire his services unless Philemon should voluntarily set him free; for it might be in the providence of God that Onesimus had left his master for a season in so improper a manner, that, being converted, he might on his return be forgiven and received with such affection that he would choose to dwell with him ever after, "not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved."
The apostle added: "If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he [p. 287] hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine account. I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it; albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides."
Paul voluntarily proposes to assume the debt of another; he will make reparation for a crime committed by another, that the guilty one may be spared the disgrace of punishment, and may again enjoy the privileges which he has forfeited. The apostle well knew the severity which masters exercised towards their slaves, and that Philemon was much incensed at the conduct of his servant. He therefore approached him in a manner to arouse his deepest and tenderest feelings as a Christian. The conversion of Onesimus has made him a brother in the faith, and any punishment inflicted on this new convert from pagan darkness would be regarded by Paul as though inflicted on himself.
How fitting an illustration of the love of Christ toward the repenting sinner! As the servant who had defrauded his master had nothing with which to make restitution, so the sinner who has robbed God of years of service has no means of canceling the debt; Jesus interposes between the sinner and the just wrath of God, and says, I will pay the debt. Let the sinner be spared the punishment of his guilt. I will suffer in his stead.
After offering to assume 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. He then, in a most tender, earnest appeal, [p. 288] besought Philemon that as he had by his liberalities refreshed the saints, so he would refresh the spirit of the apostle by granting him this cause of rejoicing. "Having confidence in thy obedience," he added, "I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say."
This epistle is of great value as a practical illustration of the influence of the gospel upon the relation of master and servant. Slave-holding was an established institution throughout the Roman empire, and both masters and slaves were found in most of the churches for which Paul labored. In the cities, where slaves many times outnumbered the free population, laws of the most terrible severity were considered necessary to keep them in subjection. A wealthy Roman owned hundreds of slaves, of every rank, of every nation, and of every accomplishment. The master had full control of 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 whole family of the offender would be inhumanly sacrificed, however innocent they might be. Even the slightest mistake, accident, or carelessness was punished without mercy.
Some masters, more humane than others, were more indulgent toward their servants; but the vast majority of the wealthy and 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's work to violently [p. 289] overturn the established order of society. Had he attempted this, he would have prevented the success of the gospel. But he taught principles that struck at the very foundation of slavery, and that, carried into effect, would surely undermine the whole system. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." The religion of Christ has a transforming power upon the receiver. The converted slave became a member of the body of Christ, and as such was 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. In the same spirit were servants to perform their duties; "not with eye- service, as men-pleasers, but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." 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 in Christ relief from his burden of crime. They have been washed in the same blood, quickened by the same Spirit; they are made one in Christ Jesus.Click here to read the next chapter: "Caesar's Household"