The year is 59 C.E. In the custody of travel-weary soldiers, a number of prisoners enter Rome through the Porta Capena gate. On Palatine Hill is the palace of Emperor Nero, guarded by Praetorian soldiers with swords concealed under their formal togas. * The centurion Julius marches his prisoners past the Roman Forum and up Viminal Hill. They pass a garden with many altars to Roman gods and also go by a parade ground where military maneuvers take place.
Among the prisoners is the apostle Paul. Months earlier when he was on a storm-tossed ship, an angel of God told Paul: “You must stand before Caesar.” (Acts 27:24) Is Paul about to have that experience? As he turns to look out at the capital of the Roman Empire, no doubt the words that the Lord Jesus spoke to him at the Tower of Antonia in Jerusalem come to his mind. “Be of good courage!” Jesus said. “For as you have been giving a thorough witness on the things about me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.”
Perhaps Paul pauses to look at the Castra Praetoria
THE APOSTLE PREACHES “WITHOUT HINDRANCE”
During the voyage, Paul received divine visions announcing that the entire crew would survive a shipwreck. The bite of a venomous snake caused him no harm. He healed sick people on the island of Malta, where the local people began saying that he was a god. News of these events may have circulated among the superstitious Praetorian Guard.
Paul has already seen brothers from Rome who ‘came to meet him at the Marketplace of Appius and Three Taverns.’ (Acts 28:15) As a prisoner, though, how could he fulfill his desire to declare the good news in Rome? (Rom. 1:14, 15) Some think that the prisoners would be delivered to the captain of the guard. If that is so, Paul was likely taken to the Praetorian Prefect Afranius Burrus, perhaps second in power only to the emperor. * In any case, rather than being guarded by centurions, Paul’s guard is now a single Praetorian soldier of the rank and file. Paul is permitted to arrange for his own accommodations and is allowed to receive visitors and preach to them “without hindrance.”
PAUL WITNESSES TO THE SMALL AND THE GREAT
In the course of his judicial duties, Burrus perhaps interviews the apostle Paul, either at the palace or at the Praetorian camp, before presenting the case to Nero. Paul does not miss this unique opportunity to “witness to both small and great.” (Acts 26:19-23) Whatever may have been Burrus’ evaluation, Paul is spared the prison in the Praetorian camp. *
Paul’s rented accommodations are large enough for him to receive “the principal men of the Jews” and to witness to them as well as to ‘greater numbers of others who came to him in his lodging place.’ He also has a captive audience in the Praetorian soldiers who hear him “bearing thorough witness” to Jews concerning both the Kingdom and Jesus, “from morning till evening.”
The Praetorian cohort on duty at the palace is changed daily at the eighth hour. Paul’s guard also changes regularly. During the two years of the apostle’s captivity, soldiers hear him dictate letters to the Ephesian, Philippian, Colossian, and Hebrew Christians and see him write his own letter to a Christian named Philemon. While imprisoned, Paul gives personal attention to a runaway slave, Onesimus, ‘to whom he became a father while in prison bonds,’ and sends him back to his master. (Philem. 10) Paul no doubt also takes a personal interest in his guardians. (1 Cor. 9:22) We can just imagine him questioning a soldier on the purpose of various pieces of armor and then using the information in a fine illustration.
“SPEAK THE WORD OF GOD FEARLESSLY”
Paul’s imprisonment contributes to “the advancement of the good news” among all the Praetorian Guard and others. (Phil. 1:12, 13) The occupants of the Castra Praetoria have connections throughout the Roman Empire, as well as to the emperor and his vast household. That household consists of family members, servants, and slaves, some of whom become Christians. (Phil. 4:22) Through Paul’s bold witnessing, the brothers in Rome find the courage “to speak the word of God fearlessly.”
Paul’s witnessing in Rome is also a source of encouragement to us as we ‘preach the word in favorable season and troublesome season.’ (2 Tim. 4:2) Some of us are housebound, in nursing homes or hospitals, or even imprisoned for our faith. Whatever our circumstances, we may find an audience in those who come to us, perhaps to make house calls or to provide us with various services. When we courageously witness on every occasion, we see firsthand that ‘the word of God cannot be bound.’
^ par. 2 See the box entitled “The Praetorian Guard in Nero’s Day.”
^ par. 4 A Roman cohort was a group of up to 1,000 soldiers.
^ par. 7 See the box entitled “Sextus Afranius Burrus.”