“THIS man is a chosen vessel to me to bear my name to the nations as well as to kings.” (Acts 9:15) The Lord Jesus said that about a new convert to Christianity, the Jewish man who became known as the apostle Paul.
One of those “kings” was Roman Emperor Nero. How would you feel if you had to defend your faith before such a ruler? Yet, Christians are encouraged to imitate Paul. (1 Cor. 11:1) One way that we might do so has to do with Paul’s experiences with the legal systems of his day.
The Mosaic Law was the law of the land in Israel, and it was the moral code for devout Jews everywhere. After Pentecost 33 C.E., true worshippers were not obliged to keep the Mosaic Law. (Acts 15:28, 29; Gal. 4:9-11) Yet, Paul and other Christians did not speak disrespectfully of the Law; they were able to witness in many Jewish communities without interference. (1 Cor. 9:20) In fact, on many occasions Paul went to synagogues, where he could witness to people who knew of the God of Abraham and with whom Paul could reason on the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The apostles chose Jerusalem as the first center from which the preaching work would be directed. They taught regularly at the temple. (Acts 1:4; 2:46; 5:20) On occasion, Paul traveled to Jerusalem, and he was eventually taken into custody there. That began a legal process that finally led him to Rome.
PAUL AND ROMAN LAW
How would the Roman authorities have viewed the beliefs that Paul preached? To answer that, it is useful to note how the Romans considered religions in general. They did not force the different ethnic groups of their empire to give up their religions, except when it seemed that there was a danger to the State or to morality.
Rome granted the Jews broad rights in the empire. The book Backgrounds of Early Christianity states: “Judaism enjoyed a privileged position in the Roman empire. . . . The Jews had free exercise of their religion and were exempted from worshiping the deities of the Roman state. They could regulate life within their own communities by their law.” They also did not have to share in military service. * Paul would use the protection that Roman law gave to the Jewish faith as he defended Christianity before Roman authorities.
Paul’s opposers tried in various ways to turn the common people and the authorities against the apostle. (Acts 13:50; 14:2, 19; 18:12, 13) Consider one event. The Christian elders of the Jerusalem congregation heard a rumor being spread among the Jews that Paul was preaching “an apostasy from Moses.” Such stories could lead some newly converted Jewish Christians to think that Paul did not respect God’s arrangements. Also, the Sanhedrin could declare Christianity an apostasy from Judaism. If that happened, Jews who associated with Christians could be punished. They would be made social outcasts and barred from witnessing in the temple or in synagogues. Hence, the congregation elders advised Paul to prove these rumors wrong by his going to the temple and doing something that God did not require of him but that was not objectionable.
Paul did that, which led to opportunities to ‘defend and legally establish the good news.’ (Phil. 1:7) At the temple, the Jews rioted and wanted to kill Paul. The Roman military commander took Paul into custody. When Paul was being prepared to be whipped, he revealed that he was a Roman citizen. That led to his being taken to Caesarea, from where the Romans administered Judea. There he would have unusual opportunities to give a bold witness before the authorities. That likely introduced Christianity more fully to people who might not know much about it.
Acts chapter 24 describes Paul’s trial before Felix, the Roman governor of Judea, who had already heard something about what Christians believed. The Jews charged Paul with breaking Roman law in at least three ways. They said that he promoted sedition among the Jews throughout the empire; that he led a dangerous sect; and that he was trying to profane the temple, which was then under Roman protection. (Acts 24:5, 6) Those charges could lead to his being sentenced to death.
It is of interest to Christians today to consider how Paul dealt with the charges. He stayed calm and respectful. Paul referred to the Law and the Prophets, and he claimed the right to worship ‘the God of his forefathers.’ That was a right that other Jews had under Roman law. (Acts 24:14) In time, Paul was able to defend and proclaim his faith before the next governor, Porcius Festus, as well as before King Herod Agrippa.
Finally, so that he could get a fair hearing, Paul said: “I appeal to Caesar!”
PAUL’S TRIAL IN CAESAR’S COURT
“You must stand before Caesar,” an angel later told Paul. (Acts 27:24) Roman Emperor Nero had said at the beginning of his reign that he would not judge all cases himself. During the first eight years of his rule, he generally turned the task over to others. The book The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul reports that when Nero accepted a case for him to judge, he heard it in his own palace, where he was aided by a group of advisers who had a lot of experience and influence.
The Bible does not say whether Nero himself heard and judged Paul or he assigned someone else to hear Paul’s appeal and report to Nero. In either case, Paul likely explained that he worshipped the God of the Jews and that he urged all people to give the government due honor. (Rom. 13:1-7; Titus 3:1, 2) It appears that Paul’s defense of the good news before high officials was a success
OUR COMMISSION TO DEFEND THE GOOD NEWS
Jesus told his disciples: “You will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a witness to them and the nations.” (Matt. 10:18) It is a privilege to represent Jesus in this way. Our efforts to defend the good news may result in legal victories. Of course, what imperfect men decide does not ‘legally establish’ the good news in a complete sense. Only God’s Kingdom will bring permanent relief from oppression and injustice.
Yet, even today Jehovah’s name can be glorified when Christians make a defense of their faith. As Paul was, we should try to be calm, sincere, and convincing. Jesus told his followers that they would not have to ‘rehearse beforehand how to make their defense, for he would give them words and wisdom that all their opposers together would not be able to resist or dispute.’
When Christians defend their faith before kings, governors, or other officials, they can give a witness to people whom it might otherwise have been difficult to reach with the Christian message. Some favorable court decisions have refined legal codes, thus protecting freedom of speech and of worship. But whatever the outcome of such cases, the courage God’s servants display under trial makes God rejoice.
^ par. 8 Writer James Parkes observes: “The Jews . . . had the right to retain their own observances. There was nothing exceptional in the actual giving of these privileges, for in so doing the Romans were only following their usual custom of granting the greatest possible local autonomy to the different parts of their empire.”