Adversity Appeared to Expand
But Transitioned Toward an End
The persecution of Paul ended in Rome where he was taken to present his appeal but the accusers did not show. Events during the trip threatened to expand his adversity but instead became opportunities for Paul to start his Rome gospel mission. Through the events we learn about a dispute ending because the accuser backs down and an adversity appearing to expand as it transitions toward an end.
We conclude our current study on Responding to Adversity with a discussion of Paul’s voyage to Rome and the end of his persecution. The persecution started in Jerusalem. Later, he was moved to Caesarea, where he was tried in court; first under Governor Felix and later under Governor Festus. As we discuss in a previous bible study under Submitting to Due Process in Adversity, Paul determined during trial under Festus that he was unlikely to find justice through the trial in Caesarea. Therefore, he appealed to Caesar. The appeal required he be taken to Rome to present his case for judgment by the emperor.
He was taken to Rome. However, his accusers did not follow him and did not arrange for any representation at his appeal hearing. The case appears to have simply fizzled out as the bible provides no information about any hearing of his case in Rome. Instead, after an initial period as a prisoner in Rome, he spent about two years there free to interact with people normally [Acts 28:30–31]: “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.” Thus, the persecution ended within a short time of his arrival in Rome and became a launch pad for his gospel mission there.
This discussion of the end of Paul’s adversity of persecution focuses on two lessons. First, we note that his accusers “did not show” and their failure to show may have been the primary reason the persecution just fizzled out. We discuss this aspect of his experience along with other examples of an adversity ending because the accuser backed down. Second, we note that his adversity threatened to expand as its end approached during the trip to Rome. We draw examples from previous studies to understand that an apparent expansion of adversity could at times be the beginning of the end of the adversity. We note that Paul’s adversity was indeed a vehicle that conveyed him to Rome to extend his gospel mission.
When the Accuser Backs Down
The end of Paul’s persecution provides an excellent example of an adversity ending because “the accuser” backs down. In his adversity, the accuser had a human manifestation as fellow Jews that sought relentlessly to have him condemned or released to their custody so they would kill him. He appealed to Caesar in his defense, was taken to Rome to present his appeal, but his accuser did not show. The Jewish community in Rome informed him during his first meeting with them that they were not aware of any accusation against him: “We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you” [Acts 28:21]. The people that pursued him relentlessly in Jerusalem and Caesarea did not follow him to Rome to present their case against him or solicit any person to do so on their behalf. It is possible the case was ended administratively because the accuser did not show.
In this respect, his experience is similar to the case of a woman referred to Jesus with an accusation of adultery. A group of Pharisees and teachers of the law had brought the woman to Jesus, accused her of adultery, and demanded she be condemned to death by stoning. However, Jesus challenged them that “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” [John 8:7]. Then he turned away from them. Gradually, they all left one by one, having been convicted by their conscience. Then he turned to the woman and asked [John 8:10]: “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” Her accusers had backed down. He told her: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” [John 8:11].
MEDIATION The interaction among Jesus and the woman and her accuser suggests a potentially effective approach to mediation. A dispute could potentially be mediated successfully by highlighting facts of the dispute that weaken the accuser’s case. A mediator could prevail on an accuser to consider backing down the same way that Jesus prevailed on the woman’s accusers by making them realize they could not judge her without first passing judgment on themselves. They backed down because none found himself without sin to “be the first to throw a stone at her.”
REDEMPTION FROM SIN Furthermore, getting an accuser to back down could be significant to Christianity as an understanding of atonement for sin. Jesus gave his human life for our sins and, thus, denies Satan the opportunity to make a case against a believer that is based on a sin from his/her previous life. The devil has to back down from accusing a believer of such sin, because Christ has paid for the sin with his life: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” [John 3:16]. If you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, he will live in you, you will live in his image, and the devil has to back down from making a case against you based on bringing up sin that you committed in the past.
Expanding Toward an End
An adversity could expand or threaten to expand as its end approaches. For example, Paul’s adversity threatened to expand during the trip to Rome, through a shipwreck and a viper attack. The expansion was unsuccessful as each event ended without any ill effect on Paul. In fact, through the benefit of hindsight, we can see the shipwreck and viper attack as the beginning of Paul’s gospel mission to Rome. Both events provided him opportunity to minister (by words and deeds) to the ship’s passengers and crew and residents of the island of Malta that sheltered them awhile before they embarked on the final leg of their trip to Rome.
Therefore, though the shipwreck and viper attack would at the time appear as expanding adversity for Paul, they were in fact a part of his triumph over the adversity, providing him opportunity to begin the next phase of his life.
We encountered a similar experience under Finding the Bigger Picture in Adversity, when Mordecai’s refusal to worship an agent of the king triggered what appeared initially as an expansion of his adversity. The king’s agent, Haman, secured a decree to annihilate all Jews in the kingdom (including Mordecai and Esther). The decree was met with spontaneous and widespread protest by Jews that culminated in Esther’s successful petition to the king, execution of Haman, and elevation of Mordecai to a position essentially the same as king’s second in command. That is, events that started as an apparent expansion of Mordecai’s adversity actually were the beginning of the end of the adversity.
As we discuss presently in the case of Paul and previously in the case of Mordecai, a key message of these biblical accounts is one should respond to expanding adversity with increasing focus on worshiping and serving God; interacting with people and events in accordance with the meaning of our commitment to live in the image of God in the situation.
Paul warned about the shipwreck twice but his warning was ignored. First, he advised they should suspend sailing for a while: “Men, I perceive that this voyage will end with disaster and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also our lives” [Acts 27:10]. Second, after they had sailed under turbulent conditions and the crew and passengers had given up hope of being saved, Paul stood before them and announced that no life will be lost, though the ship will run aground and be destroyed: “And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship” [Acts 27:22].
The ship did run aground as he predicted. When they realized the ship could not be saved, the soldiers guarding Paul and the other prisoners planned to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape. But the commanding officer stepped in and ordered whoever could swim should jump overboard and swim for land. All passengers and crew got to land (island of Malta) safely.
COUNSELOR As the passengers and crew struggled through the turbulent conditions, Paul gradually emerged as the “counselor.” He tried to calm them down, advised on what should be done next, and intermixed the gospel as he talked to them [Acts 27:23–26]: “For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. However, we must run aground on a certain island.” Also, when he noticed that the ship’s crew were planning to abandon the ship and passengers, Paul told the commander of the prison guards: “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” [Acts 27:31]. Then the soldiers took action to ensure the crew stayed on the ship. A short while later, after they had gone without food for fourteen days, Paul spoke to them [Acts 27:33–34]: “Today is the fourteenth day you have waited and continued without food, and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take nourishment, for this is for your survival, since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you.”
This way, Paul helped control the situation and contributed to all passengers and crew surviving the shipwreck. They must have gone on to remember him as the still and calm voice that shepherded them through the ordeal. Some of them likely wondered about God and the information he passed to them through Paul. They probably were among Paul’s first converts in the region and probably helped his Rome ministry to grow.
The Viper Attack
Residents of the island of Malta welcomed the shipwrecked and kindled a fire for them to warm up. True to his habit of always seeking to contribute to his “up-keep,” Paul gathered firewood to strengthen the fire. When he dumped the bundle onto the fire, a viper escaped from it and coiled itself on his hand. He “shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm” [Acts 28:5]. The islanders expected he would fall and die within a short time but he remained the same and did not suffer any ill effect. Then, they realized he was different: “But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god” [Acts 28:6].
Their recognition that Paul was a special man of God was strengthened further when he healed a resident of the island from fever and dysentery by praying and laying hand on him. Information about Paul and the healing spread quickly through the island and many more came and were healed: “So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed” [Acts 28:9].
The events were witnessed by the passengers and crew of the wrecked ship and residents of the island. Several of them likely became Paul’s first converts in the region, confirming the shipwreck and viper attack as opportunities for the start of Paul’s gospel mission in the region.
Summary of What We Learned
The persecution of Paul ended in Rome after he was taken there to present his appeal to the emperor but his accusers did not show. A shipwreck and an unsuccessful attack by a viper during the trip initially appeared as an expansion of his adversity but instead became opportunities for Paul to start his Rome gospel mission. The events provide opportunities to understand a dispute ending because the accuser backs down and an adversity appearing to expand as it transitions toward an end.