Luke includes an interesting item as the group journeys to Rome, saying that when they arrived on the mainland word quickly spread that Paul had come. We remember that Paul had written to the Romans quite a few years before, saying that it was his intention to come to Rome. He seemed to have been preparing for his visit, asking for a good reception and carefully suggesting that the Roman Christians might help him with his plans to plant churches farther to the west in Spain. Tired from his long sea voyage, Paul must have been anxious about how these believers would receive him. Would they even know that he had come? Immediately, it would seem, Christians from Rome set off down the Appian Way to meet him. Luke says that some made it as far as the Three Taverns, others as far as the Forum of Appius. There was a distance of about ten miles separating them. There they greeted Paul, and Paul was encouraged.
I am sure the greetings of these Christian brothers and sisters meant a great deal to him. He did not know what he was coming to, perhaps to martyrdom for Christ’s sake. He knew people who were in Rome, but he must have had doubts as to how he would be received. So when some Christians of Rome came out to meet him, thereby showing how they loved him and cared for him, his spirits must have perked up and he must have gone forward joyfully.
Still, when I read of this show of encouragement, I remember that some years later when Paul was writing to the Philippians from his Roman prison, he spoke of trouble among the Christians in Rome, noting that some of it was due to “envy” of himself (Phil. 1:15-17). And later, when he wrote 2 Timothy, the last of his letters, he referred to a man named Onesiphorus who came to visit him but who, when he arrived in Rome, was at first unable to find where Paul was. Paul wrote of him: “When he was in Rome he searched hard for me until he found me” (2 Tim. 1:17). This suggests that, although the Christians of Rome greeted Paul warmly when he first arrived, they soon lost track of him and were therefore unable to tell Onesiphorus where Paul was when he inquired.
When Paul first arrived he was a celebrity. Paul, the great missionary! The Christians streamed out to see him. But then this great missionary was imprisoned. First, he was placed under house arrest where he had some freedom of motion and could meet with his friends and those interested in Christianity. He would have been chained by his wrist to a Roman guard. Later, Paul seems to have lost his freedom, perhaps during a second imprisonment, and was locked away. As time went by the Christians in Rome seem to have forgotten about him, as people do. People run hot and cold. We need to remember that. But we also need to remember how important encouragement can be when we can give it.
When I look back on this story—the story of the voyage by ship from Caesarea, the arrival on Malta, and then finally the arrival at Rome—I am struck by the contrasts. I wonder if you have noticed them as you have read the story or thought about it.
1. Turmoil versus inner peace. One contrast is between the turmoil without and Paul’s quite evident peace within. These were tumultuous times. The storm was a literal tumult. But there was also the tumult of the crowd in Jerusalem that resulted in Paul’s arrest. There was tumult in the empire, things going from bad to worse. Yet throughout it all Paul seems to have been at complete peace in the Lord.
2. Vacillation versus consistency and steady progress. A second contrast is between the vacillation of others and the consistency and steady progress of Paul. When Paul fell into the hands of the Roman authorities, they hardly knew what to do with him. Accusations were made, but they did not know what weight to give to the accusations. One of the rulers said, “Let’s send the case back to Jerusalem; let Paul be tried there.” That is when Paul appealed to Caesar. Felix kept Paul in prison for two years. He didn’t know what to do with him. One ruler after another tried to decide what to do and kept vacillating. Even the voyage to Rome illustrates the uncertainty. There were three ships, delays, and a shipwreck.
What impresses us, if we take our eyes off these external matters and look at Paul, is that God was working with him steadily to bring him to Rome where he was to bear a witness.
3. Fear versus faith in God. The third contrast, the obvious one, is between fear on the part of many and faith in God on the part of the apostle. There were all kinds of fears: fear of what people would say; fear of what the Jewish leaders would do; fear of what Caesar might think. And there was fear of ridicule, fear of being thought ridiculous, not to mention fear of the storm and the death it threatened. Many kinds of fears were expressed. But throughout it all Paul, who had his mind not on others but on God, was strong in faith and remained calm. What made the difference was that Paul was aware that God was with him. He knew God had a purpose for him. If God said that he would bear a witness for Jesus in Rome, then Paul would most certainly bear witness in Rome. Paul was willing to rest on that.
Perhaps that is where the story should end and where the application should be most evidently made for us. We also live in a vacillating world, a world of dangers, and we live among people who are filled with fear. We are called to be as Paul was in the midst of it, counting on God, resting in Him and moving forward steadily to do the work He has called us to do.
Can we do it? Will we?
We can and will, if we know that God is with us and that He is leading us each step of the way.