April 23, 1896
IN Paul’s day Rome ruled the world, paganism was intrenched in the laws and customs of the people, and new religions were proscribed.
All gods were then regarded as national deities, and while the gods of Rome were held to be superior to all others, even to Jehovah, Rome permitted conquered nations to maintain their accustomed worship; hence Judaism was tolerated.
But Rome forbade innovations in religion. The law was:—
“No man shall have for himself particular gods of his own; no man shall worship by himself any new or foreign gods, unless they are recognized by the public laws.” 638
“Whoever introduces new religions, the tendency and character of which are unknown, whereby the minds of men may be disturbed, shall, if belonging to the higher rank, be banished; if to the lower, punished with death.” 639
Christianity, while only the perfect development of the religion of the Hebrews, was regarded by both Jews and Gentiles as a new faith, and therefore prohibited; but the apostle argued that Christianity was simply the faith of the fathers, and consequently within the “law,” that is, not prohibited by “law.”
Paul a Roman Citizen.
Paul, though a Jew, was a Roman citizen; and this fact imparts a peculiar interest to the record of his life, because his relation to the State corresponded more nearly to that of most men of to-day than did that of any other of the apostles.
Not every Roman subject was a citizen. There is a wide difference even to-day between residence and citizenship; and there was very much more difference then. “The early law of Rome,” says the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” “was essentially personal, not territorial. A man enjoyed the benefit of it institutions and of its protection, not because he happened to be within Roman territory, but because he was a citizen,—one of those by whom and for whom its law was established.”
Paul, on three recorded occasions, availed himself of the privileges that were his by virtue of his Roman citizenship. And once did he plead that he was “a citizen of no mean city,” Tarsus. This, however, was not tantamount to Roman citizenship, for we subsequently find the chief captain, to whom this statement was made, apparently ignorant of the fact that the apostle was a Roman.
Paul’s first appeal to his Roman citizenship is recorded in the 16th chapter of Acts. “And it came to pass,” writes Luke, “as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: the same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation. And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour. And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the rulers, and brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, and teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans. And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them. And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.” 640
Proper Dignity Maintained.
“When it was day, the magistrates sent the sergeants, saying, Let these men go.” “And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul.” “But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out. And the sergeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans. And they came and besought them, and brought them out.” 641
Roman law guaranteed to the citizen a trial  before condemnation or punishment; and in taking the course the apostle did he only insisted that the proceedings should be according to the law which the magistrates professed to respect and enforce.
We are not warranted in attributing to Paul any improper motive in thus demanding his rights under the law. He must have had in view the glory of God and the spread of the truth; and doubtless the influence upon all concerned was salutary. “Paul and Silas felt that to maintain the dignity of Christ’s Church, they must not submit to the illegal course proposed by the Roman magistrates…. They had been publicly thrust into prison, and now refused to be privately released, without proper acknowledgments on the part of the magistrates.” 642 It was seen that the apostle and his companion were not unreasoning fanatics, but rational, thinking men, who knew their rights and were neither afraid nor ashamed to maintain them by proper means. It was also demonstrated that they were not revengeful, for while demanding at the hands of the magistrates such acknowledgment as would vindicate them from the unjust charges made against them, they sought no revenge for the indignities they had suffered.
We cannot doubt that in all this the apostle acted wisely. It is not only the Christian’s privilege but his duty to take such a course under all circumstances as will place him in a favorable light before the bar of public opinion. Silence and abject submission are sometimes mistaken for confession of the truth of unjust changes; while a calm, dignified defense and assertion of civil rights commands respect and secures attention to the principles involved. To the manly stand taken by the apostle upon this occasion is largely due under God the freedom enjoyed in the world to-day in matters of conscience.
“They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.”
Unlawful to Scourge a Roman Uncondemend
The second recorded instance in which the apostle availed himself of his rights as a Roman citizen was when on the occasion of the uproar at Jerusalem, “the chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest; for this man is a Roman. Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was freeborn. Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.” 643 But in this instance, as upon the former occasion, Paul sought no revenge. He was a Roman, but was also a Christian.
The Apostle Exercises the Citizen’s Right of Appeal
The third, and so far as we know, the last occasion upon which Paul asserted his rights as a Roman, was when “Festus, willing to willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me? Then said Paul, I stand at Cesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Cesar. 644
The appeal of a Roman citizen to the emperor could not be disregarded, and Festus answered, “Hast thou appealed unto Cesar? Unto Cesar shalt thou go.”
Festus really had no option in the matter; but there being no clearly-defined charge against the apostle, he was in doubt as to the account of the case which he ought to send to the emperor. Festus therefore kept Paul in prison until Agrippa and Bernice came unto Cesarea. He then brought the apostle before them, and briefly recited the facts in the case, concluding thus:—
When I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself hath appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send him. Of whom I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write. For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him. 645
“Then Agrippa said unto Paul,” continues the record, “Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself.”
Paul’s defense is recorded in the twenty-sixth chapter of Acts, and being of easy access, we shall only call attention briefly to it.
Christianity Not a New Religion
Paul established by a circumstantial statement the fact that he was not only a Jew but a Pharisee; and then anticipating the only charge that could lie against him on religious grounds under Roman law, namely, that he had introduced a new religion or worshiped a God not recognized by Roman law, he declared: “And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers, unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope’s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.”
As before remarked, Christianity was not a new religion; it was simply a new phase of that religion given to our first parents at the fall, cherished by the patriarchs, and restored to Israel through Moses; and as such it was not a violation of Roman law to teach it, not was it an offense under the law to worship the God it revealed. But as previously stated, neither Jew nor Gentile recognized this fact. In the eyes of both, Christianity had its origin in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, and was no part of any previously-existing system of religion; and, as they viewed it, was consequently prohibited by the law of the empire.
Recounting before the king his trip to Damascus, his experience in being stricken to the earth by a light from heaven, the voice speaking to him, his conversion, etc., the apostle declared that he witnessed none other things than the prophets and Moses did say should come—in short, that he was not a setter-forth of strange doctrines.
The Apostle Labored to Save Men
Paul’s words on this occasion were not however, merely, nor even chiefly, a defense of his own rights; nor was it his chief object to convince Agrippa that he had violated no law. His defense of himself was rather a means to an end. It was the apostle’s life work to preach the gospel; and his motto was: “Whether ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” His heart burned within him for the salvation of his royal auditors.
Most graphically did he depict the scenes attending his conversion on the ways to Damascus, and most eloquently did he present the claims of the gospel and unhesitatingly declare his relation to it.
“Having therefore obtained help of God,” concluded the apostles, “I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should show light unto the people, and to the Gentiles.” “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agripa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” 646
Forgetful as he ever was of himself, willing to endure all things that he might save some, the apostle was nevertheless conscious of the value of that physical liberty which was his by divine right; and in the words, “except these bonds,” we discover something of the yearning after freedom which God has implanted in the human breast that he might gratify it by giving the glorious liberty of the children of God; for without such aspirations the message which proclaims “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” would fall upon ears dead alike to calls to human progress or to spiritual growth; and Christ would have died in vain.