After Paul’s third missionary journey, Paul traveled to Jerusalem, despite knowing he would be arrested. He first reported to James, the half-brother of Jesus and head of the church in Jerusalem, as well as the elders. Paul also learned that some Jewish believers in Jerusalem had a warped idea of his work. They had been told that Paul pushed Jewish believers in Asia Minor and Macedonia to reject Jewish customs, including circumcision. In order to prove that Paul respected the laws of Moses, the elders asked him to participate in the ceremony for four men who were ending their vow (probably a Nazirite vow). Paul did as the elders requested, showing that he was not anti-Law or opposed to Jewish customs (Acts 21:17–26).
Part of the ceremony involved the men presenting themselves to the priests in the temple. That is where Jews from Asia found Paul and falsely accused him of bringing a Gentile into the temple. A mob dragged Paul out the temple and beat him until the tribune, the leader of the Roman cohort, arrived with soldiers and centurions to break up the melee. The tribune arrested Paul—without charges—chained him, and confined him to the barracks. It turned out the tribune thought Paul was an Egyptian who had recently led a revolt and fled with a group of Sicarii (dagger-wielding assassins). Paul explained who he was and asked to address the crowd (Acts 21:27–40). The tribune agreed to his request.
Paul basically gave his testimony to the crowd in Jerusalem. The Jewish crowd listened quietly until he mentioned that God had sent him to reach the Gentiles. Then they started rioting again. The tribune, not understanding why the Jews were upset, pulled Paul back into the barracks and strung him up to be flogged, thinking a beating would encourage him to explain what was really going on. Paul escaped the flogging at the last minute by mentioning he was a Roman citizen. The tribune pulled back, knowing that he shouldn’t have even bound Paul, let alone threatened him with flogging (Acts 22:1–29).
The next day, in an attempt to understand what was going on, the tribune had Paul meet with the chief priests and council (Acts 22:30). Paul gave his credentials, identifying himself as a Pharisee and appealing to the Pharisees’ belief in the resurrection of the dead. Immediately, a dispute arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (who denied the resurrection), fulfilling Paul’s intention of drawing his enemies’ focus away from him. The resultant uproar was so violent that the Roman tribune returned Paul to the barracks before he could be torn apart (Acts 23:1–10). That night, Jesus gave Paul encouragement that he would preach the gospel in Rome, something Paul had longed to do (Acts 23:11; Romans 1:11).
The next day, Paul’s nephew overheard that a group of forty men had vowed to kill Paul or die trying, and he passed that intel to Paul and then the Roman tribune (Acts 23:12–22). That night the commander sent Paul to Felix the governor in Caesarea with an escort of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. The commander wrote a letter explaining the situation and requesting that Felix take over the investigation against Paul. The soldiers and spearmen returned to the commander when Paul was safely away, and the horsemen continued to Caesarea with Paul. Governor Felix promised to hear his case once his accusers arrived (verses 23–35).
Five days later, Ananias the high priest, some Jewish elders, and a hired lawyer reached Felix’s palace. They played to Felix’s ego and fear by insisting that Paul caused severe civil disturbances, disrupting the peace Felix had provided (Acts 24:1–9). Paul confidently gave his defense, giving details of the last few days and explaining his only “crime” was believing in the resurrection of the dead. Paul also pointed out that his original accusers from the temple weren’t present and the Jewish elders had nothing to charge him with (verses 10–21). Felix understood Judaism and Christianity, and he delayed a decision until the Roman commander who had arrested Paul arrived (verse 22). Felix kept Paul under guard but allowed him a fair amount of freedom (verse 23). Felix also spoke to Paul frequently in hopes Paul would offer him a bribe (verse 26). But two years passed with no change in Paul’s situation, and Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. Festus, wishing to curry favor with the Jewish leadership, left Paul in prison (verse 27).
The Jewish leadership wanted more than Paul’s incarceration. They wanted Festus to order Paul transferred to Jerusalem—they were secretly plotting an ambush along the way to kill Paul. Festus told the Jewish leaders to bring their case against Paul to Caesarea, and they did, bringing a multitude of baseless charges against Paul. Caught between the Jews’ lies and Festus’s desire to placate his new subjects, Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:1–11). Governor Festus granted the appeal (verse 12).
A few days later, King Agrippa and his wife Bernice came to visit Festus in Caesarea. Festus told him about Paul’s case, and Agrippa desired to hear Paul speak. Festus was delighted. He was legally obliged to send Paul to Caesar, but there were no charges. He hoped Agrippa could find something to justify Paul’s imprisonment and transfer to Rome (Acts 25:13–27).
Paul was also delighted to speak, as he knew King Agrippa was knowledgeable about Judaism. In his defense before Agrippa, Paul gave a longer version of his testimony, including his conversion on the road to Damascus and his work among the Gentiles (Acts 26:1–23). Agrippa’s legal opinion was that Paul was innocent. If Paul had not insisted on his right of being sent to Caesar, Festus would have been obliged to release him (verses 24–30).
So, Paul was headed to Rome, where he had wanted to go—although he had not necessarily planned to go as a prisoner.
Julius, the centurion in charge of transporting the prisoners, treated Paul well. The first stop on their voyage was Sidon. Luke and Aristarchus, a believer from Thessalonica, were allowed to accompany Paul, and Julius allowed other of Paul’s friends to visit in Sidon and see to his needs (Acts 27:1–3). They traveled as far as Myra on the southern coast of Asia Minor before transferring to another ship (verses 4–6). The weather grew uncooperative, and the ship made it to Fair Havens, on the southern coast of Crete, with difficulty. Paul advised Julius to stay the winter in Fair Havens, but the centurion listened to the pilot and the ship’s owner instead of Paul, and they continued west, hoping to reach the Cretan port of Phoenix to winter there (verses 7–12).
They never made it to Phoenix. A fierce storm with gale-force winds drove the ship off course, battering the ship for many days and causing the crew to give up hope (Acts 27:13–20). One night, an angel visited Paul with this message: “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you” (verse 24). Paul encouraged everyone on board with the prediction that all lives would be saved; only the ship would be lost when it ran aground on an island (verses 21–26). True to Paul’s (and the angel’s) word, the ship was wrecked, but everyone aboard made it safely to shore on the island of Malta (verses 39–44).
The Maltese people were kind and built a fire for the shipwreck victims to stave off the rain and cold. As Paul gathered a bunch of sticks and threw them into the fire, a deadly viper bit his hand (Acts 28:1–3). The islanders declared that the gods must be punishing him for murder or some such crime (verse 4), but, when Paul suffered no harm, they decided he must be a god (verses 5–6). The chief official of the island took care of Paul and his friends for three days. While in his home, Paul had the opportunity to heal the official’s father who was sick with fever and dysentery. Soon, the rest of the islanders brought their sick for Paul to heal (verses 7–10).
Paul, still technically a Roman prisoner, stayed on Malta for three months before another ship could take them all to Rome. Once they arrived, Paul was able to meet with believers from the area in his private quarters. He also met with the Jewish leaders and explained what had happened in Jerusalem. They agreed to hear his message and filled his lodging while he spoke; some believed the gospel, and some didn’t. Paul stayed in Rome (at his own expense) awaiting trial, teaching and preaching the gospel for two years. It’s likely that he also wrote the books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon during this time.
The book of Acts ends with Paul still in Rome under house arrest awaiting trial. Apparently, Paul was released after two years. It’s thought that his accusers, the Jewish elders in Jerusalem, never came to Rome to accuse him. What happened after Paul’s release is even less clear. The hints given in Paul’s epistles are vague. But it’s possible that Paul went on a fourth missionary journey before his second and final imprisonment in Rome.