The letter from the Apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus was written during Paul’s 4-year imprisonment. The first 2-years of Paul’s confinement were in Caesarea and the last 2-years in Rome. During this time Paul wrote many letters, we have four of them preserved for us in the New Testament: Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians and Philippians.
We would assume that the injustices, beatings, and confinement imposed on Paul and his companions would have inhibited or at least slowed down Paul on his mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. But what we need to remember is what some people intend for evil – God will use for good, because Paul was submissive to both the Roman law and to God’s plan, he was effective in preaching the gospel even in chains.
In 56-57 AD, Paul and his companions were on their way from Asia Minor traveling by boat back to Jerusalem. They carried with them the funds they collected from the new gentile Christian communities for their brothers and sisters in Christ in Jerusalem. The Christian church in Judea was suffering at that time from a famine and persecution.
On their journey home, wherever the ship stopped believers would come to visit Paul for worship and prayer. When they stopped at Miletus, the Ephesian elders came to meet with Paul. During their time of worship the Holy Spirit reveals to Paul that he will be imprisoned when he arrives in Jerusalem.
“Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace”. Acts 20:22-24
This wasn’t a one-time revelation; repeatedly Paul is warned of the coming troubles. Paul determined that these warnings were not intended to cause him to abandon his mission but rather to help him prepare for the coming hardships. Paul knew that his sufferings were part of God’s plan for him, to advance the gospel and to minister to the church. Paul and his companions arrive in Jerusalem, in 57 AD at the beginning of summer near the time of Pentecost.
When Paul arrived in Jerusalem he went to meet with the church and visit with James the brother of Jesus. James was the head of the church in Jerusalem; Paul delivered the money collected and was well received by the church. It was Paul’s hope that the generous collection of funds would help the poor in Jerusalem and reconcile the Jewish Christians to their new Gentile brothers in Christ. Instead what Paul learns is that false rumors continue to swirl around Paul and his companions, they falsely accuse Paul of teaching that Jewish Christians could abandon all Jewish practices including circumcision. The Jewish Christians firmly believed that they should maintain all Jewish traditions and practices even when living in areas outside of Jerusalem in the Gentile culture.
The decision of the church leaders in Jerusalem was that Paul should go through a ritual cleansing ceremony to demonstrate that he was committed to the Mosaic Law. He and four other men would go through the long process with Paul paying for all their expenses. The church elders were convinced that this process would show Paul’s obedience to the Jewish traditions and tamp down the false rumors.
Towards the end of the purification rights, Paul and his companions are in the inner court of the Temple; this is the space where only Jews could go. Some Jews from Asia Minor see Paul and falsely identify one of the men as the Gentile Christian Trophimus who traveled with Paul to Jerusalem. They instigate a city-wide riot against Paul, and grab him with the intention of killing him. All the uproar comes to the attention of the Roman garrison that is on watch over the temple. The commander of the Roman garrison arrests Paul and puts him in chains; his plan was to flog Paul then let him go to appease the crowd. But when he heard that Paul was a Roman citizen he changed his plans, Paul was entitled to legal protections including the right not to be flogged or put in chains without a trial.
The next day, Paul is taken to stand trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling court. The previous day Paul addressed the angry crowd by testifying that the risen Christ appeared to him and he proclaimed the good news of the gospel. When Paul addresses the Sanhedrin he states, “I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead”. When he said this the Sanhedrin broke out into another riot and the Romans guards quickly take Paul back to the jail to protect him. The plan was to take Paul back to the Sanhedrin the next day for another attempt at a trial, but the Romans were warned of a Jewish plot to assassinate Paul. So instead the guards take Paul to Caesarea to stand trial before Felix, the Roman governor of Judea.
Five days later Paul stands trial again; the High Priest, Jewish elders and their lawyer arrive to accuse Paul of disturbing the Roman peace and violating the Temple. But once again they had no eyewitness to testify against Paul, they demand that Felix examine Paul to determine his guilt. The only witness is Paul who uses the opportunity to proclaim the gospel and reveal the corruption of the Jewish leaders. Felix could have released Paul based on the lack of witnesses, but he didn’t, instead he saw the opportunity to extract a bribe from Paul and his supporters. Felix didn’t make a decision of guilt or innocence; instead he kept Paul in prison and would send for Paul regularly to talk. For two years Paul continued to proclaim the gospel to Felix and his guests.
In 59AD Felix was replaced by Festus, as the new Roman governor. Once again the Jews saw an opportunity to kill Paul, they petitioned Festus to bring Paul to Jerusalem to stand trial by the Sanhedrin, but in reality the plan was to kill Paul during transport. Festus asks Paul if he was willing to have his case heard in Jerusalem, but rather than agreeing Paul asserts his right as a Roman citizen, he appeals his case to Caesar.
The backstory is that the night that Paul was first arrested, in chains in a Roman prison the LORD Jesus appeared to Paul in a dream to assure him that he will live to proclaim the gospel in Rome. The Holy Spirit had been directing Paul to understand that his suffering and imprisonment will be used to spread the gospel. In late 59 AD Paul, Luke and Aristarchus set sail for Rome under a Roman guard. The normal sailing route is to hug the coast all the way to Rome.
They sail first to Cyprus then north to Asia Minor, but strong winds and rough seas force them away from the coast to the island of Crete. It was now getting too late in the season to travel safely, the Roman commander and ship’s captain planned to sail further up the coast of Crete to a place where they wanted to spend the winter months. Paul warned against leaving, but they ignored his advice and set sail. For two long weeks they are caught in a terrible storm, all aboard feared that they would die. Paul repeatedly assures everyone that they would not die, but would all make it safely to Rome. The ship finally breaks apart, Paul convinces the Roman guard not to kill the prisoners and everyone is wash up safely on the shores of Malta. They will remain on Malta for three months, Paul preaches the gospel, he is miraculously saved from a snake bite, he heals the chief Roman official of the island and everyone who came to him for healing.
Paul and his companions arrive in Rome in 60 AD, where he is put under house arrest for another 2 years. He stayed in his own rented house under Roman guard and welcomed all who came to see him. During this time he was able to teach freely and received many visitors from the Christian communities that Paul started. Paul’s arrest was unjust, painful and life threatening. His imprisonment was a long miscarriage of justice, false accusations, corruption and hardships. But Paul was submissive and obedient to the Roman law and to God’s plan.
Paul’s mission to preach the gospel was not hindered by all these evil designs, instead he was just where God wanted him to be. Paul will spend his time in prison, preaching the gospel in the capital of the Roman Empire, and engage in a robust writing and teaching ministry to everyone who he came into contact.
It is during this imprisonment that Paul wrote Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon. These letters while addressing the different issues in each community, they share the same doctrinal unity, specifically that Jesus Christ is the King of Creation, Jesus is one with the Father, He is our sovereign ruler with the authority to rule. We as believers are united with Christ, as our King he has the right to command our obedience, additionally He has made us able to live a righteous life and we are to treat each other as Christ has treated us.
Paul is a compelling example for us, on how to live a faithful life in the midst of suffering and injustice.