In recent weeks, my church has been studying the “farewell tour” of Paul from Acts 20 onwards. It’s an inspiring but haunting account, overshadowed by Paul’s knowledge that he is moving towards life imprisonment for the Gospel’s sake and will never again be a free man. As he prepares to journey to Jerusalem, his fate is confirmed by prophetic signs. He is convinced enough that he tells the believers in Ephesus and Caesarea that they will never see him again.
Sure enough, the “least of the apostles” gets only a week in town before the local Jews start rioting for his head. This kicks off a series of events during which God continues to weave and dodge and navigate Paul out of deadly situation after deadly situation – yet he never actually gets out of Roman custody. Paul dodges, literally at the last second, a potentially fatal Roman scourging. He adds four (23:10, 23:12-35, 25:3, 27:42) to his already considerable list of escaped assassination attempts. He survives a shipwreck, then a viper’s bite. He rifles through a series of Roman bureaucrats to which he (successfully) appeals his legal innocence.
It’s an incredible streak of escapes, too much to attribute to luck. This is God keeping Paul on his feet.
Yet…he never gets free.
Have you ever asked why God keeps kinda coming to your rescue – but not really?
Have you ever found yourself on a sixth march around Jericho, acknowledging the role of God’s sovereignty in the fact that you still have strength in your feet, but wondering when the walls are scheduled to come down?
Have you ever admitted with a sigh that there’s been a lot of good along the way, and a lot of joy, but you’re still weary and unhappy?
Have you ever sneakily wished that God’s deliverance would take a different form?
It is revealing that the Lord found it appropriate to encourage Paul after the uproar in the Sanhedrin. He must have needed it. He kept having to prove his innocence of both the Jewish and Roman laws, consistently a razor’s blade from vindication, bailed out repeatedly by Rome’s respect for procedure and even once getting a military escort of hundreds to the next town to protect him from Jewish assassins. But the culture of political corruption kept rising up and pulling him back down. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire” was his motto by now, but where was it all going?
In Chapter 25, standing before yet another two-bit flunkey stating his case, Paul appears – to the casual reader – to have finally had enough. After years of house arrest, rather than allowing his can to get kicked down the road again, he decides to quit dinking around and requests his case be taken to the highest court possible. Announcing his innocence yet again, Paul speaks four glorious words: “I appeal to Caesar!”
Caesar. The big dog. The emperor. Gladiators and coliseums, singing-while-Rome-burns Caesar. That guy.
What’s Paul’s purpose in this appeal? He has a track record of defending himself to encourage the church and keep The Way clean of criticism, but I wonder – did Paul finally see the purpose of it all? Did he appeal because he spotted an opportunity to take his testimony from dust to marble? He knew God wanted him in Rome, but he could have contented himself with gaining his freedom and then preaching in the streets. A man of lesser character would have just accepted the bribes offered by Roman officials, justifying it with “this will give me the chance to preach to the commoners in Rome!”
Instead, Paul aims high. He grabs the chance to preach Jesus to the loftiest authority he can reach – and only his long custody could have given him the opportunity.
Paul doesn’t get an audience with Nero, but with Agrippa II, the last of the Herodians. So many parallels to Jesus’ life – unjustly accused, beaten, dragged before a Herod – Paul must have been delighted to follow in his master’s footsteps. He does not hesitate to proselytize directly to this governor. And when Agrippa asks, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”, you know Paul is thinking, I’ve seen shorter.
The old Apostle understands that all the narrow scrapes that seem to have gone nowhere – all the obedience and miraculous escapes that still never lead to freedom – were for a purpose all along. Through them, and through his appeal to Caesar, God maneuvered Paul into a room with Roman royalty to share the gospel.
This is what we Christians must do when we find ourselves beleaguered yet again – another illness, another termination, another failed visa, another year of loneliness – and wondering what could possibly be the point of spending a lifetime pressed but not crushed.
Appeal to your Caesar.
By which I mean, find the highest audience to whom your pain gives you unique access, and share Jesus. Ask God to show you what it is. Use your story to reach the most people you can. Ask God to turn what was the enemy meant for evil into a demon-crushing good.
This is a request God will not refuse. He would have all people, eloquent or not, share his Word. And that Word is the opening to an eternity with God that leaves all earthly suffering in the dust, as Paul said: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Paul could have gone faint. He could have groaned and given up. But he chose to defy the purposes of Satan, who desired Agrippa II to hear the Gospel about as much as he desired a hole in the head. Despite the weariness and the devastating string of setbacks, Paul kept fighting.
Do the same. Appeal to your Caesar. Ask God for the opening. Let the enemy know his worst blows have no purpose except what God sets for them.
I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!