... So Paul faces perhaps the worst mob yet, not least because they actually get their hands on him this time. The Romans swoop in and have to carry Paul off to save him. Notice how this casts the Romans on Paul’s side, with unbelieving Jews being the aggressor as always.
In all Paul’s interactions with the Romans, he is treated as an equal. Luke skillfully gives us the sense that the Romans all respect Paul and recognize his virtue and innocence. He has normal conversations with the Roman commander in which it is clear that Paul is not the revolutionary he thought he was (21:37-39). Paul is in fact a Roman citizen by birth, of greater status than the centurion in charge, who had to pay for his citizenship (22:26-28).
Again, the unbelieving Jews are irrationally out to get Paul. Some zealous Jews take a vow that they will not eat or drink until Paul is dead. They are going to ambush him in transit. Paul’s nephew in Jerusalem finds out and at Paul’s request informs the Roman authorities. The Romans prove to be models of virtue and order as they take Paul out of Jerusalem under the cover of night and bring him up the coast to Roman headquarters at Caesarea. Presumably, the zealots end up dying.
Paul’s legal position is clear and consistent: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar” (25:8). The Romans agree. Throughout these chapters in Acts, the Romans vouch for Paul’s innocence. The Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, writes a letter to the Roman governor in which he makes it clear that Paul is innocent (23:29). The conflict, he implies, was a theological debate between Jews--nothing of interest to Rome. The implicit message here is that it is unfortunate Paul ended up going before Nero, because everyone in the lead up to his appearance knew he was innocent.
Paul does not give the Roman governor Felix a bribe (24:26). This fact both points to Paul’s virtue and also explains in part why Felix never releases him over the course of two years. Paul cleverly appeals to Caesar rather than risk ambush on the way to Jerusalem. Luke skillfully helps us see that Paul’s trial before Nero was the result of a series of unfortunate events and that his martyrdom there was a mistake (if Paul died at the end of Acts).
Throughout, Paul shows his Roman questioners the utmost of respect. He does insult the high priest for being a hypocrite, but when he realizes it is the high priest, he apologizes (23:5). Acts compliments Felix for his knowledge of the Way (24:22). Paul is so convincing that Felix actually gets nervous about what Paul is saying to him and his wife (24:25). Similarly, Paul will almost convince Herod Agrippa II to become a Christian just a little while later (26:28).
The next Roman governor Festus tells Agrippa exactly what Paul himself and the rest of Acts has shown. Paul’s troubles come from a debate among Jews about the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is what divides the Sanhedrin in Acts 23. Festus tells Agrippa that the complaint of the Jews has to do with matters of their religion, not anything substantive as far as Rome was concerned (25:18-19).
But Festus forces Paul’s hand and Paul appeals to Caesar. In the end, Agrippa gives us the main point to take away: “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment… This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (26:31-32).
What lessons can we learn for our world today? 1 Peter 2:12 puts it well, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” The Christian message is subversive, especially for those who live in a context where rulers demand absolute submission. Rulers of that sort do not treat well those who do not conform.
1 Peter 2 goes on to say that it is one thing to get in trouble if you actually are a wrongdoer. You deserve punishment then. Christians had better not be that sort of people. It may sound strange to us, but Peter says that if you are going to get in trouble, get into trouble for things you didn't do. Don't give anyone a legitimate reason to persecute you (in which case it's not really persecution). If you suffer well when you suffer wrongly, you will be a powerful witness to your oppressors and those who are watching.
In my opinion, Acts also gives us a model of appeasing our oppressors to some extent. Luke knew that, in reality, Roman governors were no models of virtue. A different version of Acts no doubt could have been written that lambasted the Romans for their persecution of believers. Luke chooses instead to create good will with any Roman who might read Acts. He chooses not to create persecution where there doesn't need to be any.
In many respects, it seems doubtful that any Roman official would have taken the time to read Luke-Acts. But if so, Luke gave them a model of how to be a good ruler. There is of course a point where we have to take a stand and oppose those in power over us. But most of the time, we should submit to those in authority, even when we think they are on the wrong path.