St. Paul & the Centurion
PLAYERS IN THE DRAMA OF SALVATION HISTORY
Throughout the course of salvation history, a number of unwitting “actors” have inadvertently facilitated the advancing of the Lord’s plans. Such is the case near the end of the Acts of the Apostles as an intense drama unfolds, and several key players emerge on the scene and help open another chapter in St. Paul’s missionary adventures and the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The story begins in Acts 21. Paul has returned to Jerusalem, where some hostile Asian Jews have stirred up a crowd, shouting, “This is the man who preaches to everyone, everywhere against our people, against our Law, and against this place” (i.e., the Temple). The fury against Paul spins out of control. People come running from all sides; they lay hold of Paul and drag him out of the Temple, “and the gates were closed behind them.” They are poised to kill him when a report reaches the tribune of the Roman cohort about rioting all over Jerusalem.
As the Jews are beating Paul and ranting about having him executed, the Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias, quickly orders his soldiers to charge on the crowd and seize Paul. The tribune arrests Paul, presuming he is the cause of the riot, and questions him as the crowd surrounds the soldiers and calls out their versions of answers to the tribune’s questions. The noise of the crowd is so overwhelming that the tribune orders Paul to be taken into the Romans’ fortress. Claudius Lysias, of course, has no idea that he is playing a significant part in furthering Paul’s mission to Rome.
By this time in his life, Paul has become a seasoned, veteran apostle, having suffered imprisonments, beatings, ridicule, alienation, and any number of privations, so he is more than man enough to handle this onslaught. Having been literally carried off by the Roman soldiers out of reach of the Jewish mob, Paul asks if he may have permission to speak to the people. For Paul, this is a golden opportunity to preach about Jesus and his own conversion. Few men would have had the courage to stand up to a wild, hostile crowd intent on killing them. But Paul’s radical love for Christ, and his urgency to spread the Gospel at all costs, impels him to detail his Damascus Road experience, as well as his fidelity to the Mosaic Law. Initially, the Jews listen, but when Paul says Jesus was “sending you out to the pagans far away,” they begin to call once more for Paul’s death, “yelling, waving their cloaks, and throwing dust into the air.”
Yet again, the tribune intervenes and brings Paul back into the fortress, ordering him to be questioned “under the lash” to determine what he has done to cause this outcry. When he is strapped down, Paul asks the centurion on duty, “Is it legal for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and has not been brought to trial?” Shocked, the centurion goes directly to the tribune, and Paul confirms that he is, indeed, a Roman citizen by birthright. The tribune’s response indicates how highly prized Roman citizenship is. He says, “It cost me a large sum to acquire this citizenship.” The centurion is rightly alarmed when he realizes he has put a Roman citizen in chains.
At this point, the stage has been set for the next step in Paul’s mission to Rome (cf. Acts 23:11). Jesus appears to Paul in the Roman fortress and says, “Courage! You have borne witness for me in Jerusalem, now you must do the same in Rome.” However, the Jews are not finished, having taken a vow not to eat or drink until they kill Paul. Word of this mass vow comes to the tribune by way of Paul’s nephew, prompting the tribune and centurions to muster 200 soldiers, 70 cavalry, and 200 auxiliaries with their horses to escort Paul to Antipatras and then to Caesarea in the middle of the night. Paul essentially receives the “VIP” treatment: 470 men plus a tribune and two centurions convey him to the headquarters of the Roman army at Caesarea, taking no chances that the Jews will get their hands on him. In effect, the Jews’ outrage is helping push Paul closer to Rome.
The tribune and centurions were perfect for the parts they played in advancing God’s plan. These were well trained, professional soldiers who had risen through the ranks; they were proven men of quality. As in most well-organized armies throughout history, Roman soldiers were held to high standards of fidelity, honor, obedience, and valor. In short, Paul was in very good hands, on his way to Rome with the support and backing of arguably the greatest army of the ancient world.
However, it doesn’t take long for the frustrated, determined Jews to descend on Caesarea in hot pursuit of Paul. The High Priest Ananias and an advocate named Tertullus present their case before Felix, the local governor. They accuse Paul of being a troublemaker “the world over,” one who even attempts to profane the Temple. Felix gives Paul a chance to respond. “It is about the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial today,” Paul simply explains. Felix wants nothing to do with Jewish religious quarrels, so he orders Paul to be kept in a form of house arrest. Later, realizing he must do something, he gives Paul a hearing about faith in Jesus Christ, mostly hoping to receive some money from Paul as a bribe.
Paul remains on house arrest for two years. The venal Felix, having inadvertently kept the way open for Paul’s mission to Rome, passes the bureaucratic buck when he is succeeded by Portius Festus. More concerned with appeasing the Jews than with Paul’s guilt or innocence, Festus asks Paul if he is willing to return to Jerusalem to be tried there on the charges against him. Paul, knowing the Lord is with him, replies, “I am standing before the tribunal of Caesar…. I appeal to Caesar.” Festus, eager to be rid of this inconvenience, confers with his advisors and determines, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go.”
However, that is not the last of it. The bureaucratic “shuffle” continues as King Agrippa pays a visit to Festus, who informs him of Paul’s case. Festus has ordered Paul remanded until he can find a way to send him to Caesar. Hoping, like his predecessor Felix, to pass this annoyance along, Festus asks King Agrippa what he should write to “his Imperial Majesty,” and he convinces the king to hear Paul speak.
Once more, Paul seizes the opportunity and describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, leading Agrippa to say, “A little more and your arguments would make a Christian of me.” Though Festus sarcastically declares, “Paul, you are out of your mind,” Agrippa is more perceptive and decisive, telling Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar,” in which case Paul would surely have been killed by the Jews, and the Lord’s plan for Paul’s mission to Rome thwarted.
Thus, the Tribune Lysias, Governors Felix and Festus, and King Agrippa all kept God’s plan moving forward, none of them aware of the significant roles they were playing in the drama of salvation history. Paul is finally sent to Rome, most likely with expressions of “good riddance” in the minds of Felix and Festus. However, he does not have a robust military escort for this trip. It is but a bare-bones crew of one centurion and a number of soldiers with their prisoners, also destined for Rome.
The centurion is one specifically chosen to carry out this assignment. It had already become a controversial, dangerous situation; the entire cohort has likely followed Paul’s case, with plenty of “barracks chatter” adding color to the story. This centurion is likely one of the most loyal, resourceful, and prudent men in the cohort, willing and able to take on the many risks and dangers involved in sailing in order to bring Paul safely to Rome.
Like the centurion in Matthew 8, about whose faith Jesus was astonished, Julius is also a man “under authority” who knows how to exercise his own authority to ensure peace and order. The first thing Julius does is arrange passage on a vessel bound for ports along the Asiatic coast. It is the first step in an odyssey in which he must “hitchhike” his way from port to port, playing it “by ear” to make it to Rome. There’s no indication that he resents being handed this assignment; he simply takes it on and moves ahead with it.
The first stop on the journey is at Sidon, where Julius, revealing himself to be both reasonable and compassionate, rather than strictly authoritarian and “by the book,” allows Paul to visit his friends so he will be looked after and cared for. To Julius, Paul is not a common criminal or a political prisoner; rather, he is a Roman citizen with all the attendant rights. A relationship built on trust and mutual respect is about to begin.
Leaving Sidon, they set sail again, but with the winds against them, it takes 20 days to reach the port of Myra. Julius scouts out another ship headed for Italy, arranges passage, and puts everyone aboard. Again, sailing becomes a struggle, leading Paul to warn, “I can see this voyage will be dangerous and that we run the risk of losing not only the cargo and the ship, but also our lives as well.” However, Julius, in command and intent on completing his mission, pays more attention to the captain and the ship’s owner than to what Paul has, in essence, prophesied. Julius will later understand Paul’s spiritual authority, to which he eventually cedes his own powerful military authority. But at this critical moment of decision, Julius has the backing of his tribune, his cohort, his legion, the great Roman army, the vast Roman Empire, and Caesar himself.
Paul, who has the backing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well as the Host of Heaven — in short, the entire Kingdom of God — is, of course, right. They soon run into a hurricane, the intensity and duration of which are comparable to those of Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy. The storm lasts a full two weeks; ultimately, the cargo is jettisoned, as is the ship’s gear, just as Paul has foretold. All on board have been without food for a long time and have given up all hope of surviving. Then, Paul stands up and reminds everyone of his warning and prophesies again:
There will be no loss of life at all, only the ship. Last night there was standing beside me an angel…; he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You are destined to appear before Caesar. For this reason, God grants you the safety of all who are sailing with you.” So take courage, friends; I trust in God that things will turn out just as I told; but we are to be stranded on some island. (Acts 27:22-25)
That island turns out to be Malta.
One might expect Julius to say, “Paul, you are completely out of your mind,” but by now Julius is convinced that Paul possesses powerful supernatural gifts and wisdom, to which he quite sensibly and humbly yields. When some of the sailors attempt to abandon ship, Julius orders their escape boat cut loose; they are needed to work the ship because Julius knows all will be saved, as Paul has said.
Soon, the ship begins to break apart. The soldiers prepare to kill their prisoners lest they escape and the soldiers must face death themselves, according to Roman military law. Julius, however, still very much in charge, orders the soldiers not to harm their prisoners. Determined to bring Paul safely to Italy and ultimately to Rome, Julius directs an orderly abandonment of the ship. Those who can swim go overboard first and get to shore; the rest follow on pieces of wreckage or planks. All 276 people make it safely to shore.
The combination of the Lord’s guidance, Paul’s powerful character and spiritual strength, and Julius’s mature, natural virtues leads them to survive a catastrophic storm and crash into Malta. There they are all welcomed and cared for by Maltese citizens for the next three months. Publius, prefect of the island, entertains Paul and those with him, presumably Julius and the ship’s captain. Publius’s father is suffering from fever and dysentery, so Paul prays over him, lays his hands on him, and heals him. Soon, word gets out across the island, and others come to be prayed over and healed. Paul is simply doing what the Lord has chosen him to do: spread the Good News and freely use the spiritual gifts entrusted to him.
Tradition holds that Publius not only converted but became a saint.
How did all this affect the Roman centurion Julius? Paul was the kind of man to whom strong men are drawn and are eager to follow. Julius, a man with both common sense and manly character, willingly subordinates his authority to Paul’s without jeopardizing his command or his commission.
All we know about Julius is what becomes clear through his decisions and actions during this six-month odyssey with St. Paul. What was his full name? Who were his parents? Where did he grow up? Where and how was he educated? How did he rise to the rank of centurion? Was he tall or short, fair or dark, handsome or plain? Was he married? A father? Had he been in battle, killed men? What were his goals, ambitions, and aspirations? We know none of these things.
Julius simply arrives on a page of biblical history as a man of rank in the great Roman army, a man under authority, obedient to direction, able to command men, willing to take life-threatening risks and suffer extended periods of privation in order to get a man whom he did not know or initially care about to a distant destination. To do so, he would have to be extraordinarily resourceful, finding and booking passage in unfamiliar places, all on his own. We can hardly conceive of what travel was like in those days, with no advance reservations, no real luggage or “wardrobe,” and no phones. Showers? Baths? Toothpaste? Toilets? In short, little or no creature comforts. Julius proved to be more than simply proficient at navigating challenge after challenge. So, too, did St. Paul.
After three months on Malta, Julius arranges for passage on yet another ship that makes its way, with stops at Syracuse and Rhegium, to Puteoli, Italy, where Paul (and presumably Julius) stays a week with “some brothers.” From there it’s on to Three Taverns, the Forum of Appius, and, finally, Rome, where Paul will spend the next two years proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching the truth about Jesus Christ with complete freedom, until Nero sets fire to the city, blames Paul and all Christians, and has Paul beheaded.
The King James Bible, alone, tells us, “And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier who kept him” (Acts 28:16). As usual, the understated Lukan narrative recites the essential facts, leaving a lot to the imagination. Julius simply disappears from scriptural history.
St. Paul and the centurion Julius made an extraordinary team. The Lord knew they would. Their parting had to be that of two very tough warriors who overcame overwhelming obstacles together and grew in deep, manly affection and respect for each other.
Julius moves on, perhaps to fight more conventional battles. In all likelihood, he was a changed man. Did he find his way back to the cohort in Caesarea, where the recent convert Cornelius was also stationed? Would he regale his old or new comrades with extravagant tales of his adventures with one of the most incredible men he had ever met? Was he converted? Did he go on to live and spread the Gospel as a fully alive disciple of Jesus Christ? One day we will know. In any event, Julius was heroic in playing his part in the great drama of salvation history.
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