Question: "What happened on Paul's voyage to Rome?"
Answer: Paul the apostle had a deep love for the church in Rome and sought to minister to them in person. In his letter to them, written toward the end of his third missionary journey, he said, “Constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you” (Romans 1:9–10). What Paul didn’t know then was that he would indeed reach Rome; however, God’s method of getting him there was as a prisoner in chains.
Paul’s Arrest and Trials
After his third missionary journey, Paul wanted to visit the church in Jerusalem. He had heard about increased persecution in Jerusalem, and his friends urged him not to travel there (Acts 21:4). However, a defiant Paul insisted, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). And so he went to Jerusalem. There, he was the focus of a riot in the temple and was eventually arrested and kept in the Roman barracks (Acts 22). While in custody, Paul heard from the Lord one night: “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).
The Romans eventually transferred Paul to Caesarea for trial, after a plot on his life was uncovered (Acts 23:23–35). In Caesarea, Paul faced a trial before Governor Felix, more jail time, and a trial before Governor Festus, who had succeeded Felix. When Festus suggested that Paul return to Jerusalem to stand trial, Paul recognized the danger in that and appealed to Caesar, as his Roman citizenship allowed him to do (Acts 25:11). This appeal is what led to Paul’s eventful voyage to Rome.
Paul’s Initial Voyage
Acts 27—28 gives a detailed account of Paul’s voyage to Rome. The ship had 276 passengers including Paul, other prisoners, Luke, a Macedonian named Aristarchus, and a centurion named Julius (Acts 27:1–2). Julius showed kindness to Paul throughout the voyage, allowing him to meet friends in when they stopped in Sidon (Acts 27:3). From Sidon the ship took a route north of Cyprus and skirted the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia to Myra on the southern coast of Asia Minor. There they changed ships and continued sailing west along the coast. Sailing to Crete, the ship put in at Fair Havens on the south side.
At Fair Havens, Paul warned those on the ship about coming trouble: “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also” (Acts 27:10). Instead of heeding this warning, the centurion Julius decided to press on in hopes of reaching another harbor in Crete, Phoenix, which Julius considered better to winter in. This ill-fated decision put the ship, the crew, and the passengers directly in harm’s way. Before they could reach Phoenix, “a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island” (Acts 27:14). The ship, driven by the wind, passed by the island of Cauda. The crew took drastic steps to lighten the ship, stabilize it, and reinforce the hull (verses 16–19).
During the tempestuous storm that raged “for many days,” the ship’s occupants “finally gave up all hope of being saved” (Acts 27:20). It was then that Paul received a visit from an angel, and he passed this encouragement on to the crew: “Keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘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.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island” (Acts 27:22–26). As the angel foretold, the ship ran aground on a sandbar in Malta (Melita) and “was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf” (verse 41), but no one died. The Roman soldiers had wanted to kill the prisoners to prevent their escape, but Julius restrained them, since he wanted to spare Paul’s life (Acts 27:43). Everyone made it to shore safely, swimming or holding on to whatever they could.
Paul’s Ministry on Malta
The people of Malta showed kindness to Paul and his fellow voyagers, building them a fire to warm them. While gathering wood for the fire, Paul was bitten by a viper on his hand. The pagan and superstitious people of Malta took this as an omen, saying, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live” (Acts 28:4). To their astonishment, Paul suffered no ill effects from the viper bite, and the people changed their opinion of Paul, believing him to be a god.
Publius, the chief official of the island, generously invited Paul and his companions to stay with him. Publius’s father was dying of fever and dysentery, and “Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him” (Acts 28:8). Word quickly spread, and all the other sick people on the island came to Paul and were also cured (Acts 28:8–9). It was clear that God’s hand was upon Paul during this detour, as the people of Malta saw the glory of God and heard the gospel of Jesus.
Paul’s Arrival in Rome
After three months in Malta, the travelers set sail once again. The grateful people of Malta “furnished us with the supplies we needed” (Acts 28:10). The rest of the voyage was comparatively uneventful. The ship made a three-day stop in Syracuse (in southeast Sicily), stopped in Rhegium (on the “toe” of Italy), and came to Puteoli, a port in western Italy, where “we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them” (Acts 28:14).
From Puteoli, the sea-weary Paul is taken by land to Rome. As he was coming along the way, some Christians came down from Rome to meet him. Some traveled 30 miles to the Three Taverns to meet up with Paul; others traveled 40 miles to the Forum of Appius (Acts 28:15). From those places, a joyful procession of believers accompanied Paul to Rome.
Once in Rome, Paul was given the privilege of living by himself, though with a Roman guard (Acts 28:16). And “for two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30–31).
God kept His promise to Paul, and the apostle did make it to Rome. The means of getting him there were far more roundabout—and far more dangerous—than Paul had expected. But through it all, he had God’s protection and took advantage of the many opportunities to preach Jesus Christ.