7 Heroes of the Faith Part 1C: Paul’s Martyrdom

We now jump ahead over 30 years. We are skipping over Paul’s entire life as a missionary to the Gentile world. We are bypassing the extraordinary story of his life as an Apostle. You can read all about it in the Acts of the Apostles. It was an extraordinary life; a life of incredible courage and commitment in the face of terrible hardship and persecution:

  • Five times he was scourged with thirty-nine lashes by the Jewish authorities.
  • Three times he was beaten severely with rods (large wooden poles).
  • Three times he was shipwrecked and on one of those occasions he was adrift in the sea for a night and a day.
  • Once he was stoned by the Jews and left for dead but was miraculously healed.
  • Three times he was imprisoned and beaten.
  • On at least six occasions he had to flee from a city because of a Jewish assassination plot.

You can read this incredible litany of suffering in 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul also writes:

“I have been exposed to death again and again … I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

All of this could lead someone to believe that Paul was cursed by God. A life of such extraordinary suffering is not what you would expect from someone who was chosen and anointed by God. Yet God’s power was made perfect in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and his life of hardship was the fulfilment of the prophecy made by God to Ananias at the time of Saul’s conversion:

“This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)

Yet despite these hardships, Paul’s contribution to the expansion of Christianity in the first century was truly breath-taking. Four missionary journeys. Many dozens of churches founded and planted. Thousands of people converted. The gospel proclaimed throughout the civilised world, all around the Mediterranean. And, on top of all this, fourteen books of the New Testament written. It is not an exaggeration to say that Paul made the most significant and enduring contribution to the kingdom of God on earth of any human being, past or present.

But now we come to the year 67 AD.[1] Paul’s missionary journeys are over and he is now imprisoned in Rome. He sits in almost total darkness. The faintest of glows seeps under the door of his cell from a few persistent rays of light that have managed to find their way down two flights of stairs and finally extinguish themselves against the damp, moss-covered walls of the outside corridor. There is no guard in the corridor. There is no need. Escape from this subterranean dungeon is not possible. Guards frequent the upper level of the Mamertine prison where prisoners are kept in more humane conditions. The Roman soldiers who are assigned as guards in the prison rarely venture down to the Tullianum – the lower level where prisoners on death row are kept – perhaps only once every two days to toss some rancid scraps of food into the cells.

And it is here that Paul now languishes. He is chained to the damp stone wall, and sits on wet, moss-covered floor stones. The sound of dripping and running water is everywhere, as the dungeon has been built over a subterranean water spring. Water perpetually seeps from the walls and rises up through cracks in the stone floor. Paul’s clothes are sodden, and he shivers constantly in the freezing conditions. The sound of coughing and hacking is a constant chorus among the prisoners held down here, as pneumonia takes its inevitable course.

This is a very different imprisonment from Paul’s first one. In 57 A.D. he had been arrested in Jerusalem and had spent two years imprisoned in Caesarea under Governor Felix[2] and then under his replacement, Festus.[3] Upon appealing to Caesar, Paul had then been sent to Rome (a journey taking many months) where he underwent house arrest for a further two years.[4] During this time he was unchained, well fed and accompanied by a single Roman guard who lived with him in his comfortable accommodation. Luke writes:

“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)

That is where the book of Acts ends. But it is not the end of Paul’s story. In approximately 62 A.D. the Romans had finally realised that Paul had not broken any Roman laws and that his arrest was the result of an obscure religious altercation between him and some Jews, so he was acquitted and released.[5] He and Timothy then immediately embarked on Paul’s fourth missionary journey, spending four years preaching the gospel throughout Spain,[6] then travelling back to Ephesus via Crete[7] and Miletus.[8]

Arriving back in Ephesus, Paul and Timothy found the church there in disarray, plagued by false teaching and arguments. Paul left Timothy to start sorting out the mess in Ephesus while he, Paul, travelled north to briefly visit Macedonia to address some problems that had arisen in the church there as well. His plan was to only be in Macedonia a short time before re-joining Timothy in Ephesus. Upon arrival, however, he heard of even more serious problems confronting the Christians in Rome. The Emperor Nero had unleashed a fresh wave of persecution upon the Christians in that city. Consequently, Paul decided that he must go on to Rome to encourage the brethren there, despite the obvious danger that it presented to himself and any Christian choosing to then enter the city.

Before setting out from Macedonia to go to Rome, Paul wrote a brief letter to Timothy, explaining his change of plans and giving the younger man further instructions in his absence. This is the letter we now know as 1 Timothy, and it is our source of information for the events described in the paragraph above. Paul also wrote a brief letter to Titus at the same time.

Paul arrived in Rome in early 67, but it was a very different Rome from the one he had left just four years previously. Christians were being rounded up and arrested. Their homes and business were taken from them. They were being thrown into prison and then murdered in the Colosseum, as a spectator sport. They were being beheaded, crucified, speared, burnt alive, ripped apart by dogs and devoured by lions. Nero’s hatred of the Christians was fuelled by the fact that they refused to acknowledge him as god, and would only worship Jesus, their Saviour. And for that, they were being slaughtered.

Paul didn’t really have a chance. He had barely set foot in Rome when Nero became aware that one of the key leaders of this new religion – the person who had done more than any other human being to spread this religion around the world – had arrived on his doorstep. Paul is arrested, and this time it isn’t a comfortable house arrest. He is incarcerated in a dark, cold dungeon in the most feared prison in Rome.

So now, here his sits. He is cold and wet. He is sick and starving. He is slowly dying. At some point he gains access to papyrus, quill and ink, possibly through Onesiphorus, who “searched hard” for Paul until he found him and briefly gained access to him (2 Timothy 1:17). Paul then writes one final letter before he dies. It is a letter to his young protégé whom he had left in charge of the church at Ephesus; the Second Letter to Timothy. It is a raw letter. He describes himself as “the Lord’s prisoner” (2 Timothy 1:8). Four times he tells Timothy that he is “suffering” (1:12-13; 2:3; 2:9-10; 3:11) and he asks that Timothy bring him a cloak (4:13). In the most poignant and moving section of the letter, Paul reveals his belief that he is dying and that he will not survive this latest ordeal:

“I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

A few verses later, in a brief moment of optimism, Paul asks Timothy, “Do your best to get here before winter” (4:21), but it is uncertain whether Timothy ever managed to reach him in time. Not long after writing this final letter, Paul was taken from his cell and beheaded.

 

As an interesting aside, it is highly likely that Peter and Paul were executed together, on the same day in the same arena, and that prior to this they had been held in the same prison – the lower level of the Mamertine prison where death row prisoners were kept. Perhaps they had even been held in adjoining cells. The Greek historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 A.D.) declares that Nero had Paul and Peter executed at the same time,[9] and Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth (early second century) writes that Peter and Paul were martyred “together” in Rome.[10]  Other ancient sources such as Hippolytus and Jerome add weight to this. For example, Hippolytus states that “Peter was crowned with martyrdom, together with Paul, in the 38th year after the Lord’s Passion”,[11] and Jerome testifies, “Paul, then, was decapitated in Rome’ on the same day as Peter was martyred, in the 14th year of Nero’s reign, the 37th after the Lord’s Passion.[12]

What is extraordinary about Paul’s martyrdom is his peaceful acceptance of his fate. He does not rant and rave. He does not plead for deliverance or ask his supporters to rise up and defend him. Instead, he expresses profound trust in his Lord, in whose hands his life rests. Paul senses in his spirit that the end is upon him and instead of anguish and fear he is full of hope and faith. He is absolutely confident in the promises of God regarding the eternal life that has been promised to him and he faces his impending execution with a resolve that comes from beyond this world.

A document purporting to be written by Dionysius the Areopagite, one of Paul’s first converts in Athens (Acts 17:34), describes the moment of Paul’s martyrdom:

“Paul was instructed, ‘Paul, make ready your neck.’ Then Paul looked up into heaven … and said, ‘My Lord Jesus Christ, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ And then without heaviness or hesitation he stretched out his neck and received the crown of martyrdom, the butcher smiting off his head.”[13]

What we must note from Paul’s martyrdom is the extraordinary transformation that was complete in him by the time of his death. He began as a hard-line Pharisee whose character and values were the antithesis of all that Jesus stood for. In fact, the teachings of Christ so offended him that he had begun to hunt down, arrest and kill Christ’s followers. This was an extreme, aggressive reaction and gives us a glimpse into his pre-conversion character. In many ways, Saul the Pharisee and Peter were very similar personalities: proud, aggressive, assertive bullies.

However, Paul’s encounter with the risen, ascended Christ and his subsequent conversion transformed him and turned a religious bully into a shepherd willing to risk his life for his sheep and die for his Master.

This is an important point. Paul did not need to visit Rome upon hearing of Nero’s persecution of the church there. Indeed, from a human perspective, to walk willingly toward Rome was an act of supreme folly. Nero was baying for Christian blood, and Paul – the man who had done more than any other person alive to spread this new religion throughout the empire – would have been a prize target. Yet, he ignored the risk, sensing the call of the Good Shepherd to care for the flock who were suffering there. He placed his own life in great danger in order to care for those he was shepherding. Saul the Pharisee would never have done this. Religious leaders existed to be served and honoured by the masses, not to sacrifice themselves for the common people. But Saul the Pharisee was long dead, transformed by the Spirit of the One who had given his own life as a ransom for the sins of the world.

In many ways, the story of Paul’s life is the story of everyone who places their faith in Jesus. It is the story of a life transformed. It is the story of an undeserving rebel being given a second chance: redeemed, forgiven and graciously allowed to play a part in the greatest story the world has ever seen – the unfolding of God’s kingdom on earth.

This was Paul’s story.

But it is also yours and mine as well.

……………………………………………….

[1] The following information about Paul’s martyrdom was previously published in my book, “Leading Like Jesus: Lessons in Leadership from the Radical Rabbi”, chapter 28.

[2] Acts 21:27-24:27

[3] Acts 25:1-26:32

[4] Acts 27:1-28:31

[5] Paul references this acquittal, calling it his “first trial” in 2 Timothy 4:16

[6] Romans 15:24 & 28

[7] Titus 1:5

[8] 2 Timothy 4:20. Paul and Timothy’s fourth missionary journey can be pieced together from incidental references in Paul’s pastoral epistles (see https://justdisciple.com/pauls-missionary-journeys/) and from references in other historical documents such as Clement’s reference to Paul preaching “in the extreme limit of the west” – Spain. (1 Clement 5:5-7).

[9] Eusebius Chron. 2.154–5

[10] Quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.25.5–8

[11] Hippolytus, quoted in “Liber Pontificalis” “The Book of the Popes”, cited in quoted in Margherita Guarducci, “The Date of Peter’s Martyrdom” in ewtn.com website, https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/date-of-peters-martyrdom-5747

[12] Jerome, “De Viris Illstribus”, quoted in Margherita Guarducci, “The Date of Peter’s Martyrdom” in ewtn.com website, https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/date-of-peters-martyrdom-5747. Although Jerome reports the 37th instead of the 38th year, he is also assuming the year 67 to have been the date of the two apostles’ martyrdom on the basis of the 14th year of Nero’s reign. For further attestation of 67 A.D as the date of Peter’s and Paul’s deaths, including the lack of attestation of early church sources for an earlier date, see Richard J. Bauckham, “The Martyrdom of Peter in Early Christian Literature”, ANRW 2.26.1:539-95

[13] Quoted in Jacobus Voragine, “The Golden Legends”, ch.90, cited on https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/paul.htm