Paul the Prisoner

Acts 23-25

In the life of a believer, waiting time is never wasted time. God’s plans include all our pauses. Paul’s detention seemed to curtail his service for the Lord; instead, it was part of God’s scheme for him. Similarly, Joseph recognized that his imprisonment belonged to a divine plan, ‘God meant it for good’, Gen. 50. 20 NKJV.

Paul was detained at Jerusalem for less than two weeks, Acts 24. 11, but subsequently had to stay at Caesarea for more than two years, v. 27. Like the Lord Jesus, Paul was subjected to a series of trials when he was falsely accused by the Jewish religious rulers. However, the Lord’s trials were concentrated in one dark night at Jerusalem, whereas Paul’s trials stretched over many years and various cities, finally ending up at Rome, 23. 11.

How did Paul spend his time while in prison? The apostle was usually so active, with expansive plans for pioneering the gospel in fresh locations, ‘not where Christ was already named’, Rom. 15. 20 RV. In this article, we identify three activities that occupied ‘Paul the prisoner’, Acts 23. 18.


Immediately after Paul’s conversion, God stated that he would ‘bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings’, 9. 15. The apostle did not have many opportunities to witness to rulers on his missionary journeys. Rather than Paul going to rulers, they eventually came to him requesting to hear his message. Three important political figures – Felix, Drusilla, and Festus – listened to Paul’s teaching, either in formal court session or personal conversation. Later, Agrippa and Bernice – celebrity royals of the day – also came to hear Paul’s testimony. According to historians, these individuals had lurid lifestyles and wicked reputations. Paul preached to them, demonstrating that God ‘will have all men to be saved’, 1 Tim. 2. 4. The gospel does not change despite the audience; ‘righteousness and judgement’ are clearly emphasized, Acts 24. 25. We must reiterate these themes today, even if there is a perception that such raw evangelical truths are unpalatable to modern society.

Paul neatly turned the tables around. The accused has become the leading witness, testifying to the grace of God. The judge, whether Felix or Festus, has become the accused – under divine judgement. We can’t be sure what happened to these men – but the message they heard from Paul would have left them in no doubt about the claims of the gospel. This sets an ideal precedent for preachers today.


Paul’s sufferings must have heartened his fellow Jewish believers. Many of them, unknown and unnamed, had ‘suffered like things of [their] own countrymen’, 1 Thess. 2. 14. When these anonymous sufferers heard that the apostle was going through difficulties, they would have been encouraged to persevere. Paul faced unjust trials, assassination threats and long periods of imprisonment. Along with other Jewish believers, he would have said, ‘The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me’, Heb. 13. 6.

We also find in our passage some intriguing hints about Paul’s family members. There are few details, but we learn that the apostle’s nephew was in touch with him, Acts 23. 16, which might suggest that Paul had reached out to his relatives during his protracted stay in Judaea. Often, family members are the hardest to win for the Lord. Samuel found this with his sons, 1 Sam. 8. 3. Even the Lord Jesus’ brothers did not believe on Him until after the resurrection, John 7. 5, 1 Cor. 15. 7. Here is an encouragement for us to contact out-of-touch family members and witness to them. God ‘sets the lonely in families’, Ps. 68. 6 NIV. He does this with a view to salvation – for instance, think of Lydia’s household or the jailor’s family in Philippi.


In Paul’s situations of distress and difficulty, God often spoke to him at night, e.g. Acts 16. 9; 18. 9. At Jerusalem, the Lord assured Paul that he was in the right place, and was fulfilling his commission as a witness, 23. 11. This gracious reassurance from the Lord must have emboldened Paul to appeal to Caesar, 25. 10. When we have important life decisions to make, it is always good to hear the Lord’s affirmation, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it’, Isa. 30. 21.

The quiet times of reflection during his imprisonment would have allowed Paul to meditate on the scriptures. ‘Books’ and ‘parchments’, 2 Tim. 4. 13, were his constant companions. ‘O how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day’ would be his attitude, Ps. 119. 97. Periods of enforced rest can be transformed into great times of in-depth scripture study. The natural outcome of such activity is increased urgency in gospel testimony – as we will discover next time, when we examine Paul’s address to Agrippa.