Volume 53 Number 3 , May 1, 2004

Paul and Roman Citizenship

Jim Aldrich

A current discussion concerns the relationship we, as the church, are to have with the nation. Some claim that U.S. citizenship is very important and that we are to be vitally involved in the affairs of the country. Others see national citizenship as insignificant to the citizenship we hold in the kingdom of God, and claim that our involvement in the power structures of the nation is detrimental to our existence as the body of Christ.

Twice in scripture Paul claims Roman citizenship. What use did Paul make of that citizenship? When did he ignore that citizenship? What value did he place on it? Both passages need to be examined and evaluated to find answers. The passages in question are Acts 16:11-40 and 21:1-15 - 28:31. The particular verses in which Paul makes his claim are 16:37 and 22:25-27.


This narrative finds Paul and Silas in Philippi, where they have run into difficulties with the authorities because they have interfered with the livelihoods of several Philippian residents. As a result they were stripped, flogged, put in stocks and jailed. At no time did Paul mention the fact he was a Roman citizen, a fact which would have made these punishments illegal. It would also seem he did not have the appearance of a Roman citizen; there was nothing about his manner that caused the officials to question his citizenship. After the night in jail, which included an earthquake and the conversion of the jailer with his family, Paul is ordered released. Now he drops the bombshell about Roman citizenship. He insists the chief magistrates themselves come to release them, which they fearfully do. Paul apparently could have caused them significant damage for what they had done to him. But he doesnít do them harm; he receives no benefit, nor does he attempt to affect any public policy. He just lets the officials know they seriously messed up, and are guilty under their own law. Paul and Silas chose to allow themselves to be publicly humiliated and physically abused without revealing their citizenship. When they did reveal it, there was no advantage, other than a possible legal leverage which they chose not to apply. Citizenship was not used to further the gospel, or keep Paul from genuine physical harm.

ACTS 21 through 28

Paul and friends go to Jerusalem, against the advice of Agabus, Paulís associates, and the disciples in Tyre. (The disciples in Tyre had a message through the spirit; Agabus was a prophet and also had a message from the spirit.) At the request of James and the elders (and here is the detail that caused all the turmoil) he takes four men (Jews who had become Christians) with him through the rite of purification. Jews from Asia see him in the temple with these four and assume he brought gentiles in. They create a big uproar and try to kill Paul.

Roman troops come to the rescue, arresting, and binding Paul with chains. He is taken to safety, but before entering the barracks Paul asks to speak to the crowd - which was quickly becoming a mob. At this time Paul identifies himself to the tribune as a Jew and a citizen of Cilician Tarsus. After being given permission to speak, he tells his story in a way that interests, then enflames, his audience. The Romans take him inside to safety and prepare to Ďexamineí him, by whipping, to determine what all the commotion is about. How has this old man - twice - been able to get the public so upset they want to kill him?

At this point Paul asks a seemingly innocent question about Roman law; ďis it lawful for you to scourge a Roman citizen, who is not condemned?í He could have asked the question long before this, and he didnít need to ask about the law-he knew what the law was and what he was doing. He had already identified himself in a way that ignored the Roman citizenship-a detail most of his auditors would have thought was most important! He asked in such a way that it frightened the Roman officers. He was not beaten.

Next morning he was released, at which time he spoke to the Jews again, again provoking them, leading the Romans to again secure him for his own safety. The tribune later had Paul taken, under cover of darkness, to a Roman stronghold; he was protecting the life of a fellow Roman. A force of 470 men was used to get Paul out of town. The tribune would subsequently claim he rescued Paul because he had learned Paul was a Roman citizen-which was not true at the time of the initial rescue, but which put a good spin on the story.

When the Jews came to Caesarea they claimed Paul incited riots-which was true. But Paul didnít do so until accosted himself; he had simply been minding his own business. When he entered the fray he didnít do it diplomatically. Consequently, he spent the next two years under arrest.

At the end of these two years, a new governor, Festus came to power. The Jews wanted Paul sent back to Jerusalem so they could kill him on the way. Festus, for his part, wanted to do the Jews a favor. He didnít know of the plot to ambush Paul (would he care if he knew?), so he offered Paul the opportunity to go to Jerusalem to be tried there. Paul would rather not. He has no reason to go to Jerusalem, and a rather significant reason not to: he appealed to the emperor

Meanwhile King Agrippa and Bernice came to Caesarea, heard the evidence of Festus, and listened to Paul. They determine he could have been set free if he hadnít appealed to Caesar. But he has, so itís off to Rome for Paul. Much later, after a rugged start to the trip, Paul had an encouraging message from an angel: he must stand trial before Caesar, and God has given him the lives of those sailing with him.


  • Paul used his Roman citizenship twice:
    1. The first time was after being beaten and imprisoned in Philippi. He used it to no apparent benefit to himself. He announced his citizenship after his beating and humiliation. The effect was to put the public authorities on the spot. Paul got a severe beating-and an apology. He didnít get, or try to get, an audience with the powers; they wanted him to leave town, and he did.
    2. The second time he used his Roman citizenship was after the Jews had tried to kill him, but before he was flogged. The consequences of this dragged on for the rest of Paulís life: he was never Ďfreeí again, spending the rest of his time in the Roman legal system/under arrest. He used his Roman citizenship at the last minute, to avoid being beaten (and he used the right of appeal to avoid being killed). He did not use it as a means to spread the gospel, because there was nothing about being Roman that could add to the gospel. Being incarcerated did not trouble Paul and while he accepted graciously being jailed, he did not use it as a tactic (as some modern civil rights advocates do). Quite the opposite actually; he valued the freedom to choose where he would go, what he would do, when he would leave, etcÖ For Paul the crucial issue was being in Christ, not the various ways one can be in the world. Being Roman didnít add luster to being in Christ, didnít make it more significant or effective. Being Roman didnít create opportunity for the gospel.
  • Paul didnít use Roman citizenship to fulfill a prophecy. Of those who claim he did, we would have to ask what prophecy might he have been trying to fulfill? At the time he claimed this citizenship the only prophecy he could have been fulfilling was the one to Ananias at the time of Saulís conversion. God tells Ananias, ďGo, for he is a chosen instrument of mine, to bear my name before the gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.Ē The first issue here is that the prophecy was for Ananias; God was explaining himself, justifying his request. Secondly, this word of God had long since been fulfilled, many times over. It didnít need continual affirmation. And third, the Roman Caesar was decidedly not a king. Rome was a republic, not a monarchy, and the very rumor that one of the Caesars (Julius) was going to institute a monarchy got him assassinated.
  • The assurance in Acts 27:24 is best understood as a result of Paulís using Roman citizenship to escape a flogging at the hands of the Romans and a killing at the hands of the Jews. These are the two immediate and direct results of his claim. Since Paul appealed to Caesar; that is, since he decided he must go to Rome rather than back to Jerusalem, God comes alongside that decision. God supports Paulís decision, he participates in the enactment of it. God makes a promise that all Paulís shipmates will be saved. To validate the veracity of that promise, and to give that salvation purpose, God references Paulís appeal to Caesar. The prophetic part of this message is that all will be saved; thatís the good news at that moment. The part about appearing before Caesar had already been decided, affirmed, and was being enacted by all the resources of the Roman Empire. Such an appearance might be an opportunity of sorts, but realistically not a very good one. Paul has never put his efforts into the rulers of the people he goes to, but into the people themselves. They are the ones to whom the gospel is actual good news.
If one were to say this hearing before Caesar was what God wanted and intended, we would have to recognize he went about it in an odd way. No foreshadowing or prophecy, no indication he wanted this to happen preceded the events recorded.

The gospel seems to be for those who are powerless, or amenable to divesting themselves of power, not for those who have committed themselves to the exercise of the powers of the present age. Jesus didnít pick his disciples from the leading people of his day. Rather, he chose those who existed on the margins of the powers; the taxpayers, not those who levied the taxes; the common folk who bore the cost of nation building, not the nation builders and their agents.

Paul could have simply gone to Rome had that been what God wanted. God had been able to direct him before without having to resort to such convoluted arrangements. Paul had enough popular appeal that people, influential people, wanted to see and hear him. But Paul didnít go to Rome: he went to Jerusalem. The prophetic word his brothers and sisters received before he went there led them to strongly urge him not to go. He rejected their counsel. Their wisdom was driven by their concern for Paul and was under the influence of the spirit of God. This is a good example that even if one has a ďword from GodĒ, that word does not have self evident meaning: it must be evaluated.

The chief men of the church in Jerusalem were concerned about appearances, so they had Paul do something which was unnecessary in an attempt to improve his standing with the Jews. They had him take four men through the rite of purification with him, a practice the Jews might appreciate but which had no value for the maturing of the church in Jerusalem. In fact, it seems more like accommodation to the religious culture than anything. This is the event that caused the problem; not Paul or the men being there, but the assumption by some Jews that Paul had gentiles in the temple. This might be a good example of what results when we are concerned with appearances and motive, rather than truth, love, and maturity in Christ.

So in this story we have Paul rejecting the counsel of those closest to him, even those who have had a word from God. And he accepts the counsel of those in Jerusalem he is not particularly close to, of whose high standing he professes to have no particular regard, and who are motivated by their concern for appearance.

What an odd chain of events. We have much to learn from them, but not, I believe, that Paul used his Roman citizenship to provide opportunities for the gospel, that he valued Kingdom and Roman citizenship as different but compatible, or that he owed any allegiance to Rome as Godís instrument of grace for the church.

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