4 Attributes of Paul’s Leadership as Witness (Acts 20-28)
The last nine chapters of Acts present an action-packed account of an attempt on Paul’s life, followed by his imprisonment at the hands of two Roman governors and his harrowing shipboard journey to trial in Rome. In many ways, Paul’s experience recapitulates the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, and Acts 20-28 could be thought of as a kind of Passion of Paul. The aspect of these chapters most relevant to work is the depiction of Paul’s leadership. We will focus on what we see of his courage, his suffering, his respect for others, and his concern for the well being of others.
After the conflicts in Philippi and Ephesus, Paul receives threats of imprisonment (Acts 20:23, 21:11) and death (Acts 20:3, 23:12-14). These threats are not idle, for indeed two attempts are actually made on his life (Acts 21:3; 23:21). Paul is taken into custody by the Roman government (Acts 23:10) and a suit is brought against him (Acts 24:1-9), which, though false, ultimately leads to his execution. Given the episodes of conflict we have already explored, it is no surprise that following the ways of God’s kingdom leads to conflict with the oppressive ways of the world.
Yet through it all, Paul maintains an extraordinary courage. He continues his work (preaching) despite the threats, and even dares to preach to his captors, both Jewish (Acts 23:1-10) and Roman (Acts 24:21-26; 26:32; 28:30-31). In the end, his courage proves decisive, not only for his work of preaching, but for saving the lives of hundreds of people in the midst of a shipwreck (Acts 27:22-23). His own words sum his attitude of courage as those around him shrink back in fear. “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
The point, however, is not that Paul is a man of extraordinary courage, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us the courage we need to do our work. Paul credits the Holy Spirit for keeping him going in the face of such adversity (Acts 20:22; 21:4; 23:11). This is an encouragement to us today, because we also can depend on the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we may lack. The danger is not so much that courage may fail us in the moment of greatest terror, but that general worry will deter us from taking even the first step into following the ways of God’s kingdom in our work. How often do we fail to defend a colleague, serve a customer, challenge a boss, or speak up about an issue, not because we are under actual pressure, but because we are afraid that if we do we might offend someone in authority? What if we adopted a position that before we will act contrary to God’s ways at work, we at least have to receive an actual order to do so? Could we begin by counting on the Holy Spirit to sustain us at least that far?
Paul needs every ounce of courage because of the heavy sufferings he knows his work will bring. “The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me,” (Acts 20:23) he says. He is kidnapped (Acts 21:27), beaten (Acts 21:30-31; 23:3), threatened (Acts 22:22; 27:42), arrested many times (Acts 21:33; 22:24, 31; 23:35; 28:16), accused in lawsuits (Acts 21:34; 22:30; 24:1-2; 25:2, 7; 28:4), interrogated (Acts 25:24-27), ridiculed (Acts 26:24), ignored (Acts 27:11), shipwrecked (Acts 27:41) and bitten by a viper (Acts 28:3). Tradition says that Paul is eventually put to death for his work, although this is not recounted anywhere in the Bible.
Leadership in a broken world entails suffering. Anyone who will not accept suffering as an essential element of leadership cannot be a leader, at least not a leader in the way God intends. In this, we see another radical refutation of the Roman patronage system. The Roman system is structured to insulate the patron from suffering. Patrons alone, for example, had the right to escape bodily violation, as we see when Paul’s status as a citizen (a patron, albeit of a household of one) is the only thing that protects him from an arbitrary flogging (Acts 22:29). Paul nonetheless embraces bodily suffering, along with many other forms, as the necessity of a leader in Jesus’ way. Today, we may seek to become leaders for the same reason men in ancient Rome sought to exercise patronage—to avoid suffering. We might succeed in gaining power and perhaps even insulating ourselves from the hurts of the world. But our leadership cannot benefit others if we will not accept hurt to ourselves to a greater or lesser degree. And if our leadership does not benefit others, it is not God’s kind of leadership.
Despite Paul’s utter conviction that he is in the right about both his beliefs and his conduct, he shows respect for everyone he encounters. This is so disarming, especially to those who are his enemies and captors, that it gives him an unimpeachable opportunity as a witness of God’s kingdom. When he arrives in Jerusalem, he respects the Jewish Christian leaders there and complies with their odd request to demonstrate his continued faithfulness to the Jewish Law (Acts 21:17-26). He speaks respectfully to a crowd that has just beaten him (Acts 21:30-22:21), to a soldier who is about to flog him (Acts 22:25-29), to the Jewish council that accuses him in a Roman court of law—even to the point of apologizing for inadvertently insulting the high priest—(Acts 23:1-10), to the Roman governor Felix and his wife Drusilla (Acts 24:10-26), to Felix’s successor Festus (Acts 25:8-11; 26:24-26), and to King Agrippa and his wife Bernice (Acts 26:2-29) who imprison him. On his journey there, he treats with respect the centurion Julius (Acts 27:3), the governor of Malta (Acts 28:7-10), and the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome (Acts 28:17-28).
We should not confuse the respect Paul shows with timidity about his message. Paul never shrinks from boldly proclaiming the truth, wherever the chips may fall. After being beaten by a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem who falsely suspect him of bringing a Gentile into the temple, he preaches a sermon to them that concludes with the Lord Jesus commissioning him to preach salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21). He tells the Jewish council in Acts 23:1-8, “I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). He proclaims the gospel to Felix (Acts 24:14-16) and proclaims to Festus, Agrippa and Bernice, “I stand here on trial on account of my hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors” (Acts 26:6). He warns the soldiers and sailors on the boat to Rome that “the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives” (Acts 27:10). The book of Acts ends with Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30–31).
Paul’s respect for others often wins a hearing for him and even turns enemies into friends, notwithstanding the boldness of his words. The centurion about to flog him intervenes with the Roman tribune, who orders him released (Acts 22:26-29). The Pharisees conclude, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:9). Felix determines that Paul “was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment” (Acts 23:29) and becomes an avid listener who “used to send for him very often and converse with him” (Acts 24:26). Agrippa, Bernice, and Festus come to see that Paul is innocent, and Agrippa begins to be persuaded by Paul’s preaching. “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” he asks (Acts 26:28). By the end of the voyage to Rome, Paul has become the de facto leader of the ship, issuing orders that the captain and centurion are happy to obey (Acts 27:42-44). On Malta, the governor welcomes and entertains Paul and his companions, and later provisions their ship and sends them away with honor (Acts 28:10).
Not everyone returns Paul’s respect with respect, of course. Some vilify, reject, threaten, and abuse him. But, in general, he receives far more respect from people than do the masters of the Roman patronage system among whom he operates. The exercise of power may command the appearance of respect, but the exercise of true respect is much more likely to earn a response of true respect.
Most of all, Paul’s leadership is marked by his concern for others. He accepts the burden of leadership not to make his life better, but to make others’ lives better. His very willingness to travel to hostile places to preach a better way of life is proof enough of this. Yet we also see his concern for others in concrete, personal ways. He heals a boy who is severely injured by a fall from an upper-floor window (Acts 20:9-12). He prepares the churches he has planted to carry on after his death, and encourages them when they are overcome “with much weeping” (Acts 20:37). He attempts to preach the good news even to those who are trying to kill him (Acts 22:1-21). He heals all the sick on the island of Malta (Acts 28:8-10).
A striking example of his concern for others occurs during the shipwreck. Although his warning not to make the voyage had been ignored, Paul pitches in to help and encourage the crew and passengers when the storm strikes.
Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul then stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and thereby avoided this damage and loss. I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.” (Acts 27:21–25)
His concern does not end with words of encouragement but proceeds with practical acts. He makes sure everyone eats to keep up his strength (Acts 27:34-36). He devises a plan that will save everyone’s life, including those who can’t swim (Acts 27:26, 38, 41, 44). He directs preparations for running the ship aground (Acts 27:43b), and prevents the sailors from abandoning the soldiers and passengers (Acts 27:30-32). As a result of his concerns and actions, not a single life is lost in the wreck (Acts 27:44).
Paul’s leadership encompasses far more than the four factors of courage, suffering, respect, and concern for others, and it is visible far beyond Acts 20-28. Yet these factors as presented in these chapters form one of the most stirring demonstrations of leadership in the Bible and remain as much of an example today as they did in Luke’s day.