Paul wrote his letter to the believing community in Rome from Corinth in Greece. When he wrote the letter, he had never met those he addressed. Through his letter, he sought to establish rapport with the Roman community and expressed his desire to come to them soon.
“For God is my witness…that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith…I want you to know brethren, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles…so I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Romans 1:9-15).
“But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints…When therefore I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been raised, I shall go on by way of you to Spain; and I know that when I come to you I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ. I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Romans 15:23-32).
Paul outlines his short-term plans fairly clearly for the Romans: he wants to come to Rome, but he must first go to Jerusalem to deliver the aid he raised in Macedonia and Achia (i.e., Greece; 15:26), and then he will come to Rome on his way to Spain. And he asked the Roman believers to join him in praying for the speedy and smooth realization of his plans. But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.
If Paul had wanted to go to Rome, it would have been closer for him to sail from Corinth than traveling to Jerusalem first. His desire, however, to deliver aid to the Jerusalem community drove him east before he could go west. Luke also indicates that Paul turned east to Jerusalem first in order to arrive there in time for Pentecost (Shavu’ot; Acts 20:16), one of the three pilgrimage festivals within Judaism. Paul’s haste to make it to Jerusalem for the festival is underscored by the fact that he made the leaders of the Christian community in Ephesus, where he had spent over two years, travel south along the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to Miletus to meet with him in order to not delay his journey (Acts 20:16-17).
We learn from the book of Acts that while Paul was in Jerusalem a riot broke out within the Jerusalem Temple because it was wrongly reported that Paul brought Gentiles into the sacred area of the Temple where only Jews and proselytes could enter (Acts 21:27-36). The Roman centurion in command of the Antonia Fortress, located on the northwest corner of the Temple Mount, placed Paul under arrest taking him into the Antonia. Paul then stood before the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, and when his testimony dissolved the meeting between those supporting him and those seeking his death, a plot emerged from his opponents to kill him. The Roman soldiers spirited Paul out of Jerusalem to protect him and took him to Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, which served as the headquarters of the Roman administration of the province of Judaea, the land of Israel. Paul remained in Caesarea under house arrest for over two years being brought before the Roman Procurators Felix and Festus and the Jewish king Agrippa II, the great-grandson of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1-18), and his sister Bernice. Eventually, Paul appealed to Caesar, as every Roman citizen had the right to appeal his case directly to the emperor, so Paul arrived to Rome in chains (Acts 21:27-28:31).
At least three years after laying out his short-term plans to the Roman believers, he arrived in Rome a prisoner, chained. Paul anticipated that his journey to Jerusalem may have some troubles, so he asked the Roman believers to join with his prayers so that his plans to come to them would not be delayed. And yet, more than three years later, he arrived in Rome as a prisoner. Hardly a fulfillment of his desire “to come to you with joy” (Rom. 15:32).
Paul spoke about his desire to come to the Romans as part of God’s will. He even asked the Romans to pray with him for the quick fulfillment of his plans. So, was Paul wrong? Had he missed God’s will? Were his prayers and those of the Roman believers lacking faith? Had Paul disobeyed God, and that’s why he was stuck in Caesarea under house arrest unable to fulfill his plans, which were centered on advancing the gospel? In short, what went wrong?
Quick question: who wrote the majority of the New Testament?
Most people immediately answer Paul. Hold that thought.
One thing is for certain: while Paul was incarcerated in Caesarea, with free time in which he could write, none of his letters originated during this period. Paul, this prolific writer, did not use this time to write and communicate with the communities that he had established and corresponded with all over the Roman Empire. As far as we can tell, apart from his conversations with Felix, Festus, Agrippa II, and Bernice, Paul’s time in Caesarea was not personally productive. He was stuck. His ministry had stalled. His plans were derailed. One wonders whether frustration, doubt, anger, and maybe even depression creeped into his psyche. We cannot know for sure, but this travel delay did not lead to Paul’s productivity.
During Paul’s stay in Caesarea, the author of Acts was among his traveling companions. We know this because of the use within the narrative of Acts during Pauls’ time in the land of Israel of the first common plural pronoun, “we.” The author of Acts, which tradition identifies as Paul’s companion Luke, also wrote the Gospel of Luke. Luke-Acts forms a two-volume work (see Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1). Luke mentions in the beginning of his Gospel that he sought to compile a narrative, an orderly account, based upon testimony delivered (see m. Avot 1.1) from eyewitnesses of the events of the life of Jesus. Where did Luke have access to eyewitness testimony, or sources based upon eyewitness testimony?
Let’s return to an earlier question: who wrote the majority of the New Testament? If you said Paul, you would be wrong. Luke, in fact, wrote the majority of the New Testament. Luke-Acts is larger in volume than the entirety of Paul’s corpus.
Where did Luke have access to eyewitness testimony about the life of Jesus? Presumably, Luke had not been in the land of Israel prior to his time with Paul, when Paul was under house arrest in Caesarea. Also, Luke was not a witness to the life and ministry of Jesus. Luke most likely was not even a Jew. Luke’s time in Israel, while Paul was incarcerated in Caesarea, allowed him access to sources on the life of Jesus, eyewitness sources even. He may have even traveled around the land a bit, for Luke alone of the Evangelists refers to the “Sea” of Galilee as a lake, which is what it is, a fresh water lake, not a sea. His time in the land provided him contact with the material he used to compose his Gospel and the first part of the book of Acts, before he became involved in the story.
If Paul’s plans that he outlined in Romans had worked the way Paul wanted them to and asked for the Romans to pray in that manner, Luke would not have had the time to research and pull together the information that he compiled in his Gospel and the beginning of Acts. Paul’s incarceration in Caesarea provided Luke the time he needed, which he made use of. Put simply, without this delay in Paul’s life, we would not have the majority of the New Testament. Do not despise the divine delays in your life!
We have the tendency to place ourselves at the center of God’s plan. Our faith often is very egotistical and self-centered. When we read the outline of Paul’s plans in Romans they are good, even God centered, but they also centered on Paul and his ministry. God had a larger plan. If Paul’s plans had happened the way he designed, we would not have much of the New Testament today. The singular question that the Bible poses to us is, who is King? If God is king, then my role is simple: He makes the rules; I obey them. I merely submit to His rule and reign daily: “Seek his kingdom” (Luke 12:31). If I submit to His rule and reign, then He is sovereign to use me as He wants, including putting me on the sidelines for a period of time. It’s not all about me. Like with Paul, His delay enabled Luke to begin the process that led to the compiling of his Gospel and Acts. At the same time, if I am submitted to Him, He is free to use me as He wants. In other words, I may want to arrive in Rome with joy, but for the sake of His kingdom, I may arrive in chains.
Do not despise the divine delays in your life. If you find yourself sidelined or delayed, do not despair. God is not finished with you. Even when circumstances or our own choices bring us to a dead end; He is not done with any of us. It’s amazing that God invites us to be part of His plan and to participate with His will. But never forget, He’s the king, and we’re not. Rest in the daily act of submission to His will: “May Your kingdom come; may Your will be done.”