March 2, 2021

An Ancient Lockdown

Pandemic lockdown? Paul can say a lot about that.

Homer Trecartin

The tired old man looked up from the table, hand poised to write, mind a thousand miles away, spirit longing for someone who would understand, someone who could relate to his memories and concerns, his joys and sorrows. He was tired of being alone!

Familiar Story?

Sound familiar? We started 2021 in the midst of a pandemic that has been affecting our entire lives. Church online or even limited seating is just not the same as all being together in person.

So maybe we can somewhat relate to the aged apostle shivering in his prison cell in Rome—isolated, locked down, alone!

Paul’s eyes focused slowly, and he smiled. Yes, he would write to Timothy. Timothy would understand.

The resulting letter, Paul’s last, is an intimate glimpse into the emotions and longings of this faithful follower of Jesus.

He starts with thankfulness, longing and anticipating joy when they will be together again
(2 Tim. 1:3, 4).

And he ends his letter with “Timothy, please come as soon as you can” (2 Tim. 4:9).1 “Bring the coat I left . . . at Troas” (verse 13). “Do your best to get here before winter” (verse 21).

Judged By A Despot

After his arrest in Jerusalem, Paul had spent two years as a prisoner in Caesarea. Eventually, after shipwreck, winter on the island of Malta, and sailing in the spring to the coast of Italy, he was left with a 140-mile road trip to Rome, one that took longer than it should have. As they walked, “suddenly a cry of joy [was] heard, and a man [sprang] from the passing throng and [fell] upon the prisoner’s neck, embracing him with tears and rejoicing.2 All along the road saints recognized the aging prisoner as the one who had brought them the joy of salvation.

In Rome, though in lockdown, Paul was treated kindly, allowed to rent a home, and, though chained to a soldier, allowed to receive visitors.

Months went by this way. The Jewish leaders were patient, determined to get their charges right. They carefully laid their plans and developed a close relationship with Nero’s second wife—a wild, extravagant, and immoral woman who had supposedly converted to Judaism. The emperor himself was a cruel, corrupt despot who had already murdered various family members and married another man’s wife; he later married a man he had castrated.3 To human appearances, Paul had no hope for a fair trial in such circumstances. The onlookers were shocked when Nero declared that the charges against Paul had not been proven, and ordered him released.

Paul felt certain that his time was short. Almost immediately he left Rome and began visiting churches in other countries. Now an old man, tired and weakened from many beatings and difficulties endured, he was sure he was doing his last work. And yet, he seemed more intense and zealous than ever before.4

Accused of Burning Rome

Shortly after this a terrible fire destroyed almost half the city of Rome. Accused of causing it himself, Nero blamed the Christians instead. Intense persecution followed; thousands of believers were killed.

The Jewish leaders suggested blaming Paul for instigating Rome’s burning. Nero knew it wasn’t true, but it sounded good, and he quickly had Paul arrested and brought back to Rome.5

Things were very different this time. The few Christians left in the city were depressed and afraid. Paul was put into a gloomy dungeon and moved from time to time to keep his location hidden.6

Onesiphorus somehow managed to find the old apostle (2 Tim. 1:16, 17), and his visits meant a lot, coming at a time when some of Paul’s closest helpers and friends had deserted him.7

For months, Paul sat alone in his cold, damp, dark dungeon, waiting.

The day finally came for him to again stand before Nero. This time Paul was totally alone, without even a friend there to write down what was said and done.8

What a contrast the scene presented: Nero, the most powerful man in the world, and before him a poor old man in chains. Nero’s face hardened with crime and guilt; Paul’s face, calm, reflecting peace with God.9

Spectators heard the Jewish leaders’ charges of heresy, of causing riots around the empire, and now, of masterminding the fire that had recently burned Rome.10

They had watched many trials, but never had they seen an accused person with the serenity of this old man. Everyone listened intently when he was finally given a chance to speak.11 Losing sight of the pomp and pageantry, forgetting about himself and his probable future, Paul presented the good news of the gospel. He spoke about coming judgment and of the Savior who had given His life for all.12 Never before had the people heard words like this. Never before had Nero sensed the enormity of his guilt. Terror seized him: a judgment was coming from which he could not hide. For a moment his heart was drawn toward the peace, purity, and pardon Paul had offered. But only for a moment. Then he closed the door of his heart again.13

And yet Nero feared the aged prisoner’s God. A sense of awe seemed to momentarily restrain him, and he ordered that Paul be taken back to prison.14

Returned to his dark, dank, dungeon, Paul was under no illusions. He knew the end was near: a word or a nod from Nero, and his lockdown, and his life, would be over.

The End

Inactivity was hard on Paul. We don’t know how long he waited, but it was then that he wrote the letter we call 2 Timothy. In between pleas for the young man to hurry and bring his coat and books, the lonely old apostle wrote some of Scripture’s most powerful passages: “My death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Paul had put his life into God’s hands. He was ready for whatever tomorrow might bring.

Nero didn’t wait long to end Paul’s last lockdown. Angry with himself for entertaining the old man’s strange ideas of coming judgment, angry that he seemed powerless to stamp out Christianity—even in his own household—he soon gave the command to execute the prisoner.

Because of the power that accompanied Paul’s words, his beheading was almost a secret affair. And yet his peace and joy, and his spirit of forgiveness toward his murderers, moved the few soldiers and others who saw it. Several of them were converted by what they saw and heard that day.15

Lockdown Lessons

Paul’s letter from Rome to the Philippians shares this amazing thought: “Everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear” (Phil. 1:13, 14): Not “in spite of,” but “because of,” his imprisonment.

Before being imprisoned, Paul had been free to come and go, always on the move, working, preaching, visiting, counseling. He had stood before the wise men of Greece, before kings and governors. And as they listened, even “haughty rulers” had “trembled” as if already before the judgment seat of God.16

All that had changed. Yet it was now, “when its chief advocate was apparently cut off from public labor, that a great victory was won for the gospel; for from the very household of the king, members were added to the church.”17 Nero was one of the most debased and corrupt rulers in history. It seemed utterly “impossible for Christianity to gain a foothold in [his] court.”18 But because of Paul’s chains, because of his isolation and lockdown, unimaginable victories were accomplished.

Today God is doing things because of the pandemic
that would probably not have happened otherwise! Maybe now, in order to finish things up, God needs a lockdown, needs us to have more time to fill our hearts with His Word and draw near to Him. Could it be that our quiet, cheerful, patient witness during trouble and distress will do more to finish the work than we could ever accomplish running around freely? For “often when the servant of God is withdrawn from active duty, the mysterious providence which our shortsighted vision would lament is designed by God to accomplish a work that otherwise would never have been done.”19

“There is a lesson for us in this experience of Paul’s, for it reveals God’s way of working.”20

Paul’s lockdown experience shows us just how God works in such situations as the current pandemic. Through Paul’s lockdown, God accomplished in Nero’s palace what seemed impossible.

It is OK to want the pandemic to end. God may actually open things up and give us a brief window to again work widely and freely. But let us not assume that nothing can be done until things get better. God can use pandemics to finish His work if we are available for His use.

So let the work be finished, not in spite of, but because of, our lockdown. Let Christ return, unlock the graves where saints now sleep, and end the quarantine forever that now denies us fellowship with the universe of God’s children.

  1. Except otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  2. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 448; also, Acts 28:15.
  3., accessed Dec. 25, 2020.
  4. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 488.
  5. Ibid., p. 489.
  6. Ibid., pp. 489, 490.
  7. Ibid., pp. 490, 491.
  8. Ibid., p. 492.
  9. Ibid., p. 493.
  10. Ibid., p. 494.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., p. 495.
  13. Ibid., p. 496.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., pp. 509, 510.
  16. Ibid., p. 462.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 463.
  19. Ibid., p. 465.
  20. Ibid., p. 481.

Homer Trecartin recently retired from the Office of Adventist Mission at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.