The Injustice of Roman Justice

Law is the protector of justice. But when madmen make law, justice becomes perverted.

When Paul was arrested, he was brought before a tribunal to determine whether sufficient evidence existed for a formal trial. This “first defense” (4:16) or prima actio included a presentation of the case against Paul, as well as his opportunity to present his case for innocence.1 Afterward, the court would have rendered one of two decisions: a non liquet, meaning there was insufficient evidence to proceed, followed by an order to release Paul; or an amplius, meaning there was sufficient evidence to proceed, followed by an order to schedule a secunda actio—the trial itself.2

Paul had the right to an attorney and to call witnesses, but at his prima actio he defended himself without witness testimony. We’re not sure whether Paul’s prima actio was conducted in private or public, but there’s little doubt that his secunda actio—the trial which condemned him to death—was a public affair.

Nero presided over the trials of other Christians, and because Paul was a leader of the sect, we can assume Nero served as Paul’s judge too. Trial before the imperial court took place either in the forum or the emperor’s private Vatican gardens. In judging Paul’s case—and those of all Roman Christians condemned to die—Nero was no legal expert. Legal historian Detlef Liebs noted, “Judges, advocates, interested parties, and authorities were often guided in their legal decisions by public opinion, their own experiences, and their personal attitudes about justice.”3And as Tacitus made clear, Nero’s sense of justice was a thinning thread.

The mad ruler sentenced Christians to the most ghastly forms of death. “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”4 Did they suffer such horror to satisfy justice? No! To satisfy the gluttony of “one man’s cruelty.”5

It’s easy for us, living in the “civilized” twenty-first century, to think that the persecution of Christians was merely a reality in ancient times. It was—but it’s as much a reality today as it was yesterday. This is particularly true of Christians living in some portions of the Middle East and Asia. Like Paul, who experienced the injustice of Roman justice, brothers and sisters in Christ today experience the injustices of kangaroo courts that wrongly condemn Christians to imprisonment, malnourishment, beatings, beheadings, and even crucifixions.

The writer to the Hebrews commands us to remember our persecuted brothers and sisters. “Remember those in prison,” he wrote, “as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies” (Hebrews 13:3 NLT). One of the best ways to remember them is to pray for them. If you’re not sure what to pray, then ask the Lord to fulfill in their lives the truths found in 2 Corinthians 4:8–11—to keep them from being crushed, to keep them from despair, and to keep them from being destroyed; and that God would be present with them, glorify Himself in their bodies, and spread the gospel through their sufferings.

  1. We don’t know specifically what Paul was accused of or what evidence the prosecutor brought against him. Historians of the period, like Tacitus—who said Christians were condemn for their “hatred of mankind,” meaning their refusal to involve themselves in the social and civic life of Rome, which often involved pagan worship, including fornicating with temple prostitutes—record that Christians were accused of atheism because they refused to worship the Roman gods and participate in emperor-worship, and accused of cannibalism because of their practice of eating Christ’s “flesh” and drinking His “blood” at the Eucharist. See Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, in Annals, Histories, Agricola, Germania, trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2009), 354; and John R. W. Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy: Guard the Gospel, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1973), 123.
  2. See Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 637.
  3. Detlef Liebs, Summoned to the Roman Courts: Famous Trials from Antiquity (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 2012), 2.
  4. Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, 354.
  5. Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, 354.

Adapted from “Grace to the Very End” in Paul’s Swan Song Bible Companion by Charles R. Swindoll and Insight for Living Ministries. Copyright © 2009, 2015 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide.

About the author


Derrick G. Jeter

Derrick G. Jeter holds a master of theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and served as a writer for the Creative Ministries Department of Insight for Living Ministries. He has authored or coauthored more than twenty-five books. Derrick's writing has appeared on influential Web sites, and he is a contributing writer for The Christian Post. He and his wife, Christy, have five children and live in the Dallas area. He blogs at

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