Acrisis of leadership faces both the world and the church. As I write these words, the headlines in the secular press are all about leaders in the corporate world who have been guilty of appalling moral negligence. They have bankrupted major corporations because of their own personal greed. They have engaged in illegal insider trading.
They have lied, cheated, stolen, and swindled. The scope and scale of corporate corruption in the world today are almost inconceivable. In the political realm, the picture may be even more bleak. The moral scandals that rocked the Clinton White House changed the climate of American politics. The lesson of that episode (as far as some politicians are concerned) seemed to be that a person can lie and cheat and lack moral integrity—and yet not necessarily forfeit his career as a politician. Personal integrity, apparently, is no longer a requirement for political office. In the post-Clinton culture, a serious moral indiscretion seems to be no significant impediment to candidates for public office.
In the visible church, sadly, things are little better. The televangelist scandals of the 1980s seem to be all but forgotten. Nothing much really changed in the wake of the scandals. If anything, the state of so-called “Christian” television is far worse than it was before. Most Christian TV celebrities are still making greedy, nonstop appeals for money. Christian recording artists keep embarrassing the church with scandalous moral failures. And we still regularly hear of pastors who discredit their ministries and disqualify themselves by defaulting in the one thing that matters most in leadership: character.
Both church and world seem to have traded away the notion of leadership for celebrity. Today’s heroes are people who are famous for being famous. They are not necessarily (and not even usually) men and women of character. Real leadership is in seriously short supply.
In a sense, however, the leadership vacuum presents a tremendous opportunity. The world is crying out for leaders—great heroic, noble, trustworthy leaders. We need leaders at every level of the social order—from political leaders in the international realm to spiritual leaders in the church and the family.
And most people recognize that need. I recently attended a special meeting of college presidents at the University of Southern California. At the same time, a conference on leadership was being held in an adjacent hall. We all mingled during the lunch hour. A table was set up in the lobby, displaying dozens of recent books on leadership. As I listened to the discussions and perused the book table, I realized that the severity of the current leadership crisis is common knowledge. How to solve the crisis, however, seems to be a puzzle to most, even to some of the most powerful men in the academic world.
Could it be that people don’t see how the leadership crisis stems from a loss of integrity? I don’t think so. In fact, the titles on that book table included several volumes that highlighted the need for character, decency, honor, and ethics. People certainly seem to have at least a vague notion that character issues lie at the heart of the leadership crisis.
The problem is that we live in an era where the very definition of character has become fuzzy. People bemoan the loss of integrity in general terms, but few have any clear idea of what “integrity” entails anymore.
Moral standards have been systematically obliterated. Ours is the first society since the decaying Roman Empire to normalize homosexuality. We’re living in the first generation in hundreds of years that has legalized abortion. Adultery and divorce are epidemic. Pornography is now an enormous industry and a major blight on the moral character of society. Virtually no clear moral or ethical standards are universally accepted anymore. No wonder principled, uncompromising personal integrity is hard to find.
But I’m optimistic. I’m convinced this is an era of unprecedented opportunity for the church—if we’ll take advantage of it. The leadership vacuum is screaming to be filled. If godly men and women will step out and lead, people are prepared to follow the right kind of example. Hostile times and adverse circumstances are no impediment to a true leader. In fact, great adversity can be turned to great advantage by the power of an influential leader.
We see an illustration of that truth, in microcosm, in the apostle Paul’s experience in Acts 27. If you want a human model of leadership, I don’t think you’ll ever find a better model than Paul. Paul is my hero as a leader. He was a true leader of people, and his leadership rose to the occasion in every conceivable situation. His leadership abilities had nothing to do with titles. He wasn’t governor of any territory; he wasn’t the commander of any troops; he wasn’t a nobleman of any kind. God had conferred on him the title of apostle, but that was his only title, and it had no relevance outside the church. Yet in Acts 27, we see him taking charge of a situation in a hostile secular environment when other men—powerful men—proved unable to lead.
Paul was not (especially in this situation) a man of high position. He was, however, a man of great influence—a natural leader. What we find in Acts 27 is a very interesting situation. Paul was beginning the long journey from Caesarea to Rome, where he would be tried in the court of Caesar. He was to be transported in chains as a prisoner.
PAUL IN CAESAREA
Caesarea was the main Roman military outpost on the coast of Israel, directly west of Jerusalem and slightly north of the modern city of Tel Aviv. It was the chief port and jumping-off point for Roman officials during the Roman occupation of Israel. It was also the capital of the Judean province and home to the Roman procurators. This was where Pilate lived during the time of Christ. It was completely Roman in culture.
The apostle Paul had been brought to Caesarea as a prisoner. His life as a missionary and church planter appeared to be over. When he returned from his third missionary journey in Acts 21:15, he returned to Jerusalem. He had collected money from Gentile churches all over Asia to give to the church at Jerusalem because the needs of that church were so great.
In Acts 21:11, the prophet Agabus had warned Paul that in Jerusalem he would be taken prisoner by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles. Paul knew the prophecy was true, but he was committed to the ministry God had called him to, and he replied, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 13).
According to Acts 21:27, Paul went to the temple in Jerusalem, where he was seen by some Jewish worshipers from Asia who recognized him. They falsely accused him of defiling the temple. They knew he was traveling with Trophimus, who was a Gentile, and Acts 21:29 says they falsely supposed Paul had brought Trophimus with him into the temple—which was forbidden for Gentiles. So they started a great riot over what began as a simple misunderstanding born out of their hatred for Paul.
Paul was therefore arrested and taken to Caesarea for trial. Apparently, the Romans didn’t know what to do with him. They seem to have arrested him mainly to pacify the Jewish leaders who were screaming for vengeance against him. Paul was then kept in custody in Caesarea for more than two years (Acts 24:27). He was put on trial first before Felix, then before Festus, then before Herod Agrippa II. Two Roman governors and the last ruler in the Herodian dynasty all personally heard his case. Each one judged him unworthy of death or chains, but they kept him in prison anyway, because to release him would have created political problems with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
It was during the trial before Festus that Paul appealed directly to Caesar. This was his right as a Roman citizen. According to Acts 26:32, Agrippa privately told Festus, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32). Perhaps he really meant that. More likely, Herod and Festus would have continued using Paul as a pawn. But since Paul had appealed to Nero, he had to be sent to Rome.
That is the historical context at the beginning of Acts 27. Paul is in Caesarea. He is to be sent to Rome to stand trial before Nero. His long imprisonment in Caesarea is over, and now a new chapter begins as the Roman procurator makes arrangements for the long passage to Rome.
PAUL IN CUSTODY
At this point, the narrative of the book of Acts shifts gears. Luke begins writing in first person, suggesting that he was permitted to go along as Paul’s companion on the journey to Rome. So what he writes is his own firsthand testimony—an inspired eyewitness chronicle. And he begins to color in more details. In fact, this chapter of Acts is said by some scholars to contain more information about ancient seafaring than virtually any other first-century source. And, amazingly, there are more words in Scripture devoted to detailing Paul’s journey from Caesarea to Rome than all the words about creation in Genesis. So it is an important account.
When the journey to Rome began, Paul was clearly the low man on the totem pole. He had no authority. He had no responsibility. He had no rights. As a prisoner, he was at the bottom, both physically and socially. I’ve spent some time ministering in prisons. In fact, I recently visited a prison where some well-known men are incarcerated. One of them used to be president of one of the largest life insurance companies in America. Another was a famous building contractor who had earned millions before losing it all in some kind of fraud scandal. There were several formidable people in that prison—people who were accustomed to power, men who knew what it was to wield authority. Mixed in with them was the usual assortment of drug dealers, neo-Nazi members of the Aryan Brotherhood, and various street criminals.
You know what I noticed? No one had a DayTimer. None of them had cell phones, secretaries, pin-striped suits, or silk ties. They had been stripped of all the accoutrements of power. They were told when to get up, when to eat, when to exercise, and when to work in the laundry. No one had any authority.
In fact, I had taken a Bible to give to a certain inmate, but I was told he wasn’t allowed to have it. The only way I could get it to him was through the designated prison chaplain, and the chaplain first was required to tear off the book’s front and back covers so that no prisoner could use the hard cover boards to make weapons.
Prisoners have no authority. That was Paul’s situation. Undoubtedly, the ship he was to sail on was selected for him by Roman officials. He was placed in the company of a man named Julius, whom Luke says was “a centurion of the Augustan Regiment” (Acts 27:1)—an imperial cohort. As a centurion, Julius had a hundred men under his command, and they were specifically assigned to work for Caesar. So as centurions go, he was one of the highest ranking in the entire Roman army, and his men would have been elite soldiers.
By the way, here’s an interesting footnote: Every time you encounter a Roman centurion in Scripture, you find a man of integrity—a respectable, intelligent, virtuous man. The Romans were not very good at selecting governors, but apparently they had some means of choosing their centurions that weeded out the weak and incompetent. We meet centurions in Matthew 8 and Luke 7, Mark 15, Acts 10, Acts 22, and Acts 24, and all of them are upright men of decency and honor. Julius is no exception to the rule.
Luke wrote, “So, entering a ship of Adramyttium, we put to sea, meaning to sail along the coasts of Asia” (Acts 27:2). The plan was for Julius to ride this ship with Paul toward Adramyttium, and at some major port along the way, they would pick up another ship to Rome. The verse concludes: “Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, was with us.” Aristarchus was a friend and companion of Luke and Paul. He is mentioned in Acts 20:4 as one of several members of the Thessalonian church who accompanied Paul home to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. According to Acts 19:29, Aristarchus was also with Paul in Ephesus when that whole city rioted at the preaching of the gospel. So he had been a longtime friend and companion of Paul’s—no doubt a believer and a fellow minister. He had apparently stayed with Paul through those years of imprisonment at Caesarea. Now he would accompany Paul and Luke on their trip to Rome.
That sets the scene. Paul is a prisoner. The ship would have a captain and probably a first mate. Under them would be other ranking sailors. Overseeing Paul’s custody was a Roman centurion, and verses 31–32 say he had some of his soldiers with him—crack troops. So there were a lot of people with authority on that ship. Not Paul. He was at the bottom of everything—perhaps even in the literal sense. He would no doubt have been kept in the hold of the ship.
PAUL AT LIBERTY
But Julius seems to have been a noble man, and Acts 27:3 says after just one day’s travel, during the first stop, at Sidon, on the very first day of the trip, some seventy miles north on the Mediterranean coast from Caesarea, he “treated Paul kindly and gave him liberty to go to his friends and receive care.”
The expression translated “receive care” is a medical term. It indicates that the apostle Paul was probably suffering from some kind of ailment. That isn’t any wonder, since he had been a prisoner for so long. Of course, Luke was a physician (Colossians 4:14), and one of his duties, no doubt, was to care for Paul. But something about his ailment warranted a visit ashore. He would not have been able to gain the diet, the rest, and the care he needed while remaining onboard ship. So Julius granted Paul shore leave to be cared for by friends. They ministered to his physical needs, and Paul no doubt ministered to their spiritual needs.
That was certainly unusual. Julius might have sent one or more soldiers to accompany Paul and his band. But for a hot-potato political prisoner like Paul to be given even that much liberty was highly irregular. After all, Paul had stood before the governor Felix, the governor Festus, and King Agrippa. He had been deemed a serious enough threat to the Pax Romana—the peace of the Roman Empire—that he had been kept prisoner for more than two years. He was blamed for riots in the city of Jerusalem. The actual charge brought against him before Felix was that he was “a pestilent fellow” (Acts 24:5 KJV). He was “a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (v. 5). His case was now to come before Caesar.
You don’t just give that kind of prisoner liberty without good reason. If a Roman soldier ever lost a prisoner because of negligence, he paid with his life. That fact comes into play later in Luke’s account (27: 42–43). And yet here, Julius gave Paul permission to visit friends at Sidon and receive care from them.
Julius was a top Roman centurion. He was a highly trained soldier—a tough, seasoned fighter with the skills of a commander and the mental attitude of a sergeant. Why would he let a prisoner have liberty after he had been in his custody only one day? There is only one reason: he trusted him.
Here is the first principle of leadership: A leader is trustworthy. Somehow, either while still a prisoner in Caesarea, or in the one day’s journey—or, likely, both—Paul had caused that centurion to believe that he would never do anything that would cost the centurion personally. Julius was convinced Paul would not take the liberty he gave and try to escape. So he let him go to his friends.
It seems Paul had friends everywhere. Of course, he had enemies everywhere too. But he had some friends in Sidon who no doubt had benefited from the influence of Paul’s ministry over the years. He must have asked the centurion for permission to visit those friends. And the centurion let him visit them. He obviously had no fear in giving Paul this unusual degree of liberty and even put him in the hands of a group that could, if they were so inclined, try to help effect his escape.
How did Paul earn Julius’s trust so quickly? Scripture doesn’t say. Paul was obviously a gracious, godly man. His personal integrity ran deep. It is possible that the governor, Festus, who knew Paul’s innocence, had assured Julius that Paul could be trusted, and ordered him to treat him courteously.
That this trust had developed is indicated in Acts 24:23, because what the centurion did is precisely what the previous governor, Felix, did: “He commanded the centurion to keep Paul and to let him have liberty, and told him not to forbid any of his friends to provide for or visit him.” All this is clear evidence that Paul had earned a reputation of trust. Even the governors under whom he was imprisoned knew he was a man of integrity. And somehow that trust was communicated to Julius.
Julius could also surely see that Paul’s companions, Luke and Aristarchus, were devoted to him. They hadn’t abandoned him when he was imprisoned. On the contrary, they were willing to accompany him all the way to Rome, at great personal risk to their own lives. Let’s face it: this was not like taking a cruise to Honolulu on a luxury liner. This was a small, clumsy, inhospitable Roman sailing vessel. Quarters were tight and uncomfortable. Moreover, some historians believe the only way Luke and Aristarchus would have been permitted to accompany Paul on this trip was if they went as slaves. Whatever the terms of their travel, you can be sure the Roman government did not pay their fare. No matter what circumstances opened the door for them to accompany Paul, it was a major personal sacrifice for Luke and Aristarchus. But they did it because of their love for the apostle. They were clearly committed to him.
Paul’s friends in Sidon also obviously trusted him. They opened their home to him, even though he was a prisoner. Rather than seeing his captivity as casting doubt on his integrity, they welcomed him and refreshed him. No one inspires such devotion without being trustworthy. Paul also certainly would have treated Julius with the utmost respect. He also must have conversed with him, shown an interest in him, and quickly developed a liking for Julius, and Julius returned that respect. Therefore by the time they were one day into their journey, Julius already trusted Paul enough to give him liberty.
How does a leader build trust? When people are convinced you will do everything in your power for their good and nothing for their harm, they’ll trust you. This centurion obviously was convinced that Paul honestly had his best interests at heart, so he gave him a measure of freedom. He clearly had a high degree of confidence that Paul would not try to escape. If Julius had the slightest concern about whether Paul would come back to the ship voluntarily, he would have kept him under guard on the ship. But Paul had gained his trust. All leadership begins there.
Paul cared about that man. He was aware of Julius’s duty, sensitive to his concerns, and he would not have done anything to discredit or dishonor him, much less jeopardize his life. Thus the power of Paul’s character influenced Julius. Paul, the prisoner, was in effect “leading” Julius, his captor.
A leader is not someone who is consumed with his own success and his own best interests. A true leader is someone who demonstrates to everyone around him that their interests are what most occupy his heart. A real leader will work hard to make everyone around him successful. His passion is to help make the people under his leadership flourish. That is why a true leader must have the heart of a servant.
A person cannot be a true leader and operate only for personal fulfillment or personal gain. People whose motives are selfish end up leading nobody, because everyone abandons them. They cannot be trusted. A person in a position of leadership will succeed only as long as people trust him with their futures, with their money, or even with their lives. Nothing can take the place of trust. Nothing. A leader you can’t trust is no true leader at all. He may be a man in power who can force people to do what he wants, but he is no example of true leadership.
Here’s how you can easily recognize genuine leaders: They are the ones surrounded by gifted, capable, diligent, effective people who are devoted to their leader. That devotion reflects trust. And trust stems from the selfless way the godly leader uses his own energies and his own abilities in a sacrificial, selfless way. If you can show people you truly have their best interests at heart, they’ll follow you.
This man was so convinced that Paul would never do anything to bring him harm that he let him go to his friends. And, of course, Paul came back. He proved himself worthy of Julius’s trust. Paul was thereby building more trust that would further strengthen his own hand for leadership later in the journey.