[Spoiler Alert: This review reveals certain elements of the plot, but only what is necessary for this review.]
As spring rolls around, we can count on a few Christian-themed movies to roll into the theaters. This year is no different, and Paul, Apostle of Christ is one of the premier offerings this season. Produced by Affirm Films, the same studio that brought us Risen, the production quality and performances were top notch. Beyond its excellent production, the movie is very faithful to Scripture and truly honoring to God in all it presents.
We strongly encourage you to get behind this movie, going to see it with friends and family this opening weekend if you have the opportunity.
Developing the Storyline
The film is set in AD 67 in Nero’s Rome. Paul, as the leader of the Christians, has been imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison, awaiting his execution by beheading after his trial where all had abandoned him (2 Timothy 4:16). Apart from a few biographical details in 2 Timothy, we do not have this period of Paul’s life recorded in Scripture. The book of Acts closes while Paul is under house arrest during his previous journey to Rome. The Bible gives several indications that he was set free after a couple of years and then arrested again during another missionary trip (Acts 26:31–32, 28:30; 2 Timothy 4:14–20). The film opens after that arrest, and what it portrays is consistent with Scripture and what we know from extrabiblical records. To create the storyline, the producers have depicted a time that is consistent with what we know of Paul but not restricted to the pages of Scripture. This gives them freedom to bring in supporting characters, but they do so in a way that is faithful to all we know of Paul, Luke, and people in Scripture.
The producers have depicted a time that is consistent with what we know of Paul but not restricted to the pages of Scripture.
Aquila and Priscilla have apparently returned to Rome from Corinth (Acts 18:2), inviting Luke to Rome to encourage the community of the Way that has gathered under their roof. Luke makes his way into the prison overseen by Mauritius, the prefect. While there is much intrigue in Rome surrounding Nero’s actions and the persecution of the followers of Christ, strife within the families and between various groups drives the action of the film. While the conflict moves the story, the end of the journey is one of peace.
A Strong Caution
As the story depicts Rome during the peak of Nero’s persecution, there are many vile acts of torture and abuse depicted. These are presented in a way that elicits a strong response, but they are not gratuitous. Charred bodies line the streets atop lampposts, and wounds from beatings are seen up close. There are also scenes of pagan sacrifice involving bloody rituals. Flashbacks and dreams show us more bloody scenes to illustrate the heinous nature of sin. Parents and sensitive viewers are cautioned to consider whether it is appropriate for them or their children.
The film does not shy away from themes of suffering for the sake of Christ. In addition to the persecution many believers faced, like those in Rome under Nero, it also vividly portrays the internal struggles several characters faced. There are no pat answers or coffee-cup platitudes to solve their problems.
Aquila and Priscilla find themselves caring for a large community of believers, seeking to offer them not only food and shelter, but also hope and encouragement. As they struggle with several decisions, relying on prayer and wisdom from God, we get a glimpse of the struggles we may face. While we know God’s Word and character, the proper action for each person in a dilemma is one that must be carefully discerned and may not be the same for all.
Cassius, a young Roman taken in by the community loses much. As many of us might seek, he looks for vengeance by the sword, gathering several other zealous young men around him. While many counsel him to respond in love rather than hate, he caves into his feelings. In an intense exchange, Paul exhorts him to follow Christ as King rather than seek his own desires. Here we can all surely see a reflection of our own hearts when things dear to us are stripped away—do we trust God or our own plans to free us?
The words of Christ give . . . hope and peace, even in the turmoil that seems to be enveloping Rome.
Seeing the suffering of so many, Luke agonizes over the value of it all. But, as often happens in our lives, God puts someone in his path to remind him of the power of God and the future glory that awaits all those who hope in Christ. The words of Christ give him hope and peace, even in the turmoil that seems to be enveloping Rome.
Paul is not immune from this inner turmoil, but Satan afflicts him with images of those whom he has killed in his prior zeal for God (Acts 22:4, 26:9–11). While Paul strains to understand how God could have allowed him to do such things against his people, he mourns deeply. But as he engages with his dear friend Luke, Paul is reminded of the grace of God that has sufficiently covered his sins in Christ’s blood.
In all of theses struggles, Christ is exalted as the only one who can bring meaning and resolution to all the evils in the world.
Filled with Scripture
As the story progressed, I found myself finishing the lines coming from the screen in many places. No, I hadn’t seen the movie, but I have read the book. Flowing from the lips of Paul, Luke, Aquila, and others were statements that anyone who has read the Bible will be familiar with. Paul offers instruction, advice, and encouragement with echoes of phrases that can be found in his many letters and in the words of Christ. This brings the text of Scripture into the dialogue in a way that is winsome and fitting for the various conversations. While vengeance and fear are options, Paul reminds all that the way to advance the Kingdom of Christ is through love and the hope of redemption, not violence and revenge.
Throughout the film, there are references to other events recorded for us in Scripture. It might be a fun exercise, once you have enjoyed the film a few times, to try to identify all of them. Paul’s first encounter with Luke, his instructions to Timothy, his previous imprisonment in Rome, reports of the successful ministries of Timothy and Titus, and many other aspects give this film a genuinely authentic feel. Far from horrendous movies like Noah (2014), it is hard to find fault in Paul, Apostle of Christ.1
Jesus, Not Paul
While the film depicts the life of Paul, it does so in a way that clearly points to Jesus. As Paul discusses his life, he has nothing to boast of except his weakness. Rather than a valiant and mighty leader, Paul is a humble and meek servant of all those who look up to him. He is quick to point away from his own abilities and shine the spotlight on the power of God and the supremacy of Jesus Christ.
You won’t be sorry for seeing this film.
Whether it is with a friend who doesn’t know Christ, your family, or a group of church or neighborhood friends, you won’t be sorry for seeing this film. Undoubtedly, it will open many doors of conversation. Believers will be encouraged to discuss the ideas of persecution and suffering in the lives of the Christians. Unbelievers will be offered the hope of redemption from even the most sinful past. For all, the message of hope in Christ is presented in various ways in the film. And if you don’t find yourself filled with hope and maybe even a few tears at the final scene, I don’t know what could ever stir your soul.