No one knew when He was coming back. Not even Jesus Himself: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows,” Jesus said in Matthew, “not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
But by A.D. 67, Jesus’ followers hoped their risen King would hurry things up a little.
The flock Jesus had left behind was in desperate straits. A good chunk of Rome had burned down a few years earlier, and Emperor Nero accused this upstart Jewish sect of starting the blaze. Christians were being relentlessly persecuted—beaten or murdered or sent to the Circus, to be torn apart by wild animals. Many of Christianity’s leaders had died already. Those who hadn’t were on the run or in chains, including arguably the most important leader of all.
For years, Paul had crisscrossed the Roman world, preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. He’d written letters of exhortation and rebuke; he’d educated the young Church about God’s inexhaustible love. No one had done more to spread Christianity, other than Christ himself.
But now it seemed as though Paul’s race was just about over. He was locked away in a Roman prison, languishing in seemingly its deepest, darkest cell. Martyrdom was just around the bend. Concerning the day or hour, Paul did not know. But he knew it was coming.
But perhaps Paul’s work isn’t done just yet. Luke, the Greek doctor-turned-Christian-turned-gospel-author, comes to visit his old friend in prison. Perhaps Paul has one more story to tell—the history and acts of the early Church. Perhaps he can encourage Jesus’ followers—followers in desperate need of encouragement and leadership—one last time.
Though Luke and Paul stand at the center of the story that the latter tells, let’s first turn our attention to a couple of other, lesser-known biblical characters who show up here, too: Priscilla and Aquila.
These well-heeled Romans host and protect dozens of Christians in their home, putting themselves at grave risk while doing so. And as they hide young believers from the authorities, they consider some critical questions: Should they flee from Rome and find a safer spot to live and grow the Church? Or should they stick it out and try to bring some spiritual light to the darkness that is Rome? Priscilla and Aquila are split on the issue. Aquila insists that they won’t be any good to anyone if they’re dead, while Priscilla’s convinced that God is calling her to stay. They tearfully debate the matter, and there’s even an insinuation at one point that God may be calling them to different paths. But there’s no doubt, throughout these difficult discussions, how much they love and care for one another. And they’re thinking deeply about how best to protect both the Church and the Christians in their care.
(Another note regarding Priscilla: One criticism I sometimes hear from critics of Christianity is how chauvinistic it is and has “always” been. But as we see here, as well as in Scripture, the early Church valued women and respected their views far more than society as a whole did back then. Priscilla’s prominence in the New Testament record, and in this movie, gives voice to that fact.)
Priscilla and Aquila, along with Luke and Paul, work furiously to keep some of the younger, more hotheaded converts from retaliating against the brutal Romans: We must turn the other cheek, they argue. “Peace begins with you,” Luke tells one. “Love is the only way.” And when a few Christians ignore those exhortations, invade the prison and try to rescue Paul and Luke, both of those leaders choose to stay put.
Paul, imprisoned though he is, talks regularly with his main jailer, Mauritius—telling his enemy all about God’s love and goodness. [Spoiler Warning] When Mauritius’ daughter grows gravely ill, and no Roman doctor or Roman god seems capable of healing her, Paul suggests that Luke might be able to help him. Luke, with help from Priscilla and Aquila, is able to save the Roman’s daughter (and Mauritius in turn looks the other way at a crucial moment when he could have arrested them all).
Paul, Apostle of Christ focuses on two leaders who, between them, wrote much of the New Testament. The movie postulates that Luke (the traditional author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts), Paul’s longtime traveling companion, visited the aging apostle during his final imprisonment in Rome and received Paul’s account of the early Church from Paul at that point.
Some Paul-centric moments from Acts are recounted—narrated by Paul himself and shown, as flashbacks, to moviegoers: Paul talks about being a Jewish Pharisee zealously defending his traditional faith against this upstart religion of Christianity, and the role he played in the martyr Stephen’s death. He undergoes his dramatic blindness and conversion and begins his ministry. He speaks to the years between his pharisaical days and the beginning of his ministry, when his story was seemingly silent. “I had to learn how to pray,” he says. “How to speak. How to love.”
Paul and Luke also reminisce about their travels together—ribbing each other regarding what terrible travel companions they made in service to Christ. (Paul was especially, if jokingly, annoyed by the high-pitched voice Luke used to sing in.)
And both take their faith very, very seriously. We hear echoes of their seminal works in their discussions with each other and outsiders. Paul admits, “I have made many mistakes. But everything I’ve done, I’ve done for Christ.”
Paul doesn’t fear death a whit, and he treats the trials that the Church is facing rather philosophically: “Christ has promised these difficult times,” he says. Priscilla, too, recalls Jesus’ words prophesying Christianity’s inevitable persecution, saying that Christ was right “when He said He was sending us among the wolves.”
But Christianity isn’t the only religion we see here. Mauritius is, at least initially, a devout believer in Rome’s own pantheon of gods. He has a whole shrine filled with idols, presided over by one disc-like visage whose eyes glow from the sunlight outside. His prayers and sacrifices grow more fervent as his daughter gets sicker and sicker: A confidant even suggests that the gods would look more favorably upon his petitions if he treated Paul more harshly. And Mauritius’ wife believes these deities have abandoned their family because Mauritius has been too lenient with the apostle in his keeping.
But Mauritius is obviously intrigued by the charismatic man in his jail. When the jailor hears Paul speak, he’s mystified. “You are sounding less like a leader and more like a slave,” he tells Paul.
“A slave who has been set free.”
When he’s about to be sent to the Circus with dozens of other Christians, Luke encourages them all. He says that even though they’ll surely be killed, the moment of pain will be brief, and then they’ll be with their Savior. He leads them in prayer: “Father, forgive them,” Luke says, referring to the Romans of course. “For they know not what they do.”
One of Mauritius’ friends expresses his affection for prostitutes. There’s a verbal reference to rape and to women being forcibly turned into prostitutes. We catch a brief glimpse of a nude female statue in Rome.
The Romans have taken killing Christians to the next level: They use them as torches for the city’s dark streets. The movie opens with Luke’s entrance into the city: He stares at a street lined with the burning bodies of Christians hanging from the walls, and we hear screaming. Later, Paul sees a Christian being doused in oil in preparation for his own final service as a living torch. (And we see the beginnings of the man’s immolation.)
A brave Christian boy volunteers to deliver a message to other believers, despite obvious dangers. He (and others) believed that he had a reasonable shot at survival, but he doesn’t make it. His broken, bruised body is taken back to Priscilla and Aquila’s house, stirring up vengeful rage among some believers there. It’s not long before some of the compound’s Christians decide to take matters into their own hands: They invade Mauritius’ prison and kill a few guards (we see them stabbed, though not particularly bloodily), before they find their way to the prison’s pit where Paul is kept.
When Luke first sees Paul in prison, he immediately knows that the apostle has been whipped, and the doctor treats his wounds (which we see). We hear a guard talk about giving the old man “another 20 lashes.” We hear several references to the brutality of the Circus, and we see some Christians walk bravely through its gates to their presumed deaths.
A girl suffers from a condition where her lungs flood with liquid: Luke treats her by puncturing her back (we don’t see the cut, but we do hear the girl’s cry of pain) to drain her lungs. A woman who finds refuge in Priscilla and Aquila’s compound bears signs of a serious attack. We see people being beaten. In flashback, we see Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning.
The movie ends with Paul’s martyrdom: We see Paul rest his head on some sort of platform as the executioner raises his sword. The camera swings to the sky before the final blow lands
One use of “h—.”
Mauritius and a friend of visit a tavern. His friend discusses his love of wine.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Plugged In would invariably praise Paul, Apostle of Christ, as a “good” movie—that is, a movie filled with lots of encouraging Christian content and positive messages. And it absolutely is that.
But let me go a step further: Paul, Apostle of Christ, is a good movie—a well-crafted, moving film with strong performances and an absolutely magnetic turn by James Faulkner, who plays the titular protagonist. Bravo to Sony’s Affirm films, which distributed the surprising critical darling All Saints last year and the Messianic detective story Risen the year before.
As more and more Christian movies seem to make it to the marketplace, let me just say this to aspiring faith-oriented moviemakers: This is how it’s done.
Admittedly, Paul isn’t for everyone. It can be violent and desperate and borderline horrifying in places: It’s not easy to watch living souls burn on walls, or to witness children marching to their deaths on the floor of the Coliseum. And for those who judge the quality of movies by the number of superheroes on screen—well, this Bible-based story, predicated on character, may feel a wee bit slow in spots.
Their loss: Paul, Apostle of Christ brings to life one of Christendom’s most compelling founders: a grizzled, worn-down warrior whose soul longs for home, and who longs to bring as many other souls as possible with him. And if Christians bring along an open-minded nonbeliever or two to see Paul … well, the apostle just might snag a few more.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.