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39. Paul in Rome (Acts 28:1-31)

Introduction

When my wife, Jeannette, and I were in college years ago, we worked for a man who ran a business on an island, off shore from Seattle. On the weekends, we would work on the island, preparing and serving fresh salmon, cooked “Indian style.” It was the best salmon I have ever eaten. One weekend, a boat capsized near the island, and after the two men on board had spent several minutes in the chilly waters of Puget Sound they were rescued and brought to the island. They were chilled to the bone. To help them warm up, the two men were put beside the fire where the salmon were cooked. They were covered with blankets and hot rocks were placed around them. One of the men was out of his head. When this fellow came to, he looked into the fire and thought he was in hell.

I cannot help but think of this incident when I read Luke’s account of the landing of Paul’s shipmates on the island of Malta. Although Luke has omitted many of the particulars, we can probably reconstruct the events of that fateful day when the ship’s passengers all landed safely on shore. It seems that the swimmers first set out for shore. As they began to come on shore, some of those on the island must have seen them and rushed down to the shore to help. Those who had made shore would have been very cold. Their wet clothing and the wind must have made them miserable. It did not take long for some of the islanders to build a fire.

The second wave of survivors next began washing up on shore. These were the non-swimmers, who came floating in on pieces of wreckage. They would have needed help much more than the swimmers, but when they arrived, they would have been greeted with the warmth of the fire, already kindled and beginning to blaze. With 276 shivering passengers trying to get warm, this must have been a very good sized fire.

What was about to happen was, once again, to give Paul prominence among the passengers. Just as Paul had gained prominence on board the ship, now he would become prominent in the eyes of those who lived on this island. The sequence of events which led to this prominence is outlined for us by Luke in the first 10 verses of Acts chapter 28. Then, in the next verses (11-15), Luke will describe how Paul and the rest of those on board that ill-fated ship reached Rome safely. Finally, in the closing words of this great book (verses 16-31), Luke will tell of Paul’s meeting with the Jewish leaders in Rome, of the outcome of this meeting, and of Paul’s ministry in Rome for the next two full years.

The structure of this chapter can probably best be summarized in terms of its geography. Viewed from this perspective, there are three major divisions:

  • Paul’s ministry on the island of Malta (28:1-10)
  • Paul’s voyage to Rome (28:11-15)
  • Paul’s ministry at Rome (28:16-31)

To some, the Book of Acts ends very abruptly. There are a number of explanations for this apparent abruptness. I will endeavor to explain Luke’s ending in the light of his purpose in writing this work, and explore some of the implications which are vitally important to Christians of any age. Let us now turn our attention to the events of our text.

Ministry on Malta
(28:1-10)

Paul’s ministry on the island of Malta is the focus of the first ten verses of chapter 28. His ministry appears to be the result of two events: (1) Paul’s supernatural survival from a deadly snake bite; and, (2) the healing of Publius’ father. We will therefore look at these two miraculous events, and then consider Paul’s ministry among those living on the island of Malta.

From the sea, no one on board ship seemed to recognize where they had come to land (see 27:39), but once on shore they learned that they were on the island of Malta (28:1). The natives of the island quickly gathered on shore to assist the passengers as they made it to the beach. I would imagine that some of these natives went into the water, helping those who were exhausted, and especially those who were non-swimmers, to the beach. Here, they had kindled a large fire, to warm the shivering survivors. Not only were the passengers chilled from the cold waters of the sea, but it was raining as well. Beyond an initial warming, dry clothes, a roof over their heads, and a hearty meal were needed by all. Publius would provide these shortly.

But before turning his attention to Publius, Luke highlights one incident which occurred on the beach, an incident which brought Paul to prominence, and which may have had much to do with his ministry on Malta. This large fire may have been fueled by smaller materials, such as brush, roots, and twigs, as well as driftwood which had floated ashore. The may have required frequent refueling. One would not expect any of the passengers, cold, tired, and weakened from their two-week ordeal at sea, to have gone for more sticks. The natives had kindled the fire, and they were no doubt content to keep it going, but Paul nevertheless went for more sticks. This was typical of Paul, and of his lifestyle. He was a servant, and so he would be when the fire began to burn low. He neither wanted nor used any excuses for letting others do all the work.

When he gathered up the sticks and twigs, he ended up with more than wood. A viper was apparently lying dormant among the sticks, and did not come to life until the heat of the fire roused it. The viper fastened itself to Paul’s hand. Paul’s reaction was simple and decisive: he shook the creature into the fire. It is what Paul did not do that is most interesting to me. (1) He did not, in a moment of panic, fling the creature from himself, endangering others. This is what many people would have done. (2) neither did Paul (at least according to Luke’s report here) do anything “spiritual,” like kneel down to pray, or say some pious last words, preach a sermon, or call for a prayer meeting. He seems to have simply gone on with what he was doing. I must admit that it would not surprise me if Paul went back to gather up another arm load of sticks. Paul did not panic. He carried on as usual. He does not seem to act as though he was about to die, even though this was the norm for those thus bitten by this kind of viper.

Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that this viper was not venomous at all, based upon the fact that such snakes no longer are found on Malta—no great surprise for a small island, quite well populated. They would have us believe that both these “primitives” and Luke were in error. This is incredible, on both counts. First, Luke was writing under inspiration, in the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. He could not have erred. In addition, Luke was a doctor, who may well have treated a number of snake bite wounds already. Doctors are not careless about the identification of snakes which might have a fatal bite.

These “primitives” (as some would refer to them) were far more knowledgeable about snakes than those “experts” who would tell us that the creature that bit Paul was non a poisonous snake. The natives who live and work in an area which has poisonous snakes know their snakes well. They don’t make mistakes about such matters. Their life depends upon it. In India and Africa, as well as in rural areas in the Southwest, the “natives” know their snakes. So, too, with the natives on Malta. The snake fastened itself on Paul’s hand. It did not strike, as a rattler would do. It clung, something like a coral snake. They knew what kind of snake the creature was, and what happened when it bit someone. They waited for a sequence of events they had seen too many times before. They waited for Paul’s hand to swell up, and then for him to die. This is what would have happened, without divine intervention.

God did intervene. Paul seemed to go on as usual, and time passed. It eventually became clear that Paul was not going to die, or even to be affected in any way by the snake bite. This should come as no surprise to the Christian, for Jesus had promised as much:

“And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly {poison,} it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18).

And the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall injure you. “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:17-20).

If Paul’s miraculous deliverance from death is no surprise to the believer, it was a surprise to the natives, so much so that they concluded Paul must be a god. This was quite a change of mind, for only minutes before they had determined that Paul must be a horrible criminal, one whom “justice” would not allow to go unpunished. And so, even though he had escaped from death by the sea and the storm, “justice” was being administered through the bite of the deadly serpent (verse 4). Now, however, they concluded just the opposite. This man’s deliverance from death convinced those who witnessed this incident that he was divine.

Luke does not follow up on this incident in his record here. This does not mean that nothing happened. It means, I believe, that Luke chose not to report all that happened. He seems only to wish to show us the high regard in which Paul was now held, and the fact that signs and wonders were again in evidence. This prepares the way to the healing of the father of Publius, followed by the healings of many other ailing islanders.

Just because Luke does not describe what happened as a result of the snake incident does not mean that nothing of consequence occurred. I believe that Luke expects his reader to “fill in some of the blanks,” based upon what he has already written. For example, in the light of earlier material in Acts it is inconceivable that Paul allowed these natives to regard him as a “god.” In Acts chapter 12:21-23 Luke reported that Herod died for allowing the people to address him as a god. And later on in chapter 14 (see verses 8-18) Paul and Barnabas were appalled to learn that some of the people of Lystra were attempting to worship them as gods, going to great efforts to end this misconception and its resulting “worship.” The occasion was used as an opportunity to proclaim the gospel to these natives. So, too, in Acts 28 I believe that Paul refuted the natives’ claim that he was a god, and I would be greatly surprised if he did not proclaim the way of salvation to these people.

Incidentally, this serpent incident was the perfect entre, the perfect lead in to the gospel. When Paul spoke to some of the Jews of Rome, later on in this chapter, he based his proclamation on the Old Testament, on the Law of Moses and the Prophets (verse 23). This was where they were coming from. This was the basis of their belief. But to have spoken to these pagans from the Law and the Prophets would, at this point in time, have been meaningless to them, since they were unfamiliar with the Old Testament revelation.

By means of the serpent incident, God opened the door for witness and proclamation to these Gentiles. Their theology is reflected in their explanations for Paul’s snake bite and for his miraculous preservation. They did not believe in a personal God, but in a more impersonal force or divine being, here spoken of as “justice.” If they had a kind of “natural religion” then God accommodated them by revealing His power through His prophet and apostle, Paul. Had this man escaped “justice,” the sting of death? So they to could escape the sting of sin—death—through faith in Jesus Christ. In a very “natural” (excuse the pun) way, God opened the door to evangelism by revealing something of Himself and of His gospel. I have little doubt that Paul capitalized on this opportunity, even though Luke chose not to give us the details. We know enough about Paul to predict with a fair degree of confidence, how Paul would have responded.

The incident with the serpent seemed to pave the way for an expanded ministry and prominence for Paul. Publius seems to have offered these 276 stranded, shivering souls meals and a place to stay for three days. This is genuine hospitality. After the three days, it seems that the people found winter accommodations elsewhere on the island. But during their three days at the home of Publius, Paul not only learned of the illness of Publius’ father, but determined that God’s power was available to heal him. Paul first went in to see the ailing gentleman, then prayed, then laid hands on him so as to heal him. Much as in the ministry of Jesus and of His apostles, this ministry was multiplied by the healing of many others who were brought for healing also.

It is important to see that Paul did not presume that God would heal through him, any more than He would deliver those on board ship, as though Paul could turn God’s power on and off, like a water faucet. Paul only acted when he was assured of God’s will in these matters. It was not until the angel of the Lord appeared to Paul that he assured the passengers of their safe landing, even though this ship was to be destroyed (27:21-26). I believe that Paul only laid hands on the father of Publius after he was convinced that God willed his miraculous healing.

The order of Paul’s actions is significant, in my opinion. He first went in to the man, then prayed, and then laid his hands on the man to heal him. I believe that his prayer was for the purpose of discerning God’s will with regard to the man’s healing. Only after he was assured that it was God’s will did Paul lay his hands on the ailing man to heal him. Paul’s God was a sovereign God, not under the control of Paul. As such, God was (and still is) always able to heal and to perform miracles; but He is not always willing to do so. Paul waited for God to give him the signal to go ahead, rather than to attempt to prompt God. Would that Christians today would do likewise, rather than claiming to have constant power, which they employ at their discretion.

Paul’s actions in this regard are consistent with those of our Lord, of other apostles, and with his own prior actions. Jesus Himself seems to have been attentive to whether or not it was God’s will and time for Him to heal and perform miracles:

And it came about one day that He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing (Luke 5:17).

The inference of this verse is that there were times when the power of the Lord was not present for performing healings, and that Jesus was sensitive and attentive to such times. Jesus healed and performed miracles when He was certain it was God’s time for doing so. He would not act independently of the Father, or seek to force Him to act in accordance with His own will (see Luke 4:1-11; John 7:1-9; 8:28-30). Paul also seems to have performed miracles, signs and wonders, only when it was apparent that it was God’s will to do so (see Acts 14:3). In addition to Paul’s sensitivity to God’s sovereign leading, Paul also took other related factors into account, such as the faith of those who would be healed (see Acts 14:9-10). God’s sovereignty therefore means that He is always able to heal and perform miracles, but that He is not always willing to do so. We do not manipulate God; He manipulates us!

And so it was that Paul concluded it was God’s will to heal the father of Publius, which opened the door for many other healings. Once again, Paul had come to the forefront; he had gained prominence. This took place through the sovereign workings of God, and it likely resulted in the proclamation of the gospel and the salvation of some souls. Luke does not tell us that Paul preached, or how he did so. Neither does he give us a “head count” of the “souls won.” Such statistics are unnecessary and often inaccurate. God was at work here. This is evident. And where God is at work the results are assured. As a matter of fact, an accurate understanding of the sovereignty of God assures us that for the Christian, God is always at work, for his or her ultimate good and most importantly for the advance of the gospel and of God’s purposes.

The islanders, grateful to God and grateful for Paul’s presence, showed their gratitude in a very tangible way—they gave all the passengers provisions for the final days of their journey to Rome. Once again, the presence of but one man—Paul (not to mention the other saints with him)—was a source of blessing for the entire gathering of those on board this ship. How the presence of but a few saints can be a blessing to the rest (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-14).

We are about to leave these islanders behind, as Paul and his fellow-passengers will board ship, headed for Rome. But let us leave these Maltese natives with a final thought. They rushed to the shore, thinking that they could be of help to these shivering passengers. What they were to learn shortly was that God had sent Paul and the gospel to help them. It was not long before those who rushed to the shore to help Paul were rushing to Paul for help from God. How marvelous are His ways!

Paul’s Voyage To Rome
(28:11-15)

Much ministry must have taken place in those three months that Paul and the other stranded passengers wintered on the island of Malta. When the seas were again open for sea travel, the passengers obtained passage on an Alexandrian ship, which had wintered there on Malta, and which was sailing for Rome. Luke not only tells us that this was an Alexandrian ship (undoubtedly a grain ship), but that it had “the Twin Brothers” for its figurehead. These “twin brothers” were the heathen gods who were believed to provide safety and success on the sea. In the shadow of God’s mighty hand in delivering Paul and all on board his ship, how paltry these two gods must have seemed to Luke. How futile such religion. The One True God is in charge of all, while the heathen make their “gods” to bolster their hopes for safety and success.566

In contrast to the detail with which Luke described the journey which ended in shipwreck (chapter 27), very little is said about the journey from Malta to Rome. Their route took them from Malta to Syracuse, Sicily’s major port city, on its southeastern coast. Here, they stayed for three days, before sailing on to Rhegium, a port on the very “toe” of the “boot” of Italy. When a south wind sprang up on the following day, they sailed on to the prominent Italian port city of Puteoli, where some brethren were found, and where Paul stayed for seven days (verse 14). This one week delay was apparently due to business which the Roman centurion had in this city. It allowed Paul time to enjoy the fellowship of previously unknown saints.

Paul’s Arrival and Ministry in Rome
(28:16-31)

Leaving Puteoli, Paul, his companions, his fellow-prisoners and the Roman guards traveled by land until they came to the famous Appian Way,567 which they followed to Rome. Brethren from Rome heard of Paul’s coming and came as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to met him and his party. Paul had written a very important epistle to these believers some time before, known to us as the Book of Romans. In this epistle, Paul spoke of his earnest desire to come to them, for ministry to them and from them (Romans 1:7-15). This must have been a joyous time of fellowship, but, once again, Luke passes by this “human interest” story, pressing on to a more important matter from the standpoint of his purpose in writing this account.

Luke has almost nothing to say about Paul’s relationship to the church in Rome. In fact, Luke has very little to say, in particular, about Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles in Rome. Instead, the chapter and the book ends with an account of Paul’s meeting with the leading Jews of Rome. Let us turn our attention to this meeting with the Jews, and with its immediate and longer-term outcome.

Although Paul had arrived in Rome, his appearance before Caesar would be delayed by the normal “red tape” paperwork and processes of government. Paul was kept in custody during this time of waiting, allowed to stay in a house, under guard by one soldier. This freedom appears to be the result of one or more factors. First, Paul was not yet a convicted criminal. The Romans had great difficulty even deciding upon what charges to press against Paul, let alone succeeding in convicting him. Second, Paul had won the confidence of at least Julius, the centurion commander of the Augustan cohort (27:1ff.). Paul was therefore granted a fair measure of freedom, being under a kind of “house arrest.”

This freedom did not allow Paul to travel about on his own, but it did give him the opportunity to minister to any who would come to him. Three days passed before Paul called for visitors. We do not know what happened in these three days, or why Paul waited to invite the Jews to his house. My best guess is that Paul wanted to meditate and pray about this matter, to be able to come to some conviction as to what he should do.

Paul determined to invite the Jewish leaders, so that he could explain the reason for his presence in Rome, and to open the door to proclaim the gospel to the unbelieving Jews there. Paul had at least two meetings with these Jews. On their first visit, Paul is not said to have presented the gospel to them. His first order of business was to explain his presence in Rome and to assure the Jews of his innocence and sincerity.

If Paul was to have a hearing with these Jews, he must first of all overcome the impressions which the Jews would have of him as a prisoner of Rome. Clearly in the New Testament one’s “walk” is to conform to his “talk,” so that the gospel was to be backed up by a godly life. You can well imagine how seriously Paul would be taken as a prisoner. With the pagans on Malta, God overcame Paul’s status as a prisoner by sparing him from certain death (by the snake bite) and by working signs and wonders through him (as a result of the healing of Publius’ father).

Here, Paul sought to vindicate himself by explaining the cause of his arrest, and the reason for his presence in Rome, before Caesar. Paul claimed that he had not violated any of the customs of the Jews, nor had he done the Jews any wrong. He informed these Jews that the Gentiles had, indeed, purposed to release him, and except for the protest of some Jews, he would have been set free (28:18-19).

The relationship between the Jews and the Romans seems to have been rapidly deteriorating. We know from Luke’s words in Acts 18:1-2 that Claudius had, for a period of time, expelled the Jews from Rome. The final rebellion of the Jews in Jerusalem would soon bring about the sacking of that city by Rome. The Jews of Rome were no doubt very sensitive about the presence of any Jew who might stir up trouble with the Romans. Paul therefore assured the Jews who assembled at his house that he was not in Rome to bring any charges against the Jews (28:19).568

The Jews dealt with Paul in what appeared to be an open-minded fashion. They responded by telling Paul that they had heard nothing specific about his case. They were honest in informing Paul that while they heard nothing against him, they were aware that the Jewish response to the gospel was uniformly unfavorable:

“But we desire to hear from you what your views are; for concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22).

They were, they insisted, open-minded and willing to listen to what Paul had to say to them about his views, in spite of his presence in Rome as a prisoner. And so a time was agreed upon when they would return, and when Paul could expound and explain his views on the kingdom of God (28:23).

And so they arrived on that appointed day, and from morning till night Paul proclaimed the gospel, in Jewish terms, based upon the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, as found in the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and as fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth (28:23).

Their response to Paul and to his gospel was, as usual, mixed. Some were persuaded by what Paul taught and believed in Jesus as the promised Messiah. Others did not. This, as usual, created another dynamic in the group. Rather than telling us that the unbelieving Jews polarized against Paul, Luke informs us that their was a polarization between the believing and unbelieving Jews. This group had come in unity. They were all willing to hear what Paul had to say. But when the gospel was proclaimed, it immediately began to divide these men. The believers and the unbelievers began to disagree with each other, to the point where is was senseless to continue on. This division is typical of the response of men to each other, when some believe the gospel and others reject it:

“Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five {members} in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).

“Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there arose a division in the multitude because of Him. And some of them wanted to seize Him, but no one laid hands on Him (John 7:42-44).

Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them (John 9:16).

There arose a division again among the Jews because of these words. And many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?” Others were saying, “These are not the sayings of one demon-possessed. A demon cannot open the eyes of the blind, can he?” (John 10:19-21).

Therefore they spent a long time {there} speaking boldly {with reliance} upon the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. But the multitude of the city was divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles (Acts 14:3-4).

And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided (Acts 23:7).

The day had come to a close. It was time for all to leave. But before the group left Paul had one more thing to say to them. These were, for those who refused to believe the Scriptures and to accept Jesus as their Messiah, Paul’s final words. Just as Paul turned to the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, so he found in the Old Testament Scriptures an explanation for the rejection of these Jews. He turned to the words found in Isaiah chapter 6:

25 And when they did not agree with one another, they {began} leaving after Paul had spoken one {parting} word, “The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers, 26 saying, ‘Go to this people and say, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; And you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; 27 For the heart of this people has become dull, And with their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes; Lest they should see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I should heal them. “‘ 28 “Let it be known to you therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen.”

There was a distinct parallel, a clear similarity, between Paul’s ministry to the Jews of his day, and Isaiah’s ministry to Judah and Jerusalem centuries earlier. Paul could therefore find in God’s instructions to Isaiah an explanation for the rejection of these Jews of his day, and also a corresponding word of warning to them, as well as comfort in his ministry, which did not produce the results he wanted.

You will remember in the context of Isaiah that the northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen to the Assyrians. In the light of this judgment, the southern kingdom of Judah is called to repentance and warned of a similar judgment. The people of Judah and Jerusalem have not listened to God’s admonition. The time for her divine discipline has drawn near. After seeing a vision of he glory of God, Isaiah is commissioned to preach to this disobedient nation, but in his commission God made it clear that his task was not to bring about repentance, but rather to bring about greater guilt, to fatten these rebellious people for judgment. Indeed, though he was to speak the Word of God to the Jews, the Word of God would only serve to dull their senses, rather than to quicken and convict them for their sin.

Paul saw the parallels between his ministry and that of Isaiah, and between the circumstances in Judah and Jerusalem in his day and in that of the prophet of old. He knew that God had spoken once and for all in Jesus, and that the Jews had rejected Him. He knew that his ministry would not be one of ushering in the kingdom of God, but one of preceding the coming day of God’s indignation and discipline. And so he pointed back to God’s words to Isaiah, as being also words to his own generation of Jews. Let them listen well to this ancient warning, for just as Judah and Jerusalem of Isaiah’s day were soon to go into a period of captivity at the hand of the Babylonians, so the Israel and Jerusalem of his day were to go into captivity at the hands of the Romans.

These words of Paul were the last words most of the unbelieving Jews would hear from him. But for the other Jews who believed in Jesus, Paul’s words on this day were only the beginning. Luke tells us that two full years would pass, with Paul continually ministering to all who came to him. This seems to have included both Jews and Gentiles.

Conclusion

The concluding words of the Book of Acts are sad, indeed, with regard to the fate of the nation Israel. In the first chapters of the Book of Luke, Jesus was introduced as the promised Savior who came to save His people, Israel, as well as to be a blessing to the Gentiles. But, as the gospel of Luke reveals, “His people” did not receive Him, but rejected Him. This was especially true of the Jewish leaders, and generally true of many other Israelites. There were those, of course, who did believe in Him.

As the Book of Acts begins, the Lord is described as departing from this earth, commissioning His apostles to carry on the work which He began. But once again, the Jews reject the gospel as proclaimed by the apostles, in spite of the evidences of God’s power at work through them. As Jesus was killed, so were Stephen and many others. Graciously, Saul was converted, from a persecutor of Christianity, to a proclaimer of Christ.

The Book of Acts is a description of the expansion of the gospel, from Jerusalem to the “uttermost part of the earth,” and from primarily Jewish listeners to many Gentiles as well. But as the gospel went forth from Jerusalem, the Jews persistently rejected the good news, and persecuted those who proclaimed the gospel. Now, at Rome, the majority of the Jews there reject the word of the gospel. The Jews have heard, and most have rejected the truth that Jesus was the Messiah, who came to the earth, took on human flesh, was rejected, crucified, and raised from the dead. Now, after nearly 40 years of grace, the time of God’s judgment draws nigh. The Book of Acts ends, not with the salvation of Israel, and with the establishment of the kingdom, but with the rejection of Israel, and with the ever nearing time of Israel’s captivity and suffering. There is, in this sense, a deep sense of sorrow as the Book of Acts draws to a close.

While Israel’s days are numbered, and we see this with great sadness, we also find the Book of Acts hardly ending at all, but rather it seems to be only a beginning. If the gospel has been rejected by the Jews, it is still being proclaimed and believed by the Gentiles. We who are Gentiles, who live some twenty centuries after the ending of Acts, find that what Jesus continued to do through the apostles, He is still doing today. If the Book of Acts ends one chapter in the history of Israel, it begins a whole new chapter in the history of the church. If the Lord Jesus was at work in and through the apostles in Acts, He is still at work in and through His church to this very day. It does not appear to be long before “the times of the Gentiles” will come to a close, and the return of the Lord Jesus to establish His kingdom will take place. Let each one who reads these words from the pen of Paul take heed. The day of judgment for all mankind draws near. Let each individual repent of his sin and trust in the solution for sin which God has provided in Jesus, who died in the sinner’s place, and who offers to all who would believe, the righteousness which God requires and the certainty of eternal life.

One final word about the supposedly “sudden and abrupt” ending of the Book of Acts. Many have noted the unusual ending of Acts. Some have explained this ending by suggesting that Luke intended to write yet another volume. I think that the ending of Acts is both beautiful, and enlightening. Consider with me the way that Luke ends this work as we conclude this message.

There are some very obvious facts that are not given to us in Acts before the book ends. We are not told of Paul’s fate, or of the outcome of his trial. We are not told of the fall of Jerusalem. We are left without any word on these matters, matters which we would very much like to know more about.

I am not inclined to believe that Luke omitted these things because they had not yet happened, though this may be the case. If they had not yet happened, they would take place very soon after the Book of Acts came to a close. Regardless of the reasons why more information is not included, it was not included, and this must be in accordance with the purposes of God, and especially His purposes for this book.

Luke does tell us that “two full years” passed, during which Paul was free to proclaim the gospel and to minister to all who came to him (28:30-31). The expression “two full years” suggests to me that Luke may have known the outcome of Paul’s trial, and also of the fate of Israel and Jerusalem. If so, he did not include them in his book. Why not?

I think I know the answer, an answer which should prove to be very enlightening to each and every Christian today. Luke’s purpose was not to provide us with a book that has a “happily ever after” ending. Much of our uneasiness with the ending of Acts is that we don’t have a fairy tale conclusion. What Luke does tell us, however, is that the gospel was proclaimed to the “remotest part of the earth” just as Jesus had said (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:6-8). It is the progress of the proclamation of the gospel which is foremost in Luke’s mind, and the Book of Acts makes this progress very clear.

What is not so clear is the fate of people. We are not told of the fall of Israel and Jerusalem. We are not told of the outcome of Paul’s trial. We are not told of the deaths of most of the apostles.569 Acts is not a biblical version of a “book of martyrs.” Acts is the account of the word of God through the Lord Jesus and through the church. It is the account of the progress of the gospel, and not a series of “human interest stories” on the lives of the apostles or other saints.

Our dissatisfaction (and that’s what it really is, in my opinion) with the ending of the Book of Acts is a reflection of our own distorted thinking and priorities. We are more “people-centered” than we are “gospel-centered.” To put it more bluntly, we are more “self-centered” than we are “gospel-centered.” The reason why we are so interested in Paul’s outcome is because we are so interested in our own safety and comfort. Paul was a gospel-centered man, and so were the apostles. They were not interested in their own comfort, security, or preservation from pain and suffering. They were eager for the gospel to be proclaimed, whether this meant life or death for them, and whether it meant pain or prosperity for them. Look at the following texts and take note of the “gospel-centeredness” of them, in contrast to the thinking and feelings of our own day and age.

When Paul thinks of his own future, he thinks not of safety, security, or of comfort, but of the progress of the gospel in terms of the salvation of the lost and the spiritual growth of believers:

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but {that} with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if {I am} to live {on} in the flesh, this {will mean} fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both {directions,} having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for {that} is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again (Philippians 1:18-26).

In speaking of his deliverance, Paul thought much more of his final deliverance, into the kingdom of God, rather than of any deliverance from suffering and pain in this life:

But the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me, in order that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was delivered out of the lion’s mouth. The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him {be} the glory forever and ever. Amen (2 Timothy 4:17-18).

When Paul spoke to Christians concerning their conduct, he spoke with reference to the impact which their conduct would have on the gospel:

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, {to be} sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored. Likewise urge the young men to be sensible; in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, {with} purity in doctrine, dignified, sound {in} speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us. {Urge} bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:3-14).

Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and {our} doctrine may not be spoken against. And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these {principles.} (1 Timothy 6:1-2).

Today, we seek to motivate Christians to obey Christian principles so that they can live happier, more successful lives. But Paul urged Christians to live in obedience to the Word of God so that the gospel would not be hindered.

And when Paul prayed or asked for prayer, it most often pertained to his boldness and clarity in proclaiming the gospel, not in his deliverance from suffering and difficulties:

Finally, brethren, pray for us that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, just as {it did} also with you; and that we may be delivered from perverse and evil men; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you from the evil {one.} (2 Thessalonians 3:1-3).

With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and {pray} on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in {proclaiming} it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak (Ephesians 6:18-20).

May the sake of the gospel become our great desire, overthrowing the fleshly desires of self-interest and self-protection. May we, like Paul, see the salvation of the lost and the spiritual growth of believers as the task worthy of our suffering, pain, and even of death.


566 “Ships, like inns, took their names from their figureheads. The ‘Heavenly Twins’ who formed the figurehead of this ship were Castor and Pollux, patrons of navigation and favorite objects of sailors’ devotion.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 501.

567 “A few miles’ journey from Puteoli brought them on to the Appian Way, one of the great Roman roads of south Italy, named after Appius Claudius, in whose censorship it was planned (312 B.C.).” Bruce, p. 502.

568 Paul did have accusations or charges against the Jews, just as Stephen did (Acts 7), but these were not legal charges, made under Roman law; they were spiritual charges, based upon the Old Testament revelation and the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, the Christ. Paul’s charges against the Jews, as seen in 28:25-28, are for their hard-nosed unbelief and rebellion against God. The penalty of which he warns is not the wrath of Rome, but the coming wrath of God (albeit, expressed, in part, through the Roman’s destruction of Jerusalem).

569 We are told of the death of James for a very practical reason: the death of James, the brother of John, as reported in Acts 12:2, was reported to indicate the seriousness of Peter’s arrest. If Herod would have had his way, he would have killed Peter. But God intervened, arranged for Peter’s miraculous escape, and in fact also arranged for the death of Herod instead.