Acts (Part 38) - Rome
In chapter 27 Paul had warned the centurion Julius that the sailors would try to make it to shore using the skiff. That, Paul had said, would be disastrous for them (27:31). From the one sentence Luke records, we may understand Paul’s statement to mean that God had ordained loss of all lives unless they all remained together in the boat. But Paul’s statement does not necessarily have to be understood that way. Previously in the chapter, Paul had given advice, not by angelic message, but merely using his experience in sailing. In verse 10, Paul had warned that it was a bad time to sail. So, in verse 31, after hearing of the sailors’ plan, Paul worries that without the sailors to sail the ship, they would surely hit the rocks, putting their safe arrival in doubt. So, the soldiers cut the skiff away, the sailors sail the ship, and although they lose the ship, they all arrive safely according to God’s plan.
Chapter 28 also gives us pause to wonder whether miracle or routine life is at work. We read of the snake in the wood bundle that latches on to Paul’s hand. The natives believe it poisonous and that Paul could not survive. But after shaking it off in the fire, nothing happens. The islanders therefore change their opinion, recognizing divine interference, and conclude Paul is a god. Most Christians, when reading the story, agree with the natives that the snake was poisonous. Today, we don’t know of any poisonous snakes on Malta. We also know that most people of Paul’s day believed all snakes were poisonous. Eusebius writes about this saying that the belief was even “common among the educated.” The action of the snake is also not typical for poisonous snakes who usually strike and withdraw. Constrictors (more common on Malta) bite and hang on while they wrap their length around their prey. Perhaps Paul’s snake was a constrictor. From Paul’s vantage point, it was merely a non-poisonous snakebite, so he shakes the offender into the fire. But the story is from the islanders’ perspective. It is their belief that the snake is poisonous, so they are alarmed, judgmental, and finally astounded—but all based on their perspective. How well that fits in with an outsider viewing Paul’s life. He stands as a murderer of Stephen and possibly others. A demand by justice for his life would seem appropriate. But God is with him, protecting, converting, and using him.
Paul finally reaches Rome in chapter 28. Only three days there, and he is eager to continue ministry. As in every other place, Paul looks first to the Jews. He can’t go to them, so he invites them to come to him. We learn that these Jewish leaders had received no letters or messengers from the leaders in Jerusalem. While that may seem strange at first, since the Jews seemed so intent on prosecuting Paul, the Jews probably realized that their case had little “law” to it to gain conviction. With Felix and Festus, they spent their efforts attempting to manipulate favors to convict Paul. They also hoped to ambush him in his travels from and to Jerusalem. But in Rome, facing Nero, they would have to come up with proof for conviction—something they knew they would not be able to do. So, they essentially dropped the case. With no accusers, Paul, we learn, spends about two years under house arrest waiting for the accusers, but then presumably would be released. Later, tradition tells us, he was arrested again and that time put to death.
As Paul talks with the Jewish leaders, he presents Christ. After discussing the matter thoroughly (from dawn to dusk – 28:23), Paul quotes Isaiah’s prophecy that they people would listen but not understand and see but not perceive. The offended unbelievers begin to leave, and Paul makes plans to continue his ministry to the Gentiles. This ending to book is fitting. Although we may find the ending to be rather abrupt—no trial (the subject of the last several chapters), no appearance before Caesar, no end to Paul’s ministry—the purpose of the book is actually fulfilled. Back at the beginning of the Mosaic covenant (about 1200 years earlier), God had told the Israelites that if they would “listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). How would all the Israelites be a kingdom of priests?
We normally associate the kingdom of priests with the New Covenant. God has made each of us a priest (Revelation 1:6). A priest is someone who, according to C. S. Lewis, “represents us to God and God to us.” The Israelites were to represent God to the world. How? We find out immediately in the Exodus context—by following the Law that God gives them. But the Israelites immediately fall away. And although a priesthood is created within this nation of priests to deal with their sin, the idea of God’s people being priests is tucked away until fulfilled in Christ, and through Christ in us. But this connection—this vital part of the progressive revelation of God’s story leading from death to redemption and restoration—climaxes in Christ’s fulfillment. And this is why Paul goes to the Jew first. It is the completion of the hope of Israel. It is the satisfaction of the Law. It is the means for Immanuel—God with us. The whole book of Acts carries this theme throughout (even in the structure of the book—chs 1-8 to the Jew and chs 8-28 to the Gentile). Luke’s ending scene is therefore most fitting to his message. Christ fulfills the old covenant as he opens for us the new. It is one story—God’s story of creation restoration to relationship.
“Now that same day two of [the disciples] were on their way to a village called Emmaus….And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus Himself came near and began to walk with them. But they were prevented from recognizing Him….He said to them, ‘How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”