reading assignment: Acts 20 – 28
As we come to the end of this Bible Study, we read to the conclusion of Luke’s two-part work. In the first session, we were asked to identify the disruptive behaviors of the apostles, who were detailed as “turning the world upside-down.” As we reach the end of Luke’s story, we find Paul settled within the seat of power for the Roman Empire – juxtaposed with the legal and political establishment in Rome. We have a strange resolution to the tale: “Paul stayed two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” These last verses of the book are packed with images and terms from throughout Luke’s two-part work: an impermanent dwelling (a rented house), the kingdom of God, teaching, boldness, a mission unhindered (even when the missionary is under constraints), hospitality and welcoming to all.
I found this paragraph from The New Interpreters Bible insightful:
“The hospitable Paul welcomed his religious clients into his own lodging and spoke to them concerning the Word of God “with all boldness.” Hospitality and makeshift meeting places for worship and Bible instruction are important themes in the second half of Acts (see 16:15, 31-34; 17:5, 18:7-8; 19:9-20), not only in dispelling James’ anxiety over the future of a distinctively Jewish ethos in the Pauline church (15:20-21) but also in showing the manner by which Amos’s prophecy of God’s “re-housing” Israel is fulfilled through Paul’s mission to the nations (15:16-17). The use of “boldness” recalls how the apostles prayed for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to empower a more effective proclamation of the gospel (4:29-31). It is this holy boldness of prophets-like-Jesus, cultivated by living in the Spirit, which enlivens a courageous communication of the gospel (2:29; 9:27-28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 22:26).
SCENES IN THE LAST NINE CHAPTERS
- Paul’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem (20:1-16)
- Paul’s Speech of Succession – giving over leadership in Ephesus to the Ephesians themselves (20:17-38)
- Paul’s Journey into Jerusalem (21:1-16)
- Paul Meets with James (21:17-26)
- Paul’s Arrest in Jerusalem (21:27-39)
- Paul Defends Himself in Jerusalem (21:40 – 23:35)
- Paul’s Roman Trial in Caesarea (24:1-27)
- Paul Appeals to Caesar (25:1-12)
- Interlude: Fetus Twice Reviews Paul’s Case (25:13-27)
- Paul Defends Himself Before King Agrippa and Bernice (26:1-32)
- Setting Sail for Rome (21:1-12)
- Stormy Weather (27:13-26)
- Surviving the Shipwreck (27:27-44)
- Paul Arrives in Rome (28:1-16)
- Paul’s Mission in Rome (28:17-28)
- The End (28:30-31)
POINTS TO PONDER
FROM CHAPTERS 20-21
These chapters illustrate a mission “to the nations” which is picking up steam and now includes so many non-Hebrew names, making it clear that Greek-speaking church leaders and missionaries are outnumbering Hebrew-speaking believers as Paul travels. This section tells us that Paul intends to face head-on the continuing tension his work brings to the Church. He chooses to return to Jerusalem “hopefully on Pentecost.” This is the work of the Spirit in the world. Paul does not only have his eyes on Jerusalem, though there are growing signs that ultimately a world-changing religion will need to travel through Roman roads – and all roads lead to Rome. Paul separates himself from the daily commitments of pastoral leadership in the churches he starts, and recognizes the need for empowering and equipping many, many new leaders of the Church as his focus shifts to sharing his personal testimony in the seats of world power – both Jewish and pagan.
From chapters 21-26
The tension builds. As he continues to enter synagogues and the Temple, Paul’s constant preaching about how the Messiah has brought good news which extends to the gentiles brings consternation everywhere he goes. When he arrives in the seat of power for Judaism, Jerusalem, he is warmly welcomed by James “and all the elders were present.” They have a frank conversation about the joyful success of the missionary effort, and the concurrent concern among their Jewish brethren who are troubled by the reports. Word on the street is that Paul encourages “all Jews to forsake Moses, and not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” Paul’s brothers in the faith relate their plan for Paul to relieve the pressure of these allegations by showing himself in Jerusalem as an adherent to the Law through rites of purification and sacrifice. Paul does exactly as they advise him to do. Nevertheless, Paul’s public appearances with Greek-speaking non-Jews rankle those who are concerned that he is undermining the synagogues of the diaspora. A violent mob tries to kill him, and Paul is arrested by the Roman authorities to quell a riot. The centurion, once he realizes that Paul is Greek-educated, and not “from here,” allows Paul to preach to the crowd before being taken away to the barracks. This riles the crowd further, and Paul is taken to the barracks to be flogged. When the centurion learns that Paul is also a Roman citizen, the plans change from flogging him, to acting as his protectors. As they investigate the matter further, the Romans take him to speak directly to the chief priests and council. Paul preaches to them and further agitates the Jewish council. Seeing that the best way to settle the “uprising” is to get Paul out of town, they take Paul under cover of darkness to Antipatris, presenting him to the governor in Caesarea. In time, the high priest Ananias and some elders bring an attorney with them to Caesarea and level charges against Paul. One hearing leads to another and soon Paul is before Felix the governor. For two years Paul speaks off and on with Felix, sometimes with the governor’s Jewish wife, Drusilla, present.
Felix is succeeded by Festus. Under Festus, Paul seizes the opportunity to use Roman law to get his case directly before the emperor. “After he had conferred with his council, Festus replied, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” But that doesn’t happen right away. King Agrippa is a Palestinian ruler, a secular Jew. Agrippa is married to Bernice who is Drusilla’s sister. They are members of the same notorious Herodian family whose reign during the days of Jesus and the apostles was notorious for its bloody and brutal repression of the faith community’s witness to God. There is royal politicking going in the connivance between Agrippa and Bernice (secular Jews) with Festus (pagan) to use the case of Paul to make a positive impression on their supervisors in Rome. Festus needs the help of Agrippa and Bernice to understand the religious nuances of his inherited “Paul problem.”
In his narration here, Luke characterizes the debate as a contrast of the rational outsider (Festus) with the various Jewish mobs (including the Sanhedrin) who have been “shouting that Paul ought not to live any longer” (25:24b). The rational thing to do is to examine him and write up a report of the findings (25:26, 21:34; 22:30). So, Paul plays the part of laying out a rational defense for the Gospel and for his actions in accordance with it. (26:1-32) Paul plays to both his pagan (Festus) and Jewish (Agrippa and Bernice) audiences in his speech. Both realize that he is trying to not only defend himself but to convert them through his discourse. Chapter 26 ends with Agripppa, Bernice and Festus saying to each other that Paul is not guilty of the charges leveled in this case. Agrippa concludes, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor.
From chapters 27-28
Luke’s narrative builds tension as it barrels toward the conclusion, with its details about the various ships, ports, escorts, changing of guards and weather. This journey toward the emperor is ominous. If you attended Sunday school regularly growing up, you probably know that the foreshadowing is of an imminent shipwreck… “much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous… “(27:9). The shipwreck is a literary convention of ancient fiction, prominent in Greek novels. Paul’s composure and ability to speak a prophetic word to the crew in the throes of a stormy sea complements his earlier defense speeches, providing the reader with a robust portrait of a protagonist with spiritual authority. Paul is a prophet-like-Jesus (but without the power to calm the storm). Unlike the reluctant prophet Jonah, who did not want to preach salvation to foreigners, Paul is not running away from his calling. Instead, he stays in the boat hurtling toward it – while showing concern for all his imperiled traveling companions, even his military escort. His fellow travelers, with their Greek and Roman names and titles remind us how far Paul is traveling from his previous Palestinian life. And his engagement with and concern for all those in the gentile world he willingly ent
Questions for This Week
- In the second half of Acts, there is a clear trajectory away from a Jamesian Church and toward a Pauline Church as more and more traditions of the Law are left behind in an increasingly gentile manifestation of Church. Can you imagine how Church might be different if it had remained centered in the established traditions and mores of the Jerusalem Council?
- In chapter 27 we read that a gale force wind has taken hold of the ship and driven it away from the safer coastal waters out into the stormy chaos. The well-experienced sailors are in a position where all they can do is “give way to it” so the ship does not capsize. As trite as it may sound, this is a literal “let go and let God” passage. Paul seems to be the only one aboard who can do that. What spiritual truth is here?
- In 27:33 Paul is comforting his fellow travelers as a new day is dawning after fourteen days tossing about in the stormy sea, completely lost and adrift. He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with those who are in the same boat as he is. Do you see any redeeming reason for this act? Obvious parallels?
- On the island of Malta, once safely ashore, Paul is well received by many of the less-sophisticated indigenous people of that place. Luke portrays them as superstitious and primitive to underscore his point that the learned and well-heeled of the earth have more trouble accepting the simple truth of the gospel than “the foolish”. These simple people were people of “unusual kindness” (28:2) and when they finally left the island, “they bestowed many honors on us and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.” Do you see yourself in either of these contrasting characterizations (learned/simple)?
- “When we came to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.” (28:16) More than this, upon arrival they were greeted by believers that were already there in Rome. Those Roman roads had brought the good news of Jesus Christ into the capital of the world even before Paul got there himself. “On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” True to pattern, Paul not only meets with these welcoming fellow believers, but also with the faithful brothers who are leaders of the local Jews. These “come to his lodgings in great numbers.” Some believed what he told them, most did not. “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28:28) Have you ever had to deal with alienation and rejection from your “own kind?”
- Luke’s long two-part narrative comes at the thorny issue of living constructively with those who are “not your kind” from every possible angle. Tradition verses innovation, old and new, experienced and newbie, differences in gender, social prestige, education, language, national and ethnic identity, and so forth. There are different perspectives within the body of the church, within individual families, within long-standing friendships, within professional associations. There are competing political agendas. What has Acts shown you about the Christian stance toward conflict?
In the end, Paul is simply being Paul, ever faithful to his prophetic vocation. This is Luke’s point. The ending to Acts does what good endings to excellent stories must always do: facilitate a transition that moves readers from the narrative world to their own considerably more complicated real worlds. These parting images of Paul linger on in our collective imagination to stimulate further reflection on what it means to continue what Paul began to do and to say in Rome. We are his successors. While times and places will continue to change, the church’s prophetic calling is to “proclaim the kingdom of God and teach about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness.” The church must simply be the church.