When I am reading a novel, I sometimes skip to the final chapter and scan it quickly to see how the story ends. Who will Hercule Poirot denounce as the murderer? Does Jane Eyre eventually marry Rochester? Can Alice escape from Wonderland? The last chapter generally brings things to a satisfactory conclusion, when loose threads are tied up and secrets are revealed.
However, the final chapter of Acts does not read like this. It seems more like a volume that expects a sequel – the narrative is left as a cliff-hanger. Paul ends up in Rome, preaching the gospel to all who visit his prison-house, Acts 28. 31. Swish! The curtain falls, but it is an unconventional closing scene. We must understand that the Holy Spirit hasn’t finished yet – the story will continue. When Paul reached the end of his race, 2 Tim. 4. 7, he passed the preaching baton on to the next generation as he encouraged Timothy to ‘preach the word’, v. 2. Today, the responsibility is in our hands. The mission goes on, and we are Christ’s witnesses, Acts 1. 8.
In this last chapter Paul encountered three kinds of people: barbarians at Malta, brothers at Italy, and Jews at Rome. Paul distinguishes between these groupings elsewhere, 1 Cor. 10. 32. For the rest of this article, we will consider how Paul behaved when he met these various members of the multi-cultural Roman Empire.
Paul found the people of Malta to be generous, Acts 28. 2, and hospitable, v. 7, despite communication difficulties1 On this isolated island, people had never previously heard the gospel message. The Lord used miracles, vv. 6, 8, 9, to demonstrate the veracity of Paul’s message. Modern missionaries in remote locations sometimes report similar phenomena2 The sovereign God can still be seen ‘confirming the word with signs following’, Mark 16. 20. We note that there were no miracles at Rome, where Paul’s audience was familiar with the scriptures and the Messianic hope, Acts 28. 23.
Christianity reached Rome long before Paul did. There were Roman visitors to Jerusalem at Pentecost, 2. 10. Paul wrote to a church at Rome several years before his imprisonment, when he expressed his desire to see the believers, Rom. 1. 11.
As soon as they heard of Paul’s imminent arrival, the believers hurried to meet him at Puteoli, Acts 28. 14, and Appii Forum, v. 15. These Christians encouraged Paul. Other New Testament believers were commended because they had consistently ‘ministered to the saints’, Heb. 6. 10. How often do we bring comfort to the Lord’s beleaguered servants?
A large Jewish community resided at Rome3 Paul quickly contacted these Jews and intrigued them with his mention of ‘the hope of Israel’, v. 20, a coded Messianic allusion. Paul convened a conference, v. 23, in his rental property, v. 30. He employed the same strategy as always, preaching with conviction, reason and biblical authority, v. 23. We would do well to follow this template in our evangelistic activities.
There were two opposing reactions to the message, similarly at Rome among devout Jews as at Athens among pagan Greeks, 17. 32-34. Some appeared to accept Paul’s teaching, whereas others refused it, v. 24. Paul sent them away with a direct challenge from Old Testament prophecy, v. 25.
So, the book closes as Paul continued to preach freely. Neither persecution nor apathy prevented the spread of the message. ‘Paul – though in chains – and the gospel of God’s kingly rule were irrepressibly surging ahead without let or hindrance’.4 The adventures of Acts have not finished; we should still be adventuring today.
‘We bear the torch that flaming Fell from the hands of those Who gave their lives proclaiming That Jesus died and rose. Ours is the same commission The same glad message ours; Fired by the same ambition To Thee we yield our powers’.5
‘To the Greek, the barbarian was a man who said bar-bar, that is, a man who spoke an unintelligible foreign language and not the beautiful Greek tongue’, William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible – Acts, St Andrew Press, 1976.
For example, check out the life of an early 20th-century Indian missionary called Sadhu Sundar Singh.
There is a summary of historical evidence at https://bible.org/article/origins-church-rome.
David Gooding. True to the Faith. Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.
Frank Houghton. Facing a task unfinished. 1931. See https://omf.org/blog/2015/12/08/facing-a-task-unfinished-by-frank-houghtonthe-story-behind-the-song for details.