Luke ends the narrative he began with the story of John the Baptist’s birth (Lk 1:5) by telling us about Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. After defending both himself and the gospel to the local Jewish leadership, Paul spends the next two years writing four epistles and continuing to do what Jesus commissioned him to do – spread the gospel. The bad news is that God puts him in a position where he cannot travel and cannot come and go as he pleases. The good news is that the Romans do not hinder his teaching and he proclaims the good news to as many people as will come to him. Acts began with Jesus explaining the kingdom of God to His apostles (1:3). It ends with one of the foremost apostles proclaiming the same thing.
Paul does not wait long after his grueling trip to become active in his new surroundings. Three days after arriving, He calls the leading men of the Jews – probably the leaders of the local synagogues – to him so he can give them his side of the story. He likely assumes they have heard from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem and so may already have preconceived notions about his guilt. He may also expect the Jews to play a role in his trial before Caesar – since the Romans ultimately have no charges to bring – and so wants to defend his situation to them as soon as possible. Ultimately, he wants to do what he always does when he enters a new city – take the gospel to the Jews first. He knows he cannot evangelize those who think he is guilty before the Law.
Nothing is said in the text about why they come, but the Jewish leaders apparently all accept Paul’s invitation. Perhaps he is known in their circles because of his past as an influential Pharisee. Or perhaps they simply accept out of courtesy. Regardless, they all gather at Paul’s residence (which also may account for their acceptance – the fact that he is a Jewish prisoner of Rome who gets to stay in his own rented quarters may pique their curiosity) to hear what he has to say.
Paul tells the Jews that he did nothing against our people or against the customs of our fathers (he did not preach against the Law or the temple), but he was delivered as a prisoner to the Romans in Jerusalem (the Romans actually saved him from a Jewish mob – but the effect was the same). The Romans examined him and found him to be innocent and wanted to release him (remember that he was present when Festus told Agrippa he found no charges to make against Paul – 25:23-27 – he also may have heard about Agrippa’s assessment that he could have been released if not for his appeal to Caesar – 26:32), but the Jews objected and so he appealed to Caesar. This claim is probably based on the Jews wanting to take Paul back to Jerusalem for trial after his hearing before Festus (25:6-12). Festus asked if he would go back to Jerusalem and Paul instead appealed to Caesar. The Jews’ request gave him no choice – he either went to Jerusalem for a sham trial and sure execution, or he appealed to Rome.
Paul is careful to tell the Jewish leaders that his appeal to Caesar does not mean he has accusations against his people. He does not plan on condemning the Jews during his trial. Though he has chosen to stand trial in Rome rather than in Jerusalem, it does not mean he is disloyal. He is not against the Jews regardless of what they have heard. With these words Paul makes it clear that he truly wants to have a good relationship with them during his time in Rome (notice that he begins his address in verse 17 by calling them brethren). As always, his desire is to evangelize his people, not work against them.
He concludes with an opening to the gospel. He says, “For this reason, therefore, I requested to see you.“ This reason seems to refer to the fact that though he is here because of the false accusations of the Jews, yet he has nothing against his own people and wants to have a good relationship with the Roman Jewish leadership. And what he wants to make sure they understand is that he ultimately is imprisoned for the sake of the hope of Israel. He preaches the resurrection ushered in by the Messiah – what Israel has long hoped for – but preaches that it has been fulfilled in Jesus. It is this preaching which caused the Jews to try to kill him and resulted in his arrest by Rome. It is the hope of Israel, moreover, that he wants to more fully discuss with them. His ending shows his ultimate motive for asking to see them – he wants to give them the gospel (with Paul it is ALWAYS about the gospel!).
The leaders’ response to Paul is telling. They say that no one has come from Judea to speak badly about him nor have they received any correspondence from there regarding him. Paul’s fears are unfounded – Jerusalem has not tried to influence the Roman Jews at all and they have no preconceived notions about his innocence or guilt. [“I’m sure she’s told you all about me.” “Actually, she’s never mentioned you.”]
It is interesting that Jerusalem has not tried to intercede at this point. The leaders there were willing to wait two years to make their case against Paul (24:27-25:9) in Caesarea, so it is not like they give up easily. And they plotted to kill him on at least two different occasions – two years apart – so they certainly do not lack fervency. Yet when he gets to Rome they apparently do not bother to send a representative to speak against him or even send a letter to accuse him. Maybe his travel plans enabled him to get to Rome before anyone from Jerusalem could arrive (he was on the ship foolish enough to sail in late fall). In that case someone may still be coming. It could also be, however, that his appeal to Caesar has scared the Jerusalem leadership away. Perhaps they know their case against him is very weak from a Roman standpoint. In that case, they may want nothing to do with a trial before Caesar. And since they do not know Paul’s intention of bringing no accusations against his own people, they may feel they cannot risk becoming the defendants in the trial rather than the plaintiffs.
The Jewish leaders go on to tell Paul that they would like to hear more about this sect that he represents. The reason they want to know more about it is that it is spoken against everywhere. They know that Christianity has spread all over the world and they know that everywhere it goes it causes controversy (and they remember that roughly 15-20 years ago all Jews were kicked out of Rome perhaps because of disputes over Christianity – 18:2). Within their circles it is condemned all over the place. This has to make Paul feel pretty welcomed – “We would really like to hear your preaching, because what you preach is hated just about everywhere!” What they may not realize is that Paul has a lot to do with the fact that Christianity has spread and is spoken against everywhere. Regardless, what they show is that while they may not have any preconceived notions about Paul’s situation as a prisoner, they DO have some preconceived ideas about the gospel – and those ideas may not be overly positive.
Though the Jewish leaders give a mixed message about the gospel, they do want to hear more about it. So Paul arranges with them to spend a day going through what he teaches so they can make up their own minds. They set a day and come to his lodgings in large numbers (they bring more than came the first time – Paul’s rental is apparently fairly large). They listen while he solemnly testifies about the kingdom of God and tries to persuade them concerning Jesus. He teaches about Jesus using both the Law of Moses and the Prophets – the only sources they recognize – just as he has done every time he has evangelized Jews. He interacts with them – probably discussing and debating along with teaching – from morning until evening (which shows his incredible knowledge of the scriptures as well as their zeal for Judaism).
At the end of the day the same thing happens that has happened everywhere he has taken the gospel to Jewish groups. Some believe but many reject the message outright. They just cannot accept that Jesus is the Messiah and died on a Roman cross and then rose again. It does not go along with their picture of what the Messiah will be and it also threatens everything about their current worship.
Paul likely is not surprised by their reaction. He has been through it so many times. Yet he steadfastly believes the gospel is to go to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles (Rom 1:16), so he faithfully preaches to them and then watches as they reject the message. As they are leaving, he says something like what he has said to other Jews who have rejected the good news (13:46, 18:6, 19:8-9) – “Let it be known to you, therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will also listen.” He will take the message to the Gentiles who – unlike the Jews – will accept it. He tried the Jews and they rejected it, so he now feels no more responsibility to minister especially to them. He will now focus his ministry on the Gentiles (as always, this does not mean he will ignore the Jews – he will continue to speak with any Jew who comes to him – what it means is that his focus will no longer be on the synagogues, he will minister to all groups everywhere).
What leads up to his final comment is a prophecy from Isaiah that he quotes to them. He quotes the Septuagint version of Isaiah 6:9-10 that says the hearts and eyes and ears of the people have become so dull that they cannot understand or see or hear the truth. They choose to close their eyes and be blind rather than see the truth and be healed. Jesus used this same passage to explain to His disciples why He spoke in parables the masses did not understand (Matt 13:10-23). In all three examples – Isaiah’s original prophecy, Jesus’ use of it and now Paul’s use of it – the implication is that God’s chosen people reject the truth at their own peril and eventually get to a place where they CANNOT accept it. They close their eyes for so long that God no longer allows them to open them. The Jews who reject the gospel eventually get to the point that the gospel rejects them. [This is obviously not limited to the Jews – anyone who continually rejects the gospel runs the risk of getting to a place where acceptance is no longer an option.]
Paul spends two years in Rome in his rented quarters under house arrest. He welcomes all who come to him – Jew and Gentile alike – and preaches the kingdom of God and teaches about the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered. The Romans continue to treat him well – likely a sign of not only his citizenship but their acknowledgment that the case against him is weak – and do not get in the way of his ministry (other than not letting him travel). So relative to being a prisoner, Paul’s two years in Rome are productive for the kingdom.
It is interesting to consider the time element of these final chapters of Luke’s story. Since his arrest in Jerusalem, Paul has spent roughly five years as a prisoner (two-plus years in Caesarea, the months of travel to Rome, two years in Rome). From a human perspective it seems like he has been out of commission and away from what he does best – evangelizing cities that have not heard the gospel – for a LONG time. It would be easy for Paul to become discouraged at the seemingly wasted years. Yet this is all according to God’s plan. For some reason He saw fit to take the foremost evangelist in church history and put him in Roman custody for almost five years. During these five years, however, Paul has a profound effect on all those around him and certainly the Roman leadership he stands before (as outlined in the notes on 28:1-16). It also pays to remember that during his two years in Rome he pens Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and the letter to Philemon. These are not then wasted years at all – they are years God uses to deepen and authenticate Paul’s ministry beyond what it otherwise would have been.
And that means that we perhaps should be careful when worrying about our role in the kingdom and what God has for us in this life. What we may see as wasted time or menial work may be God’s way of shaping us for His purpose. Moses certainly would not have chosen to work FORTY YEARS for his father-in-law doing a job he was raised to despise (Gen 46:34, Acts 7:30). Joseph’s ambition when he was young was not to spend years in Egypt as a slave and a prisoner (Gen 37-40). Yet in both cases – and in Paul’s case – what man saw as wasted, God saw as time to form His servants and prepare them for future work in the kingdom. This is not to say that we are bound for Moses and Joseph-like greatness after every dry time in our lives. But it does mean that God is always working and we need to trust Him for where we are in His plan at all times; even when it seems like we have been put on a shelf and are not being used at all.
So what happens at the end of two years? Luke does not bother to tell us because his story is finished. He has explained to Theophilus (Lk 1:3, Acts 1:1) the exact truth about the things you have been taught. His story, which began with the birth of John the Baptist and progressed through the spread of the gospel all the way to Rome, is over. But what happens to Paul? From comparing his words in various epistles (Phil 1:1-26, 2:24, Philemon 22, I Tim 3:14, 4:13) it appears that he is released after two years (presumably after a trial before Nero – 27:24) and resumes his ministry and perhaps travels to Spain (Rom 15:24). It is during this time that he likely writes I Timothy and Titus. After some years, he is arrested again and imprisoned under much harsher conditions (II Tim 1:15-18, 2:9, 4:6-21) and eventually executed.
As for how the book ends, it actually ends as it began. Luke began with Jesus teaching His disciples about the kingdom of God (1:3) and commissioning them to preach that the kingdom has come through Him – the Messiah. Jesus sent them out to be His witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (1:8). Luke ends the book with an example of one of Jesus’ apostles fulfilling what Christ commanded. Paul spends two years in Rome – many miles from Jerusalem – preaching the kingdom of God to anyone and everyone who comes to him. The ending seems sudden and somewhat unfulfilling in that Luke does not explain what eventually happens to either Paul or Peter. Its suddenness and lack of completion, however, make it clear that the work Jesus commissioned in Chapter 1 is continuing and there is no end until Christ returns. What Jesus commanded – proclaim the kingdom of God to the remotest part of the earth – happened in Acts but did not end in Acts. It continues for as long as time exists.
The Acts of the Apostles have long ago finished. But the acts of the followers of Jesus will continue until the end of the world, and their words will spread to the ends of the earth. (John Stott, The Message of Acts, The Bible Speaks Today; 405.)