Note: This concludes our study on the book of Acts. On Monday, April 16th we will begin with a study of the book of Hebrews.
23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:
26 “‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
27 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’[a]
28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”  [b]
30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
If you ever want to see a group of people get upset quickly go to a movie with them that they think doesn’t have a good ending. That will the irritate people to no end. It’s almost amusing when a movie ends and it clearly had a different agenda than people in the audience wanted it to have. I recall watching one movie like that recently and talking with a bunch of folks who also saw it. They were all equally upset by the ending which they thought was abrupt and didn’t nicely answer all of the questions that they had about what had happened in the movie. But that was part of the point. Life is complicated and it doesn’t always tie everything up and put a nice little bow on it. The movie intentionally left things open-ended, possibly for the mystery of it and possibly to leave the door open for a sequel which has yet to come. I am always surprised, though, how much we can get invested in something and think that we can go beyond expectation and into the realm of having the right to have the questions that we want answered dealt with. We tend to forget that an author, or movie maker, or some other such person is the one choosing the agenda of the story and the ending usually fits with his or her agenda. If we are left wholly unsatisfied with the ending, it’s probably because we didn’t follow the author’s agenda and substituted our own in there somewhere without often even realizing it.
As we come to the end of Acts it is easy to feel a bit like that. What is up with the ending, we might ask. It’s like the parable of the prodigal son that Luke included in chapter 15 of his gospel. There is not a satisfying ending for most of us. After spending the last quarter or so of the book of Acts following Paul on his long and winding journey to get to Rome, surely there has to be more than this. Surely Luke wouldn’t end the book on us by describing one more instance of Paul preaching the gospel to Jews with mixed results and then just fade to black. Are you kidding!
What about his activities in Rome? All Luke tells us is that Paul spent two years preaching and proclaiming the kingdom from his prison house. Wait a minute, Luke, we might feel like shouting at this point. What about the rich and powerful Romans? And most importantly what about that little date with Caesar? Did the Jews show up or send a letter to the Emperor to plead their case concerning Paul? Or did they figure there was no point and just let it drop which would have caused the charges against Paul to eventually be dropped?
It seems more likely that Paul did face the Emperor and was released, but the big question that I will always have is what was said between Paul and Nero. Wouldn’t that have potentially been one of the most fascinating conversations in the history of the world? Why hasn’t Luke told us about that? Why is all of this just left up in the air?
It is at this point that we have to take a step back, as frustrating a step as that might be, and realize that Luke is not foolish. He certainly knew that his readers would have the same questions. That leaves us with two primary possibilities. Either Luke was writing this account before Paul met with Caesar. That’s certainly a possibility. Some have even purported that Luke wrote Acts to help Paul document his defense before Nero, although that seems unlikely to me. The other possibility is that Luke has written of Paul’s journey to Rome for other reasons and that he wasn’t focusing on Paul’s confrontational moment with one man, as fascinating as it might be. If that is the case, then the journey to have an appeal with Caesar was a means to the real end in Luke’s mind rather than the end itself. That seems reasonable and likely, although it is certainly possible that the answer to Luke’s ending lies in a combination of the two. Luke may have finished writing before Paul encountered Nero and that wasn’t his primary objective anyway, so there was no need to wait for the ending to come. There is, of course, a third possibility that like so many movies with unsatisfying endings that Luke intended to write a third book that picked up where Acts left off, but that seems more like speculation based on our desire rather than anything that is based on what we find in the text itself.
Luke stated from the very beginning (1:8) that Acts would be an account of the Holy Spirit coming upon God’s people and guiding them to be witnesses of the gospel to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. It is important to understand this as Luke’s primary theme. It seems that for him, Paul going to Rome was the symbolic cap on that mission. The apostle to the Gentiles proclaiming the kingdom of God to the Jews first and then the Gentiles, as had always been his pattern, was the symbol that demonstrated that the gospel was truly going to the ends of the earth. In the ancient mind, Rome was the capitol of the world so once the gospel reached there, it was just a matter of time before it was proclaimed everywhere.
This would not be the end of Paul’s journey. Early church history tells us that Paul was released by Nero, although we have no details beyond that. He would continue his missionary journeys. In fact, one of his stated reasons for coming to Rome was his deep desire to establish them as a base to allow him to spread the gospel into Spain (Rom. 15:24). We don’t know if Paul every reached Spain but he did continue to travel and preach, was re-arrested, and likely wrote the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus during that time, eventually being put to death in Rome.
For Paul, though, it seems like a fitting place to end the journey of Acts. Not with a monumental showdown with Nero but with another chance to proclaim the truth of God’s kingdom to his fellow Jews about whom he cared deeply and desperately desired to accept the gospel truth (Romans 9:1-5). As usual, a few listened to Paul and, it seems, came to belief, but most did not. They were willing to hear him out until he declared that they had become the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words from Isaiah 6. The prophet Isaiah had spoken of a people that had so rejected God’s ways and hardened their hearts against any other possibility that even if they heard and saw the truth they would not accept it. If they were truly humble to God’s ways then they might see and hear and accept but their rejection would be the evidence of their hardness of heart (a term that had to do with not being open to God’s will).
Surely Paul would not have embraced the idea that the rejection of the Jews meant that no Jews would enter into the kingdom of God in the future. That is what Romans 11 is all about. But the time of hoping that the nation of Israel would turn en masse to Jesus and trust him as their Messiah was running out. The time for national repentance was about over (a fact that would be sadly confirmed and finalized by God with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem just a few short years after the closing of Acts). It seems that Luke is telling us that the mission of spreading the gospel would now turn more fully to the Gentiles because they will listen. The kingdom of God would consist of all nations but the pattern of “Jew first, then the Gentiles” was perhaps no longer needed. The rejection by the majority of the Jewish leadership in Rome was also symbolic. The urgent preaching for the nation of Israel to turn was coming to an end. In the future, their special status would be gone and they would be preached to as individuals just like individuals of any other nation. The nation of Israel had rejected God but Jewish people had not somehow stumbled beyond recovery (Rom. 11:11). In other words, and this is the point of Romans 11, the gospel was open to both Jews and Gentiles and as all nations came under the one umbrella of the kingdom through God’s true son (Jesus was the true Israel, Paul would argue in agreement with all four gospels that make that same case) that is how “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).
It is fitting, when we follow Luke’s intent, for Acts to end like this with Paul in chains in a house in Rome, still preaching and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Declaring to his Jewish brothers, in his typical uncompromising way, that to reject the Messiah was to completely reject God, and then to turn his eyes to the Gentile fields. Caesar was just one man after all. The real star was the kingdom of God. The truly important thing was that the kingdom of be continued to be preached.
With all of that said, maybe Luke did intentionally not really finish his story. Maybe, just maybe that is part of the point. In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, Luke never really gives us an ending. How will the older son respond to the father’s mercy? Will he accept his younger brother’s inclusion into the family and embrace his father? The story is left unfinished intentionally by both Jesus and Luke because the decision had not yet been made at that point in Jesus’ life. The Jews, and the Pharisees and other leaders in particular were the older brother in that story and it was yet up to them how they would respond to the call of Jesus who was playing the role of the Father in the story. Sadly, Luke goes on to tell us through the remainder of the gospel of Luke that the older brother rejected the father and put him up on a cross to die. That story was left open-ended so that the hearers might find their place in it and finish the story themselves.
If Luke had ended Acts with a climactic showdown between Nero and Paul it might have fulfilled our thirst for a good story with a tidy ending but that’s not what our gifted author wanted to do. The story isn’t complete. The kingdom was being preached but the story must go on. It is up to the reader to pick up and continue. In that way, each one of us becomes part of the story. We are Acts chapter 29. The kingdom must continue to be preached, but the rest of the story is up to you and me. What has God called us to do? How are we going to respond? What trials are we going to face as we faithfully declare the word of God? Where is our “Judea,” our “Samaria,” and most importantly perhaps, where is our “ends of the earth”?
Do you have the same passion to proclaim the kingdom of God that Paul had? Do you take every opportunity to share about God’s kingdom with your neighbors, friends, family and co-workers, knowing that perhaps only a few will really listen? Is the simple act of proclaiming the kingdom of God with boldness and without hindrance something to which you are truly committed?