The final chapters of Acts present us with an enormous amount of information—historical, geographical and doctrinal—as it follows the last years of Paul’s earthly ministry. To do the richness of these texts justice, I feel tempted to just sit down and write out an 800 page commentary. But then I realize that I also have home teaching to complete by the end of the month and that I do not want to numb the minds of patient readers. So instead I will take another approach, that our understanding might be quickened. I will create a brief outline of these eight chapters, (1) offering a few insights into the religious and social tensions simmering in the days of Paul and how his work to preach the Gospel to Jew and gentile alike landed him in hot water because of these tensions, and (2) drawing parallels between Paul and Christ, their ministry, testimony and suffering at the hands of authorities. In these chapters pay attention to the diverse (though contextually undesired) audiences and opportunities Paul had to preach the message of Christ and consider how Paul’s missionary efforts were the fulfillment of many promises and revelations.
We begin in the city of Miletus, though Acts 21:1 does not make that clear (I sneaked a peak into Acts 20 to find out where Paul was staying). Where is Miletus? During the days of Paul it was a city of western Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), near the coast. If you are like me and have a hard time conjuring up images of ancient western Asia Minor then feel free to use guidance of available maps or follow this Google Map link here. So Miletus is where we begin, or at least where we pick up the story of Paul visiting various cities, bidding farewell to saints and encouraging them with the truths of the gospel as he heads towards to Jerusalem.
Once Paul reached the coasts of Palestine at the Roman port city of Caesarea, a city built by Herod the Great and dedicated to Emperor Caesar Augustus as a form of flattery, a prophet by the name of Agabus offered ill tidings that Paul would be bound in chains if he proceeded to Jerusalem. Undeterred by such a prophecy of woe, Paul left for Jerusalem, “ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
At Jerusalem the saints received him with much rejoicing, but not without concern, for there was still religious controversy swirling in the air among the various Jewish groups. Hence Paul’s missionary activities were under scrutiny. The inter-Jewish strife was, at its core, an identity issue. For centuries, the Jews had identified themselves as a covenant people. For males the outward, physical sign for such fellowship was circumcision. Paul, though being a Jew, and likely circumcised, taught that Christian Jews and Gentiles need not be bound to the ancient custom of circumcision. Instead, they were free in Christ. The sign of this covenantal freedom would be the gifts of the spirit, particularly the gift of charity (see 1 Corinthians 12-13) manifested after baptism and the reception of the Holy Ghost. Many Jews, even those who professed to be Christians, were incensed over such a doctrine which worked against the very identity standards that had been venerated for centuries. Understanding this turmoil and conflict, the brethren of the church in Jerusalem requested that Paul ameliorate the concerns of those Jewish Christians not yet able to find room in their hearts and minds for the additional light and knowledge of revelation. Being willing to accommodate others, he accompanied several Jewish Christians at their purification rituals for their Nazarite vows, which had long been a sign of Jewish devotion to God throughout the centuries (i.e. Samson was strong as long as he kept his Nazarite vows; he became weak when he broke his vows). Many hoped that by showing this outward sign of Jewishness Paul would appease the controversy and questioning over his alleged destruction of Jewish identity through the preaching of the Gospel.
Unfortunately, Paul’s motives to overcome the misunderstandings and prejudices of others were, not surprisingly, misunderstood. Whatever contention and outrage had been simmering below the surface suddenly exploded upon Jerusalem to the extent that it sent shock waves throughout the Roman Empire. While Paul was in the temple accompanying those four men going through the Nazarite purification ritual, other Jews accused Paul of bringing Gentile Greeks into the temple. Of course from our perspective we know that Paul had not brought Gentile Greeks into the temple. But some, whether through ignorance, misunderstanding, or maliciousness, accused Paul of defiling the temple. What happened next is sometimes a little difficult for us to comprehend in our western democracies where we seek (but not always) to let the rule of reason and order dictate our response to social outrage.
Let us pause here for a moment to consider why having a gentile enter sacred space at the Jewish temple was viewed by the Jews as such an atrocity. During the days of Paul, the Jewish collective consciousness was still seared with the memory of their oppression and defilement under Greek rule only 200 years before (c. 167 BC). Under the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV, the Jews were required to sacrifice pigs, establish abominations of desolation in the temple (i.e. erect altars to the worship of Greek gods), and, according to 2 Maccabees 3 in the Apocrypha, endure a Greek general defile the Jerusalem temple by attempting to enter the Holy of Holies and steal the sacred temple funds. These things were the greatest affront to Jewish piety, identity, purity, dignity and respect. Ever after, anyone who crossed these boundaries or appeared to cross these boundaries were threatened with the most brutish punishments.
With this in the back of their collective consciousness many of the Jews at the temple rushed upon Paul, dragged him out of the temple and began to beat him mercilessly, indeed with the intent to kill him. They would have succeeded had not the Roman tribune (chief captain) who was in charge of keeping order at the Jewish temple rushed upon the crowed with his centurions and soldiers to break up the confusion. Of course, the one who had “caused” the pandemonium, Paul, was immediately seized and shackled. The tribune sought to discover the cause of the matter but the crowd was shouting in such intolerable and indecipherable competition1 that the soldiers then carried Paul into the nearby fortress, both to protect him from the mob and to ascertain just what had lit the flame in the fireworks factory.
Surprise registered upon the face of the tribune when he heard the voice of Paul speaking in Greek;2 he was more surprised to discover that Paul was a citizen of a prominent city (i.e. Tarsus). With this knowledge, the tribune granted Paul’s request to address the thronging mob below.
Paul addressed this outrageous mob in Hebrew which brought them to silence. In his defense3 he explained how his own zealousness for the Law of Moses was converted to zealousness for the things of Christ. Those with ears to hear could likely understand that their angry physical rage against Paul was akin to Paul’s career as a Pharisee who persecuted Christian Jews, delivering them over to the Jewish authorities for punishment. He spoke of the Lord appearing to him in the temple, commanding him to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles. But then his defense was cut short. Upon hearing the word combination of “Lord,” “temple,” and “Gentiles,” the angry Jewish mob raged against him again, clamoring for his death. Obviously Paul had not abated the angry Jewish crowds, which the Roman guards felt deeply anxious to quell. One of the centurions decided to solve the problem by flogging Paul to receive the truth concerning the ongoing uproar. Paul, with his wit and wisdom still intact and knowing how to masterfully address each specific audience, claimed exemption from flogging because he was a Roman citizen. With this, Paul was unshackled and spared the rod.
The next day Paul was arraigned before the Roman representatives and the Jewish Sanhedrin (i.e. the Jewish political leadership, including the high priests, the chief priests and the most important political and religious leaders from the Sadducees and Pharisees). Noticeably different is Paul’s “defense” to the Jewish “nobles.” Instead of describing his spiritual conversion he stated with simplicity that he had a clear conscience before God.4 Illegally, the chief high priest had Paul slapped for such a statement to which Paul responded, like Christ did before him in describing the corrupt spiritual leaders of Israel, “thou whited wall,” referring to whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27). But then seizing the moment, Paul sized up his audience with the recognition that he was addressing a religiously divided council; some were Pharisees, some were Sadducees. So he claimed to believe in the resurrection of the dead. Of course this doctrine is core to the Jewish Christian message. But this doctrine of resurrection was also a central tenet of the Jewish Pharisees. On the other hand, Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. Suddenly there was a great tumult among the Jewish leaders. Just moments before the two groups had been united in their anger towards Paul. Now they were divided against each other along theological lines and quite quickly forgot their original purpose for convening. Again, the Roman authorities had to deliver Paul from the harm of his angry brethren.
Though Paul was put into custody again he was not alone. That night the Lord appeared unto him. After encouraging Paul to be of good cheer, He delivered a most important revelation: “As thou has testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome” (Acts 23:11). We can only wonder how such a revelation may have affected Paul. Still, it would be nearly three years before this revelation came to pass, a lengthy time period not often recognized when we can breeze through the final chapters of Acts in just a few short minutes.
As a Roman citizen, Paul had certain privileges. He had the protection of Roman authorities and the opportunity for a court hearing. When the tribune discovered that a plot was forming to murder Paul, he quickly sent Paul under the protection of hundreds of soldiers from Jerusalem to Caesarea where Felix, the Roman Procurator or governor of Judea, was stationed. Felix agreed to hear the case and summoned the Jewish rulers from Jerusalem to testify against Paul. They came with deceitful intent. They accused Paul of being a Nazarene (i.e. Christian), raising a tumult in the temple, and causing sedition throughout Jerusalem and Judea. In his own defense Paul confessed that he was a follower of Christ but that he likewise believed and followed the law and the prophets. He then explained that his belief in the resurrection of the dead was no different or strange than what other Jewish groups (such as the Pharisees) freely believed. And, Paul concluded, it was for expressing this belief before the Jewish elders that they sought to kill him. Felix well understood the theological differences among the Jews, likely because his own wife was a Jew. Felix recognized that these differences were not sufficient to answer the clamor for death. Instead, Felix summoned Lysias, the Roman tribune at Jerusalem, to give his perspective on the disturbance that occurred. However, Acts never indicates whether Lysias came or not. What we do learn is that Paul shared the Gospel message with Felix and his wife, but then was left in prison for two years. Apparently Felix had two reasons for leaving Paul in prison for so long. First, Felix hoped that Paul had rich friends who would “pay bail” or “bribe” Felix to let Paul go; Felix was hoping to make money off of Paul. Second, and this is related to the first reason, Felix sought to gain the favor of the people of Judea who Paul had incensed.
After two years the Romans appointed a new governor over Judea. Porcius Festus replaced Felix. Festus also attempted to discover the truth of the matter against Paul. Was Paul truly worthy of death as many of the Jews proclaimed? Or was it simply an internal disorder due to theological differences? So Festus gathered together the Jewish leaders who had originally accused Paul of sedition and treachery. Again the same charges were leveled against Paul as before. But Festus was not able to determine the reliability and accuracy of such statements. Festus wanted to take Paul from the Roman provincial capital of Judea, located at Caesarea Maritima, back to Jerusalem for further questioning. Again Paul used Roman law and citizenship to appeal his case, this time to Caesar.5 Paul knew that he had done no wrong to the Jewish people and he feared a bigoted trial at Jerusalem.
So it was to Rome and to Caesar that Paul would go. But before leaving he had more opportunities to share the Gospel of Christ with many people and rulers. For example, King Agrippa and his wife Bernice6 came to visit Festus, who told them Paul’s story. Agrippa and Bernice wished to hear Paul speak. Festus gathered an audience, to fulfill their wish as well as to see if anyone could help him find a good reason to send Paul to Caesar since it was a terrible political liability for a Roman governor to send a prisoner to Caesar without reason or cause.
It is important to note that Festus as Procurator held the same position as Pontus Pilate. And just as Pontus Pilate had exclaimed to the Jews of Christ, “Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him” (Luke 23:14), Festus also testified that Paul was innocent of perverting the people, “I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death” (Acts 25:25).
As he had done on so many other occasions, several which we have witnessed in Acts 21-28, Paul shared his conversion story. His witness was simple yet thorough: like his current antagonists he too had once persecuted Christians from city to city, even unto physical death. But the Lord had appeared unto him in a light “above the brightness of the sun” and commanded him to share the Gospel of Christ with Jew and Gentile alike, just as the law and the prophets had made known. Like Joseph Smith who had seen a powerful vision above the brightness of the sun and would not deny it, Paul refused to say or teach anything but the truth.7 While hearing such lucid testimony Festus exclaimed that Paul was crazy. Like his Master before him, Paul was falsely accused yet again. Jesus was also accused of being a lunatic (see John 10:19-21). Yet, so powerful was Paul’s testimony that even King Agrippa was nearly persuaded to be a Christian. Afterwards, Agrippa shared with Festus his private conclusion, concurring with Festus that “This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds” (Acts 26:31). Agrippa then lamented “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar” (Acts 26:32).
Revelation was to be fulfilled. Paul was to preach the Gospel in Rome. So together with hundreds of others (some of these were prisoners like Paul), he set sail for Italy. Along the way he had opportunities to teach and preach of Christ and to prophesy. At one point on the watery journey the ship was threatened by nature. Paul urged everyone to stay with the ship and he prophesied that not one individual would be lost if they heeded his council.8 The passengers obeyed, the ship ran ground and broke apart,9 and just as Paul had prophesied everyone escaped to land with their lives.
Acts 28 and Conclusion
Once on land (the island of Melita = modern day Malta), the inhabitants (called “barbarous” which means non-Greek or Latin speakers) received the shipwrecked passengers with many kindnesses, such as warming them with a fire. Paul gathered sticks to stoke the fire and was bit by a viper. The superstitious inhabitants believed that this was a sign of a murderer. Yet when Paul’s hand did not swell, nor did he fall ill or die, their superstition was not abated and so they instead hailed him as a god. We do not know how Paul reacted to such “honors,” but Luke’s text makes clear that Paul did much good among the people during the three months of wintry passage he spent upon the island before the Rome bound passengers were able to board a shipping vessel from Alexandria.
As we follow Paul’s journey through the end of Acts we hear that he had a private home in Rome where for two years he preached and received guests. Though traditionally it is assumed that Paul became a martyr for the Christian cause in Rome, Luke says nothing of the matter. In fact, and most remarkably, Luke closes his two volume testimony of the origins and growth of Christianity (Luke-Acts) focused on Paul preaching the revealed Gospel Kingdom with much success:
And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him. Acts 28:30-31
Luke closes Acts in this way with the hope that readers will look forward with faith, and not to the suffering that may happen in this life, but to the sureties of joy to be had for all who accept Christ in their lives.