We have come to the weekend and at the end of the book of Acts. Our reading today is Acts 28. After you have finished let’s return here for some ending thoughts on the Scripture and where we are in our New Testament.
After months of a sea journey filled with drama that included the ship being wrecked, Luke opens this last part of Paul’s journeys with the words - “we found out that the island was called Malta”. Malta lies 50 miles south of Sicily, an island nation still today. Settled by Phoenicians, “the islanders welcomed them”. The word “islanders” Luke wrote comes from the Greek word “barbarios”, not meaning barbarians, but a word used by Romans to indicate an indigenous people who spoke their own language. The shipwrecked crew, soldiers, prisoners landed in what is called St. Paul’s Bay today.
They built a fire to dry off and warm up. It didn’t take long for the drama to begin anew. A snake driven out of the wood on fire fastened itself on Paul’s hand, which the islanders took as the goddess justice - Dike - executing judgment on Paul to not let him escape. Paul shook the snake off and when he didn’t swell up or die, they “changed their minds and thought he must be a god!” Finally, the chief official of the island, Publius, arrived. He brought them to his estate where they stayed for three days. When Paul discovered his father was sick, he went into him, laid hands on him, prayed, and the man was healed. The news of that spread fast and soon the islanders all came to be healed.
It was a full three months of time they spent on the island of Malta. In many ways, it was a healing time for Paul, Luke, and their fellow travelers. It had been a harrowing time at sea, and now God provided some time for them to all rest. Interestingly, it was Hippocrates, the man who was considered to be the first Physician, who wrote in about 400 b.c., that the body often had the ability to heal itself given time and rest. Hippocrates was put in prison for almost 20 years because he proclaimed that illness, disease, was a manifestation of natural causes at work in the human body, not the judgment of the gods. Dr. Luke writes that the Maltese islanders treated them well, furnishing them with what they needed for three months - a time of rest and healing for them also.
Luke spares no end of details on how their journey proceeded. With winter over, they boarded another Alexandrian vessel that had statues of Zeus’ twin sons, the gods Castor and Pollux - the gods of the sea and travel. The ship had wintered on Malta. Luke’s addition of this detail stands in contrast to God speaking to Paul in the midst of the storms that they would be safe - “take courage, be strong” - i.e., they didn’t need two so-called “gods”, because they had the Lord God watching over them. They set sail - first arriving in Syracuse, the leading port and “capital” of Sicily - some 90 miles north of Malta. They stayed there 3 days probably to resupply the ship for the final voyage since the ship itself had been in Malta for the winter. Then they sailed with a favored southerly wind north to Rhegium, a port city on the southern tip (the toe) of Italy. They continued north sailing to another city on the coast, Puteoli, which brought them to within 130 miles of Rome. They spent a week there, probably because after all this time and the late arrival of when they were expected to be in Rome, the Centurion needed to send soldiers ahead to get orders as to what to do next.
“And so we came to Rome” (vs 14) is Luke’s short description of the final part of the journey. It was, in all likelihood, a land journey since Luke writes that brothers and sisters in Christ heard Paul had arrived and they came on their own journey to meet them. The two places Luke describes in their journey north to Rome are the Forum of Appius, which was about 45 miles south of Rome, and the Three Taverns, about 25 miles south of Rome. What is noteworthy is that the Church is well established in Rome by this time. It was years before while he was in Corinth that Paul had written the letter to the Romans - the letter we are going to dive into next in our readings.
The church in Rome was not a building, but believers - brothers and sisters in Christ - who traveled on their own south from Rome to meet Paul and the others, to walk along with them to Rome. Luke says, “at the sight of these people, Paul thanked God and was encouraged.” I find in that sentence much more than can be conveyed with words - Paul’s spirit was uplifted. God had spoken to Paul and told him that he was to testify in Rome, before Caesar, and yet it must have appeared time and again to Paul a question as to whether it would happen. Now, here, on the final leg of the journey, Paul’s brothers and sisters in Christ - whom he had never met, but had written to - came out to meet him and walk the rest of the way with him. Who has not been encouraged when someone comes alongside and walks a difficult journey with them?
Arriving in Rome, Paul is given his own quarters, but still under guard. As his pattern all along had been, Paul first seeks an audience with the Jewish leaders in the city to speak to them. They don’t know anything about Paul or the charges brought against him in Jerusalem. Paul filled in the details and they agreed to hear Paul explain the Gospel to them. Luke describes that they returned, and “came in even larger numbers to the place he was staying”. Estimates of Jews in Rome at this time were in the tens of thousands. The church was considered to be a Jewish sect - an offshoot of Judaism - and now Paul hoped the Jewish leaders would see the Church from a different point of view.
He talked with them from “morning til evening, explaining about the Kingdom of God”, and doing it from the Old Testament Scriptures, pointing to the necessity of Christ Jesus to die, and then be raised as the one who fulfilled all of the God’s promises in the law and prophets. Jesus had done the same to the two on the road to Emmaus, and to Paul himself after his conversion. The Jews saw the Old Testament scriptures as a witness to God, and the Law as their Covenant with God, but they failed to see that Jesus fulfilled that Covenant and that a New Covenant was now in force - one that included the nations - the Gentiles - into the body of Christ, the Church. After a long day, some were convinced, but others were not. Paul reminded those who were unconvinced that they too had been prophesied about. Isaiah had written 700 years before that they would “be ever hearing, but never understanding....” (vss 26-27), and as a result, not be healed of their unbelief. It is a sad description of many who having heard the Gospel of Jesus still refuse to turn to Him by faith, trusting in him alone as their Savior and Lord. Paul’s conviction is complete: “God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, they will listen!” And so they did.
Paul spent two years in Rome under confinement. It was about 62-63 a.d. He spoke exclusively to others - not the least of which was the Pretorian guards who were assigned to guard him. His message was constant - God’s Kingdom has come, Jesus is the King, and all who enter into the Kingdom of God come through faith in Jesus Christ. His Kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom. His resurrection means that His Kingdom extends into eternity, into life eternal for all who put their faith in Jesus. Luke says he did it boldly, and he did it without interference. One can assume that Paul had the favor of the guards in speaking to whoever came in to learn from him.
We end the book of Acts quietly. There is no more record from Dr. Luke as to what happened next. We do know that while imprisoned Paul wrote some of the Epistles we will be reading - Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, as well as personal letters - 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. God put him in prison, God put him in Rome. We don’t know if Paul ever got out. Traditions from the early centuries were not clear. Some say he was exonerated and freed, and that he journeyed to Gaul - modern France, and Spain. Others say he never made it out of imprisonment. We do know that Nero ordered Paul’s execution - somewhere in 64-66 a.d. They executed Paul as a Roman citizen. They cut off of his head.
How do we end a book like Acts? During World War II, Winston Churchill spoke to the British people, and the allies warning that even though the Americans had joined the effort, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Churchill’s words should ring in our ears as we come to the end of Luke’s history of the first Christians. In history, his story covers only about forty to forty-five years of time. The infant church emerged in dramatic display on Pentecost, but almost immediately became the target of opposition and oppression—"beaten black and blue before it ever crawled out of the crib, as it were." (Chuck Swindoll).
The early church believers survived those early years through bold and courageous leaders - men like Peter, Barnabas, Stephen, Philip, John, and two James (one a disciple who was killed by Herod, the other, a brother of Jesus who took his leadership place). They were people who gave their lives for the church, and as a result, the church grew in numbers, as well as in maturity of faith, as well as its spreading growth across the Roman Empire into every nook and cranny of the Roman world. The church was a world-changing work of God’s Spirit in and through bold and courageous people.
Pentecost led to persecution and together the two pushed the people of God out of Jerusalem to carry the good news throughout Judea and Samaria. Then God encountered Paul, an enemy of the church, who he transformed into the Apostle who would dynamically change the world, as he carried the Gospel to parts unknown.
In Paul’s ministry, the kingdom of God extended the empire between Jerusalem and Rome. Opposed by the Romans, persecuted, often crushed, it nevertheless continued on. In the second century the Christian apologist, Tertullian wrote to the Roman Emperor telling him, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. It was true. Rome fell, eroded from within by its own decadence and immorality. The Church grew and now today it is still here to bear witness of the Kingdom of God, and Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior to all who enter in.