The End (June 21, 2020)
Acts 21: 27-36; Philippians 1: 12-18
So today we are concluding our trip through the story of the Bible. The historical portion of the story of the Bible ends with the final missionary journey and the imprisonment of Paul. It really begins with his third missionary journey. This journey is shorter; it goes back to most of the same places as the second journey; and what he’s doing is he’s going around tidying up, answering any questions that may have come up since he was last there in those churches, and collecting an offering. He’s asking these churches to give above and beyond what they would normally give to a special offering for the church in Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem had suffered massive persecution, and if you remember way back, Paul himself was leading some of the persecution. That hasn’t gone anywhere. So the church in Jerusalem is suffering; and the common purse they all were holding is beginning to get rather light. So, Paul is going to these churches in Turkey and Greece that are better off financially, and saying, “would you give a little bit more to bless our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem?” The drive is very successful, and Paul gathers a large offering and brings it back to Jerusalem with him.
As Paul approaches Jerusalem we see that he was warned by a lot of the people around there that they don’t like him in Jerusalem. That if he steps foot in Jerusalem they’re going to try and kill him. But Paul doesn’t care, he’s going to Jerusalem. So Paul plows through and goes to Jerusalem, hands the offering to James, and celebrates for seven days in Jerusalem.
On the seventh day he’s arrested. This was the story that was read. He’s arrested and accused interestingly of bringing a Greek into the assembly. He’s traveling with Gentile Christians from his churches that he’s just collected an offering from, and he’s accused of trying to bring them into the Temple. And they try to end Paul’s story right there. They want to get rid of Paul, he is causing a problem for them. So they attack him until the centurion comes over and breaks up the fight. Paul speaks to the people of the Temple; he is able to preach the Good News to the people around him in the Temple. Then the centurion takes them away. Paul is able to preach the Good News to the centurion. And then they prepare to take Paul to the governor in the capital of Caesarea Maritima.
Now the leadership in Jerusalem still wants Paul dead. And so they plan an ambush of Paul’s transportation. Word of this gets to Paul, who gives the word to the centurion, and so they take Paul by armed escort of the entire cohort all the way from Jerusalem to Caesarea. Paul arrives safely. His enemies have to figure out a new plan.
The temple leadership put together a case. They accuse him of doing things against Rome, leading others to practice false religions, yada yada yada. Paul says “you know all of this is false, and oh by the way I am a citizen and they’re not so my word holds better sway than them.” Back-and-forth, and back-and-forth; and the governor doesn’t want to end the case. As a Roman citizen, Paul has the right to a trial and a verdict within two years. So the Governor Felix has time. And for whatever reason, Felix is either entertained or actually intrigued and actually listening to what Paul is saying; but he holds Paul in house arrest, pretty good actual accommodations, and periodically pulls him out to talk with him throughout two years.
Now at the end of his two years, as he’s nearing the point where Paul would be released or convicted, Felix’s governorship ends. And a new guy by the name of Festus comes in; and that gives Paul a little bit more time in prison, because the new governor gets a certain amount of time to get a bearing on the cas. Festus calls for Paul to hear the case, and Paul says “I’ve had enough of this. I appeal to the Emperor.”
Now that’s his right. He’s allowed to appeal any decision by the governor to the Emperor as a citizen. Now, Festus has to figure out what to do. He says, “if I appeal to the Emperor, I’ve got to send a letter with it that says why the Emperor is being bothered with this case.” So he pulls in a guy who may know more about the area; the King of Galilee by the name of King Agrippa. This is Herod the Great’s grandson. And they put Paul in the local amphitheater. Here’s a picture of what remains of the amphitheater. Paul is placed in the middle of this place, surrounded by the entire city and both the governor of Judea and the ruler of the Galilee. And through his case, Paul is able to preach the gospel to Festus and King Agrippa and all of the capital of Judea. And ultimately Festus sends him off to Rome.
I want to take a moment here to pause and to consider what Paul is doing. Paul was warned not to go to Jerusalem because he might be arrested; he said “I don’t care,” and he was arrested. And we see a little bit throughout the rest of the New Testament a window into what he’s thinking while he was in prison. We see that most on display in the passage read from Philippians. So if we go to that really quickly, we see that Paul is saying “what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”
Paul has been imprisoned. And he says “you know what, what I see is that the entire imperial guard has been able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. What I see is that the brothers and sisters and all these churches that I’m writing letters to have been emboldened because I am strong in the face of this persecution.” What he doesn’t know, what he can’t see at that moment, is that all of those letters would become half of the New Testament. He’s writing the letters because he can’t go in person. Normally these kinds of problems would come up and he would just go in person to try and deal with them. But he can’t, so he has to write a letter. Thus we have the letters now.
What we see is that God is using Paul’s imprisonment to further the Gospel. Because he’s imprisoned, he has the ear of two Roman governors and a provincial king. Because he’s imprisoned, he will ultimately have the ear of the Emperor’s counsel. Because he’s imprisoned, half the New Testament is written and we have all these letters that help us as we seek to live the Gospel now. Because he’s imprisoned. It’s his mindset that when things are not going perfectly for you because you’re Christian, if there is a hardship for you because you’re a Christian, look and see what God is doing with it. That is what Paul does, and Paul is able to continue to do amazing powerful work for God in prison. Actually, because he’s imprisoned.
Paul appeals to Rome. When a citizen appealed to Rome, it was Rome’s job to fund the trip. So Paul would be taken by Rome, in custody, to the city of Rome so he could plead his case before the highest authority in the empire. And so they put them on a boat and he leaves the Holy Land over in the eastern Mediterranean, and he travels toward Italy in the middle of the Mediterranean. It’s a little late to be starting the journey, so what they do is try and get as far as they can and then rest until Spring. They get to just west of Cyprus and then things continue to look good. So the captain of the ship says go a little bit further, there’s a really big port just a little bit further. But they don’t make it; they are blown out to sea in a huge storm on the Mediterranean. And all the sailors think they’re toast. But ultimately they shipwreck and wash up on shore.
But now they don’t have a ship and they’re stuck on an island. They meet some local people and sit around the campfire and Paul tells them of the Gospel. And then Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake, but Paul shakes the snake off it flies into the fire and dies and he continues on talking about the gospel. And the natives are amazed; and he preaches the gospel. The island is just south west of Italy, and in Spring they’re able to purchase a ship from the natives and they take all of these people up the west coast of Italy to Rome. Paul finally arrives at Rome, which the book of Romans tells us he had been trying to get to for a while. Paul and his company get placed in house arrest in Rome. The church of Rome comes to visit him, and he preaches from his prison window to the people of Rome.
And then the book ends. There’s a little sentence that says “oh and he was there for two years and he preached the gospel,” but the book basically ends. And that begs the question of why. There’s a couple of potential reasons. The first would be that Luke wanted to end the book there. I can’t answer why, it doesn’t make much sense to end the book here, but maybe he wanted to end the book there. Maybe there’s a third book. We have the Gospel of Luke, then the Book of Acts, so there could be a third book that’s been lost to history. The third potential explanation would be that Luke writes the story of the church from the moment that Elizabeth is told that she’s pregnant with John the Baptist to where he is and then he stopped writing because he can’t tell the future. That’s the present. In this case, he’s writing these somewhere in those two years they were in Rome just in case things don’t go well in the trial. Maybe that’s why it ends here: that’s just where he was. I think this to be the most logical explanation.
This also asks the question of what is the story that Acts is telling. What is the story that the Bible is telling? What’s been the purpose, what’s been the lesson for the last nine months that we’ve been looking at the story of the Bible from “in the beginning,” to Abraham, to David, to Solomon, to the exile, to the return from the exile, to the angel Gabriel, to Jesus, to the crucifixion and resurrection, to Peter, to Paul. What is the story that we’ve been looking at really?
The reality is that the Bible is the story of people serving God. This is their successes, this is their failures, this is their lessons that they’re trying to impart to the next generation. It is meant to inspire us and it’s meant to teach us how we can live serving God. But the story isn’t over. We are writing Acts chapter 29, chapter 30, chapter 1000, chapter 2020; we’re writing that right now. The question is: what is in it? What is God doing in our world right now? What is God doing in the church in the present? The story keeps going. It’s one of the reasons that I like the book of Revelation being in here, even though I’m not going to get to it in this series. I like that Revelation is in there because it says that the story is going to conclude in the future. Which means it’s still being written now. What are you contributing to the story of God and the servants of God in the world right now? Think about that, pray about that; and Church, keep writing your story. Amen.