Mission Accomplished

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 28:21-31

When the apostle Paul reaches Rome at the conclusion of Acts, the book ends. But the story doesn’t.

In 1943 American troops mounted their first major offensive against the Axis powers in World War II. It was called Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Under the command of a new and untested general named Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American army eventually linked up with British forces which had been fighting in the desert for many months. Together these Allies defeated General Erwin Rommel’s famed “Afrika Korps.” When news of the successes in North Africa reached Britain, popular excitement began to soar. Then Prime Minister Winston Churchill brought his countrymen back to the sober reality of the task yet remaining with these memorable words: “This is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

When Luke brings the story of the first Christians to a close, it’s the end of the book of Acts. But it is not the end of the story of Christianity, of the gospel’s spread throughout the world. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It is only the end of the beginning.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

If there is a more thrilling adventure story than the tale of the apostle Paul’s voyage to Rome, I’d like to read it. Here is a history of courage and endurance, of hair’s breadth escapes from deadly peril, and above all of unwavering faith in the protection and power of the sovereign Lord – all excitingly relayed by an eyewitness participant, Luke himself. Paul gets into and out of an amazing series of dangerous scrapes and close calls with death. First, there was a plot to assassinate him in Jerusalem. Roman soldiers took Paul into custody saving his life then, but at the cost of two years of his freedom. Eventually Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen and appealed to the emperor Caesar to judge his case personally and grant him justice. Since that meant going to Rome, the apostle was transferred into the custody of a Roman guard for the long and, as it turned out, perilous journey to the capital of the empire.

On the way to Rome the ship in which Paul was sailing was delayed by adverse winds. Setting out on the final leg of its voyage dangerously late in the season, the ship was overtaken by a severe winter storm. It ran helplessly before the wind until it was driven aground on a rocky island. But though the ship was lost, none of its passengers were harmed. Paul and all his traveling companions were shipwrecked but safe on the Mediterranean island of Malta. After spending the winter there, Paul finally reached Italy in the spring of the next year, probably the year a.d. 60. At long last, after countless terrifying adventures, unplanned detours and frustrating delays, his missionary vision was fulfilled. Paul had reached the imperial city, Rome.

THE END OF THE BEGINNING

When the apostle Paul and his small band of friends and fellow missionaries arrived in the capital, Nero was the emperor. Rome was the greatest city in the world. But in many ways, Rome’s best days and noblest men lay in her past. Rome was no longer a republic; her citizens no longer governed themselves. Instead, though their armies had conquered much of the world, the people of Rome were now ruled by dictatorial emperors. The rot of political decadence and moral corruption which would eventually destroy Roman civilization had already begun to eat away at the city. But, outwardly, Rome still appeared to be at the height of her power and glory.

The imperial capital must have presented a dazzling sight as Paul, accompanied by his guards, his traveling companions, and an escort of local Christians, approached it on the Appian Way. There was the eternal city, spreading out on its seven hills beside the River Tiber. Its houses and palaces with their gardens and fountains stretched into the distance in every direction. Even more impressive were the magnificent public buildings: the temples and baths, the tombs of Rome’s famous dead, the three huge circuses where chariot races were held, the massive Coliseum, the Roman Senate and Forum with its shrines and statues, and in the center the golden milepost that had given rise to the saying, “All roads lead to Rome.”

St. Augustine, greatest of the early Church Fathers, once said that apart from seeing Jesus Christ in the flesh, the two things he most would have wanted to witness were the apostle Paul preaching and Rome in all its glory. If you had been a visitor to the city around the year a.d. 60 you could have seen both of those things at once.

Paul arrived in Rome under arrest, but the conditions of his confinement were extremely liberal. The officer who was entrusted with his custody allowed Paul to live in his own rented house, with only a single soldier to watch him (Acts 28:16).

Paul’s visitors had complete freedom of access to him, and he himself was free in the most important way. He was allowed to preach and teach the gospel. The first group of people with whom he met, just a few days after his arrival, were the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome. We learned earlier in the book of Acts that all the Jews had been expelled from Rome some ten or eleven years before. But somehow in the intervening years they had trickled back into the city – a reminder, incidentally, of how difficult it is even for absolute dictators to control everything that happens within their country. So a number of Jewish residents of the city, including many of their leading and most influential citizens, visited Paul as he was under house arrest. They wanted to hear what this famous teacher who had been converted to faith in Jesus the Messiah had to say.

Initially the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome were open-minded about the Christian message. They hadn’t been prejudiced against Paul as so many others had been by adverse reports from his enemies. As Luke reports, they approached Paul quite objectively.

. . . “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.

Acts 28:21-23, NIV

These first conversations between the apostle and his own people were promising. There seems to have been a cordial discussion among them about the meaning of the scripture’s promises concerning the long-awaited Messiah. Paul talked about God’s kingdom – that is, his presence in the world and his rule in people’s lives. His kingdom was made real and visible with the coming of Jesus Christ. Some of these Roman Jews were convinced by Paul’s testimony. They accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior spoken of in the Hebrew scriptures. But not everyone responded to the gospel this way. The same division soon occurred here in Rome as it had everyplace else, over the fundamental issue of belief in Jesus Christ.

Some were convinced by what [Paul] said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “. . . I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

Acts 28:24-29, niv

In ancient Rome, as in Corinth, as indeed throughout the ancient and the modern world, the proclamation of the cross, of Christ’s death for the forgiveness of human sin, can become a stumbling block to people. So in Rome Paul did what he always had done. He took this message of salvation through faith in Christ to those who would listen. The gospel is for all the peoples of the world. If some prove to be uninterested and unresponsive, then Paul would make the offer of hope, of eternal life in Jesus Christ to others because salvation in Jesus Christ is for anyone and everyone who accepts him.

Luke’s brief account of Paul’s final ministry in Rome is interesting both for what it does tell us about the apostle and what it doesn’t. Here are the concluding words of the book of Acts:

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 28:30-31

First, notice what Luke does tell us about Paul. He remained in Rome under a liberal form of arrest for two whole years waiting for Caesar to hear his case and pass judgment upon him either for life or death. During this entire time Paul “preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” to “all who came to see him.” So his ministry was comprehensive. To everyone who came Paul spoke about the Lord Jesus. The theme on which he most often talked was the kingdom of God, that is, God’s coming into the world in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

Paul was also able during this period to spend time in reflection upon the meaning of Christ and his work. And the results of his meditation have been handed on to the church in his so-called prison epistles. The letters that he wrote from Rome include Philippians, the wonderfully personal letter full of joy and love, Colossians, with its portrait of Christ the cosmic Lord, and Ephesians, his stirring exposition of God’s sovereign grace. Luke also adds a couple of comments about the style of Paul’s ministry in Rome. He says that the apostle preached and taught boldly, that is, fearlessly, confidently, clearly and convincingly, and without hindrance. This last note draws attention once again to the fact that the Roman authorities found nothing objectionable in Paul’s faith. At least at this stage they granted him full tolerance to speak and teach.

But what we’d really like to know are the things Luke doesn’t tell us. Despite the fact that earlier in Acts he records no fewer than five of Paul’s speeches defending himself before various tribunals, Luke doesn’t describe the most important trial of all – the one where Paul was brought before the emperor Caesar. Luke doesn’t tell what its outcome was. In fact, he doesn’t finish the story of Paul’s life. Luke just ends his book with Paul preaching and teaching there in Rome. And we want to know: What happened next? Did Paul gain his release as he hoped and expected (cf. Philippians 1:25)? Was he able to fulfill his ambition to reach Spain with the gospel, as he had earlier told the Roman church (Romans 15:28)?

Later Christian writers say yes, that Paul was in fact released by the emperor Nero. He traveled for another two years before returning again to Rome where he was again arrested and finally executed during the violent persecution of the church which Nero instigated in the year a.d. 64. According to ancient Christian tradition, both Paul and Peter, the two greatest apostles, died as martyrs in Rome in that same year. They were killed for their loyalty to and faith in Jesus Christ, Paul by beheading, and Peter by crucifixion – head downward, as the story is told.

But if these early Christian traditions are true, why didn’t Luke tell us about them in the book of Acts? Perhaps because he deliberately wished to leave the story of the gospel open-ended. With Paul’s arrival in Rome, Luke’s “Tale of Two Cities” – of the spread of the Christian message from Jerusalem to Rome – is finished. But the gospel story isn’t finished. For the gospel, this is not the end; it’s not even the beginning of the end. It’s only the end of the beginning. Now it remains for you and me to carry the story further on towards completion in our own generation. Because the story of the first Christians, the story of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, will not be finished until it reaches every city, every nation, every person on earth. And in this story, this world-impacting and life-changing story, you and I have our important parts to play.