I have maintained from the outset of our time in Acts that the proper and appropriate title for Luke’s second historical work is “The Acts of the Apostles.” Some argue for “The Acts of the Holy Spirit,” but this is the account of the apostles and of the apostolic church fulfilling the mandate given by the Lord in Acts 1:8. By this point in the narrative, the church has expanded geographically as well as ethnically in line with Acts 1:8.
Acts is not a biographical sketch the life of Paul, though he figures heavily in it. And because he features so heavily in it—as one of the apostles whose acts are recorded—it should not surprise us how the narrative ends: Paul is found under house arrest in Rome. He would be released some two years later and perhaps would even get to Spain. He would again be arrested and would die in prison. Nero, to whom he had appealed, probably never met Paul during this first incarceration, but in his second Nero took his head.
What Luke records about the first several decades of the early New Testament church would continue—and continues today. In fact, I thought about titling this study “Acts 29,” for, you see, the church has marched forward since Acts 28:31 and will continue to advance. It is for this reason that we might call this final study in Acts “The End of the Beginning,” with the result that is also the beginning of the end. That is, one day the church’s commission will end, but until then the baton has been passed to us. How will run the race?
The primary “act” of the apostles and the apostolic church has been obedience to the Great Commission, and this is to be our primary action as well. We need this continual exhortation. We need to be continually exercising our gifts in this direction. We need the continual expectation of engaging in this activity. This is the value of reading Acts: It serves as a tonic and gives us a pattern to learn from.
It should be stated that the book of Acts is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive. Nevertheless, it is instructive as we go about obeying our Lord.
Acts 1:8 is indeed prescriptive, as is the fuller version of our commission as seen in Matthew 28:18–20. In other words, we are to be busy about this task of evangelising and making disciples at home and further afield. Again, Acts serves as a wonderful motivation for our mission. It encourages us that we can make a difference.
The highlight of our church calendar is our annual World Outreach Celebration, held each year in early March. We are looking forward in a particular way to the 2015 Celebration, during which we will welcome to the pulpit three men—missionaries—in whose ministry BBC has been privileged to play a part over the years. We look forward to being encouraged by what God has done through the church in years past, as well as being sobered as to how much is yet left to accomplish.
The book of Acts serves as a reminder—despite seeming evidence to the contrary—that the promise of Revelation 19–22 will one day be a reality. It serves as a reminder that, one day, the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). It encourages us that the nations will indeed be discipled and baptised, and the Christ’s followers across the world will one day live in obedience to all that He has commanded them (Matthew 28:18–20).
But for this to be a reality, we—the church of Jesus Christ—must embrace the purpose of God. We must experience the power of God. We must emulate people like Paul, who himself embraced the purpose of God and experienced the power of God as he lived in obedience to Acts 1:8.
As we will see in this study, the closing passage of Acts summarises how Acts 1:8 was realised in the first century. Paul was faithful to the task, so it only makes sense for us to learn from his life. Yes, though we are living in the days of Acts 29, nevertheless we are to be informed by and conformed to Acts 1:8.
As we study these closing verses of the chapter and book we will observe that an “Acts 1:8 Christian” is characterised by at least four things.
Verses 17–22 tell us something of Paul’s concern as he addressed the Jewish leaders in Rome.
You will remember that Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem. He had appealed to various Roman authorities and had revealed his Roman citizenship. Seeing, however, that his appeals were largely falling on deaf ears, he eventually appealed to Caesar.
During the voyage to Rome, the ship on which he was travelling had been shipwrecked, but God had graciously spared his life—and the lives of all those on board—and he had finally arrived in Rome. Now in Rome, Paul began to address the religious leaders there, thinking that he had need to defend his ministry to the Roman Jews.
And it came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together, he said to them: “Men and brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans, who, when they had examined me, wanted to let me go, because there was no cause for putting me to death. But when the Jews spoke against it, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar, not that I had anything of which to accuse my nation. For this reason therefore I have called for you, to see you and speak with you, because for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.”
There is something infinitely wonderful in the fact that to the end of the day, wherever he went, Paul began with the Jews. For rather more than thirty years now they had been doing everything they could to hinder him, to undo his work, and even to kill him: and even yet it is to them first he offers his message.1
Paul was concerned for the welfare of his fellow Jews and therefore he was concerned about his integrity. That is, he wanted to make sure that they would be able to hear him.
This defence was not born of personal interest. His greatest concern was that Jesus Christ would be believed upon by these Jews (Romans 9:1–5; 10:1–3). He wanted his fellow Jews to experience the promise made to their fathers. He wanted them to have the hope which they had been promised. Therefore, he needed to defend his integrity.
This was a burden on his heart and so he called quickly for a meeting with leading Jewish men in Rome. His concern for the gospel led to a sixth defence. This defence can be summarised under a number of points.
First, Paul claimed plainly that he was innocent of any charges brought against him that he had somehow wronged the Jewish nation.
Second, to corroborate this claim, he noted that several Roman officials, including two governors, had acquitted him of any wrongdoing.
Third, he had only appealed to Caesar because he had had no choice: His life was unjustly under threat in Jerusalem. His motives were pure and he was not trying to make the nation look bad. Harrison summarises well, “While normally he would have been happy to submit to Jewish justice, under the circumstances it was not available, so he had been compelled to fall back on his Roman citizenship and ‘appeal to Caesar.’”2
Fourth, he wanted only the best: for the Jewish people—his people—to experience the promises of Messiah and the eternal and present hope that He gives. He had mentioned this very hope on several occasions before the Sanhedrin.
In short, Paul was a loyal Jew who would never have sought to harm his people. While his hands may have been chained, his hope was not and so he appealed for them to hear him.
Significantly, the concept of hope plays a prominent role in his prison epistles (see Ephesians 1:18; 2:12; 4:4; Philippians 1:20; 2:23; Colossians 1:5, 23, 27).
In all of this, Paul was acting under the assumption that his hearers had received false accusations about him. This was normally the case, but the response of these leaders indicates something very different in this instance: “Then they said to him, ‘We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you. But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere’” (vv. 21–22).
This is an almost unbelievable response. Wherever he went, Paul found that some or other false accusation had preceded him. It may seem quite unlikely that no such accusation had reached the Empire’s capital ahead of his arrival there. What should we make of this claim?
It is possible, I suppose, that they were only trying to keep the peace. Some ten years earlier, Claudius Caesar had expelled all Jews from Rome because of the constant clashes between Jews and Christians. They may have been hesitant to resume this conflict. The church in Rome had already existed for many years, and so perhaps there was some effort by the Jews to coexist peacefully with the Christians—at least in the capital itself.
However, it seems to me that they may have been telling the truth. We know that Paul’s ship had left for Rome earlier than most other ships had. When he had arrived in Fair Havens, most ships were choosing to winter there, but Paul’s company had headed out to sea despite apostolic warning to the contrary (Acts 27:1–12). Letters regarding Paul on any other ship would have been delayed, and any letters carried by Paul’s own ship would have gone down in the wreck. With no instant communication, it is quite likely that any communication regarding Paul had been delayed and had not yet arrived in Rome.
They confessed that they knew about “this sect,” which was “spoken against everywhere”—seemingly including Rome. But they are still in the dark about it. They were being wise to not upset Rome again.
It has even been conjectured that perhaps there were not close relationships between leaders in Jerusalem and those in Rome. Perhaps such turf wars meant that the leaders in Jerusalem had not bothered to send communication to their counterparts in Rome.
Regardless, God’s providence ensured that Paul would at least get a fair hearing.
By way of application, let us note that our concern must be to live so as to be heard. Our concern must be driven—as was Paul’s—by the hope that the gospel promises.
In spite of prison Paul never lost focus, he never lost sight of his purpose nor of his message.
So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.
Like a good evangelist, Paul sought to convince his hearers concerning Christ—and he was given all day to do it!
Pause here to ask yourself, how would you respond to being incarcerated? Would you feel sorry for yourself, or would you respond with the words of the same apostle elsewhere:
But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Luke tells us that Paul “explained” to his hearers the kingdom of God. The word means to expound to set out or to set forth. It refers to exposing something for consideration. The word is used in Acts 11:6 of Peter observing the sheet descending from heaven with the unclean animals on it. Peter needed to carefully consider what God was telling him. The word is used again in Acts 18:26 in the context of Aquila and Priscilla explaining “more accurately” to Apollos the way of God.
Evangelism involves informing and instructing the mind. We must be confident in the gospel and know what we are talking about as we seek to evangelise others.
Paul “solemnly testified” to his hearers. This phrase means to solemnly serve notice, to warn or to confirm. The rich man in hell used this word in Luke 16:28 when he begged Abraham to send someone to “testify” to his brothers of the reality of hell. We see such sober warnings throughout Acts (2:40; 8:25; 10:42; 18:5; 20:21, 23–24). Paul issued similar sober charges to his young friend Timothy (1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 4:1). We see, then, that he was earnest—deadly serious.
We have a serious message and we need to live and to speak with sobriety. Passion is expected, but that passion must be believable. The gospel deals with the matter of eternal importance. Don’t apologise for the gospel. Be willing to feel naked after you bare your soul.
Paul’s reasoning was such that he was “persuading” them. The word means to convince so as to obey in response. In fact, it is sometimes translated in the New Testament as “obey.” The root is the word often used to describe “belief” and “faith.”
This is our goal: that those we witness to will be convinced and will believe the gospel. We want them to believe on Christ (see Acts 5:36; 18:4; 19:8, 26; 26:28; 28:24).
And so Paul explained, appealed and pleaded. But what was his subject? Luke tells us that it was “the kingdom of God,” shorthand for the gospel. “The kingdom of God,” says Stott, is “the good news of the breaking into human history of God’s gracious rule through Christ.”3 According to MacArthur, Luke meant that Paul was “preaching the gospel, the good news that God sovereignly calls sinners hopelessly caught in the realm of Satan, death and destruction to enter the realm of salvation and life.”4 This is what the Old Testament had promised. The Jews should have been the first to believe. But first they needed to be convinced of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Paul knew who was King! “He was facing trial and possible death, but he knew that he had already risen with Christ. He was awaiting the emperor’s pleasure, but he knew that the supreme authority to whom he bowed was not the Lord Caesar, but the Lord Christ.”5
Paul was “persuading them concerning Jesus.” This is what the gospel is all about: It’s all about Jesus (Romans 1:1–4). This was Paul’s passion and itis the passion of all who are properly committed to Acts 1:8. Everything that characterised Paul’s life and ministry—his preaching, passion, purpose, perseverance, politeness—was about Jesus.
The result of Paul’s ministry, as always, was that “some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.” This latter phrase literally means that some refused to believe. But the apostle remained faithful (see 1 Corinthians 4:1–2). He continued to passionately proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ because he wanted to see people saved.
Passionate proclamation matters! Some may argue that it’s not really about the number, and while this is true in one sense, it’s interesting that Acts often records numbers. Clearly the numbers were of some importance to Luke. Insisting that it’s not about the numbers is much like insisting that a warning issued on a sinking ship is good enough regardless of the casualty count in the end. Of course numbers matter. We passionately proclaim the gospel because we believe that God wants to add people to His Son.
The third characteristic of Paul that stands out in our present text is his courage. We see this in vv. 25–29.
So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying,
‘Go to this people and say:
“Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand;
And seeing you will see, and not perceive;
For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.”’
“Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” And when he had said these words, the Jews departed and had a great dispute among themselves.
In the face of obstinate rejection, Paul wielded the Sword of the Spirit with great courage. He fearlessly confronted the unbelievers with their failure and their responsibility while at the same time pressing home God’s sovereignty. This makes sense since he had just been speaking of the King!
But sadly, “Israel’s willful act of rejection was sovereignly confirmed by God; because of continual unbelief, she became unable to believe.”6
“Thus at the imperial centre of the Gentile world the representative Jews are refusing the gospel as they have refused it in Jerusalem, and wherever Paul has preached. The doom of the nation is sealed; the sentence is pronounced by the apostle.”7
Paul quotes here from Isaiah 6:9–10, which was given within a Messianic context. The unbelief of the Jewish nation unfortunately had a long history. Jesus likewise made reference to Isaiah’s words in speaking of the Jews of His generation (Matthew 13:10–17; Luke 8:9–10; John 12:37–41). This pattern of unbelief is evident throughout Acts. Thank God, however, that He remains faithful.
The Jews of New Testament times rejected Messiah and so God rejected them. Thankfully, His rejection of Israel is not the final word. There is coming a day, according to Romans 9–11, in which a multitude of Jews will turn to Jesus, which will in turn result in even more Gentiles turning to Him.
For now, however, Paul would turn to the Gentiles—and he knew that they would hear the gospel (v. 28). This conviction fuelled his courageous ministry. God’s salvation had been sent to the Gentiles and therefore Paul was certain of a successful Gentile ministry.
Missionary Adoniram Judson shared Paul’s conviction, and it was for this reason that he could boldly declare from a Burmese prison, with no promise of deliverance, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.”
Barclay observes, “The door which the Jews shut was the door that opened to the Gentiles; and even that is not the end, because some time, at the end of the day, there will be one flock and one shepherd.”8
It is a tragedy of massive proportions that there is such unbelief in the gospel, particularly in the face of so much opportunity. The fields are white for harvest, but sadly we will not go as workers into the field because we don’t really believe the power of the gospel. How many there are in our own homes and neighbourhoods—perhaps even in our own churches—who need to come under the sound of the gospel but who do not because of our unbelief!
Speaking of Paul’s passionate evangelism, J. A. Alexander wrote, “In this fearful process there are three distinguishable agencies expressly or implicitly described, the ministerial agency of the prophet, the judicial agency of God, and the suicidal agency of the people themselves.”9 Are we overcome with a “suicidal” mindset as people of God? That is, are we willing to lay everything—even our very lives—on the line for the sake of the gospel?
Like Paul, we must call a spade a spade. We must boldly proclaim God’s Word—the whole counsel of God—precisely because it is God’s Word. It will require courage to go against cultural and religious norms, but we must exhibit such courage for the glory of God.
Don Carson’s father, Tom, was an ordinary pastor, faithfully ministering in French speaking evangelical churches in Canada in the early 1970s. Carson recalls how his father laboured, often with tears, to see the gospel gain a foothold. The region in which he ministered in the 1970s was overrun by Roman Catholicism, and several Protestant ministers were actively persecuted for their faith. Carson recalls one of his siblings being bullied because he was a Protestant.
In 1971, says Carson, there were a mere forty small and struggling evangelical churches in that part of Canada. By 1971 there were an astounding five hundred! It took time and tears, but God saw fit to bless the faithful obedience of Tom Carson and his fellow-labourers with great gospel fruit.
Our text closes by speaking to Paul’s confidence:
Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
Despite the “great dispute,” Paul kept on keeping on. Note this pattern throughout Acts—both the pattern of disputing and yet Paul’s persistence (14:4; 17:4–5; 18:6–8; 19:8–9). Paul remained confident in the face of opposition, and his confidence produced at least three things.
First, it produced commitment. Paul was found “preaching” under house arrest. His circumstances did not detour him from his commission. Whether he was rejected, resisted or restrained, he knew his calling and continued to obey.
One way in which he did so was by his writings. He wrote at least four epistles from prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. We have these instruction-filled letters for our edification because he was committed to his calling even under arrest. He was “preaching the kingdom of God.” Even under hostile arrest by Nero, a Roman dictator who demanded worship from his subjects, Paul recognised Jesus, not Caesar, as King.
We need to be reminded, in all circumstances of life, that Jesus Christ is King.
Second, Paul displayed great confidence. Luke speaks of Paul having “all confidence.” He was outspoken, frank, plain and open. Again, this is characteristic in this book of the acts of the apostle. Peter and John displayed similar confidence (2:29; 4:13, 29, 31) and Paul did elsewhere too (9:27, 29; 13:46; 14:3; 19:8; 26:26). Even in his writings this confidence shines forth (Ephesians 6:19–20; Philippians 1:20; 1 Thessalonians 2:2).
The word translated “confidence,” says Stott, “denotes speech which is candid (with no concealment of truth), clear (with no obscurity of expression) and confident (with no fear of consequences).”10
Paul’s boldness was the fruit of belief not of belligerence. Timidity will get us nowhere—and neither will “attitude.”
Finally, we see Paul characterised by continuance. He continued his ministry, “no one forbidding him.” This is a perfect word upon which to end this book and our study.
[Paul] was beset by danger and opposition, as was the Lord Jesus Christ. But he maintained a steady, consistent witness to the truth. Paul was still alive and bearing his testimony despite the limitations imposed on him, a pattern for Christian service in the world. His example is intended to encourage the church to count on the faithfulness of God, who delivered His servants from the peril of death and will yet deliver others. He is the God of resurrection, whose cause must triumph.11
Acts 1:8 is a command and therefore a promise. Remember, the Lord will build His church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it. I appreciate the sentiments of Charles Erdman, who conclude his short commentary in this way: “The story is properly ended; and it has been so narrated that the reader feels a true interest in the church and a deep desire to hasten the preaching of the gospel in all the world and to every creature.”12
No commentator has helped me in this study more than John Stott and so I quote him one last time:
Luke’s description of Paul preaching “with boldness” and “without hindrance” symbolises a wide open door, through which we in our day have to pass. The Acts of the apostles have long ago finished. But the acts of the followers of Jesus will continue until the end of the world, and their words will spread to the ends of the earth.13
All nations will be discipled. All God’s sheep will be found. So just do it. And when you need encouragement, read “the end of the beginning” and you will appreciate the beginning of the end. Read Acts.
- William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 211. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 428. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 400. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:372. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 404. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 2:374–75. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 196. ↩
- Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 211. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 399. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 400. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 433. ↩
- Erdman, The Acts, 196. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 405. ↩