When in Rome …
When in Rome ...
Famous last words,
Famous last words,
Often someone’s last words kind of summarise their entire life, don’t they?
So there’s Beethoven’s last words in 1827,
"Friends applaud, the comedy is finished."
Or Dominique Bouhours, a famous French grammar expert. "I am about to , or I am going to , die: either expression is correct."
Convicted murder James Rogers was executed by firing squad in 1960. When asked if he had any final requests, his last words were, “a bullet-proof vest, please.”
"Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.”
Spoken by Nostradamus, the Frenchman famous for his predictions! And in this case, he was right!
Or these words, "You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you." Those were the last words of Alex, an African Grey Parrot who was used in university research.
There’s the somewhat predictable,
“‘It’s okay, the gun’s not loaded, see?” Tragically, the famous last words of Johnny Ace, an R&B singer from the 50s.
Or on a better note, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, turned to his wife and said, “You are wonderful”, at which point he passed away.
For Johnny Ace, his last words were a reflection of his daredevil attitude to life,
For Alex the parrot, perhaps an indication of his familiarity with his handler,
Dominique the French grammarian, his last words were just a continuation of his life’s work,
And Arthur Conan Doyle’s, well, a testament to years of loving marriage to his wife, Jean.
Last words tell us something.
And today we read the last words of the book of Acts.
Luke our eyewitness historian has written 2 volumes. What we call Luke’s gospel, and the book of Acts, and here we find the end.
Famous last words.
Paul is delivered and delivers others (v 1 – 10)
These last words begin on the island of Malta where Paul and his companions were shipwrecked.
And here we see, once again, Paul is delivered by God,
Verse 3, Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand
Everyone expects him to keel over dead! But he doesn’t.
It’s like God is trying to remove all doubt, that he has plans for Paul and nothing is going to get in the way of Paul preaching the gospel in Rome, just as Jesus had promised him.
Paul also though, does some delivering. Of course, strictly speaking, God delivers people through Paul, which is the point that Luke makes.
See in verse 8, in the house of Publius, the head honcho of the island, he welcomes Paul and the others into his home, but His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, , after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.
Notice the , “after prayer”
Paul isn’t a god, like the locals thought, in verse 6.
It’s God who heals.
At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, there’s a very similar incident where Jesus is welcomed into someone’s home, and heals a relative of his host.
But in that incident, Jesus didn’t pray and ask God to take the fever away, he simply rebuked the fever, and it was gone.
Luke’s keen to make sure we have a right understanding of Paul, and therefore a right confidence in God, who is actually doing the healing.
Which is good news for us, isn’t?
Because if the healing came from Paul himself, well, that’s no good to us, all these years later!
But if the healing comes from God, well, we relate to the same God, and on the same basis as Paul did.
We’re not promised healing like this, every single time.
But I can promise you that God hasn’t lost his ability to do this!
Pagan gods deliver Paul to Rome! (v 11 – 16)
The journey continues though, and finally Paul and the others set out for the last leg of their voyage to Rome.
Notice the eye-witness detail again;, the ship that takes Paul to Italy is Alexandrian, with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux.
Now to us, this might seem like an insignificant detail! Who cares whose face is stuck on the front of the ship?!
But Luke’s original readers, would crack a wry smile at this point.
Castor and Pollux were considered the patron gods of sailors. It was up to Castor and Pollux to ensure smooth sailing, deliverance from storms.
In fact St Elmo’s fire, the plasma discharge that sometimes appears at the top of ships masts during electrical storms, that glowing discharge was thought to be Castor and Pollux turning up to usher you safely through the storm.
Pagan sailors believed that if you made it through a storm alive, it was because these 2 had been looking after you.
Luke has just finished telling us how Paul and his companions have made it through , the mother of all storms, and it’s been pretty obvious that Castor and Pollux have had nothing to do with it!
It is Paul’s God, who delivered them safely through the storm.
And so it’s almost amusing,
God wants Paul to testify about Jesus in Rome, and so he delivers Paul through the storm, and then he even uses this ship, adorned with the so-called patron gods of sailors, to achieve his ends.
These mythical gods are nothing but a tool at God’s disposal, something he can use to achieve his ends.
Luke then introduces us to some more brothers, brothers and sisters actually!
Puteoli, was the main port for the Roman wheat trade. There Luke says, we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them
Remember that Paul is still a prisoner, and most likely the Roman centurion in charge is responsible for commandeering or requisitioning food and lodging for these prisoners.
And so in God’s kindness, when this group of Christians make this invitation, perhaps the centurion sees his accommodation needs met. Meaning Paul, although he’s a prisoner, is able to spend some time with Christian brothers and sisters.
But before we get to Rome, we meet yet another group of brothers and sisters.
See the end of verse 14, And so we came to Rome.
15 The brothers and sisters there, had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us.
So word has got to Rome, that Paul is on his way, and so the Christians in Rome come to the airport to meet him!
We know that there are already Christians in Rome.
Back in Acts 18, we learn that the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, and that meant lots of Christians were kicked out also, but by AD 60, Claudius is gone, Nero is now Emperor, and the Christian population is now growing again.
And so, 2 lots of Christians from Rome, come out to meet Paul and the others, one group meeting them at the Forum of Appius, and the other at the Three Taverns.
About 3 years earlier Paul had written to the Christians in Rome, and told them how much he wanted to visit them, and so notice how he responds when finally meets them. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.
Just the sight, of these Christian brothers and sisters, is an encouragement to Paul.
He sees them, and he’s reminded that the gospel of Jesus has the power to transform lives.
He sees them, and knowing something of the history of the church in Rome, the edict of Claudius, he’s encouraged at the perseverance that the gospel message enables.
He sees them, and he is encouraged, knowing that he is about to face his most significant trial yet. He is to testify before Caesar. And the support, the welcome, of these brothers and sisters, is an encouragement to him, Luke says.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if this kind of thing could be written about us? There’s not going to be an Apostle, an eye-witness of the resurrected Jesus turning up here, but imagine a Christian worker, a messenger,
Someone whom God is using to bring the good news of forgiveness of sin, and relationship with God through Jesus, to people all over the place,
Someone like that turns up in Mount Barker,
Would it be said, that our commitment to the Kingdom of God,
To the work of God in the World,
Our commitment to the rapid spread of the gospel,
To what God is doing beyond our own walls,
Could it be said, that we would receive and welcome God’s messenger like this?
Could it be written, “God’s people at TMB, were such a welcome sight, that we thanked God, and were encouraged”?
Are we giving people reason to thank God, and be encouraged?
Maybe we’re doing the opposite.
Famous last words,
This is the last word in Acts, on Paul’s interaction with other Christians. After this point, Luke doesn’t think there’s anything else he needs to record, about Paul’s dealings with Christians.
Fellow believers as a reason for thanking God, and as a means of encouragement, that’s the picture we’re left with.
It’s not a bad picture to aspire to, is it?
And maybe something we can work on, put into practice.
And of course the other side of the coin is also a challenge.
Do we thank God for the Christian people we meet?,
For the brothers and sisters he’s placed around us?
Paul preaches Jesus the Messiah from the Old Testament (v 17 – 24)
So the rest of this section describes Paul’s interactions with the Jews in Rome, specifically, the Jewish religious leaders.
And so Luke’s final paragraphs, are all about this question of how the good news of Jesus, is, verse 20, the hope of Israel,
How, Paul’s message is a continuation of God’s prior work.
And Paul really doesn’t waste much time, before creating an opportunity to teach the religious leaders about Jesus, the Messiah, God’s king.
There’s not much time to recover from jet lag, or from the ordeals of the storm, the shipwreck, the close call with the snake, Three days later, Paul called together the local Jewish leaders and he explains to them what’s happened to him in Jerusalem, and how he’s ended up here, in Rome.
Notice how he begins his defence.
He calls these Jewish leaders my brothers. He acknowledges their shared identity, belonging to the people among whom God had worked for centuries, and he repeats what we’ve heard him say multiple times, that he’s innocent of any crime against the Jewish people, or again the customs of our ancestors.
Still, he was arrested, and imprisoned, and the language of being handed over to the Romans, verse 18, who found him not guilty of any crime deserving death. Luke deliberately preserves this language, so that we hear the echoes of the way Jesus was treated by the Jewish and Roman authorities.
Jesus often used this exact language of being handed over. And so Luke pictures Paul following his master, and suffering the same kind of hardships as Jesus did.
And Paul says, “I’m only here because I appealed to Caesar to prove my innocence, I’m not anti-Jewish, or anti-Old Testament or anything like that,
I’m absolutely pro-Israel,
In fact, it is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain. And you can imagine him , clinking the chain for effect at this point.
What’s the hope of Israel? The resurrection
We’ve seen it all through this section, Paul is in chains, because of his message about the resurrection of Jesus.
He calls the resurrection the hope of Israel, because, as we’ve seen, and we won’t go into the detail again, but all the expectations of the nation of Israel depended on the resurrection.
In order to receive God’s eternal blessings, people needed to be raised from the dead.
But Israel also hoped for a particular resurrection, because God had promised that his king, the Messiah, would not succumb to death, but would reign over God’s people forever.
So when people started being raised from the dead, that was the sign that the Messiah’s time had come,
That the reign of God’s king had begun.
And Paul is convinced that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead demonstrates him to be God’s king, the fulfilment of Israel’s hope and expectation.
Paul’s repeated refrain is that the gospel of Jesus, the Christian message, is not the enemy of the Jewish faith, but its divinely appointed fulfilment.
The Jewish leaders in Rome have heard something of this Christian message. The gospel has become widely known and widely talked about;, they say “we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect”, and so they want to hear Paul explain the Christian faith more fully.
It’s an evangelistic opportunity handed to Paul on a platter, isn’t it?! But more than that, it’s the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise, that Paul will testify in Rome.
The group of people we might have expected to be most opposed to Paul and his message, are the very ones through whom Jesus’ promise to Paul is fulfilled!
They arranged, verse 23, to meet Paul on a certain day,
And they came in even larger numbers, perhaps they’ve even been rounding others up, to come and hear Paul teach about Jesus!
Even in his last couple of paragraphs, Luke is determined that we see the good news of Jesus pressing forward,
God fulfils his promises. And he can even use the Jewish religious leaders, some of whom will disbelieve Paul’s message, to have his promise fulfilled.
You must also testify in Rome
So let’s have a look at how Paul testifies about Jesus.
First, he explains about the kingdom of God
We’ve noted already that the resurrection of Jesus demonstrated that the new era of God’s kingdom had dawned.
And maybe Paul takes the opportunity, to speak of the Kingdom of God in contrast to the kingdom of Caesar, to these Jews who had experienced the edict of Claudius, for example.
But of course, Paul could hardly speak about God’s kingdom, without speaking about Jesus, God’s king.
And the second part of this day-long exposition, is that from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus
This is quite some sermon! It makes 32 minutes seem quite tame, doesn’t it?!
Having spoken about the kingdom, Paul then takes them to their Scriptures, Moses and the Prophets to try and persuade them about Jesus, arguing that Jesus is the king.
That the promises that God made to his people in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,
Isaiah, Daniel, Hosea,
The promises that God made to his people, are fulfilled in Jesus.
He is the king of the God’s kingdom.
Moses and the prophets, spoke of the Messiah who would come.
Well Paul shows how Jesus’ life and ministry, especially his death and his resurrection, prove that he is this promised Messiah.
Paul preaches Jesus from the Old Testament.
Next year one of the teaching series that we have planned, is called “Future Echoes of the Gospel.” We’re going to spend time in just a few of the many, many places in the Old Testament, where God speaks, to prepare his people for Jesus,
To get them ready for his coming,
To demonstrate their need for Jesus.
Now, Luke doesn’t tell us which passages from the Old Testament Paul turns to here, but no doubt the passages that we touch on next year, will be some of those which Paul used to convince the Jewish leaders that Jesus is the true and necessary fulfilment of the hope of Israel.
Now, if Paul can persuade people about Jesus from the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament, then this must shape the way that we read and understand the Old Testament, mustn’t it?
The Old Testament is a promise, a hope, to use Paul’s word.
The fulfilment is Jesus.
So the right way to read any part of the Old Testament, is not to think of it as something that stands entirely on its own, but to see it as part of a story,
To hear in it a promise,
To ask the questions,
How does this prepare for the ministry of Jesus?,
How is this fulfilled in Jesus?
As we’ve seen, God’s original intention for the Old Testament was that people would see where it pointed. In looking for the fulfilment, we’re not trying to make the text do something it was never intended to do.
God’s people back then were to look forward to where it pointed.
They saw only dimly, as God progressively revealed more and more of himself and his purposes.
We look back to its fulfilment, and see clearly, God’s purposes centred on, and fulfilled in Jesus.
But clearly here, Paul thinks the Old Testament is unfinished business,
It needs something else;
Its necessary and logical fulfilment is Jesus.
And as has been the case every time Paul speaks of Jesus like this, the response of his hearers is divided.
Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe
God knew the gospel message would be rejected (v 25 – 28)
And they began to leave, still disagreeing with one another, but not before Paul quotes these words from the prophet Isaiah.
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
27 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes etc etc.
This is the second longest Old Testament quotation in the whole book, and it comes from Isaiah 6, which details Isaiah call by God, to ministry as a prophet.
And this big long quote is here, to reassure us, that God knew, all along, that the gospel message would be rejected.
And that its rejection by some, would be the means of the good news of Jesus reaching others.
If you’ve already flicked back to Isaiah chapter 6 to have a look at it, good on you! But you’ll notice the words are slightly different to how Isaiah 6 reads in our Bibles.
That’s because Paul is using the Greek translation of the Old Testament, whereas our Bibles are translated directly from the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament.
And as I said, this is Isaiah’s call to ministry in about 740 BC, so nearly 800 years before Paul.
And I reckon if God was to call me like this for a particular task, I’d be asking for something a little more reassuring than what Isaiah got!
Isaiah turns up for work on his first day as a prophet, someone who speaks God’s Word, and here’s what God promises him:, !
People will hear,
Everyone’s going to be in church,
They’ll download all his sermons off the Internet,
They’ll sit through Bible Study Group week after week,
But they’ll never understand,
They’ll never respond rightly.
How’s that for a highly motivating commissioning service?!
When we commissioned the Starter Group for our new church at Trinity South Coast, imagine if we got them all up the front here, and said this to them!
But in Isaiah’s day, among God’s people, this was God’s judgment on them, because their hearts had become calloused,
They have closed their eyes.
God’s saying, there are people who choose deafness and blindness, over understanding.
Do we feel how shocking that is?
Both Isaiah and Paul, taught simply, straight-forwardly.
Think of what we’ve heard from Paul even just in this section;
He uses the people’s own Bible,
He takes them to the promises they know,
He reminds them of the signs they were looking for,
And shows them that the signs have appeared.
“You’ve been waiting for the resurrection of the dead,
The hope of Israel is the resurrection of the dead,
Jesus has been raised from the dead,
The promises have been answered!”
They didn’t need a PhD in theology to understand that!
But there were plenty of people who didn’t want to understand it,
Who didn’t want to make the appropriate response, to Jesus as God’s king.
I read a book this week that kept talking about “the disturbing Word of God”, which was quite a good phrase, I thought!
The disturbing Word of God.
The Word of God does disturb!
The message that Jesus is God’s king disturbs us.
It disturbs our priorities,
Disturbs our way of looking at the world,
Disturbs the way we think about and relate to God.
And there were some, both for Isaiah and for Paul, who refused to be disturbed,
They hung their “Do not disturb” sign on their door.
They refused the humility and repentance that the Word of God calls for.
But lest we think that something’s gone wrong,
That the Christian message is failing,
Luke is reminding us, that God knew, the Word of God would be rejected.
I wonder if the Word of God continues to disturb us,
To constantly re-orient our priorities,
The danger in resisting the disturbing Word of God, is all too plain here;, Eventually we become deaf to it.
I was talking to a friend once, a family member, actually, who’s not a Christian. And he was asking about Christian things, because he said he knew, if he just waited until he was old, or on his deathbed, it would be too late. He said, “If I’ve spent my life ignoring God, I’m not going to be any more interested then.”
That’s incredibly perceptive, isn’t it? And it’s exactly what God said through the prophet Isaiah.
God knew that the gospel message would be rejected, even among the Jews, those to whom it first came.
We can’t help notice the contrast though, between the reception that Paul and his message get from the Gentiles, and the response of some of these Jews.
And in fact Paul makes the point in verse 28,
Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
That’s not to say that not a single Jewish person believed the gospel of Jesus. Thousands did.
But the community as a whole, because of their hardened hearts, reject the very thing they’ve been hoping for, the fulfilment of God’s promises.
Tragedy and Triumph (v 30 – 31)
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
And so these famous last words, contain both a note of tragedy, and of triumph.
The tragedy is this rejection of the gospel of Jesus by the Jews.
The triumph is that Paul proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ - with all boldness and without hindrance!
The implication here is that Paul now proclaims the good news of Jesus primarily to Gentiles. I’m sure the odd Jew still turned up at Paul’s place to hear him speak, but the flow of the story is very much towards the Gentiles, those like most of us, I imagine!
This might seem like a strange way for the book to end,
Even a bit of an anti-climax perhaps,
But let’s notice the crescendo that’s actually here!
The book of Acts,
The story of Jesus at work through his church, closes with the deafening reminder that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews.
The final page shouts, that the good news of Jesus is for all the world.
And notice that what Paul proclaims to the Gentiles, is the same as what we hear he said to those Jewish leaders;,
The kingdom of God,
Jesus’ promise to Paul is fulfilled. He testifies to the good news of Jesus, the Christ, God’s king, in Rome.
And not only that, but Jesus’ promise to the other 11 Apostles at the very beginning of Acts, is also being fulfilled.
Acts 1:8, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
It’s that promise that drives this whole book.
And now Paul is standing in the centre of the world.
Not quite literally, but certainly geo-politically.
They don’t say, “All roads lead to Rome” for nothing!
And of course, as far as the good news of Jesus is concerned, the opposite is also true! All roads lead away from Rome!
There is no better way, humanly speaking, for the message of forgiveness of sin, and relationship with God, to reach the ends of the earth, than by striking out from Rome.
And so here, in fulfilment of God’s promise, Paul stands, proclaiming the kingdom of God,
Teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ,
Boldly and without hindrance.
What God promises,
Famous last words,
Famous last words,
It is a slightly unusual ending,
Or at least, an unexpected ending, to us.
We want to know what happened to Paul, don’t we?
Was he found innocent?
Was he condemned to die under Nero?
Was he set free?
What happened after those two whole years mentioned in verse 30?
Did Paul set out from Rome to Spain, like he had earlier told the Roman Christians that he hoped to do?
Well, Luke’s not really interested in answering those questions.
He’s much more keen that we see the gospel bring proclaimed.
People are hearing about Jesus.
Paul may be chained up, but he’s doing exactly what Jesus wants him to do; He’s telling other people that they can have peace with God.
These famous last words remind us, that the hero of this story, is not Paul, but Jesus, and that his word, will prevail.
I was checking of the dates of these events in an article about Paul this week, and this article all about Paul’s life concluded with these words based on 2 Timothy chapter 4.
To the end Paul fought the good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith.
His crown awaits him
And it kind of took me by surprise, because that phrase was just so ordinary. “His crown awaits him.”
I’ve spoken those words at multiple funerals.
Those words could have been written about any believer,
And it struck me that that was entirely true.
We sometimes imagine Paul to be some kind of , superhero.
And he was a faithful servant of Jesus through significant trials,
He is a great example and encouragement to us.
But the reason he can be such a great example and encouragement to us, is precisely because, he’s just like us.
He was used by God in unique ways,
He saw Jesus face to face, an experience we don’t get.
But what he did, with what he saw,
What he said, in all those unique opportunities,
Well, those things can be entirely true, of any person who understands what it is to be forgiven and reconciled to God because Jesus died in your place.
The message entrusted to Paul, is the message entrusted to us.
The Spirit of God who enabled Paul to proclaim the gospel of Jesus with all boldness and without hindrance, is the same Spirit of God who enables us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus with all boldness and without hindrance.
The God who longed to bring people into relationship with himself through Paul’s testimony about Jesus,
Is the God who longs to bring people into relationship with himself through our testimony about Jesus.
Paul is not the hero of this story.
The powerful Word of God in Christ, is the hero of this story.
Famous last words!