Acts 28 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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To Rome: Imprisonment and Witness

Today the operative word in computers is "interactive." Books in software permit us to interact with the text by writing our own endings. By the way Luke concludes Acts, he shows us that he wants us to interact fully with its message--not that we control it, but that it controls us.Arrival at Rome (28:11-16)

The shipwreck survivors were probably on Malta from mid-November to mid-February or the beginning of March. Then Paul and the rest of the passengers and crew put out to sea again. At one of Malta's large harbors they had found an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Twin sons of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, the Dioscouroi had been immortalized as gods from the union of Leda, queen of Sparta, and Zeus. Seeing their constellation, the Gemini, while on the high seas was thought to be a sign of good fortune. They were the patron deities of sailors and protectors of innocent seafarers, and their cult had devotees in Egypt as well as Italy (Epictetus Discourses 2.18.29). Euripides presents them as guardians of truth and punishers of perjurers (Electra 1342-55).

It is probably with an intended ironic twist that Luke notes Paul's embarkation on "The Castor and Pollux." For though the unbelieving ancients would have attributed Paul's rescue to "the Twins" and taken it as a token of his innocence, Paul has made clear he belongs to, serves and believes in the one true God, who was his protector and deliverer (27:23-25). So today, though others tout the gods of non-Christian religion or secular technopolitical ideology as protectors and saviors, the Christian knows who is really in gracious control.

After a sixty-mile voyage north, the ship put in at Syracuse, on the southeast coast of Sicily, the triangular island at the tip of the boot of the Italian peninsula. They stayed for three days at this provincial capital city, famed for fishing, shipbuilding and bronze work.

The seventy-mile passage to Rhegium was uneventful. This Italian port is six or seven miles from Messina, across the strait that separates Sicily from Italy. On the strength of a south wind the ship moved northward and in two days covered the 175 nautical miles (overall speed five knots) to Puteoli.

Puteoli, because of its location in the Bay of Naples and its man-made jetties, was at this time, in Strabo's words, "a very great emporium," Rome's main port of entry from the east (Strabo Geography 5.4.6; Seneca Epistles 77.1). Since Josephus mentions a Jewish colony at Puteoli (Jewish Wars 2.104), it is not surprising that Paul and his Christian companions found some [Christian] brothers. Their invitation to spend a week with them of course presupposed a request to the centurion and his consent (compare 27:3).

What an attractive picture of the worldwide network of support and encouragement that Christians know! To the cosmopolitan Roman then, and the sophisticated but unconnected urbanite now, Paul's experience of instant but genuine intimacy and full-orbed mutual commitment in the company of brothers at Puteoli is a refreshing picture of what they long for and can have in the gospel (compare 16:15, 33-34; 21:7; 27:3).

And so we came to Rome. The word so brings out two themes in Acts. It looks back and climactically marks the precise fulfillment of God's promise to Paul (23:11; 27:24). But it also points forward, telling the reader to note the way Paul and his party came to Rome: in the company of Roman Christians who came to give them the kind of welcome reserved for dignitaries (apantesis; Cicero Letters to Atticus 16.11).

Paul made his way twenty miles up the Via Compana to its intersection with the Via Appia, the Appian Way. Statius called this Roman road "the worn and well-known track of Appia, queen of the long roads" (Silvae 2.2.12). The 130-mile trek to Rome probably took five days. Moving through hill country and returning to the coast only three times, this road passed through the Pontine Marshes, in which a canal had been constructed in an attempt at draining them. At the northern end of the marsh, forty-three miles from Rome, was the Forum of Appius, "crammed with boatmen and stingy tavern-keepers" (Horace Satires 1.5.3-6). Ten miles farther was Three Taverns (Cicero Letters to Atticus 2.10). At both these "halting stations" Christian brothers from Rome, who had heard that Paul and the others were coming, greeted him and provided a reception and escort to Rome fit for an emperor.

What an irony: Paul the imperial prisoner makes a triumphal procession to the capital of the Empire! Thus proceeds the advance of the gospel in fulfillment of Acts 1:8, a demonstration of the truth of its declaration that it would be proclaimed in all nations.

At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged (literally, "took courage"). Why? From his letter to the Romans and from Acts we know that one of Paul's long-standing desires was to bear witness in Rome (19:21; Rom 1:10-12; 15:22-24, 30-32). Along the way to that goal, he had anticipated and met some significant obstacles. When, with God's help, we achieve divinely appointed goals, the only proper response is thankfulness.

And as for the future? Paul "took courage" especially at the sight of the Roman Christians. Because the Judaizing opposition either followed Paul to Rome or greeted him there (Phil 1:15-19), this show of support was surely most significant to him. As Christians today face the future, they too need support from one another, especially in prayer, if they are to "take courage."

As Paul and his companions got to (better "entered") Rome, they were no doubt struck with, as Horace says, "the smoke, the riches and the din of wealthy Rome," the ancient world's largest city, capital and hub of the Empire (Odes 3.29.12). Here Paul experienced a more lenient form of custody, his own rented quarters, where he remained chained at the wrist to one soldier of the Praetorian guard, who served a four-hour shift (Phil 1:13; Josephus Antiquities 18.169).Encounter with Jewish Leaders (28:17-22)

Three days after Paul's arrival, in accordance with his "to the Jew first" strategy, he called together the leaders of the Jews (13:5, 14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4; 19:8). The Jewish community at Rome in mid-first century is estimated to have numbered forty to fifty thousand, most being slaves and freedmen. They inhabited "the great section of Rome on the other side of the Tiber" (Philo Legatio ad Gaium 155). The names of ten to thirteen synagogues have been recovered from inscriptions in the catacombs (Dunn 1988:xlvi).

As Paul began to speak (NIV said; the Greek is inchoative imperfect--Robertson 1934:885), he addressed his hearers as brothers. The apostle never finally turned his back on his compatriots. He saw each new audience of Jews as potentially containing some of the elect remnant who would hear and respond to the gospel (Rom 10:9-15; 11:5). And today Paul's initiative teaches us that centuries of Jewish rejection and Gentile anti-Semitism or neglect cannot erase the responsibility that all witnesses have to make sure the gospel goes "to the Jew first."

This brief address is in a chiastic structure highlighting four affirmations. First, Paul is innocent before the Jews (28:17b, 19c). They can bring no sustainable charges against him, and he has none to bring against them. The Jews may charge that Paul is working against "the people" and the customs of our ancestors, as they did when they tried to lynch him and when they accused him at the hearings (21:28; 24:6; 25:7). But the charges won't stick, because Paul always acted for and not against his people (26:17, 23) and always respected Jewish customs (21:23-24, 26). Further, Paul does not view his nation as at odds with himself (compare 24:17; 26:4).

Second, Paul is a prisoner, and there are reasons for this (28:17c, 19b). Paul was handed over (paradidomi) as a prisoner from Jerusalem to the Romans (compare Lk 22:21; 23:25; Acts 21:11). With the implication of treachery and injustice that often accompanies the biblical use of the term paradidomi, and by juxtaposing Paul's prisoner status to an affirmation of his innocence (28:17b), Luke leads us to understand that Paul does not deserve to be a prisoner. The mystery of why he remains a prisoner after the Romans declared him innocent will be explained in the chiastic parallel: I was compelled to appeal to Caesar (v. 19; also see 25:11).

Third, Roman and Jew had opposite dispositions toward Paul (28:18a, 19a). The Romans wanted ("were purposing, planning"--imperfect, possibly tendential) to release him. It was their plan, maybe when Festus first considered the case as he entered the governorship of Judea. By bringing charges and insisting on a trial in Jerusalem, a ploy for their deadly ambush, the Jews objected to Paul's release (25:3, 7).

Fourth, the one affirmation on which the chiasm turns is because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death (28:18). Paul is innocent before the Roman state (23:28-29; 25:25; 26:31-32).

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this speech is as much for Roman middle-class ears as for the Jewish hearers. To be actually innocent by Jewish standards seriously undercut the Jewish arguments against Paul's gospel. This is important for Theophilus's and his fellow seekers' receptivity to the gospel. Innocence before the state would strongly commend the faith to the law-abiding Roman.

Paul's speech climaxes by answering the question: "Why do the Jews oppose the Christian message and me?" It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain (see comment at 23:6; compare 24:15; 26:6-8).

The leaders respond to Paul's witness to his innocence in a very politic manner. They have heard nothing bad about Paul, whether by letter or by word of mouth, officially or unofficially. They have heard nothing good about this sect but would like to hear Paul's views on it. The scope and effect of the gospel witness--it is spreading everywhere--has been matched by opposition to it everywhere (17:30; compare Lk 2:34; Acts 13:45).Explaining the Gospel to Jews (28:23-28)

On a set day the Jews came in even larger numbers (compare 13:44) to Paul's rented lodgings (vv. 16, 30). So intent was he to win them that he discoursed from morning till evening (compare Western reading of 19:9; 20:7, 11; Ex 18:13). Time should never be a factor in witnessing to the truth that leads to eternal life. As long as the audience has the time, the Christian witness should have the inclination (compare Jn 4:31-35).

As the Jewish leaders requested, Paul explained the Christian faith to them. But it was not his views about a sect that he expounded. Rather, he declared, even "warned," (diamartyromenos) about the kingdom of God (Acts 10:42; 23:11). More that just a shorthand way of referring to the gospel message (1:3; 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:31), the kingdom of God was the eschatological highway into the heart of the pious Jew (Lk 13:28, 29; 14:15; 19:11; 23:42, 51; Acts 1:6). And the good news was that God's reign was in their midst in the victorious life, death and resurrection-exaltation of Messiah Jesus and his salvation blessings.

Today utopias of the left and the right are in shambles. People are uncertain, even apprehensive, whether the kingdoms of this world can manage the present, let alone the future. They are ready for the good news about the kingdom of God.

The Jewish leaders' acceptance of this good news hinged on the answer to several important questions: Had the Messiah already come? If so, who was he? So Paul in his exposition also entered into reasoned discourse, "persuading" (NIV tried to convince, not necessarily a conative imperfect) them from the Scriptures, from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, about Jesus (see comment at 17:4; compare 13:23-29; 17:3-4; 26:22, 27-28; Lk 24:25-27, 44-48). He is indeed the Messiah whose earthly mission and resurrection-exaltation had brought in the kingdom of God and made it visible to the eyes of faith. Any witness for Christ will involve not only bold declaration but also clear reasoning, lucid give-and-take.

The response to the message was mixed: some were convinced, . . . but others would not believe (13:44-45; 14:1-2; 17:4-5). This division among the Jews could leave the impression that Paul's teaching was just that of a Jewish sect, attracting some Jews but not others. It certainly could not be the good news of the kingdom of God; otherwise all Jews would embrace it. So to interpret this mixed response in a true biblical light, Paul quotes from the Old Testament (28:26-27/Is 6:9-10).

As Luke sets up the quote, he tells the Jews' reaction to it. They began to leave, "disagreeing among themselves" (NIV's they disagreed among themselves and began to leave creates finite verbs in sequence out of a main verb, "to leave," and a present participle that gives the manner in which they left). They could not come to consensus on whether their ancestors' resistance to God's message was paralleled by the present Jewish rejection of the Christian gospel. Nor could they agree that God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen! Paul's final statement (rhema hen) was a dynamic utterance that bound together Old Testament promise and New Testament fulfillment (2:14; 5:20; 13:42; 26:25; Bovon 1984:229-30).

The quotation's introductory formula stresses the divine origin of Scripture as well as the immediacy of its address to its original audience, your forefathers, and by necessary implication to Paul's present audience, the "sons" (7:51). Here we have a "typology of judgment" in which the pattern among the ancestors in the time of promise is repeated and brought to a climax in the time of fulfillment.

The prophet speaks of what happens when people perceive saving truth without appropriating it: You will be ever hearing but never understanding (compare Lk 8:10/Is 6:9). Then in chiastic order, dealing with heart, ear and eyes, the prophet lays bare the cause of this mysterious condition and shows the proper pattern of receptivity to the gospel. There is nothing defective in the message. The defect is in the audience's sinfulness. If they would but see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, God would heal them (note the Targum and Mk 4:12 speak of God's forgiveness). For Jew and Gentile alike, unless outward perception is matched by inner spiritual insight, hearing and seeing will be in vain (Sand 1991:250; Lk 2:50; 8:8, 12, 15; 18:34; 24:25, 45; Acts 2:37; 7:54; 15:7-9; 16:14).

With therefore Paul draws an inference from the quote, showing that God will not be thwarted--his gospel will still bring salvation (Dupont 1979a:403). Although this is the third and final time Paul speaks of Jewish rejection and Gentile reception (13:46; 18:6), it is carefully nuanced. We must not jump to the conclusion that Luke is saying that the Jews' rejection is final or that the mission to the Jews is over. Notice that of the three statements, this is the only one in which Paul does not explicitly say he is turning from the Jews to the Gentiles. Further, his statement about salvation being sent to the Gentiles is in the past tense, a parallel activity of God. What is contrasted is not the missions but the different audiences' responses to the one mission.

Indeed Paul welcomed all who came to see him, presumably both Jew and Gentile, as the Western text makes explicit. God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles. And it is part of the momentum of salvation history for them to embrace it. They will listen! It's as if Luke were saying to his audience, "What's stopping you from making these salvation blessings your own?"The Proclamation Continues (28:30-31)

This final summary statement captures what Acts has set out to prove: that through the fulfillment of the design of Acts 1:8, "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in [Jesus'] name to all nations" (Lk 24:47). It does so with a simple picture of Paul that stresses the "how" more than the "what" of his witness. For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed (literally, "was welcoming"--iterative or continuous imperfect) all who came (literally, "were coming"--present participle of continuous action) to see him. The gospel continues to be for all. The Christian witness must always welcome seekers, as Paul did.

Luke's literary artistry carries us to an open-ended conclusion. Paul's witness is a combination of continuous preaching and instruction. The distinction is important: preaching appeals to the will, calling for a decision, while teaching informs the mind, requiring growth in knowledge and understanding. But it should not be overemphasized, for as Stott notes, "all Paul's preaching had a doctrinal content, while all his teaching had an evangelistic purpose" (1990:400; Acts 5:42; 15:35; 20:20).

Proclaiming the kingdom of God must always be accompanied by teaching about its Sovereign, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his saving work in his death and resurrection. In this way the whole gospel is covered (Lk 24:46-47).

How did Paul bear witness? With complete freedom. Inwardly, he knew no pressure of fear to conceal or obscure or hesitate about the truth. Rather, boldly (literally, "with all boldness") by the power of the Spirit--candidly, clearly, and confidently--he was preaching and teaching (Acts 2:29; 4:13, 29-31; 9:27; 13:46; 14:3; 19:8; 26:26). Paul's prison epistles from this period mention serious adversaries and ask for prayer that he might be bold (Eph 6:19-20; Phil 1:15-20). If even Paul had to ask for prayer for boldness, there is hope for the rest of us.

The outward freedom Paul knew is framed by the very last word of Acts: akolytos, "unhindered." This shows the Roman government's attitude toward Christianity: it did not pose such a threat to either the civil order or the Roman way of life that one of its advocates would have to be muzzled during house arrest. This should strongly commend the faith to Roman inquirers.

But more than government tolerance, this term points to a sovereign God whose saving plan--that the gospel will be preached in Jesus' name to all nations--will not be thwarted. Though there may be incarceration, the Word of God is not bound. Luke has fully demonstrated that the implementation/application portion of the salvation message is indeed true (Lk 1:4; 24:47). And if his readers in any day embrace that message, they will soon find themselves embodying it, proclaiming repentance to the forgiveness of sins in his name to all the nations "with all boldness, unhindered." So may it be till Jesus comes.

Previous commentary:
Malta: Mercy Ministry

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