Rome and Freedom

Finally this week we come to the end of our journey through the book of Acts.  While we’ve been caught up with Paul’s imprisonment for quite some time, let’s take a moment to remember the big picture which the book of Acts paints.

The church begins on the Day of Pentecost, or fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead.  Peter preached and 3,000 people who were gathered in Jerusalem from all over the Roman world were saved on that.  From there the gospel began to spread.  Acts 1:8 serves as the key to the entire book:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The church starts out strongly in Jerusalem but then persecution begins.  Paul happens to be at the heart of the persecution against the church.  With the stoning of Stephen the church scatters but they also take the gospel with them when they go.  As people head out of Jerusalem, they take the gospel to Judea and Samaria.

Just as Peter opened the gospel to the Jews on Pentecost, he also unlocks the gospel to the Samaritans.  Then finally the gospel is opened to the Gentiles when Peter is called to the house of Cornelius.  At this point, Peter takes a back seat in the story of Acts.  His work is far from over but the book begins to focus on Paul as he is responsible in large part for fulfilling the third part of Acts 1:8, the “to the ends of the earth” part.

Paul will go on three missionary journeys which will reach far across the Roman Empire.  He will be beaten, shipwrecked, and imprisoned on numerous occasions.  All of this builds to the final chapter of Acts.  Paul is a prisoner who is on his way to Rome but he has been shipwrecked on the Island of Malta.  This is just another hardship that he has faced in spreading the gospel.  However, it is the last hardship that he’ll have to endure in order to achieve his long term goal of going to Rome.

Let’s travel with Paul on this last leg of the journey in Acts 28:1-8

28 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 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. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

It sounds like a bunch of superstitious people who quickly change their opinion of Paul based upon changing circumstances but we do the same thing quite often.  Particularly when bad things happen, we tend to think that someone deserves what happens to them and that God is punishing them for their sins.

God does punish sin and we often will suffer because of our sins through legal troubles or health issues or any other kinds of troubles.  However, we should be very careful about thinking that someone deserves something bad that happens to them.  It is foolish and arrogant to think that someone deserves to have something happen to them because of a certain sin.

It’s true that if you smoke, you increase your chances of lung cancer.  If you are a thief, chances are good that one day you’ll be caught and arrested.  If you drink and drive, you may get in an accident.  These are all facts.  But to say that someone deserves that fate also implies that you are righteous and not deserving of punishment yourself.

Some sins carry inherent risks with them that come back upon a person – if you’re a lawbreaker you’re likely to be arrested.  But what if you’re a gossip?  We might say that a gossip deserves to have their tongue cut out but that’s unlikely to happen.  What would appropriate punishments be for those who are liars, people who struggle with anger, those who are prideful, or those who are covetous?

The fact of the matter is that we are all sinners and to say that someone deserves what they got should leave us open to deserving whatever we have coming to us as well.  The only thing that we have going for us is that we have been forgiven of our sins.  And if you’ve been forgiven of your lust, lying, anger, pride, or whatever else you may have in your past or still struggle with today, it’s really of no concern what happens to someone else because of their sin.  Instead we should just pray that they’ve been forgiven of their sin and thank God that we won’t face punishment that we deserve.

In this story, it is clear that Paul is not only saved from the poisonous effects of the snake’s bite but it is very likely that God caused the snake to be there in the first place in order that His power might be on display and that the people would be open to hearing the gospel from Paul.

Acts 28:7-10

There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. 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. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. 10 They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

Luke records one final miracle to authenticate the message of the gospel.  Just like so many other places that Paul had traveled, he performed miracles which showed the power of God and caused people to listen to his message.

Apart from the miracle, I want to point out the phrase “chief official of the island.”  For a long time people who try to disprove the Bible pointed to this phrase as one of the so called inaccuracies of the Bible.  The argument basically stated that there was no record of anyone with that title, so obviously the history was made up or inaccurate.

Of course there’s a major fallacy in proving something doesn’t exist and that is you can’t do it.  In these types of situations you can’t prove a negative, all you can declare is that there is no evidence to support the positive at the time.  For instance, many people would agree that there’s no such thing as the abominable snowman or as it’s also known, a yeti.  However, no one can prove that it doesn’t exist, they can only state that there is no concrete evidence of its existence at this time.

And just as a side note, there was a recent study of various hair samples purported to be from yetis.  Most came back as common animal fur such as a rabbit.  However, a couple of the samples matched the DNA of an ancient polar bear thought to have been long extinct.  So it is at least possible that people have seen an animal that was thought to be long extinct and calling it a yeti because it didn’t match any known living creature.

Back to the “chief official of the island” though.  After years of stating that this disproved the Bible, or at least called its accuracy into question, a sign that said “chief official of the island” was find.  Even more so, it was discovered that this terminology was only used in the first century when Paul was there and thus the account had to have been written then.

The more research that is done on the Bible and the more that archaeologists keep digging, they more they find that the Bible is true and accurate not just on theology but also in the history that it records.  Nothing has ever been found to disprove the Bible.  Some things that have called parts of the Bible into question have been discovered to be frauds however.  You may have heard in the last year or two about the “Jesus’ wife” fragment, a purported fragment of paper said to have discussed Jesus being married.  The discovery that this was a fraud wasn’t covered by the news nearly as much as its initial discovery but it turns out that it was a definite forgery which even used ancient paper but the wrong ink.

Acts 28:11-16

11 After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. 12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. 13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. 14 There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. 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. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. 16 When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.

After spending the winter on the island of Malta, passage was found to Italy in the spring.  Unlike earlier when the wind made it nearly impossible to travel, it takes only a couple of days until they reach Italy.  Paul and those with him would have travelled the Appian Way on the journey into Rome.

You might not care about the name of an ancient road but its history is quite important.  The Appian Way was an ancient day I-95 or US 1, it was the biggest and most important road and it led into Rome.  The Romans were known for their road building among other things.  In fact, they were so good at building roads that some are still in use today, 2,000 years after their original construction.  Meanwhile we can’t build a road that lasts five years with all of our modern construction equipment.

The reason that a road is important is because of what it symbolizes.  We know that there are no coincidences with God.  Jesus came at just the right time.  This period of history is known as the Pax Romana or the Peace of Rome.  The fighting is over and Rome’s expanding of its empire is complete.  The entire region is at peace during this time.

Because of this peace, and because of the great road system that Rome has built, the gospel can travel safely and quickly.  This time of peace will last for about another hundred years after Paul, allowing for Christianity to finish spreading and be an established religion.

As Paul approached Rome, he is greeted by Christians who heard that he was coming.  According to commentary on this passage, the Greek used in these verses implies that these are not just a few people who came out to see Paul but instead he is treated like a returning general or king as he approaches Rome.  Paul has reason to be encouraged and the thank God.  His long awaited journey to Rome is near its end and people are excited to have him there.

When Paul arrived in Rome, he is given a great amount of freedom and lived under house arrest with just a guard to watch over him.  He will be allowed to have guests come and go as he pleases and the gospel is not impaired by his location.  In fact, his preaching is probably aided by his situation as his normal way of preaching usually leads to his expulsion from a city.  This time he will not be kicked out for preaching the gospel and he will be kept safe under Roman guard.

Acts 28:17-20

17 Three days later he called together the local Jewish leaders. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. 18 They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. 19 The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar. I certainly did not intend to bring any charge against my own people. 20 For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

After arriving in Rome, Paul calls the local Jewish leaders together.  He explains to them that he has no quarrel with Judaism as he still considers Jews to be his people.  Instead, he is in Rome to defend his beliefs and ultimately appeal for his life.  He states that his hope for Israel is why he is a prisoner and not because of any ill will for the Jews.

Acts 28:21-22

21 They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you.22 But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”

Interestingly enough word has not reached Rome about Paul’s “troublemaking.”  While there was a strong Christian church in Rome that Paul did not start, the Jews were not aware of Paul or the uproar that he had caused in other parts of the Roman Empire.

Likewise, this means that while the Jews in Jerusalem were very upset with Paul, they never bothered to inform the Jews in Rome that Paul was coming and to warn them about the problems that he had caused.

Instead of finding the Jews prepared for trouble from Paul, they treat him more like a visiting rabbi and they want to hear from him because they are aware of the teachings of Christianity, just not Paul.

Acts 28:23-28

23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people and say,
“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.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

This is Paul’s final recorded sermon in Acts.  The response is much the same as everywhere else.  Some Jews believe his message and others reject it.  Paul goes on to warn them that since they have rejected the gospel, he will continue to take it to the Gentiles.

Acts 28:30-31

30 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!

After spending two years under arrest in outside of Jerusalem, Paul spends another two years under arrest in Rome.  Then the book of Acts abruptly ends as the gospel continues to go forward.  We know that Paul’s time in prison is not spent in vain as he is able to receive visitors and from Paul’s letters it appears that some of his guards and even those in Caesar’s household became Christians.

But what happens next and why does the story end so abruptly from our perspective?  While Paul is in Rome, he writes four letters that are included in the New Testament – Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians.  After this, it appears that Paul is released.

Some have suggested that the book of Acts is written by Luke as a part of Paul’s legal defense.  Once Paul is freed, Luke doesn’t need to continue writing the story.  There is some reason to believe that Paul is freed after two years because no one showed up to make the case against him.  Without any accusers, Paul’s case is thrown out of court.

After this time, the Bible doesn’t say what Paul did but there is strong evidence to believe that he took a fourth missionary journey which took him further west, all the way to modern day Spain.  At some point he is arrested yet again and once more imprisoned in Rome.  This second Roman imprisonment is nowhere near as kind as the first one.  Paul writes two letters to Timothy – 1 & 2 Timothy – one letter to Titus as he sits in prison the second time.

Paul knows that his time is up as he writes to these two young men.  As pastors trained by him, they are ultimately entrusted with continuing his ministry and remaining faithful to preaching the gospel of Jesus.  In 67 or 68 AD, Paul sat in prison with Peter nearby.  On possibly the same day, Peter was hung upside down on a cross and Paul faced the blade of the executioner.

The two main men of the book of Acts are called to be with Christ at the same time.  The church’s loss is their gain as they go on to their eternal reward.  But still the gospel goes forward with us.  We are the legacy of the work of the apostles and we are tasked with continuing to share the gospel wherever we go.

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