What an experience for Paul and his companions as they battled the Mediterranean storm for no fewer than 14 days. They had feared for their lives, but at the darkest and most fearful time God spoke and gave reassurance.
In spite of this there was a shipwreck to get through. Paul demonstrated real faith – faith in God’s word to him that he would survive the shipwreck. How he must have questioned God as the ship hit that sandbar and started to break up. Those who could swim went first and then the non-swimmers clutching pieces of the rapidly breaking up ship headed for the shore. It seemed like an impossible task to have all 267 souls survive the waves from the ship to the shore, but when God speaks and when God promises we can be sure that whatever the circumstances, however unlikely the prospects appear to be, he will deliver.
You will remember that all of this happened as Paul was on his God-directed mission to speak to the Jews in Jerusalem and then to speak for God in Rome. Paul’s experience in Jerusalem brought him close to death on several occasions and now his voyage to Rome brought similar dangers. Paul would later write in his letter to the church in Ephesus that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. This warfare has real consequences. You may remember that when Daniel had a vision, it seems that the person he met was none other than the Lord Jesus (Daniel 10) - but their meeting had been delayed by 21 days - the reason? The ‘prince of the Persian kingdom’ had detained the Lord Jesus and the archangel Michael had to come to assist. This is a remarkable event and reminds us that the spiritual battle is real and has real consequences. It does not seem at all unreasonable to suppose that many of the difficulties experienced by Paul were part of this spiritual battle. Paul made good use of the shield of faith as he trusted in God’s word to him – even when it seemed that God’s word might fail.
Chapter 28 brings the book of Acts to a close and as we make this final journey with Paul we will see some important comments from Luke on how the landscape of God’s dealing with mankind had shifted.
- The safe arrival
The ship had landed in Malta. The weather in Malta was wet and cold and the 267 survivors were wet and cold too. The locals had witnessed the remarkable events and provided a welcoming fire. As Paul gathered firewood he little realised that a viper was amongst the brushwood and being awakened by the heat of the fire, the viper took a liking to Paul’s hand! The locals deduced that Paul having escaped the sea must have been a serious criminal (a murderer even) since justice had caught up with him in the form of a poisonous snake. Paul simple shook the snake off and to the amazement of the local people he suffered no ill effects. Was this another skirmish in the spiritual battle I wonder? If it was, God used the incident to impress the Maltese people that Paul was no ordinary man – they thought he was a god, this gave Paul a great opportunity to share the gospel. Paul also performed miracles of healing on the father of the chief official of the island, Publius. Following this, Luke simply records that the rest of those on the island who were ill came and were cured.
These were the last recorded miracles performed by Paul. It is notable that there is something of a progression of the gifts of the Spirit in Paul’s writings. In one of his early letters written around 54 AD (1 Corinthians) Paul mentions several miraculous gifts including tongues, healing and prophecy. In contrast just a few years later in around 62 AD we read (in the letter to Philippians) of how Paul had to leave a fellow worker in a state of illness and about 64 AD he instructed Timothy to take wine for his illness – it seems that medicine was replacing healing. The miracles appear to have served to authenticate Paul’s ministry, but why should the miracles cease? Paul was still around and surely could have continued to benefit from such miracles. Very often the miracles recorded in both the gospels and Acts are described as signs and there is surveying the bible there is some evidence that such signs are primarily associated with the Jews (see for example 1 Corinthians 1). Given that the Jews were being set aside in God’s programme at the very time that these sings were being given (see Romans 9-11) it seems likely that such miraculous gifts were primarily given as a sign to the Jews. As the Jews progressively rejected the message of Paul and the apostles the nation was positioned to be moved out of the picture, it seems that as the church emerged as God’s agency on earth, the signs became less prevalent.
- The journey to Rome
Paul spent the winter months in Malta and after 3 months it was time to set sail for Rome. The islanders generously provided provisions for the journey and Luke records that they boarded another Alexandrian ship, possibly another grain ship. The journey was about 210 miles and Luke noted that the ship’s figurehead comprised the twin gods Castor and Pollux (sons of Zeus and said to protect sailors). One can imagine Paul noting that his protector was much more effective than these twin gods!
They soon arrived in Syracuse in Sicily and then it was on to Rhegium (now Reggio) on the Italian mainland, from there they sailed to Puteoli (now Pozzouli) 152 miles south of Rome. They spent a week in Puteoli with some fellow believers, how pleasant this must have been for these weary travellers! Word of Paul’s arrival had reached Rome and Christians travelled to the Forum of Appius (43 miles from Rome) and the Three Taverns (33 miles from Rome) to meet him and his travelling companions. Luke specifically notes that “at the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.” Are you an encouragement to other fellow Christian workers and believers?
And so Paul arrived in Rome. He was allowed to live by himself with just one soldier on guard duty.
You will recall that God had specifically sent Paul on this mission to speak to the Jews in Rome – this final part of Acts 28 is the climax of the entire book.
- A final word to the Jews
Paul had been in Rome for three days and now he called together the Jews. This was the first of two meetings with them. In this first meeting Paul explained his situation. In spite of having done nothing against either the Jews or against their customs, he was placed under arrest and handed over to the Romans. Under these circumstances, Paul had appealed to Caesar and thus he arrived in Rome. Paul emphasised that it was because of the hope of Israel that he was in this situation. You might remember that the hope of Israel was both the hope of the coming of Messiah and the kingdom of justice, peace and prosperity that he would bring. Paul had met the Messiah and he now knew that the Jews had made a huge and wicked mistake in rejecting him and having him crucified. His message to Jews was one of repentance. The Old Testament prophets had made it clear that Israel would one day repent and receive their Messiah – this was essentially Peter’s message at the time of Pentecost (Acts 3:19): Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you--even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
The Jews in Rome had certainly heard of this new sect and wanted to hear more, a date was set for a one day conference with the Jews, and many Jews were in attendance. It was a marvellous opportunity for Paul to explain his message. We do not have a full transcript of the discussion, Luke gives us only the briefest account in verse 23: 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. This is of some interest as it takes us right back to the start of the book of Acts, you might remember, in the 4th verse of the first chapter we read that Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days and “spoke about the kingdom.” This was an intensive course! 40 days of personal instruction by Jesus, and since Jesus had now died and risen again, the teaching fell fertile ground. As the disciples began to understand they then asked a highly relevant question about the kingdom. “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” The disciples wanted to know when it would start and were informed that something new would happen before the kingdom could start – the coming of the Holy Spirit and the start of a new phase in God’s dealings with Israel and the nations; The new covenant. People would be changed from the inside out – this would be the means of preparing God’s disobedient people Israel for the coming of the kingdom. Now we have exactly the same sort of thing right at the end of Acts, Jews being educated about Jesus as well as a discussion about the kingdom. How should we understand this?
The kingdom of God is one of the great bible themes. As we study the Old Testament we discover that this kingdom is associated with near perfect conditions on earth under the kingship and rule of the Messiah. Many of the prophecies of the coming Messiah speak of a golden age on earth with the presence of Messiah reigning on David’s throne and conditions characterised by peace, justice, material prosperity, safety from physical dangers and relief from disease. This period is also described as a period when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk). Every Jew was familiar with this great hope. What would mark the inauguration of this era? Here’s what the prophet Zechariah said “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” The nation needed to repent and recognise the Messiah. To briefly summarise, the Kingdom is about the rule of Messiah on earth, the favourable conditions that this would bring about and the need for Israel to repent and recognise Jesus as Messiah. Paul’s statements to the Jews in Rome were all about this. How would they respond?
The sad thing is that the response was disappointing. Luke records that some believed but others “would not believe.” That’s an interesting statement! It was not that they could not believe, it was that they would not believe. As Paul presented the truth the hearers would need to make a decision, would they accept the truth or reject – they ‘would not’ believe. In response to their unbelief, Paul quoted the prophet Isaiah (chapter 6): ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 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.' It is a most dreadful thing to harden yourself to the gospel, to continue to refuse until you lose the capacity to hear. This was the situation with these Jews in Rome, just as it had been with the Jews in Jerusalem. They had refused so many times that they were now incapable of believing.
Paul turned to these disbelieving Jews and stated that God’s salvation had now been sent to the Gentiles and they would listen! Acts ends with this statement and Luke closes the book by stating that for the following 2 years, Paul preached without hindrance, the kingdom of God and spoke about Jesus.
The scene is now set for the judgment of the Jews at the hands of the Romans and for the full emergence of the church as God’s representatives on earth. What would happen to the Jews now? Had God finished with them? Were his promises to them empty promises? Take a look at Romans 9-11 for an answer.
The wonderful glimpses we had of the kingdom in Acts would now be largely lost as the church begins it’s difficult journey through the barren landscape that is this world – Peter would later describe our situation not as citizens of earth awaiting the coming of Messiah to rule, but rather as citizens of heaven living as foreigners on this planet. As we undertake our pilgrimage our task is to continue to preach the gospel, to build the church and to look for his appearing.