Safety on Malta (Acts 28:1-2)
Everyone either swam to the island or rode in on debris, and safely reached shore (27:43-44). After a harrowing journey, the passengers and crew could enjoy the safe haven of their landing site, the island of Malta. The Maltese rallied around the victims of this ship disaster much as people lend a hand to those suffering from disasters everywhere. In the words of Luke, they showed an “unusual kindness” (28:2).
Malta is a small island, about 18 miles (29 kilometers) long and 8 miles wide. It is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Sicily. The Romans had captured the island in 218 B.C., at the beginning of the Second Punic War with Carthage. In the Phoenician language, Malta was called melita, meaning “a place of refuge.” For the 276 beleaguered crew and passengers of the doomed ship, it was certainly that and more.
The natives of Malta were primarily of Phoenician ancestry. They would have been regarded by Greeks and Romans as “foreigners,” or people who spoke a foreign language. Luke called the people there hoi barbaroi, in Greek, “the barbarians,” which the NIV translates as “the islanders” (28:2). Luke betrayed his Hellenistic culture and outlook by thinking of the Maltese as foreigners or “barbarians.” However, it was not necessarily a derogatory label. It merely identified those who didn’t speak Greek or those who were considered foreign or alien (Herodotus, Persian Wars 2:57). Paul himself labeled non-Greeks as “barbarians,” though in a neutral sense (Romans 1:14; Colossians 3:11).
A viper strikes Paul (Acts 28:3-6)
It was cold and raining on Malta, and the survivors began to gather brush and wood to build a fire. Paul pitched in as well. But as he was gathering firewood, he disturbed a snake, which clamped its jaws on his hand (28:3). When the natives who had gathered at the beach saw the snake hanging from Paul’s hand, they said, “This man must be a murderer, for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live” (28:4). These islanders were superstitious, so they assumed that divine vengeance had caught up with Paul.
However, to their amazement, Paul shook the snake off into the fire and was unharmed (28:5). He seemed quite unconcerned about it, knowing he was under God’s care (Psalm 91:13; Luke 10:19, with Mark 16:18). Paul was a divinely protected person, and Luke wanted his readers to focus on this point. That is why he told the tale in such vivid detail. Paul, the servant of Jesus, was coming in the same spirit and power as his Master. He proclaimed God’s kingdom, and in the process was victorious over all, including the forces of nature.
The natives began to get some sense of Paul’s divine “connection.” At first they were merely stunned by Paul not dropping over dead. Then their attitude toward him changed. “After waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god,” Luke wrote (28:6). We’re reminded of a similar situation Paul experienced at Lystra, but in reverse. When Paul healed a crippled man, the pagan Lystrans thought he was a god (14:8-12). But it wasn’t long before they were influenced to change their minds and to think of him as a charlatan (14:19).
Publius, the chief official (Acts 28:7-10)
The scene in Acts switched from the beach to a situation at the home of a man named Publius. Luke called him “the chief official of the island,” which in Greek meant “the first man of the island” (28:7). This was probably an official title. The Romans had established a Roman governor on the island who had a title of primus omnium, or “chief man.” Since Publius was called the “first” or chief man of the island, he was almost certainly the governor of Malta.
Publius welcomed the survivors to his estate, in which they were housed for three days (28:7). During this time he would have made arrangements for them to find suitable winter lodgings elsewhere on the island.
Of all the incidents that must have occurred during Paul’s three-months stay on Malta, Luke described only one dramatic situation. In this case, Luke showcased Paul’s ability to heal the sick, which again showed that Paul came in the spirit and power of Jesus. It all began with the father of Publius, who was sick in bed suffering from fever and dysentery (28:8).
The malady the father of Publius was suffering from may have been Malta fever, which was long common in Malta, Gibraltar, and other Mediterranean locales. In 1887 its cause, the microorganism Mirococcus melitensis, was discovered and traced to the milk of Maltese goats. A vaccine for its treatment has been developed. (Longenecker, 565)
Whatever his malady, Paul went to Publius’ father, prayed and placed his hands on him—and he was healed (28:8). When the islanders saw what happened, “the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured” (28:9). Paul’s presence on the island proved a wonderful blessing to the Maltese. They responded with kindness to the survivors. “They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed” (28:10).
Beginning with Paul’s safe landing at Malta and during his three months on the island, God had demonstrated his power through Paul in a direct way. After suffering privations of various sorts for well over two years, Paul’s life was changing for the better.
It seems that Paul may have looked on his stay in Malta as a high point in his ministry—a time of blessing when God worked in marvelous ways, despite the shipwreck and his being still a prisoner. God seems, through the experiences at Malta, to have been refreshing Paul’s spirit after the two relatively bleak years at Caesarea and the disastrous time at sea and preparing him for his witness in Rome. (Longenecker, 565)
After three months (Acts 28:11)
Luke ended his narrative of events on Malta by saying, “After three months we put out to sea…” (28:11). (Note the use of “we,” indicating Luke was still with Paul on the final trip to Rome.) Pliny the Elder noted that, at least officially, navigation on the Mediterranean began each spring on February 8. This was when the westerly winds began to blow (Natural History 2.122). However, Vegetius wrote that March 10 was the beginning of the sailing period (De Re Militari 4.39). Commentators feel Vegetius was referring to sailing on the high seas, not to coastal shipping, and that there was no contradiction between his statement and that of Pliny.
In any case, these would not have been hard and fast dates for the beginning of the sailing period. Weather conditions from year to year are not identical. November, December and January were certainly non-sailing months, except for those willing to take extreme risks. But September, October and February seemed to be transition months during which sailing had to be undertaken with care. So it was probably sometime in mid-February that Paul boarded a ship at Malta for the final leg of his voyage to Rome. (This means Paul would have left Fair Havens around mid-October in the previous year.)
Paul and Luke boarded another Alexandrian ship (presumably also a grain carrier) with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux (28:11). The vessel had wintered on Malta itself. The twins were the sons of Zeus, whom he had transformed into gods represented by the constellation Gemini. They were considered by sailors as patron “saints” of navigation and a sign of good fortune. For the purposes of Luke’s narrative, mentioning the figurehead seemed to be an irrelevant detail. But it again demonstrated that the author was giving us an eyewitness report. Luke was not speaking from hearsay, but knew from experience the things he described.
On to Italy (Acts 28:12-13)
After sailing from Malta, the ship reached the important port of Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily (28:12). (Sicily was about 90 miles or 145 kilometers from Malta.) Though originally a Greek city, Syracuse had been ruled by Rome since the Second Punic War, in 212 B.C. The next stop was Rhegium, the modern Reggio di Calabria. It was an important harbor on Italy’s “toe,” and was on the Italian side of the Strait of Messina.
The next day, riding a favorable wind, the ship set out to sea again. In two days the ship travelled roughly 200 miles up the western coast of Italy to Puteoli, the modern Pozzuoli, in the Bay of Naples. Puteoli was perhaps the most important port of southern Italy (Strabo, Geography 5, 4, 6). It competed with Ostia, the newer port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber. Apparently, in Paul’s day the cargo went to Ostia, but passengers disembarked at Puteoli. Travelers could go from Puteoli to Capua, where they would pick up the Via Appia to Rome.
Meeting other believers (Acts 28:14)
There was already a church at Puteoli. “There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them” (28:14). He apparently meant Christian disciples (1:16; 6:3; 9:30; 11:1; 12:17; 15:1, 32; 16:40). Just how he found them we do not know. Paul had not evangelized in Italy, but Christians were here before Paul arrived. We don’t know how the gospel got to this area.
Surprisingly, Paul was allowed to go into the city and stay for an entire week. Whether he was guarded during this time, Luke didn’t say. Julius may have found it advantageous to stay here a week. Thus, the prisoners would have to remain in Puteoli with him. Besides, Julius had already allowed Paul to stop off at Sidon to receive help from the church (27:3). Given the events of the last few months, he may have trusted Paul not to bolt or try to escape from custody.
Paul was no ordinary prisoner, far less a common criminal who would take the first opportunity to escape; moreover, throughout the voyage the centurion had good cause to be grateful for Paul’s sound judgment and co-operation. He could thus safely leave this particular captive lightly guarded if he had himself to be off on other business for a week. (Neil, 256)
Arrival in Rome (Acts 28:14)
Even though Paul was still in Puteoli, 140 miles from Rome, Luke wrote, in almost over-anxious words: “…And so we came to Rome” (28:14). Luke was moving his story along very rapidly since Paul left Malta. Perhaps Luke was eager to get to the finale—Paul’s work in Rome. He is announcing the conclusion before he has narrated the story! (The statement would have been more appropriate at the beginning of verse 16.)
Behind all of Luke’s reasons for writing his work was to tell how and why Paul came to Rome. The statement “so we came to Rome” marks the achievement of Paul’s earlier desire (19:21) and the fulfillment of prophecy (23:11; 27:24).
The simple statement at the end of verse 14, and so we came to Rome, not only makes the conclusion of the travel narrative, but is effectively the climax of the whole book….All the remaining verses of the book may be regarded in this light, as simply rounding off the statement of verse 14 by showing how the gospel was preached in Rome as it had been at first “in Jerusalem.” (Williams, 447)
Luke actually had one more incident to relate before getting Paul to Rome. He wanted to tell readers that the church at Rome had heard about Paul’s coming, and sent delegates to meet him. Perhaps that is why he needed to introduce Rome prematurely—so he could tell us that the believers there had heard about his arrival.
They had heard (Acts 28:15)
Apparently, two delegations of Christians from the church at Rome went to meet Paul (28:15). They had heard of his arrival during his week-long stay in Puteoli. A number of Christians set out from the Rome, traveling south along the Appian Way to meet Paul and escort him to the capital city. This made it something of a triumphal entrance into Rome for Paul.
In Paul’s day, the normal route to Rome was to sail to Puteoli. The traveler would then use existing roadways to reach Capua, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Puteoli. At Capua, the traveler connected with the famed Via Appia, built in 312 B.C., named after Appius Claudius, who began its construction. The distance from Capua to Rome was 120 miles (193 kilometers), and the journey took five to six days.
One delegation from Rome got as far as the Forum of Appius (28:15). It was a market town and a traveler’s resting place about 40 miles south of Rome. The satirist Horace referred to it, as one translation has it, as a place “full of sailors and wicked tavern-keepers” (Satire 1, 5, 3-4). A second group from the church at Rome traveled as far as Tres Tabernae (“the Three Taverns”). This town was another halting place, about 30 miles from Rome. (In Latin, a taberna is any kind of shop, including an inn, not simply a tavern.)
Paul gave thanks (Acts 28:15)
Communities of disciples had already been established at Rome before Paul’s arrival (see also Romans 1:8, 15; 16:3-16). Earlier, we saw that Priscilla and Aquila had come from Rome. Presumably they had been converted in Rome before they moved to Corinth (18:2). Much earlier than this, at the first Pentecost, Jews from Rome had heard Peter preach (2:10). Some of these people had been baptized and probably returned to Rome to spread the faith.
When Paul saw the disciples, Luke said he “thanked God and was encouraged” (28:15). One wonders why he was encouraged. Paul had just come through some terrible ordeals with faith and courage. He knew that God was with him and that he was going to Rome to witness to Christ. About what, then, was Paul thankful and encouraged? Perhaps he had some doubt about how he was going to be received by the church members. Elsewhere Paul had a number of difficulties with conservative Jewish disciples dividing the church and distorting the gospel. The churches in Galatia were a good example.
Paul had long nourished a desire to visit Rome. He had written to the church here, perhaps some three years earlier, preparing them for his intended visit (Romans 1:9-13; 15:22-32). Paul wanted to come to the Roman church with joy, so that together they could all have their faith refreshed. Perhaps Paul felt a bit anxious about how well the meeting might go.
In any case, Paul’s gratitude for the enthusiastic support of the two Christian delegations was important enough for Luke to make special mention of it. His reference is all the more striking in that this is the only reference to the church in Rome! After Paul’s triumphal greetings by the delegates, nothing further was heard of the church in Italy. Luke ended his account with an extensive narration of a single episode in which Paul met with the unconverted Jews of Rome.
Paul at Rome (Acts 28:16-30)
“When we got to Rome” (Acts 28:16)
Paul had arrived in the capital city of the Empire, which Luke acknowledged with another “we” statement: “When we got to Rome…” (28:16). This is the end of the last “we” section in the book. Though Luke and Aristarchus (even earlier) disappear from the account, it’s possible that they remained with Paul through his prison days at Rome (Colossians 4:10-14 and Philemon 23-24). Paul had many visitors during those two years, including Timothy, Tychicus, Epaphroditus and Mark. Luke was with Paul near the end of his life (2 Timothy 4:11).
Luke now turned his complete attention to Paul. Paul’s wish and God’s purpose for him to come to Rome were finding their fulfillment. Thus, Luke portrayed Paul as entering Rome in triumph, tempered by the fact that he was here only by the grace and protection of God.
Rome was the greatest city in the world in Paul’s day (Acts 28:16). An inscription discovered at Rome’s seaport of Ostia in 1941 gives the population of the capital as 4,100,000 in A.D. 14. This is more than three times the usual estimate. Whatever its size, it’s clear that Rome was an immense city. As the capital of the Roman Empire, it was the most important and influential city in the Mediterranean area, and we might say the world.
Paul lived by himself (Acts 28:16)
Once Paul was processed, he “was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him” (28:16). Paul was not kept in the Castra Praetoria, the camp or barracks of the Praetorians. He received permission to stay in his own rented house (28:30), or as some commentators translate the phrase—“at his own expense.” As a result of having a source of income (Philippians 2:25; 4:18) he was able to pay for his own lodging.
Thus, Paul enjoyed a measure of freedom, being under what we might call “house arrest.” Though he lived like a private citizen, he was not completely free. A soldier to whom he was perhaps lightly chained guarded him around the clock. In letters thought to have been written during his imprisonment, Paul repeatedly spoke of being in bonds or chains (Philippians 1:7, 13-14; Colossians 4:3, 18; Ephesians 6:20; Philemon 13). He was probably speaking in real, not purely metaphorical terms about his “chains.” Luke’s account corroborates what the epistles say. Luke has him speaking of being “bound with this chain” during his imprisonment (Acts 28:20), in Greek halusis. The halusis was a short length of chain by which the wrist of a prisoner was bound to the wrist of the soldier guarding him.
During his imprisonment, Paul apparently had opportunity to preach the gospel to the highest levels at the government of Rome. In a letter written to the Philippians, often regarded as having been written from his Roman imprisonment, Paul wrote: “All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:22).
Caesar’s household was the regular phrase for what we would call the Imperial Civil Service; it had members all over the world. The palace officials, the secretaries, the people who had charge of the imperial revenues, those who were responsible for the day-to-day administration of the empire, all these were Caesar’s household. It is of the greatest interest to note that even as early as this Christianity had penetrated into the very centre of the Roman government. (William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, revised edition, page 87)
In Philippians Paul also wrote: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (1:12-13). The palace guard was the praitorion, the Praetorian Guard, or the Imperial Guard of Rome. The Guard was composed of the best troops, perhaps 10,000 strong. By Paul’s time they were the Emperor’s private bodyguard. Eventually the Praetorian Guard became king-makers, for it was their nominee who was made Emperor.
Paul said it was the Praetorian Guard soldiers who had heard the gospel. That may indicate the soldiers guarding him—perhaps chained to him—may have come from that unit. They would have heard Paul discussing the good news of Christ to others. There was probably a steady rotation of guards so that over two years, many of the Imperial Guard would have heard the good news and become acquainted with Paul. “His imprisonment had opened the way for preaching the gospel to the finest regiment in the Roman army,” wrote William Barclay (ibid., 22).
Leaders of the Jews (Acts 28:17)
Luke said nothing about Paul’s preaching or influence with Caesar’s household, the Praetorian Guard—or even with the average Gentile citizen of Rome. Throughout the rest of chapter 28, Luke reported only on Paul’s dealings with the unconverted Jews of Rome, and that in a single scene. He described an event that occurred three days after Paul arrived in Rome.
He called together the leading Jews to defend himself and to explain his position on preaching the gospel. Paul also wanted to know what they had heard from Jerusalem about him and to find out what their attitude was toward him.
Paul’s defense (Acts 28:17-20)
Paul began by asserting, “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” (28:17). Paul again declared that he was a good Jew, and had been faithful to the Jewish traditions (22:3; 23:6; 24:14-16; 26:4-8). Paul went on to say that after the Roman authorities examined him, they judged he was not guilty of any crime. Since the Jewish leaders objected to his release, he had no alternative but to appeal to Caesar (28:19).
Paul wanted to assure the Jewish leaders that he wasn’t in Rome to present charges, but merely to defend himself (28:19). He was here to have himself cleared of all charges, not to make accusations against the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. The reason he was in chains was “because of the hope of Israel”—that is, the resurrection (28:20). This echoes Paul’s defense before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (23:6). Paul insisted that he had run afoul of the Jewish leaders in Jersualem (most of whom were Sadducees) because of telling people about the promise made to the patriarchs regarding the resurrection of the dead. Paul maintained that this hope had been realized in Jesus.
As it was, it was his devotion to Israel’s ancestral hope that had cost him his freedom and brought him under guard to Rome. In Rome, as in Judaea, he emphasizes that the resurrection message which he proclaims, far from undermining the religion of Israel, is its divinely appointed fulfillment. (Bruce, 505)
Marshall writes, “What was at issue in his trial, as he had insisted all along, was the true nature of the hope of Israel in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection. It was, in other words, for being a loyal Jew, as he saw it, that Paul was wearing a Roman fetter” (423)
No letters received (Acts 28:21)
The Jews responded to Paul’s defense: “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you,” they said, “and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you” (28:21). However, it’s difficult to believe that no one coming from Jerusalem had any harsh words for Paul, and had failed to report on Paul’s case (now well over two years old).
The response was diplomatic. The Jews in Rome were in too precarious a position to pick a fight with Paul or Rome’s Christians. The Jews had returned en masse only a few years earlier when the emperor Claudius died, and after being banished from the city. The Jews were not in a position to condemn Paul, and they didn’t want to get involved in a controversy over which they might be expelled again.
There is another and less complicated answer to the Jews’ reaction to Paul. Perhaps a delegation with official letters had not yet arrived from Jerusalem, due to the same weather that had delayed Paul. And the Sanhedrin may have decided against proceeding with the matter, once Paul was dispatched to Rome. The council may have felt that Paul would be no trouble to them in Jerusalem, and there was no need to follow up. They saw that he had been judged not guilty of any crime on more than one occasion and they may have felt that it was hopeless pursuing the matter in Rome.
It is far from certain that the Sanhedrin had any intention of proceeding with the matter. They had been singularly unsuccessful in prosecuting Paul before Felix and Festus, and Festus and Agrippa had actually pronounced him innocent of any crime. The prospect of gaining a conviction in Rome was not good, and the Roman authorities sometimes dealt harshly with accusers who failed to substantiate their case. Nor could the Sanhedrin have reasonably expected the Jews of Rome to take up their cause, since their own position was a precarious one. (Williams, 452)
Against this sect (Acts 28:22)
The Jews did admit that the Christian movement was being described in less than complimentary terms. “We want to hear what your views are,” they told Paul, “for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect” (28:22). The Jews must have been familiar with the Christian movement in Rome. It had probably come there soon after the first Pentecost. Jews from Rome, attending the festival, had become converted (2:10). No doubt many of them returned to Rome to spread the faith. By the late 40s the Jews were so incensed about the growing Christian community that they were rioting in protest. The emperor Claudius was forced to issue an order banning Jews from Rome (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Claudius” 25:4; Acts 18:2).
In Paul’s case, the Jewish leaders presented themselves as neutral bystanders. Yes, they had heard about the “sect of the Nazarenes,” but they wanted to hear Paul’s explanation of what it was about. The leaders appeared to be evasive, not wanting to really commit themselves and reveal their attitude. “People everywhere” may have been talking against the Christians, but they were waiting to hear Paul’s views.
Kingdom of God (Acts 28:23)
In a second, more official meeting, an even larger contingent of Jewish leaders met with Paul at the house he was staying (28:23). It would be an all-day encounter. Paul used the opportunity to preach the gospel, in his usual manner. Luke said: “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” (28:23).
Paul spent the day explaining how the Holy Scriptures pointed to Christ. He hoped to prove to the assembly of Jews that Jesus had fulfilled Holy Writ and that he was the Messiah who was King of the kingdom they were expecting. Luke didn’t relate specifically what Paul said to the Jewish delegation. But we already know what it must have been, from his earlier speeches, as at Pisidian Antioch (13:17-41).
In this final chapter, Luke emphasized something he seldom mentioned in Acts. Paul, in his preaching, explained the meaning of the kingdom of God (28:23). Luke had begun Jesus’ ministry with his assertion, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Paul, the disciple and witness, was like his Master who carried on the work begun by Jesus. From the beginning of his account to the end, Luke told his readers that the gospel included an understanding of the true nature of God’s kingdom.
The final condemnation (Acts 28:24-27)
Some of the Jews were convinced by Paul’s message, but others refused to believe him. In disagreement with each other—and confused about Paul’s message—the Jewish elders began to leave. As in virtually every city Paul preached in, the bulk of the Jews rejected the message of salvation in Jesus. Though some seemed at least superficially persuaded, Luke gave no indication that they were sufficiently moved to repent and seek baptism. Nor does it appear that they returned at a later date for further instruction.
As the Jewish elders of Rome began to leave, Paul lashed out with a searing rebuke from the prophet Isaiah (6:9-10). He said the Holy Spirit had spoken the truth to their forefathers—and his words applied to them: “Go to this people and say, ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving…’” (28:26). Paul was here pictured by Luke as one of the Old Testament prophets who spoke out against his people. Jesus had already used these words of Isaiah to describe the Jewish response to his message, and all the gospel writers including John had written of it (Matthew 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40). The scripture from Isaiah is thought to have been widely used in the early Christian church as a text explaining the Jewish rejection of the gospel.
With such words from Isaiah, Paul cited the Jews’ spurning of his gospel message as a fulfillment of prophecy. The rejection was to be expected, because it had been spoken of ahead of time. Williams writes, “The fact that Paul appears to have addressed his final remarks to them all suggests that none of them had as yet been persuaded to the point of believing that Jesus was the Messiah” (453).
In Luke’s view, the rejection in Rome was the definitive one. As the Jews turned their backs on Paul, refusing his message and perhaps irritated at his prophetic condemnation, he stressed his role as the apostle to the Gentiles. “I want you to know,” he must have shouted to the departing Jews, “that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (28:28). Paul had already announced a turning to the Gentiles, once in Pisidian Antioch (13:46), and again at Corinth (18:6). This time Paul announced his turning to the Gentiles with a note of finality.
Luke’s readers recognize this as the prophecy that has indeed taken place “among us” (Luke 1:1), and which has generated the question that made the writing of this narrative necessary in the first place: how did the good news reach the Gentiles, and did the rejection of it by the Jews mean that God failed in his fidelity to them? Luke’s answer is contained in the entire narrative up to this point. In every way, God has proven faithful; not his prophetic word and power, but the blindness of the people has led to their self-willed exclusion from the messianic blessings. (Johnson, 476)
For two years (Acts 28:30)
For the next two years Paul stayed in Rome “in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him” (28:30). Luke gave us no details about what happened during those two years. Neither did he tell us what Paul’s fate was after that period of time ended. Many commentators think that Paul wrote the New Testament letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon during these two years. These letters (the so-called “Prison Epistles”) are among the most hopeful and encouraging he wrote. Their upbeat and encouraging message contrasts markedly with Paul’s physical condition.
From his letters we get a picture of a joyful Paul striding around some small room in Rome, perhaps in the presence of—or even chained to—a Roman soldier. He isn’t downcast, but very upbeat about the Christian life, no matter what the circumstance. Paul begins dictating a profoundly positive letter, expressing his thoughts:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. (Colossians 1:3-6)
From the letters, we also get Paul’s positive feeling that he anticipated standing before Caesar’s court—and that he expected to be released (Philippians 1:19-26; Philemon 22). Whether his intuition was correct we do not know. Some commentators argue that Paul was executed after his two-year house arrest. For Luke to have written about Paul’s death at the end of his book would have diminished from his triumphant conclusion. Others feel that Paul was released because his prosecutors failed to present charges within the prescribed statutory time period. (Perhaps it took two years for Paul’s case to work its way through the congested court docket.) But there is nothing certain about any of these ideas. The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Paul.
Luke knew whether Paul had been released, transferred to a prison or martyred after the two years were over. Theophilus, to whom Acts was dedicated, must also have known, and so did the church that heard the book read. Why did Luke end where he did—if that is where he ended? We can be sure, being such an incisive writer and thinker, that his ending was not accidental or due to clumsiness. Perhaps it was, as mentioned previously, to end on a triumphant note.
It is through attention to Luke’s overall narrative interests that we are best able to appreciate this ending not as the result of historical happenstance or editorial ineptitude, but as a deliberately and effectively crafted conclusion to a substantial apologetic argument. (Williams, 475)
Richard Longenecker feels Luke ended his work precisely where he should have: “Luke’s instinct in closing his great work as he did was completely right. In seeming to leave his book unfinished, he was implying that the apostolic proclamation of the gospel in the first century began a story that will continue until the consummation of the kingdom in Christ (Acts 1:11)” (573)
It’s possible that Luke may have planned to write a third volume of his story of the gospel. Or—and this is pure speculation—he did write about what happened to Paul and why, and later editors removed it from the book because it reinforced the idea that the Christians were following people condemned by Rome. No one knows whether any of these conclusions are true, and we must be satisfied with the ending that has come down to us.
With no hindrance (Acts 28:31)
In any case, the story that we have ends on a triumphant note. Luke said of Paul’s work in the book’s final verse: “He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (28:31). This was Luke’s final summary, and the end of his sixth panel (19:21-28:31). (The other five summary statements were: 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20.) In some ways, Luke’s final statement summarized his most important apologetic point. The fact that Paul could preach without hindrance while under the careful eye of the Roman military indicated that Rome (and this meant Nero) was still tolerant toward Christianity. This is a point Luke made throughout Acts, and he emphasized it here at the close of his book.
It is unlikely, Luke implies, that if the gospel were illegal and subversive propaganda, it could have been proclaimed for two years at the heart of the empire by a Roman citizen who had appealed to Caesar and was waiting under guard for his case to be heard. The authorities must have known what he was doing all that time, yet no obstacle was put in his way. (Bruce, 511)
The book of Acts had begun at Jerusalem with the programmatic prophecy about the spread of the gospel message by the apostles (1:8). It ended here in Rome, with the prophetic figure of Paul, having been guided by God to bring the message to the nerve center of the Empire. William Barclay, in his commentary on Acts, caught the spirit of Luke’s work and its conclusion—and it is a good place to end the commentary:
And so the Book of Acts comes to an end with a shout of triumph….Now the tale is finished; the story that began in Jerusalem rather more than thirty years ago has finished in Rome. It is nothing less than a miracle of God. The church which at the beginning of Acts could be numbered in scores cannot now be numbered in tens of thousands. The story of the crucified man of Nazareth has swept across the world in its conquering course until now without interference it is being preached in Rome, the capital of the world. The gospel has reached the centre of the world and is being freely proclaimed—and Luke’s task is at an end. (“The Acts of the Apostles,” 193)