Published in Radio Veritas Asia https://www.rvasia.org
To the Ends of the Earth
Chapters 21.16- 28
-Dr. Rosemary Varghese
We have come to the finale of this six-part series on The Acts. Part 5 gave us an account of Paul’s missionary journeys in Europe and Asia, pursued by vicious gangs of Jews and Gentiles alike. In Part-6, he makes his way to Jerusalem, and then to Rome. As expected, he had to fight a lone battle with the Jews on the one hand, and the Roman officers on the other. But he reaches Rome, the seat of the mighty Roman Empire which was spread across the known civilized world of that era. In other words, he had reached God’s Word to the ends of the earth.
The last seven chapters of the Acts gives us an account of Paul’s experiences on his return to Jerusalem, and his subsequent transfer to Rome. We see how he is outlawed by the Jews and the Jewish Christians in the first part of the narrative, followed by his imprisonment by Roman authorities, and finally, his hazardous trip to Rome . Luke ends the Acts with Paul’s house arrest in Rome from where he zealously continued his ministry.
The Jerusalem Experience
Paul bid farewell to the Ephesians telling them that he was “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem. Paul was warned about what awaited him when he reached, and sure enough, the Jews made no secret of the fact that they were committed to torturing and killing him. On the advice of his friends there, he tried to appease the Jewish hardliners by consenting to undergo purification rites at the temple, as was required by Jewish law, even though it was against what he believed and what he preached to the Gentiles.
Who were these people and what did they have against Paul? These were Jewish Christians, often called ‘Judaizers’ who were “zealous for the law”. They had heard that Paul had encouraged Jews and Gentiles alike to forsake the law of Moses. They also hated Paul for wanting to give both communities equal status as followers of the Messiah. This was unpardonable from their point of view, and they were looking for an opportune moment to strike him down. During his seven-day purification ritual, Paul was spotted in the temple. Some of the Jews stirred up a mob, levelling false accusations against Paul, and dragged him from the temple in order to kill him.
The Roman Commander was notified of the confusion at the temple. As it was a law and order situation, he assigned Paul to the barracks, thus saving him from immediate death at the hands of the violent mob. Unfazed by what was happening around him, Paul requested the Commander for permission to speak to the crowd. He began to speak in Aramaic and introduced himself as a Jew from Tarsus. Paul knew his Jewish identity would be the only way to capture the attention of his restive audience. He recalled his training in Jewish law under Gamaliel, and his earlier persecution of Christians, including Stephen. He recounted the circumstances of his conversion. The audience listened up to this point. Then Paul proclaimed to them the Lord’s explicit command to him—the Most High had given him the responsibility to preach the Word of God to the Gentiles….. All hell broke loose. The crowd went out of control and Paul was hurriedly taken back to the barracks with orders to have him flogged.
As the Centurion prepared the whip, Paul’s words stopped him in his tracks. He declared that he was a Roman citizen, and questioned whether the Roman officials had the right to flog a fellow Roman without even a trial. The words had the desired effect, and the Commander decided instead to present him for questioning before the members of the Sanhedrin.
The trial before the Sanhedrin posed the next problem for Paul as he was wedged between powerful enemies on both sides. Paul knew he would have to play his cards carefully to escape from this situation unscathed. He observed that the Sanhedrin was made up of Pharisees and Sadducees. One of the major differences between Pharisees and Sadducees was that the former believed in the resurrection of the dead, but Sadducees did not. He carefully prepared his argument. Addressing the Sanhedrin, he introduced himself as a Pharisee who was on trial because he spoke of the hope of resurrection of the dead. The listeners were sharply divided in their response. The Pharisees began to argue on his side, and the Sadducees responded with physical violence. Paul was sent back to the barracks.
One is reminded of the Lord’s words to His apostles in Mathew’s Gospel –“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.” Matthew 10:16-17. Though these words were spoken to the apostles who were with Jesus, it was meant for Paul too. Paul proved to be both shrewd and innocent, as he faced the brutality of the Judaizers, the Jews and the Romans.
The meeting with the Sanhedrin was inconclusive, and the Jews were getting impatient that Paul was still alive despite their collective efforts to finish him. They planned to ask the Roman Commander for another meeting, secretly plotting to ambush him on his way to the meeting place. But the information was conveyed to the Roman Commander who immediately transferred Paul to Caesarea handing over charge of the prisoner to Governor Felix.
A few days after Paul’s arrival in Caesarea, a contingent from Jerusalem led by the high priest Ananias along with three others approached the Governor with charges against Paul. They accused him of rioting and desecrating the temple. Paul’s counter arguments were convincing. There were no witnesses who could testify that he was involved in any disturbance. Felix adjourned the meeting and Paul was kept under guard for two years. Felix was known as a corrupt and unscrupulous leader. And yet Paul’s testimony interested him. He was acquainted with The Way that Paul preached about. He sent for Paul once more when his Jewish wife was present. He listened keenly when Paul spoke of faith in Christ Jesus, but lost interest when the talk moved on to the practice of righteousness and self-control. Paul remained in prison till Felix’s term in office was over.
Festus replaced Felix as Governor, and very soon he convened the court where Paul was brought to face charges by the Jews. None of these could be proved, and Festus asked Paul whether he would like to face trial in Jerusalem. Once again Paul’s presence of mind came to his rescue. He appealed to Caesar, asserting his right as a Roman citizen. The request was granted.
In the meantime, Paul also had an audience with King Agrippa and his wife Bernice. He spoke of his conversion, and concluded with the message of repentance for all mankind. Festus interrupted Paul at this point, saying that his learning had driven him to insanity. With utmost solemnity Paul stood by his words, asserting that King Agrippa understood Paul’s message perfectly in the light of all that happened in Jerusalem concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus. King Agrippa understood Paul’s intent, and asked him whether he was trying to persuade the King to become a Christian.
Paul’s answer to the King gives us a clear insight into the meaning and purpose of Paul’s long years of imprisonment in Jerusalem. “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am…”Acts 26:29. It is at this point that we understand why the Holy Spirit had compelled him to go to Jerusalem inspite of the fact that only “prison and hardship” awaited him there. His assignment was a special one. He had single-handedly taken on his worst adversaries and proclaimed God’s message to them. The mob of Jews and Judaizers who were hell-bent on killing him at the earliest opportunity formed his first audience. The Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin came next, and here he had won the Pharisees over with his arguments. During his imprisonment he talked to Governor Felix and his wife, Governor Festus and King Agrippa and Bernice. Each of them understood his message and were convinced of his innocence. Though they wanted to please the Jews, not one of them gave him up to the Jewish authorities. In Acts 23:11 Paul recalls a vision where the Lord stood near him saying “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” While Paul suffered a lot at the hands of the Roman officials, it was they who took him to the destination Jesus had chosen for him.
Journey to Rome
Paul and some other prisoners were put in the charge of a Centurion named Julius, and they set sail on a long and arduous voyage to Italy. It was wintertime and Paul warned them of rough seas and danger to the ship, but they decided to sail on. They were soon caught in a hurricane and the ship was adrift in the sea for fourteen days. Finally, the ship ran aground near the island of Malta and everyone swam ashore. They were given a warm welcome by Publius, the chief official of the island. His father was sick with fever, and Paul laid his hands on him and healed him. They stayed there through the winter and Paul healed many of the sick who came to him. Finally, they reached Rome and Paul was allowed to live independently with a soldier to guard him.
From morning to evening, he met with Jews as well as other interested listeners and explained about God’s kingdom and about the Messiah. Many believed, but many others disagreed with Paul’s revelations. Paul accused them of being hardhearted and spiritually blind and deaf. For two years he preached to all who came to him.
Luke ends the narrative of the Acts in continuous tense, with Paul using every circumstance and opportunity to press on with his mission. The words of the Messiah, just before His Ascension, were fulfilled. The Holy Spirit guided the apostles to take the Word of God from Jerusalem to the very seat of the Roman Empire. The first Christian communities took root and spread across the known world of that time. The story speaks of endless troubles that the apostles had to face, of bitter opposition from different factions, but the seeds were sown, and the workers in God’s field looked forward to a rich harvest. As the Psalmist predicted “Those who go out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them” -Psalm 126:6.
The Acts is a microcosm of what continues to happen in our world up to this present day. Just as the apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the truth about God’s plan of salvation for mankind, each of us has been given the responsibility to be torch-bearers for the Lord in our present world.
In the place of the Jews, Judaizers, Gentiles and Romans who were stumbling blocks on the path of the first evangelists, we have so many anti-Christian regimes in our present day. Reliable statistics show us that India, Afghanistan and Pakistan are on top of the list of countries where Christians face severe persecution. In India we have first-hand experience of desecration of churches, unfair arrests of Christian social workers and even daylight murders of members of Christian religious orders.
Perhaps even worse than the anti-Christian elements in society, is a growing body of individuals within the Christian fold itself, who pose the main threat to the survival of the faith. Many of the baptized Christians across the world do not practice their faith and remain completely indifferent to God. None of us can deny the spiritual decadence that is spreading like a pandemic across the globe. Young people have shrugged off the spiritual protection the Creator offers, and are exposed to the devious plans of the evil one. It is no wonder then, that gay marriages and abortions are legalized, and the present generation welcomes this in the name of freedom. Biblical values like humility and forgiveness have been discarded by individuals, communities and nations alike. Power and money have become the ruling forces in the world, as each tries to establish supremacy over the other through unscrupulous and corrupt practices. In his letter to the Ephesians St Paul has clearly pinpointed what we are pitched against-“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the authorities, against the powers of this world’s darkness, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”-Ephesians 6:12
However grave the situation seems to be, our hope in the Lord remains firm and strong. We have seen how the Holy Spirit empowered a handful of apostles to establish the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. We too are chosen by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to spread God’s message of salvation among those who have lost their way in the labyrinth of worldly temptations. May the Lord strengthen us to be fearless and steadfast in our quest for the Lord, and to help others to reach Him through His Word.