Now you already know this. Just just want to remind you: It’s important how things end. How things conclude, how they wrap up, how they end — that really matters.
I think that all of us know that endings are a big deal. In fact, this is something that we all know at a very personal, practical level. There is actually a whole psychology about the importance of endings. The well-known psychologist Daniel Kahneman — he has this book called Thinking Fast and Slow (I’ve been reading this this summer), and he’s also have some TED talks — but he basically says that there are two systems for how we think, and they correlate to two different selves. He says that there’s the experiencing self, and then the remembering self. They work this way . . .
The experiencing self is what happens to us, and the remembering self is how we think about what happens to us. And typically, how we think about what happens to us is determined by how something ends.
So, for example, say you go on vacation to a North Carolina beach for ten days. Dr. Kahneman would say that it’s not actually what you do at the beach that makes it a pleasant vacation, but it’s how you remember what you did at the beach.
Which means, say you spent ten days at the beach, basking in the sunshine, reading your favorite books, swimming in the ocean, enjoying nature — just great stuff. But then, on the last day of the vacation a bad storm comes, and its rainy and cold, but you go swimming anyway, and shark attacks you.
When you look back at this vacation, will you consider it a good vacation? Probably not, but in reality, in experience, 95% of the time was absolutely wonderful. Only one day went bad. But we let that one, concluding memory determine how we remember the entire trip.
We all know how this works. We tend to let our memories of last impressions have the biggest impact on how we think about something. We even have sayings for it, like when we say, “That left a bad taste in my mouth.” We mean, our memory at the conclusion of something affects the whole thing.
Here’s another example. Say, you’re at the Twins game and Kevin Kleiman is singing the National Anthem, and he is just killing every note — I mean it’s just amazing — but then he gets to that last “home of the brave” part, and his voice buckles and squeaks and he sounds like Kermit the Frog. Well, say I didn’t make it to the game, but you were all there, and when I run into one of you and ask you, “Hey, how did Kevin do?” You’re going to be like, “Uh . . . not good.”
Because we let our memory of the ending affect the whole.
Good Storytellers Know
So that’s why endings are important, and this is something that good storytellers know, especially good, true storytellers like Luke.
We are in the last chapter of Acts (this week and next) — Acts 28 — and that means we are about to discover one of the most important endings ever written.
And the first thing I want us to know is that, like us, Luke knows endings are important. We know that endings are important, and Luke knows that endings are important. He knows that the ending of Acts is important for how we as the church think about ourselves as a whole. So I can hardly overstate how epic and serious and vital Acts 28 is — which is partly why we’re spending two weeks on it.
So for this week, we are in the first half, where we find this story of Paul on the island of Malta. And this is what I want to do:
I want us to look at three lessons that I think Luke gives us in this story, and then one, big, final reason for why this story matters.
Re-Sketch the Story
I just read the story, but let me start by giving a quick re-sketch.
Remember Acts 27, that Pastor David preached last week, is Paul on a boat, he is still on mission, on his way to Rome to be tried by Caesar, and he gets in a shipwreck, but he and everyone else on the boat were saved. And now, at the beginning of Acts 28, all 276 people who were on the boat have come safety to shore on this island, that they find out is called Malta (Malta is an island out in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, between modern day Sicily and Libya).
And while they are on Malta they meet the native people of the land, who were very kind to them. Its cold and rainy, so they build a fire to keep them warm, and Paul is helping out. While he was gathering wood for the fire, a viper — that’s a snake — comes out and bites him on the hand. The native people see this and think that he is about to die. They assume that the god of justice, basically, was coming after Paul. They think maybe he escaped the storm at sea, but he clearly is guilty and now he is going to pay. But to their surprise, Paul shakes off the snake in the fire. Which blows their minds. He’s perfectly fine. Then they think he is a god. And then he goes and heals the sick. And all the native people are kind to him, and they send him and the whole voyage off with gifts.
Lessons for the Life of Mission
All right, you might be thinking, what can we possibly learn from all this? There are a few things that I think Luke wants us to pick up on, and all of them have to do with life on mission. Coming to the end of the book, the question of the church’s mission has been growing in our minds. There is unfinished work to do. Paul, in one sense, is in transition. He is on his way to Rome, to see Caesar, the ruler of the Gentile world. Remember, he has been headed this direction since chapter 21, but he still isn’t there. Rhetorically, this is called narrative suspense. We are waiting to find out what is going to happen, and while Luke has our attention, he slips in a few practical points. We’ll call these lessons,
- Expect that awkward moment
- Check your stereotypes
- Bless the neighborhood
Let’s start with the first one.
1. Expect That Awkward Moment
So Jesus told us that the mission of the church — what we’re supposed to do — is to go make disciples of all nations. That means, for us who are Christians, we are commissioned to go forth in all the world to show and tell the love of Jesus. We want people to know the love of Jesus. So if you’re here and you’re not a Christian, we want you to know the love of Jesus. Straight up. We don’t want to hide that. That’s what Jesus told us to do. This is what we call our mission. And to live on mission is to organize our lives in certain ways so that we are intentional about making Jesus known. And when we do that — when we live in intentional ways to make Jesus known — we should expect some awkward moments every now and then.
Stuff tends to happen that we didn’t foresee. For example, you get bit by a snake. Your gathering some firewood with some barbarians you’ve encountered on this obscure island, and a snake bites you. I don’t think that was on Paul’s radar. But it happened, and I think the obvious reason Luke tells us about this story about the snake is just because it happened. It was too good to leave out.
But not only that, notice what happens after Paul was bit. All the islanders expected him to die. They think Justice has come after him. Look at verse 6,
“They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.”
For now, never mind the part where they think Paul was a god (we’ll come back to that), but I am more intrigued by the part when they all stood around, looking at him, waiting for him to fall down and die. How awkward was that?
These people see the bite, they see him shake off the snake in the fire, they keep a little distance between themselves and Paul, and Paul probably wonders, what is going on here? Why are they all looking at me like that? Oh, there just waiting for you to drop dead. That’s so awkward. We have to imagine. That was awkward.
And that’s the part that I think might help us because we, as a culture, can’t stand awkwardness. Awkwardness, for whatever reason, in our culture, is viewed as a terrible thing. And part of what makes awkwardness awkward is that it comes out of no where. It just happens. You don’t plan awkward moments, you find yourself in the middle of awkward moments, and the lesson here is that we should just expect it. Just know that moments like this are going to happen to us.
The more we make Jesus known, the more we learn to get over ourselves, and expect a little awkwardness every now and then. Awkwardness never hurt anybody. It’s going to be okay. And like Paul, we just need to roll with it. He just shook off the snake and moved on. So let’s do the same. Whatever uncomfortable, awkward situations you might find yourself in for the sake of the gospel, it’s going to be all right. Just shake it off. Roll with it.
Okay, lesson number two . . .
2. Check Your Stereotypes
Verse 2 in the English Standard translation says “native people” or in the NIV it’s “islanders.” The literal word, though, is barbarians. And that means Gentiles who didn’t speak Greek. Basically, uncivilized, uncultured peoples. These are the kinds of people in the first century that you might be afraid of. They were, at that time, the people you didn’t know much about. They were the people way out there that eventually, as the gospel advanced, Christians would encounter these people. And one of the reasons Luke includes this story is to prepare the church for such encounters. And how does he do that? He shows us how incredibly kind they were to Paul.
He basically tells us to check our stereotypes. We are so ingrained to think that the people out there that we don’t know are hostile to us. You know, stranger-danger. We never really grow out of that mentality. But Luke here tells us to chill out. Look at how these barbarians treated Paul and those with him:
Verse 2: “The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all.”
Verse 7: “Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.”
Verse 10: “They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”
These people were good to Paul — and we need to see that.
It is especially important for us to see this because we live in strange times when it comes to public opinion about Christianity. And some people, some well-minded Christians, can seize upon our cultural situation to instill fear. They can take the negativity of larger, systemic issues and project that negativity on how we perceive individuals. For example, some will take the systemic issue of diminished religious liberties and they are going to twist that to make you think that your non-Christian neighbor is hostile toward Christianity. But they’re probably not. Most are not. In fact, your non-Christians neighbor is probably nicer than you are.
So we need to check our stereotypes. Strangers and neighbors who don’t know Jesus probably don’t hate us. But if we walk around with a chip on our shoulders as if they do, we’re going to be defensive and stingy, which is not how you show and tell the love of Jesus.
So Christians in here, we need to relax, and we need to know that in most cases if we said to someone, “Hey, can I talk to you about Jesus?”, they’re going to say, “Yeah, okay.” They are not going to throw eggs at us. They are going to be fine with it. And I think the non-Christians in here would agree. So we need to stay calm and check out stereotypes.
Okay, now to lesson three . . .
3. Bless the Neighborhood
One thing that is really interesting in this story is what Luke does not tell us. Look back at verse 6. After Paul survived the snakebite, the native people thought he was a god. This is the second time this has happened. Remember back in Lystra, in chapter 14, the Gentiles there thought Paul was a god. Do you remember how Paul and Barnabas responded? They ripped off their garments and rushed into the crowd trying to correct them. But here in chapter 28, Luke doesn’t tell us that Paul says anything.
And notice also in this story that Luke doesn’t say anything about Paul preaching the gospel, and there’s nothing here about anyone in Malta believing the gospel.
Now, based on the rest of Acts, these are a few things that we would expect to see here that we don’t. Now, why is that?
Well, first, just because it’s not mentioned doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Paul was there for three months, and we know Paul, he definitely preached the gospel, and there were some who probably believed. We can also safety assume, like he did in chapter 14, that Paul corrects them and says something about him not really being a god. So just because these things aren’t mentioned doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. So why not mention them?
Well it’s because there was something else that Luke wants to emphasize. That is how it works with stories. Sometimes you omit important things if there is something else you really want to get across. And I think that something Luke wants to get across in this story is how Paul blessed the people of Malta. We can expect that Paul preached the gospel, and that he clarified that he’s not a god, but you know what else he did in Malta?
Look at verse 7. Notice the word “neighborhood” in the English Standard translation. I like that. The literal phrase is “around the place.” That is what a neighborhood is. It is whatever is around a place. Neighbors are whoever is around. And Paul found himself in the neighborhoods of Malta, and when he found out that the chief’s father was sick, Paul went and healed him. Then everyone else on the island who had diseases came to Paul, and he healed them. So Luke doesn’t tell us everything that Paul did during the three months he was there, but he tells us that Paul was good to the people of Malta. Luke tells us that Paul blessed the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was glad Paul was there, and they missed him when he was gone. And we should wonder whether our neighborhoods would say the same about us.
There is nothing complicated or super strategic about this lesson. It’s just that we would do what Jesus has commanded us in simply loving our neighbors. That we would be a blessing to our neighborhoods, that we do good to those around us.
And we want to do this because the Jesus who tells us to love our neighbors — the Jesus who tells us to bless the neighborhood is the Jesus who has gone before us in the neighborhood of this world. The Gospel of John, chapter one, verse 14, tells us that Jesus was the divine Word who became flesh and dwelled among us. And I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse in the Message. He says, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
And I love the image here because we need to remember that when Jesus came to earth, he came to an earth like this. He came down here, in neighborhoods like ours. He walked in our shoes, and lived around people like we live around people. He healed people and helped people and loved those who the rest of society considered the unlovable. And he always did what was right and true and good. He never sinned. He was a blameless man.
And that brings us to the last point. This is the one, big, final reason why I think Luke includes this story.
Luke wants to show us that Paul starts to look a lot like Jesus.
Paul Looked Like Jesus
Not only did Paul heal and help people like Jesus did, but in this story Paul is vindicated as an innocent man.
Before we look at that and why it’s important, let me turn back to the Gospel of Luke for a moment. Remember that the Book of Acts is a sequel to the book that Luke wrote about Jesus’s life. And in that book, the Gospel of Luke, one thing a little different about it compared to the other Gospels is how Luke repeats the innocence of Jesus in its final chapters.
So back in Luke 23, when Jesus is on trial before Pilate, right away we see Pilate say of Jesus, in Luke 23, verse 4, “I find no guilt in this man.”
Then in Luke 23:14, after Pilate examined Jesus, says to the Jews, “I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him.”
Verse 15 again, he says, “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.”
Then verses 20–22, “Pilate addressed the [Jewish crowd] once more, desiring to release Jesus. . . [saying] I have found in him no guilt deserving death.”
So that’s just Pilate talking. Then remember the two criminals who were crucified beside Jesus. One of the criminals railed at Jesus, but the other criminal rebuked him and said, as he hung beside Jesus on the cross, Luke 23:41, “we are receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then in Luke 23:47, the Roman soldier standing by the cross, immediately after Jesus died, said “Certainly this man was innocent!”
So over and over again in Luke’s Gospel, he tells us that Jesus was innocent. He did not deserve his execution.
And then, with that in mind, come back to the ending of Acts. Paul survives this shipwreck in chapter 27, and everyone with him. And, Paul surviving this shipwreck in itself is a big deal, because in Greek literature, sea voyages like the one he was on were seen as the prime opportunity for the gods to judge the guilty. The sea was seen as the place where guilty men do not escape. But Paul survives the shipwreck because instead of God’s judgment, he actually has God’s favor. So when Paul is walking up on this beach in Malta, having survived this shipwreck, that alone says a lot about his innocence. The natives of Malta knew it.
So when he was bit by the snake, what do they say? “Ah, got him!”
Look at verse 4: “When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea [that was a big deal to them], Justice has not allowed him to live.’”
So they see this snakebite as the judgment of the gods on Paul.
But Paul doesn’t die from the snakebite, so instead of them thinking Paul was guilty, they know he is innocent. In fact, their opinion of Paul is actually so reversed that instead of thinking he is guilty, they see God’s favor on him. And they see God’s favor on Paul so clearly that they think Paul himself is a god.
And what Luke is saying to us is: See, Paul was innocent — which doesn’t mean that Paul was sinless like Jesus. Paul was a sinner. But like Jesus, Paul did not deserve to be executed by the Romans.
Because we know what happened to Paul. The first readers of the Book of Acts knew what happened to Paul. History tells us that Nero, the emperor, had him beheaded. And Luke, I think, wants to be clear for us that Paul didn’t deserve that.
Luke knows that endings are important. And here at the end of Acts, at the end of Paul’s mission as seen in this story, Luke wants us to know that Paul, like Jesus, is going to stand trial innocent of the charges brought against him. And more than that.
What we see in this ending is Paul, who is unjustly made a prisoner and awaiting trial, just like Jesus, he still gives himself for the good of others, just like Jesus.
And to this bring this down to the practical, what this means for Christians is that those who carry the message of Jesus will begin to look a lot like Jesus. As our mission advances, our conformity to Jesus will intensify — and the more we look like Jesus, the more we give ourselves for the good of others, no matter what.
And that brings us to the Table.
The best way that we’re mobilized to seek the good of others is when we remember that Jesus secured our eternal good by dying on the cross in our place.
And that is what this Table, this meal, is about. It is a memorial that is meant to nourish the soul. . . .