The End of the Beginning
So the way something ends is important.
Last week we talked about the importance of endings, and I mentioned that endings are especially strategic for storytellers. And the reason they’re so strategic is summarized helpfully, I think, by one scholar who puts it this way — he writes, quote: “When a narrative comes to an end, the narrative world displayed by the author rejoins the world of the readers” (Marguerat, The First Christian Historian, 147).
So in other words, this is what happens: when we come to the end of a book, we as readers will come to this moment when we must turn our attention from the book to the real world. And that transition for readers, from the book to the real world, stands or falls on the last thing the author leaves in our minds. The last thing the author tells us is often a bridge for us on what to do with this story in the real world in which we live.
And today, as we come to the end of the last chapter of Acts, I think there are three categories that Luke wants us to take away. And I don’t mean that he wants us to take these away in some kind of abstract, generic sermon sense. I mean that there are three categories here at the close of Acts that Luke wants us to take with us into the neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
I’m going to go ahead and give you the three categories, and then as we look closer at each one I will give you a short one-line summary of what I think Luke is saying to us. So the three categories are
- The Audience of the Gospel
- The Context of Gospel Ministry
- The Center of the Gospel Message
Let’s start with the first category, “The Audience of the Gospel.”
1. The Audience of the Gospel
And right away, I want to go ahead and give you the summary of what I think Luke is saying to us in this category. I think Luke is saying to us: “If you want the gospel, it’s yours.” It’s that simple, that straightforward: If you want this, you can have it.
Now, we need to back up a little to see how we get there. Look at verse 16, this is Luke writing, he says, “And when we came to Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him.”
So Paul has finally made it to Rome, and this has been long and tumultuous journey. We actually get a little review of this journey when Paul gathers the local Jews in Rome to give them the backstory on how he got there. This backstory for them is also a way to remind us as readers the spiral of events that started unraveling in chapter 21 and has now led us here.
The Incredible Turn of Events
And in verse 17, the first thing Paul says before he gives the backstory is that he is innocent — which as we saw last week, is important. Paul hasn’t done anything that deserves his imprisonment. He says here in verse 17 that there was no good reason for him to be a prisoner. Then he actually recounts why: He says that the Roman authorities examined him and said he was innocent, but the Jewish leaders wouldn’t buy it. And that was the reason Paul appealed his case to Caesar.
[Now, there’s more to say about this point, but I had to cut it from this sermon. But if you want to see more details on the appeal to Rome, I posted the section that I cut on the website. Go check that out.]
But the main point to see here at the start — what I think Luke wants us to see — is the incredible turn of events that has led Paul here. If Paul would have been set free in chapter 25 and not appealed to Caesar, he would have been delivered back to the Jewish leaders, and they would have killed him. Chapter 25, verse 3 tells us that they were planning to ambush Paul and assassinate him. But because he appealed to Caesar, he stayed in Roman custody, and here in chapter 28 Paul finds himself in Rome, staying by himself on house arrest, with a Roman solider by his side (who actually doubles as a bodyguard). So rather than him be turned over to the angry Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, in Rome Paul is in a situation where he can actually invite the local Jewish leaders who don’t know him to his house, where he and his bodyguard are staying.
This is a fascinating turn of events — and I think Luke wants us just to feel how incredible it is that Paul gets to do what he’s doing here. This is a crazy good providence for him.
And what does he get to do? He gets to preach the gospel again to the Jewish people.
Preaching to All Who Want to Hear
So in verse 23, he and the Jewish folks in Rome schedule a time for a conversation, and when the day comes, loads of Jewish people show up to the where Paul is living, and he teaches the gospel to them starting in the morning all the way into the night. He “expounded” to them — that’s the verb in verse 23. The original word means to explain or make public. And that’s what Paul did. He just made the gospel clear, he testified about the kingdom of God, and then, using the Old Testament, he tried to convince them about who Jesus is.
And we see in verse 24 that some were convinced — some of the Jewish people here believed the gospel. But then some didn’t. And the party closed down when Paul quoted Isaiah about taking the gospel message to the Gentiles. We’ve seen this before. Back in chapter 22 when Paul preached in Jerusalem, everything was going fine until he mentioned that God’s salvation was also extended to the Gentiles. That’s been the Jewish listeners were fed up and they bounced. Well, the same thing happens in chapter 28. Paul says the salvation of God has been made known to Gentiles, and several Gentiles have received it. And here in verse 28, the action of the book closes. This is the last quotation we see of someone speaking.
So look at verse 30. Verses 30 and 31 are actually a little narration paragraph from Luke that wraps up the book. This is Luke stepping in as the author to close things up, and his first thing he tells us is really important, and I think it makes sense of what we’ve seen in chapter 28. Luke writes, verse 30,
He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him.
Now that little phrase “welcomed all who came to him” is absolutely beautiful. Because so far in chapter 28 we’ve seen Paul minister both to Gentiles and to Jews. At the beginning of the chapter Paul is in Malta and he is ministering to Gentiles who are way out there — these are barbarians, they are super-Gentile; and then later in the chapter, as we just saw, Paul is ministering to Jews in Rome, and well, here at the very end, we see Paul ministering to whoever it is who comes to him. So like in Acts as a whole, in chapter 28, Paul preached to Gentiles and then to Jews, and at the close of this book he is preaching to whoever wants to hear him.
This highlights yet again something that we’ve already seen in Acts. Remember Christianity is neither Jewish nor Gentile, but Christian. You can’t box the gospel in as just this or just that. The gospel is the gospel — and if you want it, you can have it. Any type of person can become a Christian. That’s the point. It doesn’t matter again what your background is. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Gentile. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what you used to believe or the circumstances you might find yourself in — if you want to the gospel you can have the gospel. That’s the point.
Why It Matters for Us
And this is relevant for us today, here, really for two reasons.
First, if you’re here and you’re not a Christian, I want you to know that you can be. Nothing is stopping you but yourself — now there’s a whole teaching behind this point called the bondage of the will, and we’ll get there. But I want you to know right now that there’s nothing in your past and there’s nothing about you that keeps you from embracing Jesus. The table is set for you, and if you want him, you can have him. I want you to know that.
And that means, secondly, for our church, that a church is not a church if it’s only for a certain type of person, because as we’ve seen, the gospel is for all types of persons. And so the doors of Cities Church, meaning our lives, need to be as open as the doors of Paul’s rented apartment in Rome. If you want to hear the gospel, we want you here. If you know someone who wants to hear the gospel, bring them. Jewish/Gentile, rich/poor, young/old, red/yellow/black/white, it doesn’t matter. Whoever wants to hear the gospel, you are are welcome here. Whoever is just open to hearing the gospel, we want you here.
And that means, for us as a church, I bet more people are open to hearing the gospel than we might think, and they might be different people from those we typically have in mind. This reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 14 of the man who held a great banquet and invited all his friends, but then his friends couldn’t come — they all had excuses and weren’t interested. So he tells his servants to go out into the highways and hedges to invite whoever wants to come. I love how Fred Buechner summarizes this parable. He writes,
[Jesus tells us to go] into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and bring back a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. The old woman in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage cans. The old wino with his pint in a brown paper bag. The pusher, the whore, the village idiot who stands at the blinker light waving his hand as the cars go by. (Telling the Truth, 66)
Whoever wants to hear, go and find those people, Jesus says. Whoever is open to hearing the gospel, go find them. Which means, it may not be your colleague who has a salary comparable to yours, but it might be the man we drove by this morning holding the cardboard sign. It may not be your neighbor and his two-car family, but it might be the old woman you see see waiting for the bus every afternoon. Whoever wants the gospel, the gospel is for them. That’s the point. That is the audience of the gospel that Luke wants us to see. It’s for whoever wants it.
So that’s the first category, now the second . . .
2. The Context of Gospel Ministry
Now when I say the “context” of gospel ministry, I mean the place and surroundings where Christians make Jesus known. And my summary statement for what Luke says to us here about the context of gospel ministry is that: it’s as plain as it gets.
Look at verse 30 again. . . .
“He lived there two whole years and worked out a deal with the colosseum to hold big conferences there in the spring and fall.”
“He live there two whole years and signed five book deals with Rome’s leading publisher.”
“He lived there two whole years and performed thousands of miracles and fed the hungry.”
Now, these are all good things, and they would have made fine endings, I suppose. But look at the ending that Luke gives us, verse 30:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense [which means he rented — he paid for this temporary space, which basically at that time was an apartment.]
So he lived in his apartment two years, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Now keep in mind that the entire book of Acts has been trending toward this moment. This is the ending. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is what the book has been building up to — and we’ve seen some pretty amazing things on the way.
We’ve seen powerful sermons, and riveting dialogues, and thousands of conversions. We’ve seen everything from miracles that infuriate the Jewish aristocracy to the salvation of a successful businesswoman to prison sentences that end in wild escape. We’ve seen insane character developments like when Paul is knocked off his horse and then converted to lead a moment he was trying to destroy. We’ve seen religious controversy and political trials and sea-voyage adventures. We’ve seen suspenseful decision-making, and even shipwreck to an unknown island where we find natives who are kind and snakes that bite. Sometimes Jesus’s messengers were mistaken as gods, other times they were killed by the sword. Sometimes they were stoned to death, other times they were stoned but survived. There have been disputes among the good guys, ironic encounters, affectionate goodbyes. The gospel has seriously turned the world upside down, everywhere from the scruffy silversmith in Ephesus who owned an idol-making business to the highest court of the world superpower.
We’ve seen it all, and it’s been amazing, and the book ends with Paul in his rented apartment simply talking to people about Jesus. That is the last image Luke gives us.
Why It Matters for Us
And this is relevant to us because all of us can do this. We’ve seen Paul do a lot of “apostle” things. We’ve seen his leadership and courage and his heroic encounters, and here at the end of the book, just before we as readers step back into the world in which we live, Luke shows us Paul doing something that we can do. He’s having a cup of coffee with folks and just talking about Jesus. There is nothing extravagant here. There is nothing super strategic and complex. It’s actually as plain as it gets. The context of Christian ministry is as plain as it gets.
Paul simply opened his doors and said, “Come on over.” “Hey, I’m having some guys over to watch the game this Friday, you want to come?” “Hey, you want to have dinner with us tomorrow?” “Hey, you want to read the Bible with me?” “Hey, did I ever tell you about how Jesus totally changed me life?” It’s as plain as it gets.
See, most of the time it’s not in the big, flashy moments when the gospel advances in this world. But it’s in the little, tiny moments of basic hospitality and short conversations and casual lunches and break-room coffees and backyard barbecues. It’s in these plain, ordinary moments when God does amazing things. So be encouraged. Doing whatever it is you normally do puts you in the context of gospel ministry.
Now, to the third category . . .
3. The Center of the Gospel Message
We see in verse 31 that Paul wasn’t just hospitable. He didn’t just welcome whoever wanted to hear the gospel, and then played board games with them the whole time. Paul also explained the gospel to them.
Remember back in verse 23. Look back there. Paul is speaking to the Jewish crowds who visited him, and Luke says in verse 23 that Paul was “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (28:23).
Well, Luke ends the book with almost these same words. Verse 31: Paul was “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).
And so, for a short summary of this last category, I think what Luke is saying to us about the center of the gospel message is simply: Jesus. Paul knew Jesus. And Paul was bold about Jesus, which means that he spoke with clarity and courage about who Jesus is.
We’ve called this series through the book of Acts “Bold for the Cities,” and going back to Acts 4, we defined boldness as not raising your voice and getting red-faced. But boldness is to speak clearly and courageously about who Jesus is. We know that Paul is speaking boldly here because Luke says at the end of verse 31 “with all boldness and without hindrance.” But I want us to hear this carefully. Once again, this kind of boldness is not about the style of Paul’s speech, but it’s about his content. It’s what Paul said about Jesus that really matters.
I think we especially see that because Luke says Paul testified about “the kingdom of God” and taught about the “Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, Paul talked about the kingdom greater than all earthly kingdoms, and he talked about the King of that kingdom, the Lord Jesus Christ. And this was very significant because of where he was —
Remember that Paul was living in Rome, the center of the Roman empire, and he was actually imprisoned under Roman empire, and he was being guarded by a soldier who served for the Roman empire, and we would think that given these circumstances maybe Paul would tone down the whole “Jesus is king” stuff, right? Maybe Paul would instead teach a seven-part series on how to manage your finances, or maybe a seminar on how to rekindle romance in your marriage, or maybe a sermon of practical steps for how to battle discouragement. But no.
Paul is in the center of the world superpower where the message in the air and the inscription on the money and the word on the street was that Caesar is lord. And Paul is saying, “Jesus is Lord.”
See, when everyone else around him was saying things like “There’s no king but Caesar.” Paul said, “Actually, there is another king, and his name is Jesus, and he’s a greater, truer, better king than you could ever imagine.”
In fact, Jesus is a king so true that one day every knee will bow before him.
- He’s a king so good that in his presence we find the fullness of joy.
- He’s a king so gentle that he gives rest to the burdened.
- a king so fierce that he will crush the wicked with his word.
- a king so humble that he gave up his rights for the undeserving.
- so trustworthy that he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever.
- so near that our lives are actually hidden in his.
- He’s a king so loving that he didn’t leave it for you and me to choose him, but he chose us.
- Jesus is a king so holy, so different from us, that although we rebelled against him, although we sinned against him, he took our sins upon himself and suffered for them in our place.
- Jesus is a king so undefeatable that though he died and was buried, on the third day he was raised from the dead and is ascended, and right now, in this very moment, Jesus is alive and real, and he changes everything.
That’s what it means for Jesus to be Lord. And there is nothing in all the world that is more relevant to us than this. There is nothing more important that we could ever believe, and nothing more important that we could ever say. Jesus is king — he’s lord. That’s what Paul is doing at the end of Acts — he’s just telling people about Jesus — and so that’s what we do. We pick up where he left off. With clarity and courage, we want to know and we speak who Jesus is.
And that brings us to the table.