Paul at Rome
Shall we now turn to the 28th chapter of the book of Acts. This last chapter of our book may well be divided into five distinct sections. In verses one to ten we have the account of Paul and his companions at Melita, or as we now say, Malta, an island that has been very much to the front in these last few months because of the heroic defense of its garrison and the men of the navy and the air force there at the present time. The General who just recently retired from the governorship of Malta, General Dobbie, is an out and out Christian, and during all the time he was there he conducted Bible classes with his men and officers and sought to lead them in prayer and trust and confidence as they looked up to God for His protection during the awful bombings that they have gone through. It is rather interesting to find Malta of today thus linked with the Malta of so long ago, so we will first read the ten verses that speak of Paul at Melita, and then we will take up the other divisions as we come to them.
“And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita. And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness…”—Acts 28:1-2
In chapter 27, we are told how the vessel in which Paul and his companions were sailing toward Rome was wrecked on the shores of Melita, but that all escaped safe to land. There is an interesting point here in that the Spirit of God has seen fit to take note of the fact that the barbarous people, those unlearned and ignorant people who had not the culture and refinement of many in the Roman Empire, showed to this shipwrecked company “no little kindness.” God always recognizes every kindness done to His own, and so He has put on record here the kindness of these barbarous people of so long ago.
“For they kindled a fire, and received us everyone, because of the present rain, and because of the cold” (v.2).
We can imagine that shipwrecked company gathered about that fire trying to dry out their clothes and become comfortable again after that terrible experience which they had just gone through.
And notice how Paul took part in it.
“And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire” (v. 3).
He was not one of these clerics who are afraid of getting their soft white hands dirty. When they were gathering firewood, Paul was out with the rest doing his part, and as he picked up various pieces, he saw what looked like a bit of firewood, but when he laid it on the fire it turned out to be a viper, a serpent that was stiff from the cold and so seemed to be just a fagot like the rest. “There came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.”
And then we see how easy it is to jump at wrong conclusions.
“And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live” (v. 4).
I think our translators or editors should have capitalized the word Vengeance here for the Melitans, I believe, were thinking of Vengeance as the name of a god. They were saying, “This man has escaped shipwrecked, but the god, knowing that he is a murderer, is not going to suffer him to live, and so this viper has fastened upon his hand.” And they expected him at any moment to fall down dead, but:
“He shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm” (v. 5).
You see, it is never safe to depend on snap judgments. People do that so frequently. Half the scandal that goes around among members of the church of Christ is simply the result of jumping at conclusions.
Not long ago I read a little article in a church bulletin in which the pastor explained that he had been greatly troubled by a rumor that was going around to the effect that his wife had attended a meeting of some heretical group and that he had gone there in great indignation and dragged her out by the hair of her head and brought her home and beat her. He undertook to explain that he had not dragged his wife out of that meeting, that he had never at any time dragged her about by her hair and that he had never beaten her, and also that his wife had never attended that meeting, and finally that he was a bachelor and had never had a wife! We are so ready to pick up things, you know and make so much out of them.
So these barbarous people said, “There is no question; it is evident that he is a murderer and Vengeance is not going to suffer him to live;” but when Paul shook the beast into the fire, they went to the other extreme.
“Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god” (v. 6).
That conclusion of course, was just as wrong as the other. These people really did not understand the circumstances. Paul might have explained to them that when the Lord Jesus authorized His apostles to go out to preach His Gospel in a hostile world, He even told them that they should pick up vipers and they should to them no harm. This was one instance of the fulfillment of that promise.
Then we see how Paul was able to return the kindness of those barbarians. We are told in verses seven and eight:
“In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously. And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid hands on him, and healed him” (vv. 7-8).
Now observe we are not even told that this man was saved. We are not even told that Paul first preached the Gospel to him and brought him to Christ. But he saw the man in his deep need and he went in and prayed and laid hands on him, and the Lord graciously answered.
“So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary” (vv. 9-10).
The second section of this chapter is from verse eleven through verse sixteen, and gives us the rest of the journey to Rome, part by water and part by land. We are told that:
“After three months we departed in a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle, whose sign was Castor and Pollux. And landing at Syracuse, we tarried there three days. And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli: where we found brethren” (they are now on the Italian mainland), “and were desired to tarry with them seven days: and so we went toward Rome. And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum, and The Three Taverns: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage” (vv. 11-15).
One can understand something of the blessedness of that meeting and what it must have meant to the Apostle! After all the trials, the shipwreck, the suffering that he had passed through, after all the false charges that had been lodged against him, knowing that he was going on to be tried before Caesar’s judgment throne, it must have been a great joy to find that these Christians at Rome, hearing that he was coming, cared enough to go all the way out to this town midway between Rome and the port where he had landed and convey to him their expression of Christian love and fellowship. Paul was encouraged, and we are told:
“When we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him” (v 16).
Of course he was still a prisoner, but he was not cast into the common prison. He was allowed to pay for more comfortable quarters where, although under guard, he had a certain measured of liberty and his friends were permitted to visit him.
The third section extends from verse 17 through verse 22, and tells us of Paul’s first interview with the Jews in Rome. There were a great many of them living there, and Paul felt it would be a wise and right thing to send for their leaders first and explain something of the circumstances that had led to his arrest and his appealing to Caesar and of his coming to Rome for trial. If these Jews at Rome were fair-minded, instead of persecuting him and trying to make it hard, they might be able to defend him, or at least they might take a neutral attitude; and so we read:
“And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, He said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me. But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto Caesar; not that I had ought to accuse my nation of” (vv. 17-19).
Notice Paul’s attitude toward the Jews. He ever recognized the fact that he himself was by birth and by religion originally a Jew, and though now a Christian, his heart goes out in love to his Jewish brethren, and he would not seek in any way to influence anyone against them, or to hurt them. “Not that I had ought to accuse my nation of. For this cause therefore I have called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because” (and I think I see him holding up his manacled hands as he speaks) “for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.” What did he mean by “the hope of Israel?” It was the coming of Messiah, and Messiah who was to be crucified and rise from the dead, and Paul says, “It is for that I am bound with these chains.” As a true Jew, he looked for the coming of Messiah. When Jesus came and was crucified and buried and raised again, he did not at first realize that He was the Messiah. He was a persecutor of those who followed in His way, but now He had been brought to see in Him the hope of Israel. He believed in the resurrection of the dead, toward which all his people looked forward, save the materialistic Sadducees. “It is because of this” he said, “that I stand here a prisoner before you.”
“And they said unto him” (and you will notice that they are very much more fair-minded than the Jews were in Jerusalem), “We neither received letters out of Judea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee” (v. 21).
They seem to have been quite unprejudiced and that, of course, is the only right attitude when one brings a message which he professes to be of God.
“We desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect” (that is, the sect of the Christians or of the Nazarenes, or “way,” as they were commonly called), “we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (v. 22).
One cannot help but admire these fair-minded Jews. They say, “Paul, we are ready to listen to you, to hear what you have to say, although we have heard certain things about this Christian sect that makes us very suspicious as to its being worthy of our adherence.”
Then the fourth division of the chapter is from verse 23 through verse 29, and we have Paul’s controversy with the Jews.
“And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God” (v. 23).
I want to stop there for a moment. “He expounded and testified the kingdom of God.” We need to distinguish carefully between the two terms, the kingdom of God and the church of God. But when some of our friends tell us that we are not to preach the kingdom of God in this dispensation but only truth concerning the church of God, we point them back to a passage such as this and many others, for we find in the very beginning of this book of Acts that during the forty days of our Lord’s sojourn on Earth after His resurrection He instructed His disciples in things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and then all through the book we find first the twelve and then the Apostle Paul preaching the kingdom of God, and with that we come down to the very last chapter. We hear Paul speaking to these Jews and expounding and testifying to them the kingdom of God.
In other words, God is the rightful Ruler of the Universe, and the world is in revolt against Him. It has turned after a usurper. Satan has become the prince of this world. Man has foolishly allowed himself to follow him; but everywhere the servants of God go, they are called upon to tell men that God Himself is Earth’s rightful King, and then bid them repent and bow at His feet and acknowledge the divine authority. But more than that, it is our business to tell them that God has sent His own Son and that some day that blessed One is to rule in righteousness as the Father’s representative down here. Men have refused Him. They said, “We have no king but Caesar. We will not have this man to reign over us.” So the messenger of Christ is to go out and proclaim to men that God raised Jesus from the dead and has set Him at His own right hand, and men are called upon to own allegiance to Him, to bow at His feet in repentance, to acknowledge His authority. So we read, “If though shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” It is as we preach this that we are proclaiming the kingdom of God.
“Persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening” (v. 23).
What a wonderful discourse that must have been. How I should like to have been sitting in an alcove listening to it all! I think it would have been better than any course in theology in any seminary that men have ever built up since, just to hear the inspired Apostle opening up the wonderful truths of God’s way with men, particularly setting forth the mystery of the Gospel. He had a double kind of response. We read:
“And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not” (v. 24).
Some of these thoughtful, open-minded Jews compared Scripture with Scripture, listening attentively to what Paul, a Hebrew Christian, had to say to them, and finally they were convinced. They believed that Jesus was God their Saviour and Messiah. There were others who did not believe, and they took a position in opposition.
“And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (vv. 25-27).
Paul was evidently divinely guided in quoting these words from one of their own prophets. He refers them back to a book that they revered as divinely inspired, and they were right in so considering it. He read to them what Isaiah said concerning them. If he had made such charges himself they might have been indignant. They might have said, “Well, is this the way to accuse your brethren, the Jews?” But instead of that, he gives them God’s own word from one of their own prophets. And then he adds:
“Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it” (v. 28).
Some people think this makes a distinct dispensational break, but it is not that at all. It is just the same thing that had occurred before when Paul was in Antioch of Pisidia as recorded in Acts 15:46. He first preached the Gospel to the Jews and when many of them refused it, he said to them, “Well, we will turn to the Gentiles.” That was his course wherever he went—to the Jew first and then to the Gentile. And so it was here. Some of them had received his message, but others refused. “Very well,” he said, “now I have been faithful with you. I have given you an opportunity. Now I shall turn to the Gentiles.” Of course he had been preaching to the Gentiles for thirty years, but he meant right there in Rome. He says in effect, “I have preached to you, but you do not want the message. Now I will turn to the Gentiles.”
“And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves” (v. 29).
And then the last section of the chapter consists of just two verses—30 and 31. We get the next two years of Paul’s life compressed into these two verses:
“And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (vv. 30-31).
Here Luke’s record closes. How we should like to get the additional account to find out what took place afterwards, but we shall never know that until we get home to heaven. It is true that historical records have come down to us from early days, telling us that after these two years Paul appeared before Caesar and was cleared of the charges of sedition that had been brought against him in Jerusalem; that he was set free and for some three to five years afterward he went about ministering the Word of God, going on first to Spain, and some say even as far as Britain; and then going back again to the Near East, visiting some of the assemblies where he had labored before. This is attested by his letter to Titus, which was written at that time. After he had finished his final testimony, he was brought back to Rome and there martyred for the name’s sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now what I want to emphasize in closing is this: Right up to the last Paul was preaching exactly the same message that he had carried through the world for the thirty years before. No new revelation came to him after he got to prison. It was not then that he received the revelation of the one body. He received that revelation on the Damascus turnpike when at the very beginning the Lord said to him, “I am Jesus who thou persecutest;” when he was given to see that to touch the feeblest saint on Earth was to touch the Head in heaven. There was the mystery of the one body revealed—Christ the Head of His body; members of that body on Earth. Doubtless this was opened up to him more fully when he went into retirement in Arabia. But he did not proclaim this to the unsaved. It is a message to the church of God. That was one of the mysteries kept secret from the foundation of the world. The Book of Acts deals particularly with his message to the world, to the unsaved, and wherever he goes he preaches to unregenerate men the kingdom of God, and lifts up the Lord Jesus Christ as the One who died and rose again and has been exalted to God’s right hand, there to be a Prince and Saviour. The message is one throughout. This is the Gospel, and we are to carry it to the world today.
We have seen as we studied this book how in the very first chapter the Lord Jesus outlined His program. He said, “You shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and you shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the Earth.” We have noted how in the beginning Peter and the rest of the twelve bore witness in Jerusalem, how that witness went out into Judea, and there for a time it stopped. There seemed to be a peculiar unreadiness on the part of the Apostles to continue the rest of the program. They had no difficulty in going to their Jewish brethren, but they hung back from going forth to carry the message to the Gentiles. It was not an apostle, it was a deacon, Philip, the deacon, who finally had faith enough to go to Samaria, and he bore witness there, and when word came to the Christians of a mighty work of God being done in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to see what was being done; and so we find John and Peter continuing the work that had begun in Samaria. But it was sometime before the message went out to the Gentiles, and God had to give to Peter a special revelation, the revelation of the sheet let down from heaven, which was full of all kinds of beasts and creeping things. The message was, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” Directed by God he went down there to the house of Cornelius and preached Christ and all that heard believed and the Holy Spirit fell upon them as on Jewish believers at Pentecost.
Thus Peter opened the door to the Gentiles as in Jerusalem he had opened the door to the Jews.
Then God laid His hand on Saul of Tarsus and gave him a vision of world-wide evangelization and sent him out to carry the message to the ends of the Earth. From that time on we find the river of grace ever broadening and deepening and reaching to the very ends of creation, so that before the Apostle himself passed off the scene he could speak of the Gospel which has been preached in all the creation under heaven. We know from secular history that the rest of the apostles left Jerusalem later on and obeyed the Lord’s command, and so the Gospel was carried into all the world, and today the stream of grace is still rolling on and on and on, and we are to follow in the steps of the Apostles and go to all men everywhere, warning them to repent, to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, for “whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”