Paul illustrates the biblical perspective that, for the Christian, life is ministry. While he was looking ahead and planning ahead, Paul was quick to use every opportunity, planned or otherwise, to serve God by ministering to others.
As this final chapter in the book of Acts opens, we are told that Paul and his fellow travelers on the wrecked ship soon learn they are on the island of Malta south of the Italian peninsula. I have preached on this island, and from my hotel room window I imagined the apostle Paul and all the others swimming ashore, exhausted, soaking wet, and yet grateful to be alive.
Now they are going to need help to get warm, and Luke here in Acts 28:2, “The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all.”
As Paul helps start this bonfire, a snake slithers out of the firewood and bites down on Paul’s hand. It is highly poisonous, and the villagers are sure Paul will die in a matter of minutes. They assume this prisoner under Roman guard is a violent criminal; and although he had escaped drowning at sea, the gods were catching up to him. But when Paul shows no ill effects, the people change their minds and assume he must be some kind of god!
This is certainly an unusual event; but Mark 16 informs us that the apostolic community would miraculously survive snake bites, and Paul does. But that apostolic era is over, beloved, so do not start handling rattlesnakes to prove some promise that does not apply to you today.
Now Malta’s leading citizen, a man named Publius, hosts the survivors for three days. Paul heals the father of Publius, who is described in verse 8 as being “sick with fever and dysentery.”
Following this, verse 9 says, “The rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” They just lined up, and the apostle Paul healed them; and we can be sure he also gave them the gospel of Christ.
Obviously, Paul made a lot of friends through the miraculous healings, and the villagers in turn provide the travelers with everything they will need as they prepare to set sail.
Eventually, Paul sets sail again for Rome on another ship and arrives in the port city of Puteoli on the western coast of Italy. Paul stays there for seven days with fellow believers.
Finally, Paul and those with him begin the final leg of his journey to Rome. It has been a long, difficult, winding journey. But through all the dangers and delays, Paul has set an example for us by serving the Lord wherever God took him. Unexpected difficulties and delays provided unexpected developments. Obstacles ended up being opportunities in disguise. And Paul was flexible enough to make the most of what God was doing.
Rome is the capital city of the Roman Empire and a center of pagan unbelief. But it is also the home of a growing church. Some believers from Rome come out to meet Paul on the road and welcome him. Luke writes, “On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage” (verse 15). Do not overlook this type of ministry, which I like to call the ministry of presence. You just show up and encourage someone with the love of Christ.
Now verse 16 says, “Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him.” So, he is officially in the custody of the Roman Empire, but he will still be able to have visitors.
In fact, verse 17 says that Paul calls “together the local leaders of the Jews.” He explains to them that he has arrived in Rome because of the “hope of Israel” (verse 20). His message of the Messiah—the hope of Israel and the world—has brought him to Rome in chains.
These Jewish leaders want to know more about Christianity, and verse 23 tells us what happened when they arrived:
They came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.
Paul is not wasting any time. Even though he is in the custody of the Romans and guarded by Roman soldiers, there is no pity party going on here. Again, Paul is flexible—he is making the best possible use of his ever-changing ministry opportunities.
The results of his ministry are described in verse 24: “Some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.” Some people turned away from the Lord, but others turned toward Him and believed in Christ.
Regardless of their decision, Paul is not discouraged. He knows he is not responsible for the results—and neither are you, beloved. The results of our ministry efforts belong to God; the responsibility for doing the ministry belongs to us.
Paul then warns the unbelievers by quoting the word of the Lord to Isaiah (Isaiah 6:9-10) here in verse 26: “Go to this people, and say, ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’”
Paul then adds, “Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (verse 28). As always, Paul proclaims Jesus Christ first to the Jews and then moves on to the Gentiles. He gave his fellow Jews a unique opportunity to hear all about their Messiah, and now the Gentiles are going to hear about Christ as well.
With that, the book of Acts ends rather abruptly with these words:
[Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, 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. (verses 30-31)
I cannot help but think of the Roman soldiers guarding him all that time as they rotated in shifts—all of them heard the gospel as well. Again, Paul is not wasting any time. He is not writing all his friends complaining about his situation either. Instead, during this time, Paul will write what we today call the Prison Epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
But do not overlook the fact that this was not the ministry Paul had envisioned in Rome. This was not his ministry plan, but it was God’s ministry plan for him. And he embraced it. Some people spend their lives knocking on doors God never opens and miss the doors He is opening for them. Remain flexible as you follow the changing ministry plans of God.
So what happened after these two years in Rome? Luke does not tell us. But putting together some clues from Paul’s letters, it appears his case was dismissed or postponed, and he was released to travel and minister for a few more years.
In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul refers to visiting and serving in Macedonia and Ephesus. Titus 3:12 mentions Paul being in Nicopolis, and in 2 Timothy 4:13, he mentions visiting Troas.
Finally, from what Paul writes in his last letter, 2 Timothy, it is clear Paul is once again imprisoned in Rome, anticipating his execution. (2 Timothy 1:8, 16; 4:6-3). He has finished his race; he has fought a good fight.
This second arrest and imprisonment in Rome fits with historical sources and traditions that tell us Paul was finally martyred, beheaded by the order of Nero, the Roman emperor.
Was Paul able to testify before Nero? Even though it is not recorded in Scripture, we have every reason to believe he did. Why? Because back in Acts 27:24, the Lord promised Paul he would stand before Caesar one day. His promises are always fulfilled.
With that we conclude our Wisdom Journey through the book of Acts. It is a book that bears testimony to this very day, through the lives of believers around the world, that God’s ministry plans for our lives might change over time, but our message remains the same: Jesus Christ is alive and is building His church around the world.
Until we set sail again, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.