Paul was never not on mission.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 28
The gospel is for everyone, but not everyone will believe. Paul didn’t let that stop him. As Christians, We each have a responsibility to continue to spread the gospel around the world, regardless of response. Who has God put in your life who needs to hear or have explained the message of hope in Jesus Christ?
For this reason I’ve asked to see you and speak to you. In fact, it is for the hope of Israel that I’m wearing this chain.” (28:20)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Powering Things Down.
Depending on what year you starting using electronic equipment, you were taught something specific about how often you need to turn things off—in this case, I’m thinking computers, phones, televisions, printers, routers. It used to be that those things got really hot the longer they stayed on, so powering them down was for safety. And then there was the “save power” approach that said it wasteful to leave things on when not being used. And then we were introduced to the idea that computers needed to “sleep” just like people so they would function better. Ask your class how often they think they’re supposed to turn off or cycle their computer and their smartphone.
With computers, there’s still no real consensus. New computers won’t “wear out” on the shutdown/startup, so there’s no worry about turning it off. But they’re actually designed to stay on all the time (really!). You turn it off to save power and to speed it back up when it seems slow. Same thing with phones. Smartphones are designed to be on all the time. We are told to turn them off/on when there seems to a problem (they run slow, they glitch, they feel hot).
Here’s the tie-in: we are always on-mission for God. Some people try to argue that we “need to take a break every once in a while” kind of like a computer or phone. That we “need to recharge”. That is categorically untrue. God is far more aware of our needs than we are, and opportunities to serve Him in the world are brought our way by Him. So if you think you’re on vacation and see a chance to share the gospel or meet a need, what do you think you should do?
The World’s Worst Road Trip Ever.
Do you have a really bad travel story? There are a bunch of comedies about the road trip that goes wrong. Most of them (movies that I watched growing up when I had zero discernment like Vacation, Planes Trains & Automobiles, Blues Brothers, Tommy Boy) are just too crass or downright vulgar to bring up in a church setting. Others (like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Are We There Yet?, Dumb and Dumber, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World) just require a very certain sensibility to handle. So if you want to use a movie for your illustration, I can basically only recommend The Muppet Movie.
Otherwise, share and ask for stories about the worst trip you ever took, or perhaps the trip where the biggest catastrophes happened. I was at a conference once when over the loudspeaker came, “So-and-so, you left a church member at such-and-such gas station.” That gas station was probably 4 hours away. There was an audible groan from all over the arena. And I went on a trip in which 8 of the people got so sick that we ended up in the hospital with all of them. And on and on. Someone your class has some good stories!
The point? Acts 27-28 describes just about the worst trip ever, and Paul got to the end of it for the purpose of going to prison. Bad day.
Bad Attitude Going into a Sales Pitch.
Not everyone can relate to this, but ask if someone in your group has ever been having a really, really bad day before going into an important presentation or sales meeting or proposal? I haven’t been in anything like that too severe, but I have to think it would make things hard. And then what if the people end up saying no? That has to be awful. Well, Paul got off of his world’s-worst trip only to get a very lukewarm reception from local Jews.
This Week's Big Idea: What Happened to Paul?
There are lots of different traditions when it comes to what happened to Paul after the end of the book of Acts. We know from Acts 28 that Paul was under house arrest in Rome. He had free rein to teach and preach, and we know that he did so both to Jew and Gentile in Rome. Primary tradition says that Paul wrote the letters of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and 2 Timothy during this imprisonment in Rome. (Note that the tone of 2 Timothy is certainly different.)
Here are the major traditions:
Clement of Rome (writing AD 95): Paul reached Spain before being martyred.
Dionysius (170): Peter and Paul were martyred at the same time.
Muratorian Canon (180): Paul left from Rome to Spain.
“Acts of Paul” (190): Paul was beheaded by Nero.
Tertullian (210): The church in Rome has Paul’s bones.
Eusebius (325): Paul was martyred on his second visit to Rome.
Jerome (400): Paul was dismissed by Nero, preached in Spain, but was re-arrested and beheaded 14 years later by Nero (or “in the 14th year” of Nero)
In other words, early church tradition basically says that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Acts 28, went on another tour of ministry that included Spain, but was finally brought back to Rome in order to be beheaded. Nero was emperor from 54-68 AD, so there’s still quite a bit of wiggle room here. Basic timeline:
~30 AD: Resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost
35: Paul converted
44: James martyred and Peter imprisoned
49: Jerusalem Council
50-52: Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
53-57: Paul’s Third Missionary Journey
57-59: Paul imprisoned in Caesarea
59-61: Paul imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28)
64: Great fire of Rome, Peter martyred?
~68: Paul dies
This limits things a bit. We feel pretty confident that Nero did have Paul executed, and that it happened after the great fire, putting Paul’s death sometime between 64-68. That, plus the fact that 1/2 Timothy and Titus talk about things that don’t easily fit in Acts, strongly implies that Paul was indeed released from his house arrest of Acts 28. Where and what he did after that is complete speculation. It is a common but unverified belief that Paul died after the great fire.
Just as a historical note, there’s even more debate about what happened to Peter. Tradition has Peter being martyred in Rome by Nero in 64 as part of the beginning of Nero’s great persecution of Christians following the fire. Many early Christians said he was crucified upside-down. The truth is that we have no verification of any of that. In fact, we cannot prove that Peter ever went to Rome—none of the early documents actually mention him. (Some believe that early Roman bishops put Peter there in order to make their church more important.)
Bonus Big Idea: Agrippa and Festus
This is an interesting story. “King Agrippa” was the great-grandson of Herod the Great (the mad king of the Nativity story). Herod Agrippa II was raised in Rome as a political hostage while various members of Herod’s family ruled different parts of Judea and beyond. At 21, Agrippa inherited a small kingdom north of Judea when an uncle died, and a few years later he added the territory of his great-uncle Philip the Tetrarch when he also died. All of that was the region of Caesarea Philippi and north of Galilee. All of that was Gentile.
Now let’s add some intrigue: that uncle who died? His wife was Agrippa’s sister Bernice. Bernice lived with Agrippa when Agrippa took over that kingdom, and many people believed they had an incestuous relationship. According to some records, they were legally married.
Now let’s add some complications: Agrippa is called “The King of the Jews”. But he didn’t actually have any power where Jews lived. This man Festus was the official governor of Judea. (Is anybody confused about the man “King Felix”? He was the governor when Paul was first put on trial, but he was deposed for corruption (see the next sidebar)). Well, as far as we can tell, Herod Agrippa II was the very last of the Herods—all the rest had been killed off. This was an honorary title based on his family (and maybe an insult). Related to that, Rome gave him special privilege to appoint the High Priest and supervise the priests on the Day of Atonement; for all intents and purposes, that’s kind of like being the king of the Jews.
It’s all quite a mess.
Part 1: The Journey (Acts 28:17-20)
After three days he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had gathered he said to them: “Brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. After they examined me, they wanted to release me, since there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. Because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar; even though I had no charge to bring against my people. For this reason I’ve asked to see you and speak to you. In fact, it is for the hope of Israel that I’m wearing this chain.”
We assume that Paul’s imprisonment was so relaxed because the case against him was very weak. It was important to Paul to get out in front of the public backlash by insisting to the Jews that the terrible things he knows they heard about him were all false (but see the next section). He invited the leaders of the Jews—probably the synagogue leaders (there were at least 11 in Rome at this time for maybe 50,000 Jews). The most important thing he says to them is that he did not appeal to Caesar with the intent of bringing countercharges against the Jews who wanted to kill him. The relationship between Jew and Empire was very tenuous, and they could easily have believed Paul to use his grudge to bring heavy Roman might down on Jerusalem. That wasn’t Paul’s intent (nor was it necessary—the Jews continued to antagonize Rome entirely on their own).
What is the “hope of Israel”? When Paul mentioned “hope” during his trial before the Sanhedrin (23:6) he meant “resurrection of the dead”. In his trial before Felix, he again mentioned “hope” as “resurrection” (24:15). Before Festus, “hope” was what “God promised to our ancestors” (26:6). “Resurrection” was a political statement as well as theological, because the Sadducees rejected the idea of a resurrection. I would be surprised if Paul injected that into his first visit with the leaders of the Jews in Rome. Rather, I think he is using “hope” with respect to God’s promise of a kingdom on earth centered in Jerusalem. In truth, such hope is based entirely on Messiah, and Paul knows that Messiah is directly and necessarily connected to resurrection, but he didn’t got into that kind of detail. He just wanted to say the truth in as general terms as possible—”we’re all on the same side”.
As far as teaching this point, I think you’re just trying to establish the facts. Paul’s journey, the kind of arrest he was under, and the Jews in Rome. You can point out that it’s normal for a visiting “dignitary” to call local leaders together for a meeting when he/she first arrives to talk about important business.
Aside: The Jews in Rome
You might remember from Acts 18 that Aquila and Priscilla were in Corinth (where they met Paul) because the Jews had been expelled from Rome. But then in Acts 28, we have thousands of Jews in Rome. What gives?
The truth is that the Jews had been expelled from Rome on multiple occasions: in 19 AD during the reign of Tiberius (14-37) and in ~41 AD during the reign of Claudius (41-54). In between those two was the madman Caligula who, among other things, stirred up a great deal of trouble by responding to a disagreement between Jews and Greeks in Alexandria by threatening to put a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem. Well, Caligula died before making good on his threat, and Claudius came in hoping to cool down the unrest. Many historians believe that initial Jewish resistance to Claudius caused him to expel the Jews from near him immediately (41 AD). There are others who believe that in 41 Claudius just banned them from meeting in synagogue, expelling them from Rome years later (closer to 49 AD). If that’s the case, then Aquila and Priscilla got to Corinth just very shortly before Paul did. Note that Rome didn’t know the difference between Jews and Christians, so everybody got expelled together.
The edict of expulsion was never rescinded. However, Claudius died in 54, and his personal edicts were basically neglected from that point. Jews and Christians trickled back into the city, and they had more than 5 years to restore their numbers to the tens of thousands before Paul arrived. That history is complicated, but it makes sense.
Part 2: The Seekers (Acts 28:21-24)
Then they said to him, “We haven’t received any letters about you from Judea. None of the brothers has come and reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we want to hear what your views are, since we know that people everywhere are speaking against this sect.” After arranging a day with him, many came to him at his lodging. From dawn to dusk he expounded and testified about the kingdom of God. He tried to persuade them about Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets. Some were persuaded by what he said, but others did not believe.”
I have to think that Paul was disappointed to hear that they didn’t know anything about him. This is hard to believe, of course. Maybe the Judaizers didn’t want to make the dangerous trip out to Rome and so let him go. Or maybe the Jews were just being coy, giving Paul a chance to tie his own noose, so to speak. The mention of Christianity is even harder to believe. We know that there was a well-established Christian church in Rome before this time—Paul wrote his letter to the Romans at least by 57 AD! Like before, maybe the Jews were just being coy, wanting to put Paul on the spot. Calling Christian a “sect” was common. To outsiders, they simply thought Christianity was one of many branches of Judaism.
And so Paul got to spend a day with them. This day arranged was probably a holiday that he convinced them to spend with him (not a sabbath when they would have gathered for synagogue). More Jews came to this meeting than the first. It was a one-day crash course on why Jesus was the Messiah. And we get the depressing result that some did not believe.
I recommend three things for this section. First, ask your group if they have ever tried to “sell” a friend on a product they use and like very much? How did it go? If it worked, what did they do that made it effective? Second, ask about the types of responses people get from a sales pitch. Have they noticed any commonalities in, say, the nature of their sales pitch or the product and the response they get? Then have them switch to the gospel: what kind of responses have they gotten when they have shared the gospel? Your leader guide gives a great summary list of different responses to the gospel in Acts. Finally, ask your group: if you had one session to explain Christianity to a non-Christian, what would you cover?
Aside: The Roman “Work Week”
Romans did not have a seven-day week. They knew nothing of Sabbaths or weekends. But they had a whole bunch of festivals and feast days (religious in nature)—fixed holidays, maybe as many as 180. Plus, the emperor had the authority to declare a holiday whenever he felt like it (perhaps to have a games). So, even though there was no weekend, Romans had plenty of days off if they wanted them. Of course, most people were so poor that they had to keep working. And the slave population had no holidays.
Part 3: The Response (Acts 28:25-28)
Disagreeing among themselves, they began to leave after Paul made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah when he said, Go to these people and say: You will always be listening, but never understanding; and you will always be looking, but never perceiving. For the hearts of these people have grown callous, their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. Therefore, let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”
This word for “disagreeing” means “lack of harmony”. That disagreement led Paul to echo the prophecy of Isaiah that appeared in all four Gospels (6:9-10). (Do note that this is another important confirmation that God through the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets!) In John, this prophecy marks the turning point after which people started rejecting Jesus despite the amazing miracles. The context in Isaiah is this: God had given Isaiah that amazing vision of being in the throne room of heaven and told Isaiah that he must go for them to the people. But after that amazing commission, God “pours cold water” on Isaiah by saying that the people would not listen to him. One commentary said, “The problem was not with Isaiah’s message but with the people’s stubborn unbelief.” But Isaiah would still have to share the message, no matter how many times it was rejected. Paul knew the same applied to him because the same still applied to the Jews. Isaiah pointed out their ears, eyes, and hearts. For all three to fail meant that the people were deliberately closing themselves off from the obvious truth. (And also note that God still promised that if they did start to listen, they would hear, He would forgive, and they would be healed!)
As before, the cut-off point for Paul’s audience is this comment about the Gentiles. For Paul, this did not mean that he would stop sharing the gospel with Jews. Sadly, the Jews didn’t think that God should have anything to do with Gentiles, so they rejected Paul out of hand. Thus the book of Acts ends with the emphasis of the Christian church firmly recentered toward the Gentiles. And that should make sense—there are a bunch more Gentiles in the world than Jews! And there are still many Gentiles in the world. Purpose of the lesson: to remind our group that we are still on mission “with Paul”!
Closing Thoughts: How "Appealing to Caesar" Worked
Paul lived during the stable Pax Romana in which the borders were secure, piracy was minimal, and the empire had peace. This era allowed the benefits of Roman citizenship to be explored. Among them included the right not to be flogged or imprisoned in chains and also to appeal to Rome. Note that the governor did not have to grant the right of appeal! The emperor expected his governors to protect him from needless hearings. If the emperor was unhappy with a case, he could punish the governor (which is why Festus included his letter with Paul). This process was a great drain on the empire. The prisoner would be given passage to Rome with a military escort. We know from Paul’s experience that this trip could be very expensive. Citizens would be responsible for their own lodging in Rome, which is fine if you could afford it. Paul was not a “flight risk” so he was given one guard who was with him at all times. The problem came with the length of stay. The emperor heard cases at his availability and interest. With appeals coming in from all over the known world, there were hundreds or thousands of cases waiting at any one time (think about our system in the US; we have more than 3000 federal judges, and a countless number of current appeals; divide that by 100 and it’s still an enormous number; even today, appeals take years to get to the Supreme Court). Paul had to wait for two years before his case was heard. More than a few appellants ran out of money during their wait. And the emperor’s word was final. Whatever sentence would likely be handed on the spot. All of Paul’s preparation and planning would be decided immediately. Nero was notoriously unstable—if he was having a bad day, you were in trouble.