In December, my team and I took a class on the Book of Acts for a week in Budapest, Hungary. I found the class engaging as we walked through the general themes of the book and the growth of the church in her early years. Reading the book is kind of a whirlwind. There are miraculous signs, there is conflict, and there is a constant reality: God in Christ is moving through His people by the Spirit in the world and He often moves in ways we don’t expect.
I found the last few chapters puzzling though. For 20 chapters, there is a ton of action. We see the crazy growth of the Jerusalem church in the first few chapters through Peter and John and Stephen in the first part; we see the ministry of Philip in Samaria next; we see the miraculous conversion of Paul next; we see the movement of the church to the Gentiles first through Peter and then through Paul and Barnabas. Then in chapter 21, everything slows down.
The book no longer covers the evangelistic movement of the church (at least not in the same way as earlier in the book). No, it covers the slow moving court case against Paul. He faces three trial sequences in Roman courts around Israel and then journeys to Rome itself. Why would Luke slow his story? Certainly there must have been other stories he could have told. Why cover in great detail a slow moving and somewhat uninteresting court drama?
Luke is doing this for a reason. He’s constructed a careful narrative through both Luke and Acts. He omits a ton. Acts after all covers a period of something around 35 years. What was Peter up to after chapter 12? So, everything that gets recorded must be significant.
So here’s my thought on one possible reason Luke told this story. Look at what King Agrippa says after hearing Paul’s case:
Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Acts 26:32 (NIV)
In some way, Paul chooses to go to Rome. In fact, a glance at Romans shows that Paul has been trying to get to Rome, the cultural and political center of the world at the time, for a while now. So in Acts 27, he gets on a boat to go to Rome but along the way there’s a storm. The ship itself is destroyed but all those on board are spared for Paul’s sake. Then, he completes his journey and waits for Caesar to hear his case. And that’s where the book ends.
Okay, Luke, let me get this straight. You tell us this long story about a trial that’s kind of uninteresting and then you don’t tell us its resolution? What was the point of this departure from the story of the growth of the church?
Luke demonstrates in this book and his Gospel that he knows the Hebrew Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament. Does the end of this story reference something from the Old Testament that may help us understand its significance?
Well, in the book of Jonah, we have a similar story. Jonah, like Paul, receives a call from God to go to the political and cultural center of the world (In Jonah, it’s Ninevah not Rome because the Assyrians were the ruling empire at the time not the Romans). Unlike Paul, he does everything he can to avoid following this call.
He gets on a boat going to the farthest place from Ninevah that he can imagine – Spain. A storm comes and all those on the boat are put in danger because of Jonah’s disobedience. He gets thrown out of the boat and swallowed by a fish. Eventually, the fish vomits him onto shore and he finally listens to God’s call to go to Ninevah.
He tells the Ninevites of the coming judgment of God but as we see at the end of the book, it’s not out of love for them. Rather, he’s obeying God’s call in action only and hoping that God will judge the Ninevites and wipe them out. Jonah hates the Ninevites. The book ends with God’s rebuke of Jonah. It leaves us the readers wondering whether or not Jonah himself repents of his hatred.
These stories are pretty similar as I think you can see. Both include a call from God to engage with Gentiles. Both include a sea voyage. Both include a storm. Both involve the center of human civilization at the time. Both end ambiguously.
So, what’s the point? Well, many commentators on Jonah suggest that the ambiguous ending is actually a call upon the readers to repent of their own hatred for the Gentiles. The book of Jonah is a call upon God’s people to remember that they are blessed to be a blessing, not for their own sake.
Perhaps, Luke is doing a similar thing. Perhaps, Acts ends ambiguously to call upon the readers to finish the story. Perhaps, Luke structures the end of his narrative on the explosive beginning of the church with this slow-moving court drama to call his readers like Paul to engage the power structures of their day with the Gospel. Perhaps, Luke intends to call his readers to love those around them enough to speak the truth in grace.
This is a challenging call. Honestly, it’s a lot easier for Christians to live in their own safe little bubble focusing on church life rather than engaging the world around us. It’s easier to be focused on our own individual relationships with God and to act religiously, but that is not the call upon the people of God.
The call upon the church is the same one as the call upon Israel. We are blessed to be a blessing. This means we as the body of Christ are called to love those around us radically. We are tasked with proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This means we are to confront injustice, to challenge abusive power structures, to speak the truth of the Gospel, to love radically, to give generously, and to act courageously.
I think Luke finishes Acts this way to remind the church that yes we are called out of worldliness but not out of the world. The first 20 chapters give us an idea of what that looks like. Chapters 21 to 28 extend the call to the readers. We are called into relationship with God but not out of human relationships. We are called to renew creation as renewed creations not to disengage. We are called out of our comfort zones that we may demonstrate the comfort of Christ.
So now the question: am I actively involving myself in building the Kingdom of God or am I going through the motions of a private faith? I want to say the first one. After all, I’m employed full time overseas for the purpose of growing the Kingdom here. I do a lot of “missional” things. But does that guarantee that I’m a Kingdom laborer?
Unfortunately, it’s quite easy to appear to be doing Kingdom of God work while actually building the kingdom of self. It’s quite easy to do things dutifully for God in order to feel better about myself or to place myself above others who are not as sold out as I am. That turns my stomach even to write, but I know that this kind of motivation seeps into my heart.
I need to be reminded regularly of the grace that was given me and allow that grace to overflow into those around me. I need to be reminded that I am blessed. That and only that allows me to be a blessing.
An honest self reflection reveals a mixed bag. Sometimes, it is indeed love that motivates me. Sometimes, it’s pride. So what am I to do with that pride? Well, I don’t think I should stop doing the Kingdom of God actions (evangelism, serving others, renewing creation, fighting injustice, relieving suffering etc.). Rather I must continue to act by faith while being honest with the Lord and with those around me about my selfishness and to trust Him to continue to reform even my heart as I seek to see Him redeem the hearts of others and indeed the whole of creation.
I must act in faith and pray in dependance and then wait for God to move. Ultimately, it’s His Kingdom; He will build it; I’m just privileged to be a part of it. Come, Lord Jesus.