ACTS 28: LIFE ON DEATH ROW
With the second of two well-researched books finished – now called the Book of Luke and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles or simply, Acts – Luke draws to a close his account and accurate record written for Theophilus, a 1st Century Roman Governor.[a] From history, we know that most of the New Testament books were in fact letters, written for people in various places across the Roman Empire and that Paul wrote most. Some of what we now hold in our hands, 1,948+/- years later, was probably written during Paul’s house arrest in Rome, which began in today’s chapter.
As amazing as that sounds, Paul was nothing but a prisoner sitting on death row. And, it’s almost certain that some time after this quiet two-year period, Paul did in fact stand trial before Caesar – as the Lord said he would[b] – and met his death in Rome. So, if I think of Paul (and my friend with cancer) as I start another day on Planet Earth, I can’t help but think that we are all on death row really. We just haven’t been given the time and date yet. But two things come to mind for me:
The first is a phone call that I had with our daughter after hearing the news that her healthy 18-year-old brother passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, and without a medical reason why. In a bid to calm her down, I told her about an old Sunday School song I’d learnt as a child… “Trust and obey, for there’s now other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey…” I wrote about this in my first book Breadcrumbs in the Storm. But what I didn’t mention in my book, was that for some reason known only to the author of my daily QuieTimes book of Bible readings, Max E Anders used those words in his reading notes for 18 September.
September 18th was the day that we should have been packing up our Michael, and getting him ready to head off tomorrow for his music school training. What I had “preached” to his sister just 18 days earlier, the Lord seemed to be “preaching the same words” back to me, as I journeyed through our own season of tears. The lyrics were true for Paul, in Bible Times; true for our daughter; true for me, and even for my friend and his family now struggling with cancer. They’re true for all of us while we spend our days here on Parent Earth. While we trust, we then need to obey. So the second thought that came to my mind this morning, is something that follows on and I read it in the Book of Daniel:
“Those who have insight (or impart wisdom) will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” [Daniel 12:3]
While I’m here on earth I want to “have insight”, to use the time given to me to “impart wisdom”. I want to at least make an attempt at “leading many to righteousness” – just as Paul had done with his own limited time so long ago. But this won’t guarantee a storm-free experience on earth.
On the contrary, the man who seems to be “spiritual enough” or “trusted enough” to give us most of the New Testament had to survive beatings, stoning, death threats, being let down in a basket from the city walls, exile, imprisonment with no trial, shipwreck, and if all that wasn’t enough, he’s just got bitten by a snake! [v3-5]
We were shipwrecked once – off the southern tip of South America. And, when retelling the story, we often said that we left the ship with nothing but the clothes we stood up in. But had Paul jumped into the sea in all his Roman-style robes, he would have sank! He probably left the ship wearing half the clothes that he stood up in. If he was allowed a bag of possessions for the journey, that would have been lost to the sea. Shivering now in the rain by a fire, there isn’t anything more that could possibly go wrong… well… perhaps a bite from a venomous viper!!!
We may often wonder what on earth is going wrong with our lives, and why our Maker seems to stand by to let some of this stuff happen to us. Why does a young healthy boy die? Why does a young Dad get cancer? Why would this sincere Jesus Follower, who clearly knows his stuff, appear to be so unlucky, if not punished? [v4] But if we understand this season of life of planet earth, in view of Eternity, what goes on in this half-way house should fade in comparison.
Rather then getting depressed, hurling justified anger back at God, or giving up completely, Paul shook off the snake and carried on. [v5-6] Consequently, the rest of his time on the island was well-spent time, being an asset to his environment. [v7-9] By taking his eyes off himself and being a blessing to the people around him (regardless of how he felt inside about his horrible time of it), Paul ended up getting blessed! [v10] And so, Paul finally got to Rome – now 2½ years since he was first arrested in Jerusalem. [v11-14]
Over the years, and certainly after reading my second book Mysterious …Expect the Unexpected… people have wondered why we’re still happy after such an eventful life. Some have said that we have a “gift of Faith”, but I don’t see it that way. Our Maker has given us many things along the way to be thankful for – just as He had done for Paul.
Paul didn’t die from the shipwreck or the snake bite. In fact, he was honoured as some sort of hero! [v6] The chief official of the Roman occupation on that island, welcomed them in. [v7] Who does that for a prisoner? Then, after leaving the island on a “blessed” note [v10], they were looked after enroute by kind fellow-believers. [v14] And, like icing on a cake, still other Believers met them on the road, having gone out of the way to escort Paul into Rome. When Paul saw them, his heart just overflowed in happy thankfulness to his compassionate Father God! [v15]
My husband, Mark, once said that Father God can move mountains[c], but usually He gives us the grace to climb the mountain. And so, Paul begins his last two-year stint on death row without cause [v18], by being allowed to live in his own house with a solider to guard him. [v16] Although it was still “prison”, and Paul continued to be chained [v20], he was blessed to no doubt sit in the garden (Romans were noted for their architecture and having cool courtyards); eat normal food brought to him by friends, and to entertain regular visitors. [v30]
Being a religious academic Paul would have gained his energy from thought and debate. And, as was his custom, Paul began with calling together the leading men of Judaism. [v17] If you’ve been following my Breadcrumbs throughout September, you’ll notice that Paul’s message wasn’t the start of a brand-new religion. If Father God’s Global story (that had been played out through the Jews up to this point in HIStory) could be likened to an Olive Tree, Faith in Jesus is not the start of a new tree springing up. Paul is wearing the chain because of the “Hope of Israel”. [v20] That hope is that all people on earth would be blessing (or included in) through Abraham and his descendants[d] – i.e. grafted in, as foreign branches, into the promises of the original Olive Tree.[e]
Interestingly, no letters had arrived from Jerusalem, which indicates that the Jews there weren’t 100% concerned about the spread of so-called false teaching from this new religious “sect”. [v21-22] If there was something seriously wrong with Paul, and all the others who were now Jesus Followers, surely the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem would have written to every synagogue in the Roman Empire, to protect their people from spiritual corruption and the spread of false teaching. They didn’t formally counter what was being taught by these early Jewish Believers in Christ.
From morning to night, Paul explained the Creator God’s Global Masterplan using their own script. From both the Law of Moses – the first five books of the bible – and the prophets – almost half of the 39 books in what is now called the Old Testament. [v23] In other words, there’s not just a few obscure references to someone who could be passed off as Jesus. There’s a stack of stuff to wade through, if only you’d be like the Jews in today’s chapter, taking some time to seriously check it out.
Some were persuaded, but Luke noticed that others would not believe. [v24] In other words, Luke had followed this story like a reporter, or a private investigator, from the beginning. First, by interviewing the actual disciples of Jesus, then tailing this man, Paul, for at least six years. At the end of it, he could sit in the corner watching faces, listening to their questions, observing body language, and drawing his own conclusions. And some were making a clear choice now, to refuse to believe.
So, Luke finishes his report to Theophilus with two things. The first is what the ancient prophet Isaiah had said 800+/- years earlier, and what Jesus explained at the start of Part Two of the epic Play.[f] That it is because the Jews rejected it, that this Salvation of God has been therefore made available to non-Jews who will listen. [v28] This is an extremely important notation for us non-Jews to remember. It is only because some branches on the original Olive Tree had to be cut off, that it became possible for us “foreigners to the promises of God”, to be grafted in.[g]
While it’s technically true that Paul was living his life on death row, life was far from over when taking on board the Creator’s Eternal perspective. For as long as Paul was alive on this earth, he opened his home unhindered, to anyone who wanted to hear about the Kingdom of God. [v30-31] Now, through this Jewish religious academic, we have all the necessary teaching we’ll ever need in the Creator’s own script, concerning how the carpenter Jesus, could possibly have taken the lead role in the Creator God’s salvation plan for humanity as The Lord Jesus Christ.
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[a] Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2
[b] Acts 9:15 and 27:24
[c] Matthew 17:20 and 21:21
[d] Genesis 12:3b
[e] Isaiah 6:13b; Isaiah 11:1,v10-13
[f] Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:10-16
[g] Romans 11:17,19,v23-24