In the first ten verses of Acts 28 we have the account of Paul and his companions as they were shipwrecked on the island of Melita or, as we now say, Malta. The Spirit of God has seen fit to draw our attention to the barbarous unlearned people, who lacked the culture and refinement of many in the Roman Empire, yet they showed to this weary company “no little kindness.” God always recognizes every kindness done to His own, and so He has put it on record here.
We can imagine the shipwrecked company gathered about the fire trying to dry out their clothes after the terrible experience they had just gone through. Notice that Paul was not afraid to get his hands dirty. As the men gathered firewood to build the fire, Paul was out with them doing his part. As he picked up a bundle of sticks he saw what looked like a piece of firewood but when he laid it on the fire it turned out to be a viper, a serpent dormant from the cold. As it warmed up from the heat it fastened itself to Paul’s hand.
And then we see how easy it is to jump to wrong conclusions. The Melitans assumed Paul to be a murderer on whom vengeance was sought. I think the editors of the King James version 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 in essence, “This man has escaped shipwreck, but the god Vengeance, knowing that he is a murderer, is not going to allow him to live, and so this viper has fastened itself onto his hand.” And they expected that any moment he would fall down dead, but “he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.”
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 to 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 circulating. The rumor was 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, that he had never beaten her, also that his wife had never attended such a meeting, and finally that he was a bachelor and had never had a wife! We are so ready to pick up bits of gossip 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 serpent into the fire, they went to the other extreme, saying he was a god. 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 could pick up vipers and not be harmed. This was one instance of the fulfillment of that promise.
Then we see how Paul was able to return the kindness of those barbarians.
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.
Now observe we are not 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.
As news of this spread, others who were sick came to be healed. When after three months the apostle’s company left they were showered with gifts.
Ac 28:11-16 give us the rest of the journey to Rome, part by water and part by land. We read that when the Christians in Italy heard that Paul had arrived on the Italian mainland, they came out to meet him: “whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage.” 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 he had passed through, after all the false charges that had been lodged against him, and knowing that he was going on to be tried before Caesar’s judgment throne! So it must have been a great joy to find that these Christians at Rome, hearing of his coming, cared enough to go all the way out to Appii forum, a town midway between Rome and the port where he had landed, and convey to him their expression of Christian love and fellowship. Paul was greatly encouraged.
“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.” 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 measure of liberty and his friends were permitted to visit him.
The next section of Acts 28 (Act_28:17-22) tells us of Paul’s first interview with the Jews in Rome. A great many of them were living there, and Paul felt it would be wise to send for their leaders first and explain something of the circumstances that had led to his arrest, of his appeal to Caesar, and of his coming to Rome for trial. If these Jews at Rome were fair-minded, they might be able to defend him, instead of persecuting him, or at least they might take a neutral position.
Notice Paul’s attitude as he spoke to the Jews. He ever recognized the fact that he himself was by birth and by religion originally a Jew. Though now a Christian, his heart went out in love to his Jewish brethren; he never sought to influence anyone against them, or to hurt them in any way. “Not that I had ought to accuse my nation of. For this cause therefore have I 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-that Messiah who was to be crucified and rise from the dead. As a true Jew, Paul looked for the coming Messiah. When Jesus came and was crucified and buried and rose again, Paul did not at first realize that He was the Messiah. He was a persecutor of those who followed His way, but now he had been brought to see in Christ the hope of Israel. He believed in the resurrection of the dead, toward which all his people looked forward, except the materialistic Sadducees. “It is because of this,” he said, “that I stand here a prisoner before you.”
Notice that they are very much more fairminded than the Jews were in Jerusalem. They seem to have been quite unprejudiced. That of course is the only right attitude when listening to one who brings a message he professes to be of God. These Jews in Rome said in essence, “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 make us very suspicious as to its being worthy of our adherence.”
We next read of Paul’s controversy with the Jews. Let us consider this 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. 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. Then throughout all the book we notice first the twelve and then the apostle Paul preaching the kingdom of God right through to this last chapter.
By expounding the kingdom of God, Paul was saying that God is the rightful ruler of the universe, but the world is in revolt against Him. 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 on to tell men that God Himself is earth’s rightful King, then bid them repent and bow at His feet, acknowledging His divine authority. But more than that, it is our business to tell them that God has sent His own Son. Men have refused Him. They have 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 that some day that blessed One is to rule in righteousness as the Father’s representative down here. Men are called to give allegiance to Him, to bow at His feet in repentance, and to acknowledge His authority. We read, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt 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.
What a wonderful discourse Paul must have presented. How I would like to have been listening to it all, hearing the inspired apostle opening up the glorious truths of God’s way with men, particularly setting forth the mystery of the gospel. I think it would have been better than any course in theology in any seminary that men have built.
Paul had a double kind of response: “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.” Many of these thoughtful, openminded Jews compared scripture, listening attentively to what Paul, a Hebrew Christian had to say to them, and finally were convinced. They believed that Jesus was God their Savior and Messiah. Others, who did not believe, opposed him.
As Paul continued he was evidently divinely guided to quote the words from one of their own prophets. He referred them back to a book they revered as divinely inspired, and that rightly so. He read to them what Isaiah said concerning them (Act_28:26-27). If he had made such charges himself they might have been indignant. They might have asked, “Well, is this the way to accuse your brethren, the Jews?” But instead of that, Paul gave them God’s own Word from one of their own prophets. And then he added: “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.”
Some think this passage marks 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 Act_13:46. He first preached the gospel to the Jews, and when many of them refused it he said to them, “Lo, we turn to the Gentiles.” That was his method wherever he went-to the Jew first, then to the Gentile. And so it was here. Some of the Jews had received his message, but others refused. “Very well,” Paul said in effect, “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 those in Rome. “And when he had said these words, the Jews departed and had great reasoning among themselves.”
The next two years of Paul’s life are compressed into the last two verses of the book of Acts (Act_28:30-31):
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.
Here Luke’s record closes. How we would like to have the additional account of what took place afterwards, but we will 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 brought against him in Jerusalem. He was set free and, for some three to five years afterward, went about ministering the Word of God, going first to Spain, and some say even as far as Britain. Then he returned 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 later time. After Paul had finished his final testimony, he was brought back to Rome and there martyred for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What I want to emphasize in closing is this: Up to the last Paul preached exactly the same message that he had carried throughout the world during 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 road when, at the very beginning, the Lord had said to him, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” At that time he understood that to touch the feeblest saint on earth, was to touch the Head in Heaven. It was there the mystery of the one body was revealed- Christ the Head of His body. Doubtless this teaching was opened up to him more fully when he went into retirement in Arabia. But he did not proclaim this to the unsaved. Rather this is a message to the church of God, members of that body on earth. That was one of the mysteries kept secret from the foundation of the world.
We have seen as we studied this book of Acts how in the very first chapter the Lord Jesus Himself outlined His program. He said, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye 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 that in the beginning Peter and the rest of the twelve bore witness in Jerusalem. 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 carrying the message to the Gentiles. It was not an apostle, but a deacon-Philip-who finally had faith enough to go to Samaria and witness there. When word came to the Christians of a mighty work of God being done in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to investigate. They continued the work begun there. But it was some time before the message went out to the Gentiles. God had to give Peter a special revelation-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 Peter went down to Caesarea to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preached Christ. All that heard believed, and the Holy Spirit fell on them with the same power 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.
At this point God laid His hands on Saul of Tarsus. He 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, reaching to the utmost bounds of creation. Before the apostle himself passed off the scene he could speak of the gospel that had been preached in all creation under Heaven. We know from secular history that the rest of the apostles later left Jerusalem and obeyed the Lord’s command. So the gospel was carried into all the world. Today the stream of grace is still flowing on and on and on. 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 in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
From a merely literary standpoint, the book of Acts seems to be unfinished. Doubtless this is intended to teach us that until the fulfillment of the angels’ prophecy that “this same Jesus” shall return even as He went away, the work of evangelization for this age will not be completed. We are to heed the injunction-“Occupy till I come.”