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The Acts of the Apostles
a.d. 65 – a.d. 90
by Luke, co-worker of Paul
39. Christianity Penetrates to the Heart of the Empire
In our earlier reading of the first half of Acts, we left Paul, after his lengthy stay in Corinth, returning briefly to Palestine and Antioch to conclude his second missionary trip, then setting out again (18:23) on what is called his third missionary journey. Luke, the author of Acts, had joined Paul’s traveling band during the second trip (chapter 16) and now continues with him for the rest of Paul’s life. Paul’s first major stop, as Acts 19 opens, is at Ephesus. This third trip of Paul’s takes place during the years from approximately 53 to 57.
As we move forward from the year 53, and through the book of Acts, the New Testament books we will next consider all involve the churches and people of this region that Paul will visit in this third trip—Colossea, Ephesus, and Philippi, as well as the letters to Paul’s co-workers and protégés Timothy and Titus. An additional factor binds these letters together. They all came late in Paul’s life. Those to the three churches were written from prison, then the pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus came after he was released from prison and, along with Philemon, are the final writings preserved from Paul’s hand. Therefore, the events of Acts 19-28 provide the backdrop for these seven letters we will read next: Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Philippians, and then, with Luke between, Titus, and the two letters to Timothy.
Obviously the pause-point we took in the Acts chronology (between Paul’s second and third trips) does not coincide exactly with a precise reference point in the chronology of the writing of his letters. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful had Luke included information about the letters and their writing in the account of Paul’s travels! That he didn’t might offer yet another clue that the letters were not viewed at the time as being of the paramount importance that posterity has bestowed on them. Why didn’t Luke mention a single one of them? The fact is, however, Luke’s chronology in Acts moves sort of on an parallel but independent track from the chronology we can deduce from Paul’s letters—with occasional inconsistencies—and we are left trying to piece events together as best we can.
the mystery of acts’ ending
One thing about Luke’s account is extremely puzzling and has baffled both Bible readers and scholars ever since. Why is the ending to Acts so abrupt and incomplete? Luke is considered the preeminent first century Christian historian. His gospel is the most researched and thorough of the four. Yet Acts cannot in any way be considered a complete treatment of the activities of “the Apostles.” Its focus is narrow (concentrating only on Paul), and then Luke doesn’t even finish the story. There is no account of the burning of Rome and persecution of Christians, or of Paul’s death. We are left wondering if he ever did embark on a fifth missionary journey to Spain as has long been conjectured, or was martyred in Rome in the 60’s as tradition has it. Though scholarly study finds literary excellence and precise historical detail throughout Acts, completeness and scope are obviously missing. Luke cannot necessarily be faulted for this, for such may not have been his intent. I simply think we err if we place too much emphasis on Acts as a portrayal of the whole story. It offers but one small snapshot of an explosive movement that was positively immense and world-changing in its scope. Being the only such snapshot we have, its value is enormous. We owe Luke, Mark, Paul, John, Matthew, and James an unimaginable debt for recording these unparalleled writings for we who followed them. Yet I consider it important that Acts, as well as the theology of Paul, be viewed against this much wider backdrop—as portions of a larger whole. This perspective, in my opinion, does not diminish these writings, but helps us read them with greater balance and insight.
The Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible comments:
Manifestly, there were “acts” of other apostles and ministries like those of Stephen and Philip. Apollos of Alexandria was of their order. Who took Christianity to the great Egyptian city of the Nile delta? Who were the disturbing visitors “from Syria” mentioned by Claudius in an imperial communication to the Alexandrians in a.d. 42? There were Christians in Rome awaiting Paul’s coming. Of their number were the much traveled Aquila and Priscilla, Paul’s hosts in Corinth. They had been expelled from Rome with the whole Jewish ghetto in a.d. 49 following disturbances, if Suetonius is read correctly, arising from the first preaching of Christianity in the capital city of the empire. But, by whom?
Similarly, the message passed unrecorded down other lines of communication and trade. The bearers are mentioned only in tenuous traditions. Was it Thomas who took Christianity to India? The trade routes were wide open, and the Italian seamen had found the secret of the monsoons. Did Matthew die in Persia or in Ethiopia? Who evangelized Bithynia from which Paul turned aside? In the first decade of the 2nd century, Pliny, the Roman governor, found the area strongly Christian. The Acts of the Apostles has nothing to say about these parallel and divergent streams of activity and testimony. It remains a fascinating and allusive story of one great drive of Christian expansion, one aspect of thirty years of church history. (p. 42)
All these uncertainties of timing have special implications for us. When was Acts written? Given its unsatisfying ending, it seems that there are several possibilities: 1) Luke completed Acts before Paul’s death, in 64 or before, and thus prior to any other travels he might have made. 2) Luke himself died before he could finish Acts. 3) The ending of the book was lost. 4) Luke’s intent was not to tell Paul’s life at all, but to record the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome; that end achieved, he stopped. 5) The book was intended as a dossier of defense for Paul’s trial. 6) Luke wanted to end on a high note and thus intentionally did not record the death of Paul. One other conjecture has found its way into the Acts literature through the years, that is that Luke intended to write a third volume which would take up where Acts ends. This is obviously pure hypothesis.
Clearly Luke wrote his gospel first, then followed it with Acts. If both were written early (by the early or mid-60s), it makes possible a completion that does not take Paul’s death into account. But why would such a careful writer and historian not tell the whole story? An early date also precludes Luke’s use of Mark’s gospel (unless it was written earlier yet), which most date in the 60s. That Luke and Acts are both consistently dated in the 80s (some scholars date them even later) only adds to the mystery. If Luke was still alive and writing in the 80’s, why does Acts end as it does?
Those who argue for a date between 70 and 80 for Luke and Acts take as their starting point Luke’s use of Mark, widely thought to have been written between 60 and 65. Such details as Luke’s changing Mark’s “abomination of desolation” to the more specific phrase “compassed with armies” is cited as indicating Luke’s knowledge of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. There are other such details and literary characteristics that may be interpreted from a later backdrop than the 60s, including the interpretation placed on Acts 20:25, 38 that Paul was dead at the time of Luke’s writing. This dating is also suggested from the inconsistency with some of the letters, indicating a writing before Paul’s epistles were collected and began to be distributed just before the turn of the century. An even later date, possibly into the second century, is hypothesized by certain scholars on the basis of what they see as Luke’s use of Josephus’ Antiquities, published 93-94. Luke’s recounting a rising led by a Jew called Theudas in Gamaliel’s speech (Acts 5:36) is evidence according to this theory of Luke’s use of Josephus’s history of the Jews. While this may be true, there is also no reason to suppose that they didn’t both get their information independently from the same source, or even that Josephus used Luke. All such arguments, while plausible, actually tell us nothing for certain.
We can see that the incomplete ending to Acts raises many timing, chronological, and other issues that are impossible to resolve. It remains as one of the enduring mysteries of the New Testament.
who was luke?
About Luke himself, almost nothing is known. There are but three specific references to him by name in the New Testament: Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. He was almost certainly a physician. This is inferred from some of his word choices. An example is his reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle (Luke 18:25). Both Mark and Matthew use the word raphis, which is an ordinary household needle. Luke changes it to belone, which is a technical term for a surgeon’s needle. Most convincing is Paul’s reference in Colossians 4:14 to “Luke, the beloved physician.”
He is also thought to be a Gentile, and if so would thus be the only Gentile New Testament writer. Colossians 4:11 concludes with the mention of a number of individuals whom Paul specifically calls Jews, or “of the circumcision.” Then he begins a new list, presumably non-Jews, which includes the above mention of Luke.
So many fascinating personal glimpses of biblical personalities sneak into the text subtly. They are missed by many readers who don’t recognize the implications of what they are reading. We discussed a number of possibilities when exploring who Matthew might have been in relation to other gospel men. Mark’s possible intrusion into the text as the young man who ran away naked on the night of Jesus’ arrest is one of the more fascinating of these personal glimpses. John’s reference to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved is another. Following Barnabas through the New Testament is an equally fascinating study.
Luke, too, can be discovered between the lines of his own text, placing him—like Matthew and Mark and John and Barnabas—as an eyewitness to the things he wrote about. It is a wonderfully subtle intrusion, but one which may tell us a great deal.
Picking up the story in Acts 16, we read, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia…When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.”
Then follows the well-known story of Paul’s vision of “a man of Macedonia” begging him to come.
We have to pay attention to the details, even such tiny details as what words are being repeated over and over. Between verses 6 and 8, one word is used three times and its cousin once. They are the words they and them.
They came…they tried…would not allow them…they passed.
Suddenly in verse ten, the entire account shifts. Now it is we and us. And in the following seven verses we and us are used eleven times. Not a trace of they remains.
Luke has joined the team!
And for the rest of Paul’s life he remains one of his closest and most faithful friends and companions.
Luke’s becoming part of Paul’s entourage immediately on the heels of the Macedonian vision has led to the conjecture that he was himself the “man of Macedonia.” Whether or not this is true, it is exactly at this point that Luke becomes a character in his own story.
The Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible adds the follow detail to the character sketch:
Little is known of Luke himself. He was a writer not given to revealing himself in his work. Perhaps there is a glimpse of the man’s self-effacing personality in his deliberate turning from the artificial language of his prologues to the plain vernacular with which he begins, continues, and ends his narrative. He sought not the creation of a literary masterpiece, but the plain effectiveness of his message…Tradition has it that Luke was an Antiochene…On the other hand, a careful reading of the Philippian sections seem to show that Luke, if not a native, was at least a sojourner of the Macedonian town. There is no reason why Philippi and Antioch should be exclusive…Philippi had some standing as a medical center, and, in the close-knit Mediterranean world of the Roman peace, movement was free, safe, and common…
Luke’s character shows here and there. Paul’s adjective “beloved” says much. His style, mentioned above, is self-effacing and avoids all striving for effect. Tradition mentions that he was an artist, and the artist’s touch is evident in his words. His one aim was simplicity and the truth which accompanies it. Loyalty, a virtue allied to simplicity, was a shining mark of Luke’s character. He accepted Paul’s leadership without questioning, even after the apostle’s rejection of advice which circumstances certainly proved sound. [The reference is to Acts 21:12, where Luke and others advised Paul not to go to Jerusalem.] Luke’s intellectual capacity is reflected in all his work. The gospel and its sequel are the writing of a first-rank historian and a man of exact and careful mind, painstaking in his research, accurate in his detail, and with a flair for the poetic and dramatic. (pp. 40-41)
Luke was also therefore, like so many others—Barnabas, Mark, Silas, Timothy, Titus, etc.—a companion of Paul during his travels.
Of his movements, we can glean the following:
The author joined Paul, Silas, and Timothy at Troas. He could, indeed, have been “the Macedonian” (16:9) who was seen in a dream. At any rate, the author accompanied the party to Philippi, a city with which he appears to have been familiar, and stayed there when the others moved on. He was still at Philippi, or again there, when, at the close of his third journey, Paul was moving back in the direction of Jerusalem with the money he had collected from the Gentile churches. The author accompanied Paul on this tragic journey, did his best to persuade him to abandon the project, and was at hand two years later to accompany Paul to Rome. The period of Paul’s imprisonment was the ideal opportunity for a companion so circumstanced to carry out the fundamental research and to seek the interviews that were so patent a prerequisite for the writing of the two integrated and associated narratives…The epistles written during the period of Paul’s house confinement in Rome provide a clue [to the authorship of Acts]. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, almost beyond doubt, are documents of this period. Two of these letters mention Luke’s presence in Rome. (The Zondervan Pictoral Encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 40)
Along with Mark, as mentioned here, Luke was one of Paul’s companions during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. The tiny letter to Philemon, written about the same time, adds to this intriguing tidbit of information hinted at in Colossians—that from prison in either Ephesus or Rome, among others, three individuals were with Paul at the time: Timothy, Mark, and Luke.
That single fact makes you stop and think! What an incredible nucleus of companions!
Both Mark and Luke were educated and were writers. It is possible both had a hand in helping Paul write his letters. They cannot have been unaware of the impact of those letters throughout the churches. They must also have been aware of Q, the collection of written sayings of Jesus. Surely the thought had by then (early 60s) entered one or both of their minds of writing down a more comprehensive life of Jesus and collection of his teachings.
What did Mark and Luke talk about during that time? How close was their friendship? What was the difference in their ages? In what ways might their time with Paul during his imprisonment have laid the groundwork for one or both of their gospels? Might they have discussed a collaboration? Was Mark perhaps already begun on his gospel? Or was it even already completed? When and where and why did Luke then get the idea to conduct his own research and write a more thorough account, basing his work on Mark’s? Luke’s statement in the opening verse of his gospel becomes very intriguing! All these questions take on yet added dimensions with the thought: Might the two gospel writers have discussed their thoughts with Paul?
Still more intriguing given tradition concerning the final years of Peter’s life in Rome, consider the astounding possibility of Paul, Peter, Timothy, Mark, and Luke all together…and maybe discussing gospel writing plans, Mark’s based on Peter’s preaching, Luke’s based on additional research! And why not? The plaque at Mamertime Prison in Rome cites it as the place where both Peter and Paul were imprisoned. Why not at the same time? Their deaths are thought to have occurred very close to each other. And we know of the close overlap between these other individuals, their last companions.
All this becomes more than just wild fantasy simply from the brief references to his companions in Paul’s letters to Philemon and the Colossians.
excellence in luke’s writing
Nearly all the writings of the New Testament (possibly with the exception of Matthew’s gospel) come to us as something less than full literary masterpieces. Paul’s letters are just that—letters. Revelation is a long dream that most in the early church did not feel should be included in the New Testament at all for many centuries. Even Mark and John—the one a masterpiece of theology, the other a masterful portrayal of the Lord by use of thematic and structural intimacy—come to us with each of their author’s particular slants.
Only in Luke’s writing do we find the objectivity of a true historian. F.F. Bruce writes:
Luke’s sources of information were second to none in value, and he well knew how to use them. The resultant work is a masterpiece of historical accuracy. Unlike the other NT writers, Luke sets his work in the framework of contemporary imperial events. He is the only NT writer who so much as mentions a Roman emperor’s name. His pages are full of references to provincial governors and client kings. A historian who does this sort of thing must do it carefully if he does not wish to be exposed as inaccurate; Luke emerges from the severest test with flying colours. What has struck several critics most is the way in which he moves among the multiplicity of varying titles borne by officials in the cities and provinces of the Empire, getting them right every time. Almost as striking is the deft way in which, with a few touches, he paints the true local colour of the widely differing places mentioned in his narrative.
Bruce then goes on to quote Sir William Ramsay’s The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915:
“Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness…Luke is a historian of the first rank: not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historical sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history; and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident. He seizes the importance at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians.” (Both quotes from The New Bible Commentary: Revised, pp. 970-71.)
I would personally take minor exception to Ramsay’s point about proportion in Luke’s coverage of events at the end of Acts, which strike me as disproportionate given that we know absolutely nothing of Peter’s movements or ministry. Luke was surely not ignorant of the facts of Peter’s life. He traveled with Mark who was Peter’s companion. It seems to me that Luke could have continued the dual story had he wanted to. That he didn’t do so, and devoted so much attention to a relatively few events of Paul’s life, seems to me a misjudgment of scope and proportionality. Yet…given Luke’s obvious credentials as a historian, I can only conclude that there exist reasons for this omission that I do not know.
In this regard, The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible says,
Quite as striking as what the author includes in the book is what he omits. He must have known that he was leaving much out, though not always what those events were. His omissions, like his inclusions, may be deliberate choices due to his interests, but they may also be due to the limited extent of his knowledge from the sources available to him when he wrote.” (Vol. 1, p. 32)
F.F. Bruce adds a fascinating comment about the miracles of Acts, which are obviously among its difficult elements to place in balanced context. To what extent are the miracles (the Holy Spirit baptism and all that goes with it obviously comes into such a discussion) intended to be reproduced today. This has been a matter of dispute within the church ever since. Without weighing in on the larger question, Bruce simply notes the shift of emphasis that takes place within Acts itself: [Where is the Bruce reference?]
It is noteworthy, too, that the miraculous element is not scattered at random throughout the book; it is more prominent at the beginning than at the end, and that is what we should expect in any case. “Thus we have a steady reduction of the emphasis on the miraculous aspect of the working of the Spirit which corresponds to the development in the Pauline Epistles; it seems reasonable to suppose that Luke is here reproducing his sources faithfully.” (W.W. Knox, The Acts of the Apostles, 1948)
When we consider how scanty is our knowledge of the progress of Christianity in other directions during the years ad 30-60, and in all directions during the decades that followed those 30 years, we may estimate our indebtedness to Acts for our relatively detailed knowledge of its expansion along the road from Jerusalem to Rome during the period which it covers. (The New Bible Commentary: Revised, p. 971)
40. Deviations Infiltrate As the Church Grows
evolution of church structure and organization
Something else is glaringly missing from Acts. That is a detailed picture of the development of church life. There are occasional glimpses, but nothing complete. Obviously this was not Luke’s intent, yet there is so much we would like to know. Acts opens with Pentecost and the early days in Jerusalem when, in a sense, the new Christian movement was flying by the seat of its pants. Then we are given hints of a growing organization, people begin to give money, there is a sharing of all things in common, then problems about the distribution of food and a structural change to cope with it. Yet we know so little. What did having “all things in common” really mean? Was it a giant communal situation, or did people still live in their own homes? Where did the huge gatherings take place? Were they already constructing church buildings and fellowship halls? Probably not…but there is talk of multiple thousands of people—surely no home was big enough.
Time speeds by. The Church mushrooms. Thirty years later, at the end of Paul’s career, he is writing to Timothy and Titus about very detailed matters of church organization. This transition, which bears very practically on the entirety of church history through the centuries (a history of structure and organization) occurs invisibly throughout the pages of the New Testament. We are given no information about why it was seen as a necessity to structuralize it and doctrinalize it to such a degree, when Jesus never hinted at such a necessity. My own opinion is that this shift from the practical living reality of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels to the structural, doctrinal, organizational entity we call the “church” was not a shift intended by or led in all its details by the Holy Spirit. It is a development I would like to know more about. If I am wrong in that assessment, I would like to know it. If I am right, I would like to know how the structural, doctrinal, bureaucratic errors began to slip in and take over. But the scriptural evidence is scant. We only see the change taking place. We do not know why or how.
feed my sheep
One fascinating picture of this why and how is presented in the account. It may tell us a great deal about a gradual shift in priorities (and not a good one) that eventually led to the bureaucratization of the church.
Did anyone notice in our reading of the early portions of Acts (chapter 6), when the seven deacons were appointed, what the rationale was for their appointment? It is astonishing in light of everything Jesus had so recently taught his disciples about service, about the washing of feet, about the first and the last, and about order in God’s kingdom.
The reason they appointed deacons is made very clear:
“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God, and serve tables.” (Acts 6:2)
Would Jesus have said such a thing? It is an incredible statement: It is not right that we should…serve. What else did Jesus teach them if it wasn’t to be a servant?
Their conclusion on the matter drips with that super-spiritual jargon of those in our own day who have so lost their practical focus:
“But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (6:4) In other words, our ministry is more important than such a mundane thing as service.
This was the twelve saying this! What an embarrassment upon them. It sounds so spiritual. But they are words which it seems to me would have made Jesus cringe. Had they said such a thing in his presence, I cannot doubt that his Get behind me, satan! would have been swift and decisive.
We often rail against those in the history of the church who have falsely represented it. We cite the crusades and inquisitions and so many other examples of hypocrisy. But when did the church actually begin to deviate from the Lord’s teaching and example?
With the apostles themselves. Right here in Acts 6.
Already within four years they began to elevate their own “preaching” over the clear lesson Jesus taught them in the upper room: If I then have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
The Lord’s later words to Peter are chillingly convicting and prophetic in light of Acts 6. Three times he repeated, Feed my sheep. It was his final urgent charge to Peter, as if he knew clearly the temptation to self-importance that lay ahead for all of them. Peter, remember my words when the moment comes. I will say it three times: Feed…feed…feed my sheep. Remember what I told you when you came to me worrying about what the multitude would eat. Remember, Peter. I said, You give them something to eat. Feed my sheep, Peter. You feed them.
Yet here is Peter, along with the rest, saying, Someone else should feed the people. We should not give up preaching to serve. We are the spiritual leaders. We must devote ourselves to prayer and ministry…not to service, not to such a down-to-earth task as feeding the people.
There is a poignant sadness to it, to observe how quickly the living eyewitness of the Lord’s example, and his direct command, began to fade.
Two blocks from our house, I pass a church parking lot several times a day. Every time I am struck with the sign on the prime spot in the lot: Pastor Parking Only. If we were taking Jesus’ words seriously, that should read Janitor Parking Only, Garbage Collector Parking Only, Toilet Cleaner Parking Only. The last shall be first…he who would be great among you must be last of all and servant of all.
This upside-down perspective of self-importance infects the church as a terrible cancer. Why does the Pope wear such finery? Shouldn’t the head of the church be last of all and servant of all? Why doesn’t the Pope wear rags as a visible symbol that he is indeed “greatest” because he is “last of all and servant of all.”
And yet…we are only following the example of the disciples themselves who began to abandon the gospel message of their Lord literally within months of the crucifixion: It is not right that we should…serve. I have been a little hard on brother Paul in these writings, yet this trend was set in motion long before he was even on the scene. As much as I love dear Peter, I am embarrassed for him here, that he allowed such a precedent to begin that continues right down to our own day with the Pope’s robes and the parking lot near our home where the pastor enjoys the special privilege of having the best spot.
We see both trends continuing through the entire New Testament period, and beyond—the movement toward Spiritualization, and toward Structure and Organization. What the twelve began in Acts 6, Paul picked up and ran with. The greater part of his efforts later in life appear to be devoted to the doctrinalization and the systematization of the burgeoning organization called the “church.” This may admittedly be an incorrect assessment, but given the scant picture we have, it is how I read Acts, Galatians, Romans, and the Corinthian and pastoral epistles.
final years of paul’s life
Painting in very broad strokes, we can briefly summarize the events of the second half of Acts as follows. Unlike the first half of the book, there are really only three major scenes of activity here: Ephesus, Jerusalem, and Rome, and of course the travel between the three.
After spending eighteen months in Corinth, Paul returns to Palestine, spends an unspecified amount of time at Antioch, then embarks on a third missionary journey (18:23) in approximately the year 53.
As chapter 19 opens, Paul reaches Ephesus. He is largely responsible for a riot in the city and leaves. He and his companions travel through Macedonia and Greece all the way around through previously visited churches and to Corinth, where in wrote his letter to the Romans. Eventually they retrace their steps with the intent on returning to Jerusalem. He visits with the elders of the Ephesian church again, in Miletus, and gives a passionate farewell (chapter 20), then sails for Palestine. How much time he actually spent in Ephesus itself during these three to four years of his third missionary journey, Ephesus was probably the hub of Paul’s activity in a similar way that Corinth had been during his earlier trip.
Arriving in Jerusalem (the year is now approximately 57), Paul is arrested. The rest of the book deals with Paul’s various arrests, imprisonments, his Jerusalem trial, his appeal as a citizen of Rome to Caesar, his sailing as a prisoner to Rome, the shipwreck, his arrival and house arrest in Rome, where it is thought he wrote the prison letters, and the inconclusive ending. Tradition had always dated the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul sometime during or shortly after the Nero persecutions between 64 and 68. We will look later at some of the conjectured possibilities for these intervening years when considering the circumstances surrounding the pastoral epistles.
As I read between the lines in Acts 20 and 21, though I have not read this elsewhere, I sense much foreboding of impending death on Paul’s part. He speaks as if saying farewell for the last time, of not knowing what is going to happen to him, hints of hardship and even death (20:22-25; 21:13), and warnings not to go to Jerusalem. It has the ring to it of a writer who already knew the final outcome. These subtleties tell me that Paul was dead when Luke wrote Acts. They ring with the same ominous tone as Jesus’ numerous statements about his coming death to the disciples as they were approaching Jerusalem for the last time. The disciples did not understand his words at the time. It was only later, after his death, that they were able to place everything he told them into perspective. The gospel writers could not have written with insight about the approach to Jerusalem had they tried to tell Jesus’ life before the crucifixion.
In the same way, though he did not complete the story and tell of Paul’s death, I sense that Luke is telling us of the approach of Paul’s death in Acts 20:13-21:14.
The possibility has been mentioned that Luke was writing a “brief” for Paul’s defense, which might explain the final chapters of Acts. Many have inferred that the “Theophilus” to whom Luke writes both Luke and Acts to be a fictional device. The name means “friend of God” (theos, God; philos, friend), which might be Luke’s generic way of addressing believers in general. However, the title “most excellent” was the common appellation for Roman governors of Judea. If Luke was indeed attempting to write a defense for Paul that would be circulated in high circles of influence, it would make perfect sense that Theophilus was indeed a real man.
In reading throughout Acts, and as I reflect on Luke’s relationship with and obvious devotion for Paul, my personal opinion about the end of the book is derived from my sense of affinity for Luke as a writer and creative man.
One of my very close friends of the past thirty-five years died this week. Remarkably in light of what I have been here working on, he was a man who more resembled Paul than anyone I have known. He possessed many of Paul’s strengths, and also many of his idiosyncrasies—even including the self-proclaimed apostolic calling. He was, like Paul, in many ways larger than life. Wherever he happened to be, whoever he was with, he monopolized and set the tone. Any occasion was one for preaching the word. His personality, his whole being, was big. Most of all, he was wholeheartedly God’s man. Just like Paul. Like Paul’s desire to preach in Spain upon his release, my friend was talking about a great evangelistic trip by boat when the Lord took him.
My friend’s death itself was unceremonious, even sadly ignoble. He was alone, no one at his side. As is my occasional custom, as I did for my father and Judy’s, were I to write a tribute to this man who was only two or three years older than me, I might well end, not with his death at all, but the last time we saw one another three weeks ago. He was clean, smiling, content, to all appearances completely at peace. Our warm final embrace is what I will carry with me in remembrance of more than half a lifetime’s friendship. I would end my final tribute, not with his collapse, but with his smile.
There are many forms a biographical tribute can take. It strikes me as entirely within the purview of creative literary form to draw down the close on a story at the right thematic moment. One might easily imagine a biographer of George MacDonald’s ending his account at the high note of the publication of Lilith rather than pursuing the story on to tell of MacDonald’s stroke and quiet death ten years later. Some might not agree with the decision, but it would be a legitimate way to tell the story, ending with the crowning summation to a life well-lived. This would be especially appropriate if the events of MacDonald’s life were such common knowledge to the potential readership that, in a sense, they did not need, in the estimation of the author, to be told. It is not how I ended my biography of MacDonald. But someone else might choose such a method.
Such is I believe what Luke chose to do. Among the early Christian community, there can be little doubt that the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul were common knowledge, frequently discussed, and thus probably seemed redundant to write about. Thus Luke chose to end with the smile not the death of his friend:
“Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is the perfect triumphant note with which to end the story of the life of one of God’s truly remarkable servants.
I have not yet wept for my own friend so recently passed. But I feel the approach of tears at this moment, not only for him but also for Paul whom he so resembled. Paul’s life really is a majestic story. And Luke’s ending somehow seems quietly and worshipfully perfect.
[Note: mention of Paul’s sister’s son in Acts 23, intriguing that many people drawn in around edges that we never think of, the apostle’s wives, end of Mark, Simon of Cyrene’s son…all these must have been part of the movement.]
Timeline to finish one started in 1-18