For a long time, Paul had wanted to visit Rome (Acts 19:21; Rom 1:10–12; 15:22–24, 32). In Acts 28, he has ended up there by means other than those he had originally planned. Now that he is there, however, he continues his mission. Part of that mission is to appear before Caesar’s court (Acts 27:24), but, as always, Paul continues to take every other opportunity to share Christ with everyone he can.
How can Paul carry out this mission under the very nose of the Roman authorities? As Brian Rapske rightly points out, Paul experienced a relatively light custody, as far as Roman custody went (see page 26). He was essentially under house arrest; while he could not go out to visit others, they could come to visit him. Thus, although Paul cannot travel as a missionary, this limitation does not deter him from his mission. All day long, Paul engages his visitors in discussions about Jesus (28:23, 31). Even in captivity, Paul remains the missionary that he has been ever since Jesus called him to reach not only his own people but also the gentiles (9:15; 22:21; 26:17–18).
Preaching and pastoring
Paul’s ministry in Rome follows a familiar pattern. As in earlier locations, Paul begins with the Jewish community, with whom he shares the most common ground (28:17–23). When some Jews do not accept the message, Paul warns that their rejection fulfills scripture. He explains that their refusal justifies him preaching even to gentiles the kingdom originally promised especially to his own people
Paul has previously announced his intention to go to the gentiles (13:46–47; 18:6) without really abandoning his own people, and here he announces it again (28:28). Undoubtedly Paul establishes a foundation—even in the very heart of the empire—of his theological vision for this church. The church must welcome Jews and gentiles on the same terms, and ultimately believers from all peoples united in Christ (Rom 1:16–17; 3:9, 29; 9:24; 10:12; 11:25–32; 15:7–13).
Paul remains not only a missionary reaching new people but a pastor to congregations that he has already founded. Unable to travel, Paul sends letters. Although some scholars believe he wrote these letters from captivity in Caesarea (Acts 23:33–35) or during a detention in Ephesus that Acts does not mention (see Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 15:32; 2 Cor 1:8–10), Paul’s mention of Caesar’s household in Philippians 4:22 has convinced a majority of scholars that Paul was writing from Rome. Probably some of the soldiers guarding Paul there, regularly hearing his message, became believers (Acts 28:16).1
Virtually all scholars today recognize that Paul sent his pastoral letter, Philippians, when in Roman custody, as well as his letter to Philemon. Although there is more debate concerning Ephesians and Colossians, we have good reason to believe that Paul wrote these letters at the same time. (Early church fathers agree.)2
Finishing the story
Because Acts ends abruptly, scholars debate what happened after Acts 28. Was Paul ultimately released, executed, or both? Prisoners were not always released after two years without charges, but Acts does suggest that Rome recognized as baseless the charges against Paul:
- The dossier from Festus and Agrippa surely declared their opinion of Paul’s innocence (25:26–27; 26:31–32).
- The centurion who accompanied Paul to Rome may have added his observations (see 27:43).
- Paul arrived in Rome before any accusers (28:21), and even afterward his custody remained light (28:30–31).
Early Christian tradition seems clear that Paul was eventually executed, and Paul may already anticipate such a fate in Acts 20:25 and 2 Timothy 4:6, 18. But church tradition also suggests he gained his freedom in Rome and eventually preached in Spain (compare Rom 15:24, 28). Also, the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus) show that Paul worked further in the eastern Mediterranean region, including in Ephesus and Crete.
Tradition further agrees that, when in Rome again, Paul was rearrested and executed during Nero’s brutal persecution of Christians there.3 The idea that Paul was released and later rearrested and executed best fits the full evidence that we have.
Fulfilling the mission
Just as other promises in Acts are fulfilled (e.g., 1:4-5), Paul surely fulfilled his calling to reach the nations. Why does Luke end his narrative in Rome? Some suggest that Luke ends there because Paul remains alive in Rome when Luke is writing, so that Luke has run out of new material.4 But his second volume is almost the same length as the first, suggesting he carefully designed his narrative to end here (no matter when he finished it).
Whenever Luke writes, then, his narrative might reach its climax in Rome because it is a fitting foretaste of what is to come. Luke’s first volume, the Gospel of Luke, begins and ends in Jerusalem. By contrast, his second volume, the book of Acts, begins in Jerusalem but ends in Rome. Christ’s commission and promise of empowerment tie these two volumes together (Luke 24:47–49; Acts 1:4–8). Christ’s agents must bring the good news about him to all nations, to the ends of the earth.
Acts offers various foretastes of that expectation, describing the apostles preaching to diaspora Jews from all nations at Pentecost (2:5–11), to an African official from what Greeks considered the southern ends of the earth (8:27–39), and now in Rome. Rome was not the “ends of the earth”; indeed, it was the heart of the empire, to which all roads led. But that is precisely the point: If the good news can reach the heart of the empire and thrive there, it can flourish anywhere. Paul preaches in Rome, openly and unhindered (28:31); nothing can stop the gospel.
Acts closes not with Paul’s death, but with a foretaste of the continuing mission to the nations. We have observed that Paul probably participated in this mission further. More important, this mission to all peoples continues today. Paul’s passion to spread Christ’s message thus becomes a model for you and me. Whatever our respective roles, we remain part of that mission to bring good news about Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
1 Caesar’s “household” was not just his family but his staff and servants, including members of his praetorian guard.
2 On the composition of Ephesians and Colossians, see Harold Hoehner, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 2–61, 114–30; Craig S. Keener, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012–2015), 3:2853; 4:3723.
3 For church tradition on Paul’s fate, see 1 Clement 5.5–7; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.22.1–7.
4 For the early date of Acts, see F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, 1st ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 11, 481. However, Bruce changed his mind in favor of a later date for Acts in his final edition, The Acts of the Apostles, 3rd rev. and enl. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 16-17