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Acts Chapter 28, verses 1-2
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.
Malta is the small island about 60 miles to the south of Sicily, about 150 miles southwest of the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” It was part of the Roman province of Sicily. When the ship broke up on the sandbar in the bay, it was about 500 miles west of where the storm first caught it off Crete.
The ship carrying Paul from Caesarea had left in late August or early September. It was now the end of October or the beginning of November. The cold and rain were not pleasant for the islanders, but they came out and did what they could to make the exhausted, shipwrecked group comfortable.
The islanders were descended from Phoenician explorers. Their native language was related to the Aramaic that Paul spoke, and it was possible for them and the apostle to understand each other.
Acts Chapter 28,verses 3-6
Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
The Maltese natives knew that Paul was a prisoner. When they saw that a poisonous snake had bitten him, they assumed he was a murderer. They based their assumption on their belief that justice would take a life for a life. The capitalization of Justice in the NIV reminds us that the Graeco-Roman world regarded justice as a goddess. The sea had notclaimed Paul but the viper surely would. These people were neither Jews nor Christians, but they had a sense of right and wrong and of how man is accountable for his actions.
The expected did not happen. We recall Jesus’ words: “They will pick up snakes with their hands” (Mark 16:18). Public opinion regarding Paul swung from one mistaken to another. First he was a murderer because a viper bit him, then he was a god because the viper’s venom did not affect him. During the three months that followed, the people of Malta would have opportunity to learn that Paul was not a god, but that he brought a life-giving message from the only true God.
Acts Chapter 28, verses 7-10
There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
The chief officer of the island was the representative of the governor of Sicily. It is not certain whether all 276 men who had been on the ship enjoyed his hospitality, or only Paul and his companions with the ship’s owner. There could well have been room for all on an estate, especially since they stayed only three days.
The fever and dysentery could have proved fatal to Publius’ father, who must have been a man of advanced age. Just as Peter prayed to know the Lord’s will when Tabitha lay dead (9:40), so Paul now sought God’s direction. God directed Paul to lay his hands on the sick man, and God healed him. This miracle, like all the miracles of Jesus and his apostles, was to further the cause of the gospel.
God used the circumstances of the storm and shipwreck for his good purpose and brought great blessing to the inhabitants of Malta. They responded with generosity, providing for the needs of Paul and his companions while they were on the island and when they put out to sea again.
Acts Chapter 28, verses 11-14a
After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers who invited us to spend a week with them.
Assuming that the shipwreck had occurred in late October or early November, Paul and the group around him left Malta in early February. The ancient Greek historian and naturalist Pliny says that the sailing season began on February 7.
In Greek mythology Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus and Leda. There may be a bit of irony in Luke’s mention of them, because sailors regarded them as their guardian, or patron, deities. Those who had been rescued by the God to whom Paul belonged and whom he served would know that a power higher than “the twins” is the ruler of wind and wave.
Syracuse was the leading city of Sicily. It was on the southeastern coast, about 80 miles from Malta’s harbor. From there the vessel tacked for 70 miles, sailing a zigzag route to catch the winds, and arrived at Rhegium.
Rhegium is located on the “toe” of Italy, the southwestern tip, opposite the Sicilian city of Messina. A south wind enabled the vessel to sail through the straits of Messina and proceed about 190 miles up the coast to Puteoli.
Although it was 75 miles from Rome, Puteoli served as the capital city’s port for large vessels with heavy cargoes. Ostia, Rome’s nearby natural harbor, was not deep enough to serve ships such as an Alexandrian grain vessel.
We cannot be sure why the centurion was willing to stay in Puteoli for a week, enabling Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus to enjoy the hospitality of their fellow Christians in that city. One or more of the group may have been sick. Perhaps the centurion Julius had business there.
Acts Chapter 28, verses 14b-16
And so we went to Rome. The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged. When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him.
At last the centurion and his prisoners, including Paul and his companions, set out for Rome on the famous Appian Way, most likely on foot. A prisoner in a strange land, among heathen, Paul thanked God for the encouraging presence of fellow believers who came out from Rome to greet him. The Forum of Appius was about 40 miles from Rome, and one group met Paul and his companions there. Ten miles closer to Rome, about 30 miles from the capital, a second group met them at the Three Taverns.
On the one hand, the authorities at Rome knew that Paul was not a dangerous criminal or a revolutionary. On the other hand, he had appealed to Caesar and had to remain a prisoner until he had his day in court. Therefore, he was kept under house arrest, in a residence rented for him for that purpose. This was a much better arrangement than staying in the common prison or the barracks would have been.
Rome: Paul’s ministry as a prisoner
Acts Chapter 28, verses 17-20
Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar— not that I had any charge to bring against my own people. For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”
The Lord had promised Paul that he would testify in Rome as he had in Jerusalem (23:11). The Lord had brought Paul to Rome in an unexpected and remarkable way. It did not take Paul long to begin his work in that city.
All Jews had been banished from Rome by Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49 (18:2). His edict was no longer in effect and, under Nero, there was once again a Jewish community in the capital. Paul greeted many Jewish believers in his epistle to the Romans, written three years before his arrival in the city.
Now he called the leaders of the Jews together to tell them how it came about that he was in Rome, under Roman custody. As he always did, Paul would also use the occasion to witness to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. “My brothers” in this context means “my countrymen,” rather than “fellow believers in Jesus Christ.”
Paul wanted the leaders of the Jews to understand that he had not wronged Israel and its religion in any way. It had been an injustice on the part of the Jerusalem Jews to hand Paul over to the Romans. What Paul said about his innocence and the Romans’ desire to release him agreed with the letter of Tribune Claudius Lysias to Governor Felix (23:29). It agreed with Governor Festus’ report to King Agrippa (25:25). Festus and Agrippa concurred that Paul could have gone free if he had not appealed to Caesar (26:31,32).
Paul had not appealed to Caesar in order to press charges against his own people, the Jews. He had appealed in order to avoid being handed over to them for punishment. “If the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” (25:11).
It was not his intention to put his countrymen in a bad legal position. He wanted to show that preaching the gospel was not contrary to their Scriptures and that it was not illegal under Roman law. He wanted to demonstrate that before the imperial court. He wanted to convince the Jews at Rome of the truth that the Jews at Jerusalem had rejected.
The “hope of Israel” was that God would send the Messiah, who would judge the righteous and the wicked on the day of resurrection (24:15). Paul preached that Jesus the crucified is that Messiah, that God raised him from the dead, and that he will judge all men on the Last Day. That preaching was the “crime” for which Paul had been made a prisoner.
Acts Chapter 28, verses 21-22
They replied, “We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect.”
No official letters from the Sanhedrin and no private reports had come from Jerusalem concerning Paul. Still,the Jews at Rome knew that what Paul preached was a matter of dispute. People everywhere were talking against the Christians. The Jewish leaders of Rome were willing, however, to give Paul’s message a hearing.
Acts Chapter 28, verses 23-28
They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesusfrom the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet:
“‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’
“Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
Paul, under house arrest, was not free to go to the synagogue. But large numbers of leading Jews made and kept an appointment to meet with him at his quarters. There, all day long, Paul did what he had done in so many synagogues. He spoke of God’s gracious rule in working out the salvation of the world. On the basis of their Scriptures and the history of Jesus, he tried to convince them that Jesus is the fulfillment of the messianic promises and prophecies.
As so often happened when he preached in the synagogues, there was a division among those who heard him at his place of residence. Some were convinced, and others would not believe. The daylong visit and study of God’s Word ended after Paul reminded them of the Word God spoke the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:9,10).Notice that Paul regarded the Scriptures as God’s speaking, God’s Word.
God’s Word, spoken through Isaiah, says that the Israelites would hear the Scriptures and not understand them. They would see the mighty works of God but not recognize them for what they are. Paul warned his hearers not to let that happen in their case.
How could it happen that people would hear without hearing and see without seeing? It happens when they harden their hearts against God. Israel, in Isaiah’s day, did not want to hear God’s Word or see his ways. They did not want him to control their lives. They wanted him out of their lives, even while they still used his name and professed loyalty to his law.
The result was that God finally did leave them alone, did get out of their lives. Then they couldn’t see or hear or understand anymore. They couldn’t turn to God for healing any longer. That is, they could not repent.
Those who would not believe Paul’s testimony concerning God’s kingdom and Jesus Christ were in danger of such hardening. God’s Word would become something dark and difficult for them. The very gospel that was intended to save them would result in their hardening. It is not the gospel’s purpose or God’s intention to harden people’s hearts. But those who refuse to repent and believe are at last hardened.
In fact, that hardening becomes God’s intention for the gospel after people have hardened themselves. Paul was quoting the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. If we compare Isaiah 6:10 in the NIV with what Paul quoted here, we see that the Hebrew (from which the NIV translates Isaiah) is a stronger statement. It says,
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and
close their eyes. (emphasis added)
After his people had refused to hear and see, God sent them his messenger to harden them. When they had rejected the Word of grace that he offered, God used that same Word of grace to confirm them in their unbelief.
At the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas said: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (13:46). At the synagogue in Corinth, “when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’” (18:6).
Paul’s words at his house in Rome were the same kind of call to repentance. He had discharged his responsibility to his own countrymen. Some were convinced, and some would not believe. He was now free to preach to the Gentiles in Rome.
“And they will listen!” The same God who spoke the words of judgment in Isaiah 6:9,10 said the sameprophet: “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10). That had been happening throughout Paul’s ministry, and he was confident that the Lord would continue to bless his work among the Gentiles. That was the special call and assurance God gave him when he called him to be an apostle (9:15; 22:15,21; 26:17).
Acts Chapter 28, verses 30-31
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
A footnote in the NIV indicates that some manuscripts read, “After he said this, the Jews left, arguing vigorously among themselves.” That would really be a restatement of what Luke already reported in verse 25.
Paul’s reason for living in a rented house was not that the believers at Rome were lacking in hospitality. It was because he was a prisoner, who always had a guard with him, and because he was constantly receiving visitors who came to hear his message.
After two years his situation changed, but it was not part of Luke’s plan to tell his readers why or in what way it changed. We can gather much from Paul’s own writings as to what happened after that, and we will do so. First, let us consider the final verse of Luke’s history.
Why had God spared Paul and brought him to Rome as a prisoner? To preach God’s saving reign and to teach about the Savior. During the two years of house arrest, Paul was able to do that without any interference from the authorities. He did it with the boldness that comes from the Holy Spirit. Thus Luke concludes the story of some of the work of some of the apostles in some parts of the world.
During the two years in Rome, Paul wrote several of his epistles: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and possibly Ephesians. The result of his trial before the imperial court was that he was acquitted: “I was delivered from the lion’s mouth” (2 Timothy 4:17).
Thus Paul was free to continue his work, and it is clear that he revisited many of the places where his earlier journeys had taken him. He worked on Crete and left Titus there to complete the work of organizing the churches on that island (Titus 1:5). He revisited Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20) and probably Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). Perhaps he made a visit to Colosse and enjoyed Philemon’s hospitality as he had hoped to (Philemon 22). He revisited Troas (2 Timothy 4:13) and went to Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3).
It had been Paul’s intention, before his arrest in Jerusalem and the subsequent voyage to Rome as a prisoner, to go to Spain (Romans 15:24,28). He had expressed the hope that after a visit with the saints in Rome they would help him make that trip (Romans 15:28). Perhaps he was able to do so, but there is no biblical evidence that he did.
Somewhere, for some reason, Paul was arrested a second time. From prison in Rome he wrote his second epistle to Timothy. He expected to be executed this time. Ancient tradition says that he was beheaded at Rome, probably in A.D. 66. “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
The Spirit promised by Jesus (1:5) moved and empowered others to continue what the apostles began. To this day there are witnesses to the risen Savior carrying his saving name “to the ends of the earth” (1:8).
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