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The Ending of the Book of the Acts

In my sermon, I note how the literary end of Luke’s work sounds a triumphant note. The last word of the book of the Acts is “without hindrance,” and this word helps to relieve any potential concerns the reader might have as Paul lives in Rome for two years in chains. This word reminds us that though Paul is in chains physically, he is spiritually free. Though the world may look at Paul and wonder what has happened to him and how he could end up in chains, any self-reflection on Paul’s part would end with satisfied joy that God has enlightened his mind and enlivened his heart so that he is more free now than he was like the very people to whom he now preached the gospel.

While this observation about the literary end of Luke’s work is illuminating, many readers have wondered why Luke chose to end things with Paul in chains. Darrell Bock represents well the feeling that many have at the end of this book:

It seems curious that the story ends without mention of Paul’s fate. There is no evidence that Luke intended to write a third volume or that Luke died before he finished. The account comes to a rounded-off ending. Some scholars argue that he wrote before the trial of Paul had met in the early sixties, but this also seems unlikely given the probable origin and dating of the Gospels.[1]

So, then, if Luke likely didn’t die before the trial, then he would have known its outcome. And given that church tradition places Paul’s death in the mid-60s AD while this Roman imprisonment in Acts covers the early-60s AD, it seems even more curious that Luke wouldn’t want to include the highly probable vindication of Paul, this extraordinary servant of God, before the Roman Emperor.

But at the same time, Luke’s focus was not on Paul but on the gospel and its spread. Though I’m not saying that this was Luke’s intent, leaving Paul’s fate hanging while the gospel is preached without hindrance in arguably the most important city in the Mediterranean world certainly helps to keep the focus on the gospel and its spread. With all due respect to the apostle Paul, his fate before Nero doesn’t much matter as compared to the fate of the gospel, which has already been vindicated time and time again in the latter half of Acts.

More than that, tying up Paul’s fate in a neat bow at the end of the book would not complete the story. The mission that the Lord Jesus gave to his disciples, as reported in the first chapter of Acts, was to be his witnesses ultimately to the ends of the earth. Reporting Paul’s fate does nothing to complete this mission because Rome was not the ends of the earth. If Paul actually went on from Rome after this imprisonment to Spain, which was his original plan after he visited Jerusalem (cf. Rom 15:24-25), and if Luke had recorded that, it would still not complete the story. After all, Spain is not the ends of the earth.

So, then, the ending of Acts leaves Paul in Rome without tying up loose ends with Paul because there was no further need to narrate the life of Paul as it pertains to his gospel ministry. True to the Lord’s word, Paul arrived in Rome so that he could testify to the things concerning the Lord Jesus there. With that promise fulfilled, the mission of the church was by no means complete but continuing to narrate the life of Paul would never bring this story to its fulfillment.

Why? Because the story of the body of Christ testifying to the things of Christ to the ends of the earth continues today. Acts could not be tied up in a neat bow because the story does not end until Christ comes again. From that perspective, Paul’s circumstances at the end of this book are better reflective of the life of the body of Christ beyond what has been narrated by Luke. Had Luke included Paul’s earthly vindication, we might be tempted to transfer that triumphant note from gospel proclamation to earthly vindication. But as it stands, it is the gospel that goes forth, in the end, without hindrance, whether Paul, or any follower of Christ for that matter, is in chains.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 750.

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