When Acts Just Ends

The book of Acts, which concerns the early church, seems like this, especially as it nears its strange conclusion. Leaving Athens, fortunately, Paul was able to start churches in Corinth and Ephesus, and then he went to Troas. Unfortunately, while there in Troas, one night he went long preaching and a young man named Eutychus fell asleep, fell out of a window, and died. Fortunately, Paul restored him back to life. From Troas, Paul went next to Jerusalem, where, unfortunately, he was jailed. However, fortunately, this provided the opportunity for him to speak to several Roman leaders. Unfortunately, the Roman leaders ordered him to stand trial before Caesar. Fortunately, he got to leave jail by ship. Unfortunately, the ship wrecked. Fortunately, he survived and was washed ashore. Unfortunately, on shore he was bitten by a snake. Fortunately, it didn’t affect him. Unfortunately, upon arriving in Rome, he was put under house arrest. Then, guess what? The book of Acts just ends.

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his rented house and welcomed all who came to him and there he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught the Lord Christ, with all boldness and unhindered! (Acts 28:31-32)

You may agree or disagree, but for such a momentous book, this curtain drop feels a little light as a climactic scene. And it certainly leaves us with loose ends. First, what happened to everybody? What happened to Paul? Second, I wonder about the use of the term “unhindered” as the last word. Paul is under house arrest in Rome. Unhindered?

When I run into a perplexity like this in the Bible, I remember the story of the wise rabbi and his new students. The rabbi was teaching the Torah, and they were launching into the book of Genesis—about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. The rabbi didn’t get far before one of his students spoke up, asking, “Rabbi, did all this really happen?” To which the wise rabbi responded, “It’s what always happens.”

That is to say, perhaps Luke, the writer of Acts, is making a larger point. Maybe he’s telling us that this story is much bigger than just what happens to Paul; that rather, this is God’s story. Yes, Paul is in it, but it’s God’s story, and God’s story can’t be stopped or hindered. Ever. You can try, but what’s about to happen as the book of Acts concludes is what always happens when people try to chain up the gospel truth.

Luke’s ending to Acts acknowledges that, yes, for all the world it may have looked as if Paul’s chains hindered him from proclaiming the gospel—until you realize that we know Paul was wearing chains during this time under house arrest because he wrote a letter to his protege, Timothy, that said so: “. . . this is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained” (2 Tim 2:8-9). And Paul didn’t just write to Timothy. He wrote to everyone. To the Ephesians: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). To the Colossians: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). To the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). To the Galatians: “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal 6:9). And he wrote not just to them unhindered by distance but also to us across the ages, unhindered by time. What looked to human eyes like a hindrance or a limitation was God unleashing the gospel across both space and time.

What Luke is telling us is that when we nest our story inside of God’s, our story, which, especially in seasons like this one, seems like one of fortune and misfortune vying back and forth for ascendancy instead becomes a part of God’s larger story in which good always arises from bad, hope always emerges from despair, life always is reborn from death, and love eventually rolls over everything in its way. Because with God, it’s what always happens.

This post originally appeared in Let It Be Said We’ve Borne It Well: Following God in the Time of COVID-19 by Gregory Funderburk.

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