For some time now we have in our Oxbridge Bible Study nights been working our way through the Book of Acts.
As we have done so I have been repeatedly struck by the varying themes offered up to us by the writer Luke. Themes which run like scarlet threads through the book.
This work of sacred history is no mere catalogue of historical events recorded without any thought for the unity of the whole. Instead there is a deep consistency to be found in the material presented.
One important theme throughout the book is that of the Gospel on trial.
We see it from Jerusalem to Rome, from Philippi to Corinth, Athens to Caesarea.
From the Jewish Sanhedrin to mighty Caesar in the capital of the Empire itself, the Gospel’s messengers are displayed to us successively arraigned before a diverse array of human authorities in order that they might be judged.
“…you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)
However He had previously warned that this witnessing would take place under the constant threat of civil persecution,
“…they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake…do not worry about how or what you should speak for it will be given you in that hour what you should speak…”
In his Gospel Luke had detailed the varying trials of Christ on the night of His arrest in Jerusalem and had showed us how Jesus was vindicated in each of those encounters so that no one was able to bring an accusation against Him (Lk 22:54-23:25).
Now in Acts it is the Body of Christ depicted as being hauled from trial to trial, but like its Lord, always blameless, always vindicated, always victorious.
Sometimes the victory is seen in a Peter or a Paul demonstrating that mere prison chains cannot hold against the power of the Gospel; other times its triumph might be seen in a Stephen or a James faithfully dying for the cause.
But in all of these proceedings, beginning with the various arraignments before the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (ch 4-7), the Gospel will always be shown to have been exonerated, surviving every attempt to condemn it as a source of heresy, sedition or social unrest. In each case it will be shown that the only unrest actually stemmed from those who sought to oppose it!
As Acts unfolds the scene shifts from Jerusalem to the Gentile world and the trials continue. Philippi, Corinth, Caesarea- even in open-minded Athens is a trial of sorts.
And the book ends in Rome with Paul under house-arrest awaiting trial…and still defending the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some have suggested that Luke/Acts may have been written as a "brief" for Paul’s trial in Rome. In which case Theophilus, to whom both works are addressed, may have been Paul’s defence lawyer. Luke is therefore acquainting him with the facts of the Christian faith to help facilitate that defence.
In doing so he assiduously outlines Christian believers’ past encounters with officialdom. If the defence brief theory is valid (and I think it has much to recommend it) then we can well understand why Luke would expend so much ink especially describing the judgements of the varying Roman officials & soldiers which Christ and the apostles had met along the way (Lk 7:2-10; 23:1-4; 23:47; Acts 10:1-48; 13:6-12; 16:19-40; 18:12-16; 19:35-41; 21:31-40; 23:23-26:32).
Luke is showing the Roman authorities at the trial that the Gospel has already been tried by Rome- and repeatedly been found to be blameless. That whilst commotion and upheaval have frequently accompanied its proclamation those actually preaching the Good News were doing “nothing deserving of death or chains” (26:31).
Prior to his dispatch to Rome Paul had been held in Caesarea for two full years where he had many audiences with officialdom, beginning with Felix. Tacitus says of this man that “with all cruelty and lust he exercised the power of a king with the spirit of a slave.”
What a temptation for Paul to water down the Gospel!
What a motivation to deliver a “positive message,” as we are so often exhorted to do today.
But instead he speaks to his accuser of “righteousness, self-control and the judgement to come” (24:25).
Our page headings may entitle this “Paul before Felix” but in reality this was Felix before Paul! Whenever a blood-bought servant of Jesus Christ is put on trial & faithfully delivers the whole counsel of God to his accusers, then you may be certain that the spiritual reality actually belies the physical appearance in this way.
Why does the world put the Gospel on trial?
Surely it is because deep down the world knows that it is itself in the dock.
That it stands condemned before a holy God.
In reality the world knows that it ought to tremble like Felix.But like that sad man it puts off its repentance to "a more convenient time."
Looking at this theme in Acts allows us to see the tremendous relevance of Luke’s work to our own day. A day when the Gospel is beginning to be tried even in our own nation. A day when increasingly in this society it is mocked, ridiculed, hated and legislated against.
Acts serves as a template and a guidebook for Christian conduct before unfriendly authorities. Many are the lessons we can learn in this context...
Firstly it reminds us that whilst we “fear God & honour the King” (1 Pet 2:17), we are also aware of the propensity of the state to overstep the divinely ordained boundaries of its authority. It warns us that there can come a day when we must obey God rather than men (4:19-20).
Ultimately to secure his release from Caesarea Paul must appeal to Caesar.
We have seen Paul “flash the badge” of Roman citizenship before (16:35-39).
Interestingly in that Philippi context he does so after his release from prison has already been obtained. Why would he feel the need to do this after the crisis has passed?
We must not think that the apostle was merely wishing to “rub their noses in it.” Rather I would suggest that his thoughts were probably upon the next Christian evangelists who would roll into town. Having had their fingers burned once, the authorities might think twice before mistreating Christians in the future!
This teaches us that where a society provides freedoms and rights that will assist with the propagation of the Gospel then it is right and biblical for us to take advantage of them. Whether this be in the form of legal challenges in our own country or an appeal to Europe, it is right and biblical for us to resort to law to preserve the liberty to preach the Gospel as well as the freedom to freely associate together as believers. It is scriptural to appeal to Caesar where critical freedoms are at stake.
And so Acts ends in Rome with Paul in prison.
And after all the dramas over twenty-eight action-packed chapters the ending of the story might seem almost anti-climactic to us.
What happens to Paul? Does he escape or was he was martyred there and then?
Luke does not say.
Is Luke/Acts ultimately unfinished then? Did the writer intend a Part 3?
Or, as has sometimes been intriguingly suggested, perhaps Luke ended the story exactly where he intended to.
By leaving Paul in prison, his status unresolved, Luke may simply be telling us that the trial goes on. The apostle’s fate is never revealed because his trial signifies the ongoing trial of all believers.
For the Gospel will remain on trial throughout the present age.
Whether the judge be the religiosity of a Jewish Sanhedrin, the vain philosophies of an Athens or the iron fist of a Rome, the trial goes on!
But from that trial the Gospel of Jesus Christ will emerge: always blameless, always vindicated, always victorious,
Hence the duty in our coming days of difficulty will be to imitate Paul,
“preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no one forbidding…” (Acts 28:31).