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8 December. Acts chapters 26-28
These final chapters of the book of Acts seem to modern readers to have a strange emphasis. There are nearly two whole chapters (27:1 – 28:16) covering Paul’s last journey from Jerusalem to Rome as a prisoner awaiting trial; and yet only the last two verses of the book cover his two years in the Eternal City: “He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (28:30-31). What it does not mention at all is Paul’s death, though it is usually assumed that at the end of the two years his appeal was heard and refused, and he was executed.
Going back to before his last journey, the two rulers who had interrogated him in Caesarea, Agrippa and Festus, had agreed that “this man could have been set free if he had not appealed to the emperor” (26:32). So should Paul have not made his appeal? He could, it seems, have saved his life and gone back to preaching in the eastern Mediterannean area.
But on the other hand, if he had not let himself be taken to Rome, with all the dangers that the journey involved, he would never have had the chance to preach to the Jews in Rome, and thereby establish the Church in Rome. A church which over the next few centuries so influenced the society in which it was situated that the Emperor was eventually converted, and which became the centre of the Christian faith in Western Europe. The Bishop of Rome, under his alternative title of Pope, is still the most influential Christian leader in the world. And all because Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to seek the Emperor’s final decision on his case, even although that decision seems to have gone against him.
Jesus once said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Paul understood this: his own life was sacrificed, but in a way that led to billions of people becoming followers of the Jesus who had appeared to him on that road to Damascus. From that moment on, his life had been devoted to Jesus, whether in good times or (more often) in difficult and dangerous circumstances. That unswerving devotion to a cause greater that one’s own comfort or even survival is a challenge to all of us who count ourselves as Christians: are we willing to suffer, as Paul did, for the faith, and for the sake of others who may come after us?