Acts finishes unfinished.
“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”
That’s it? No details of that time? No what happened to Paul afterward? Did the statute of limitations run out? Does he appear before Caesar? Was he freed? Executed?
Luke’s ending implies Acts’ story is meant to continu–fto be ongoing– generation after generation, century after century. We are “writing” the current chapter.
Dr. Gordon Fee suggests Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).
That was the story of Acts. First in Jerusalem through Peter. The Holy Spirit is mightily outpoured. Peter preached his Pentecost sermon. 3000 Jews from all over the Roman Empire (in Jerusalem for Passover) repent, believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Within months, that number grows to 5000. Almost immediately Jewish authorities turn hostile. But the gospel advances through the apostles’ preaching and the Holy Spirit’s signs and wonders.
Persecution intensifies. Stephen is martyred. Believers scatter from Jerusaleminto Judea and Samaria, gossiping the gospel wherever they go. Meanwhile, Saul of Tarsus, a young rabbi, has followers of “The Way” jailed. He travels to Damascus, Syria to drag wayward Jews back to Jerusalem and punishment. But on the road, the risen Christ appears, blinding him and converting him. From now on, he takes center stage in the Gospel’s forward-moving expansion.
But he is not alone. Peter finds himself led by the Spirit to a Gentile house. He preaches to Cornelius and his household, and the Spirit is poured out on them as at Pentecost. The Jewish Christian church is becoming Gentile–especially as persecuted believers scatter to Antioch, Syria and plant a strong Gentile church there. From Antioch, eventually the Spirit sends Saul (soon to be known as Paul) on three missionary journeys through western Asia and ultimately eastern Europe. At every step, Jews oppose. But at every step, as the Spirit empowers, the Gospel advances.
Finally, in the Jerusalem temple, a Jewish mob grabs Paul. His life is spared only because Roman troops rush in to restore peace. But he spends the next two-plus years imprisoned before being shipped to Rome to stand before Caesar. In Rome, in his own rented house, Paul is chained to rotating guards who repeatedly hear the gospel. Jews reject it. But Gentiles come to listen and be saved.
Acts ends without an ending. That will come only when Jesus does. The book, then, is not just history; it’s a paradigm for the church in every generation.
Again, as Dr. Fee writes, Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).
Historically the Gospel hasn’t advanced on a straight incline. Periods of expansion have been interrupted by periods of halting. That seems to be so in America now. Statistics are a mixed bag. I’ve read 8-10 studies. The Pew Research Center says in 2008, 80% of Americans considered themselves Christian. (Whether they were or not remains another story.) By 2017 that number fell to 75%. Evangelicals from 2007 to 2014 fell from 26.3% to 25.4% (Pew Research Center). Another study claims evangelicals have slightly increased. Another says, “Okay, church attendance is declining; but it’s really just clarifying who the real Christians are.”
The polls are dizzying. But I’ve deduced this: we Christians in America are probably declining a bit in number. But even if we’re holding steady, nothing in any research I’ve read suggests that the Gospel is not triumphantly and joyfully moving forward. In other words, if God intends the church in Acts to be roughly replicated in each generation, it’s not happening here and now.
So the non-ending end of Acts gives us something to pray for and work toward: a church through which the Gospel is triumphantly, joyfully moving forward with an expansion of the Gospel, despite opposition, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities.