A good example of what nuance can be lost in a too free translation. I like the NIV for many reasons (I will never leave it because the annotations in my Bible would take years to bring over to another Bible and because there is not yet an English Bible I prefer to the NIV), but I don’t hesitate to say that it has its faults — as does any translation — and chief among them is its penchant for unnecessary [unnecessary in the sense that no great advance was made in the interests of clarity for the loss of precision] deviation from the more literal rendering. I have to be careful about my comments on the NIV because I do not want you to lose confidence in your Bibles, but, it is essential, also, that we remember that inspiration terminates on the autographs themselves, not on translations. The study of biblical languages will always remain crucial to the welfare of the church.
In this case, Luke’s word, which the NIV renders quite harmlessly as "islanders" doesn’t mean "islander" at all. It is the word "barbarian" which, in that time and context, primarily meant someone who didn’t speak Greek, though it may have also carried a connotation of rustic and uneducated. That conveys a picture. "Islander" does not.
It is interesting to see the great Apostle joining everyone else in picking up sticks. Lawrence of Arabia relates a similar case from his own experience. "When the fire grew hot a long black snake wound slowly out into our group; we must have gathered it, torpid, with the twigs." [In Bruce, ad loc.] It is now sometimes claimed that this must be a later legend as there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. But what was the case 2,000 years ago is another matter. That these folk thought the snake poisonous is good evidence that there were poisonous snakes at that time.
"Justice" is rightly capitalized. The Maltese were thinking of the goddess "Justice" who had not been outwitted by Paul’s escape from the storm. There is a Greek poem that tells exactly this tale, of a murderer who escaped from a storm at sea, was shipwrecked on the coast of Libya, but was killed by a viper. [Bruce, 522n]
You are aware of "snake-handlers," especially in American Appalachia, who prove their faith and the power of the Spirit by handling poisonous snakes without harm to themselves. You may remember that in the "long ending" of Mark there is a promise that the disciples would be able to do this ("they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all" Mk 16:18). In all likelihood, that text is based on this incident, rather than vice versa.
The following account of miracle working is very like similar accounts of Jesus’ ministry, the healing of one leading to many clamoring for healing.
A typical Maltese affliction; it came to be known as "Maltese fever."
It is striking that nothing is said about Paul preaching to them or about any of them becoming Christians as a result. It is doubtful that Paul would have ignored the opportunity, but it is perhaps quite possible that no one was converted. Miracles did not always have that effect, as we know from the gospels. Nevertheless, that makes even more striking the account of the miraculous. It is not offered here as preparation for conversions and these folk are not represented as becoming friends of the gospel. But they did not doubt that a supernatural event had occurred and they wanted a piece of that blessing. I say again, here is the biblical "bottom line." Do unbelievers think miracles are occurring? That is the true test.
An eyewitness touch.
Since the duration of the stay in Syracuse is not important to the story, it too is an eyewitness touch.
Why the seven day wait? No one knows.
News of Paul’s near arrival had reached Rome somehow. Two different groups of Christians came out to meet him. One came as far as the Forum of Appius, 43 miles from Rome, the other to Three Taverns, 33 miles from Rome. Grace gives this kind of appreciation for men of great importance to the kingdom of God. After having had a powerful gospel ministry in Bristol, England, Whitefield returned to that city four months later. He was still only 22 years of age. But "Multitudes came on foot to meet me, and many in coaches a mile [outside of] the City, and almost all saluted and blessed me as I went along the Street."
What is more interesting, for those of us brought up with teaching about "the rapture" is the terminology used here for Paul’s meeting these emissaries from the church in Rome. You know what "the rapture is." When I was a boy we were regaled with stories about it, though that is much less common now. There were Christian movies about it. How the Christians would suddenly disappear from the world, seven years before the second coming. You’ve seen the bumper sticker which reads something like, "If the rapture comes this car will be without a driver." I have a minister friend who knew people who never locked their door at night, but secured the door with a plank under the doorknob from the inside, for fear that, if the rapture occurred during the night, their children would not be able to get out of the house.
The NIV in good English reads "they came out…to meet us." Literally, however, it reads "…for a meeting with us…" which is the same as the phrase used in 1 Thess. 4:17 where the saints are said "to meet the Lord in the air" (lit. "for a meeting with the Lord in the air") which, in the theory of the pre-tribulation rapture, is followed by the Lord’s return to heaven — before actually reaching the earth — with the church in his train, to return to earth in final triumph seven years later, the seven years of the Great Tribulation.
But, this "meeting" in Acts 28 is just exactly what we would expect that meeting to be from other texts about the return of Christ. Nothing of a secret rapture, a near approach and then return to heaven, of Christians disappearing from the world so as to escape the Great Tribulation. No, the picture is of the church coming up out of the world to greet its approaching King and to form the entourage, the escort for Him as he comes on down to earth. Like the Christians from Rome, they came out of the city to greet Paul and to escort him on his journey onward to Rome. It is best to see the "rapture" in those terms, as simply one moment in the complex event we know as the second coming — the church meeting the Lord in the air to accompany him to earth. No seven years of separation is taught anywhere in the Bible that I can see or a second coming in two parts.
The end of the "we section." House arrest a not untypical procedure. He would most of the time have been bound to a soldier wrist to wrist (cf. v. 20).
Now, I want to reflect with you for a moment this evening on this vignette of the Christian life we have here in the verses we have read. We are so used to accounts like this that I don’t think we pay much attention to what it being conveyed. But, the fact is, we have here a marvelously suggestive and accurate picture of your life and mine as Christians.
It isn’t, I’m sure, the picture that one has in his mind when he is first converted to God. It wasn’t the picture, I’m sure, the disciples had in their minds, in the days following Pentecost when their assault on the unbelieving world around them produced a succession of triumphs.
What we have here, is what we find everywhere in the Bible and, still more, everywhere in our own experience. This strange mixture of light and darkness, power and weakness, victory and defeat, troubles and blessings. (We spoke of this from 1 Peter 1 the other Sunday morning, but it is so fundamental to a biblical "world view" that we can well afford to think about it again.)
Think of it. You have on the one side of this history:
— Paul’s immunity to snake bite (I wonder if it even left him with an itch where he had been bitten?); sends a chill! [Bruce Fiol’s story of krait! I would have lain in bed, with my eyes wide opened the rest of the night listening for the krait’s wife!]
— His miraculous healing power over various sicknesses;
— The enthusiastic greeting from the saints of the Roman church;
— The safe arrival at Rome after so many attempts had been made to kill him.
Now, all of us would love to live a life characterized by that kind of spiritual and physical success and triumph; that succession of victories over one’s enemies; that public acknowledgement of one’s greatness in the church. But, then, right alongside of all of that:
— A shipwreck that cast them ashore, minus all their possessions, to be cast upon the generosity of folk they did not know;
— Three months cooling one’s heels in Malta with no apparent success in ministry;
— When he arrived in Rome, he arrived as a prisoner — whatever his reputation among the Christians might be, he was a nobody to the Romans — and had to sit waiting for some time (actually two more years, so v. 30) before there was any action taken on his case.
And we can fill in the picture at great length in Paul’s case. We can speak of his "surpassing visions" (2 Cor. 12), on the one side, or his "wretchedness" and his "body of death" on the other (Rom. 7:14-25).
Now, we are familiar with this fact. If we stop and think about it, we can see the jumble of joys and sorrows in every Christian’s life. And we can certainly see that in our own.
I have been thinking these last days of a Christian man who died recently, a man to whom I owe a great deal and from whom I learned a great deal. His life was full of many choice blessings — he would have been the first to say it. Like Paul he was a man of wide influence; he had many admirers; he had accomplished a great deal in the course of his years. But, I know that he also carried with him some great burdens: his health, the spiritual condition of some of his children, among others.
When I was in seminary, everyone was speaking of the new paradigm in biblical theology. It was called various things: inaugurated eschatology, realized eschatology, the presence of the future, and so on. In every case, the point was that the Bible seemed to teach that the consummation was already with us in a proleptic form, a partial form in anticipation. As in John, where eternal life is something believers already have in this world — it is a condition of life here not just a future existence in another world –, so in Paul and the rest of the NT there was this inbreaking of the next world and its life and believers experienced it, if only in a partial way. The kingdom of God is both present and future — the same kingdom, the same reality, in varying degrees. (My objection to this pretty obvious conclusion is that it makes too much of a change at the time of the incarnation–ascension. The same was true from the beginning.)
Now, typical of scholarship, what was being trumpeted as a new discovery, was only what ordinary readers of the Bible had known for a long time. There was this "now-but-not-yet" character to Christian experience and the kingdom of God in the world. Believers already "see" God, they have experienced deliverance from bondage to sin and death, they achieve victory over the world, and so on. But, all of this happens in the context of an only partial fulfillment of the promises of the gospel. They don’t see God the way they will later, they don’t experience deliverance in that complete and perfect way they will some day, and their victories over the world, the flesh, and the Devil, are not complete and permanent as they one day will be. The Kingdom of God has really broken into this world, but it is not manifest as it someday will be.
And it is our calling to live as citizens of the kingdom of God as both a present and future reality. And it is a helpful way to look at our lives. We waffle between the two horizons of the kingdom of God: the present and the future.
When our eyes get fixed on the present we begin in many subtle ways to think and act as if this were the only kingdom of God there would ever be. We struggle with discouragement, with worldliness (because we have grown comfortable with the present), we relax our standards for our living because we grow used to the fact that we fall so far short of the law of God and the example of Christ.
On the other hand, when we think too much of the future, we grow careless of our living here for the opposite reason — we become used to thinking that nothing much will happen here, we will never get very far because it is later that we will be transformed –. We don’t struggle with discouragement as much as apathy because the kingdom of God in this world seems so nearly invisible to us as to be irrelevant to our daily lives.
In Paul you find a perfect blend of concentration both on the present and the future:
— "Who shall deliver me?" Thanks be to God, who gives the victory… By which he means, in the world to come. Our citizenship is in heaven…etc.
— "Forgetting what is behind, I press on to lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold of me…" Fight the good fight, run the race…
I think this is a large part of why the Christian life has been designed at it has. There is in it already enough of the future triumph to whet our appetites and keep us believing in the reality of the kingdom of God and of God’s presence with us in the world. But, there is also enough of this world as unreformed by the entrance of God’s kingdom to keep us working, serving, striving, longing for more, and, especially, to keep us looking to God for grace to help in time of need.
Day in, day out, it is for us to consider that we have encountered the reality of God’s kingdom, the breaking in of heaven and the hand of the living God — as Paul did on the island of Malta and then again in Rome with his living fellowship with saints he had never met before — and then, an instant later to remember that this kingdom, while present in one way and to a certain degree will not be consummated, will not be present in power and perfection until Christ comes again — which is why I find myself chained to this Roman soldier!
If we keep looking at our days and nights in these terms, we will get the most out of all that happens to us — a confidence in the Lord’s presence with us now and the present working of his kingdom in the world, and, with that, an eye always turned toward heaven and the fulfillment of all things. And, in the reverse, it is a good way of examining ourselves and the state of our lives at any moment. "Am I doubting the present reign of God, or am I doubting the future consummation? Am I failing to reckon with the fact that God is present and working now, in my heart and my midst — am I not believing and acting upon that reality? Or am I failing to reckon with the fact that soon this world and this life will be no more and all shall have been brought into the judgment of God and the saints made perfect in the life of boundless joy above?"
You will find, as I have, that it is always one thing or the other! And sometimes, alas, it is both at the same time! And we will not be where we should be as Christians, where Paul was, until we are entirely sure, at every moment, both that the God who made the heavens and the earth is at our right hand, doing his will in this world and bringing his salvation to pass for his people and that the day is coming very soon when this world and all that is in it shall pass away and God’s people shall be with him face to face, bathed in his glory, there to live for ever and ever. The man or woman who knows those two things and lives accordingly, is the man or woman who really lives the Christian life!
It is just this simple perspective on life that makes such a huge difference. And that is why the Bible continually is reminding us of it.