The Lord used this same citation in regard to the Jews in his own ministry (cf. Matt. 13:14-15; John 12:39-40).
This may be an indication that the case was allowed to be dropped for want of a prosecution (statute of limitations). Scholars generally doubt that the Jews would have continued with the case in Rome because they would have thought themselves unlikely to have any success.
The fact that Luke ends his narrative with the outcome of Paul’s case still undecided almost certainly indicates that when Luke had finished writing Acts Paul was still in Rome awaiting events. Had matters been concluded, Luke would have certainly reported the same. (That is why, by the way, the NT does not mention the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70: it hadn’t happened yet! One of the real improbabilities of the liberal reconstruction of the literary history of the NT!)
We know from other evidence that Paul did not remain in custody; in one way or another he obtained his release and his freedom of movement. Tradition records that he made it all the way to Spain, as he had told the Romans he had hopes of doing in his letter to them several years before [Clement says that he “reached the limit of the west” 5:1-7]. He also had further ministry in the area of his former work (Ephesus and Macedonia [so 1 Tim. 1], Crete [so Titus 1]). He was later arrested and imprisoned again in Rome and it was from there, a few years after this first Roman imprisonment (or house arrest) that he is found in Rome again writing his last letter, a real prisoner then (2 Tim.). It was in Rome that he was executed, as was Peter, both victims of the persecution of Christians under Nero (c. A.D. 64/65).
Two omissions in Luke’s account of Paul’s time in Rome have long been noticed. He says nothing about Paul’s relationship with the Christian church in Rome, a substantial church to which, of course, he had already written his greatest letter. We know that relationship must have been cordial and fruitful and we have a hint of that in v. 15. And, he says nothing about the course of the legal proceedings that had brought him to Rome in the first place. All the emphasis in this final paragraph falls instead on Paul’s relationship with the Jewish community in Rome. It has been pointed out that this final chapter of Acts (or its final paragraph) is not unlike the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke in its concentration or compression of the data. In Luke 24 one reads of the resurrection appearances and the Lord’s further dealings with his disciples up to the time of his ascension as if all of that happened in a day or two and in the environs of Jerusalem. Luke compressed the story to make his important theological points. There is no inaccuracy, he simply doesn’t take the time to tell the entire story. He hasn’t the space to say everything. He wants to finish with the important point. And so with his final paragraph of Acts. What is that point?
The fact that the entire last paragraph is taken up with the response of the Jews in Rome to the witness of Paul suggests that Luke wants to finish his history with the fact of Jewish rejection of the Gospel, linking up with the Lord’s prophecies of the Jews’ rejection of him and of divine judgment impending on account of their unbelief and to clear the way for an unrestricted Gentile mission by the church as a whole. That seems to be the burden of the last three verses of the book. If the Gospel was to go “first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles,” we are here told that the first stage was complete. The Jews had been evangelized first, before the Gentiles, throughout the history recorded in Acts, beginning with Pentecost Sunday itself, and always had been the first object of Paul’s attention in his evangelistic work. But by and large they had rejected the gospel, proven themselves active opponents of the gospel ministry, and persecutors of Christians. Here, at the capital of the empire, they prove themselves once more unwilling to receive the Messiah God had sent to them and Paul, one last time, as it were, dusts the dirt of his feet off against him.
That needs to be balanced, of course, with the strength of Paul’s feelings for his people, as we read of them in Rom. 9 (“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” 9:2-3 That is an extraordinarily powerful statement from someone who loved Christ and his salvation as passionately as Paul did!)
And, further, this rejection of Israel on Paul’s part needs to be balanced with his teaching in Romans 11 that God will return to his ancient people in the last day and save them. (“Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved…. they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” 11:25-26,31)
What a mystery the Jews are, as a people and as a history, unless you believe the Bible and reckon with the special place they have in the history of salvation and the special place they have in the mind and heart of God — both in judgment and in salvation. (“You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.” Amos 3:2)
Frederick the Great is supposed once to have asked his court chaplain, in a cynical tone, “Herr Professor, give me a proof of the Bible, but briefly, for I have little time.” The chaplain answered, “Majesty, the Jews!” Or think of the contempt that so many have had for them through the ages. Voltaire once asked, “Why should the world be made to rotate around the insignificant pimple of Jewry?” Why, indeed! Why should the holocaust be the defining event of the twentieth century? Why should a conflict with Israel at its center continue to be a great threat to world political stability? Why should anti-Semitism continue to be an issue in the modern world? Why should this ancient people, alone among all such peoples, not only preserve their race, but be restored to their ancient land, in our own time. Paul Johnson in Modern Times (485) notes that “Israel slipped into existence through a crack in the time continuum.” All of this is easy to explain, at least in the generality, if one believes the Bible and believes that all of this, in one way or another, is a demonstration of the fact that the Jews matter to God in a special, a unique way.
But, the specific lesson of the unbelief and rejection of the Jews is also and after all only one instance, albeit the most important instance, of a general fact that we encounter all the time as Christians and as witnesses for Christ in the world.
The story of Acts, as we have traced it from Jerusalem to Rome — and remember it begins with the Lord telling his disciples as he is taken from them that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the end of the world — is a story with two sides.
It is the story of acceptance, new life and salvation on the part of some and of rejection, hostility or indifference and loss on the part of others. It was so immediately in Jerusalem, it was so in Samaria, in Antioch, in the cities of Asia Minor, in Greece and now in Rome. And it was so not only among the Jews, but also among the Gentiles to whom the gospel came. And it has been so ever since and is so today.
Paul puts this another way in 2 Cor. 2:14-16.
“But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task.”
To be a gospel witness is not only to bring life to those who believe, it is, as well, to “ring the funeral bell of eternal loss” (Ed Clowney) in the ears of those who will not believe.
Our business is not to convert people. We cannot do that. God alone can change a heart or grant faith to folk who are by nature unbelievers. As William Gurnall writes in his classic The Christian in Complete Armour (vol. 2, 574),
“God never laid it upon thee to convert those he sends thee to. No; to publish the gospel is thy duty…. God judgeth not of his servants’ work by the success of their labour, but by their faithfulness to deliver his message.”
Some believe, many do not. Many remain children of their Father the Devil and enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18), as unbelievers are described in the New Testament. Indeed, I was arrested by this thought in reading recently in a new biography of John Henry Newman, the famous leader of the Oxford Movement, the Anglican priest and scholar, who converted to Rome in 1845 and, eventually, became a Cardinal. Newman, still in his Anglican period, was commenting on the relative failure of the gospel in the world. This is not what we are used to hearing, not what we are used to thinking. It is the furthest thing from the triumphalist rhetoric that we are treated to from mission organizations, from denominational offices, or from books touting the sure-fire success of some evangelistic approach or another. But, the more I thought about it, the more I had to accept the force of what Newman was saying.
“‘…Jesus spoke of the Gospel being preached, not chiefly as a means of converting, but as a witness against the world’. A realist would have to ask whether the world is not ‘as unbelieving now as when Christ came’, and whether Christians, ‘except a small remnant’, would not, like the Jews, reject Christ if he came again. In spite of all the good influences of Christianity, it has to be admitted that ‘the great multitude of men have to all appearance remained, in a spiritual point of view, no better than before’: the sad fact is that ‘Human nature remains what it was, though it has been baptized’. The ‘real triumph of the Gospel’ has been to raise up a comparatively few ‘specimens of faith and holiness, which without it are unknown and impossible’ — ‘It has laboured for the elect, and it has succeeded with them.’ Most Christians, on the other hand, ‘would go on almost as they do, neither much better nor much worse, if they believed Christianity to be a fable’…. For the ordinary person, ‘true religion’ has a monotonous ‘sameness’ and ‘plainness’, for ‘it is a weariness to the natural man to serve God humbly and in obscurity’. [Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, 99-100]
There is a sense in which that is not true, of course. The spread of the gospel to all the nations is a wonderful and marvelous thing. But think of the percent of Christians in the world and the percent of nominal Christians in the church.
The story of Acts has become the story of the church in the world, the history of the gospel as a savor of both life and death, of eyes being opened and remaining tightly shut and, if the truth be told, at least so far, of more eyes remaining shut than being opened. And the reason for that, as Paul’s quotation from Isa. 6 makes clear, is because the history of the church and the gospel in the world is the outworking of a divine decree and plan and purpose that has two sides to it, election and reprobation, the salvation of God’s elect and the judgment of the rest. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (That — Matt. 22:14 — in the context of the parable of the wedding banquet, a picture of gospel invitation and the response of those invited to the banquet of life.)
- It is entirely true that in the quotation (in v. 27) the fault for Israel’s unbelief is laid directly at her own door. Their heart has become hard and they have closed their eyes. Texts making that point could be multiplied.
- But, it is also clear, as the second half of v. 27 makes clear, and as the original text in Isa. 6:9-10 makes still clearer, Isaiah’s task was “to prevent them from hearing and being saved!” In the MT of Isaiah (Paul is quoting from the LXX) we read, “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” As a commentator on Isaiah puts it:
“Isaiah’s message and his task constitute, at first sight, the oddest commission ever given to a prophet: to tell people not to understand and to effect heart-hardening and spiritual blindness! There is, however, no way to evade the plain meaning of the verses.” [Wenham, Isaiah, 78]
In other words, God was preventing the salvation of these people as an act of divine judgment against them for their sin and unbelief.
But, of course, we are all sinners and unbelievers by nature. We have all offended against God’s truth and grace. Paul himself had done so in the most vicious and determined way. But God had saved him, but would not save the Jews as a whole. “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” “There is a remnant according to grace.”
There is no doubt that the Jews and all who reject the gospel have no one to blame but themselves for the judgment that will come upon them. But lying behind that judgment lies the counsel of God, to save some and harden others (as Paul puts it in Rom. 9).
Pascal wrote, “We understand nothing of the works of God, if we do not take as a principle that he has willed to blind some, and enlighten others.” [Pensees, p. 185, #565] Luke has remained faithful throughout his history to the doctrine of divine sovereignty in grace. “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” “The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message.” And many other statements. And now he ends his book with a confession that “salvation is of the Lord.” He was Paul’s true disciple, Luke was.
Are there difficulties here. Of course. Any doctrine that has so bitterly divided Christians from one another must have its difficulties. Is the teaching of the Bible clear nevertheless. Yes, it is clear, like it or not. God is working his purposes out, even in the salvation and damnation of men.
And what may we take away from this?
- Not to trifle with the gospel as if it were in our hands to be saved or not. “Seek the Lord while he may be found…” Look to him for salvation. If you feel that you must suspend your judgment until all of God’s ways are clear to you, then you will be last seen falling away into judgment still straining to untie some particular knot.
- Remember, even if you had reason to believe in advance that God was not going to save you (Lord Byron said that while Calvinism is true, he couldn’t accept it), you should still be glad that some were shown mercy, remembering that you would get nothing more nor less than you deserved, you were deprived of nothing, you got your due. But, of course, you have no such reason. If you are willing to believe that God is God, then turn to him and plead with him for grace you do not deserve. Did the Lord not say, “he who comes to me, I will never drive away”?
- And for those of us who are saved the sovereign grace of God and the fewness of those who are saved, should leave us amazed, trembling, breathless! Think about it!
- And, finally, in regard to those doubts, those concerns that are left when we walk away from this fact that God has made decisions about salvation that leave us baffled, confused, and worried. Why does he not save more? Why does he count one man’s sins against him and not another’s? The mystery of love.
But, remember this always. Would you not rather have this issue be decided by God, by the perfectly wise, just, and good God? Would you rather have these more terrible of decisions kept in his hands? Is it not a comfort and consolation to you that your heavenly Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who sent his son into the world to suffer and die for the salvation of his people, should be the one making the decision as to who will live and who will die? I don’t presume to be able to explain the counsel of the living God to you or to understand it myself. But it comforts me immensely to be able to say with such perfect confidence about this too: the Judge of all the earth does right!