The Ending of the Book of Acts and Writing Volume 3
Prof Paul Trebilco
Guest preacher Prof Paul Trebilco, head of the Dept of Theology at Otago University, gave this very scholarly interpretation of what was in Luke's mind in writing the "Acts of the Apostles." If Luke's Gospel is Vol 1, and the Acts is Vol 2, who is left to write Vol 3? Read the sermon to find out.
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; 28:23-31.
Endings matter! Whether it is of a Rugby game, a novel, or a movie.
Have you ever wondered why the Book of Acts ends as it does? The book has been following the Apostle Paul’s life through all sorts of dangers and challenges. He ends up in Rome under house arrest – he preaches in Rome and has some success, although some Jews are not convinced. And then we read:
Acts 28:30-1 He lived there 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. THE END
And … What happened next??? Was Paul released? Was he brought to trial before the emperor, convicted and martyred??? We are not told!! What a strange way to end.
Why on earth does Luke end this way? Perhaps he finished writing Acts while Paul was still in prison – that would be about 62 CE - and so this was as far as the story had got? This is unlikely – since Luke almost certainly wrote after 70 because he used Mark, and Mark was written around 70. … So Luke, writing in the 80s, intended to end here.
Why? Well, what is Acts about? The life of Paul? No. What is it about?
Most agree that Acts 1:8 is the theme – it’s a programmatic statement, a crucial verse: The words of the risen Jesus:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts is not a general history of the early Church – it’s not everything Luke knows about the history of early Christianity; it is too limited for that, there’s too much left out. Rather it is the development, the working out of Acts 1:8.
So it’s about the Holy Spirit coming upon them – Acts has been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit – we have Pentecost, and Peter full of the Spirit addressing the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8), and the Spirit falling on the new believers in Samaria; the Spirit forbidding Paul to go to some places, and then guiding him to others. The Spirit is mentioned 59 times in Acts
And the book of Acts is about being witnesses - witnesses to Jesus (you will be my witnesses) – think of Stephen, and Peter, and Paul.
Witnessing is a forbidding word, isn’t it. But in Acts it is simply telling a story – the story of Jesus, the story of how Jesus has changed someone’s life, changed a whole community.
And it is about being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria
.. to the ends of the earth.
So Luke tells this story – Jerusalem first, then they go to Samaria and then the Gospel expands. Does it reach the ends of the earth? Where are the ends of the earth?
From a Greco-Roman perspective, Rome was the Centre of the earth.
In Luke 2:1-2 we read of a decree going out from the Emperor Augustus in Rome – to “the whole inhabited world”. Rome was the centre.
But for either Jews or Romans or Greeks, the world extends far beyond Rome! To the rest of Europe, to Spain and onwards to Britannia.
The earth is seen as a flat disc – with sides.
The ends of the earth is the ends of the earth!! In Acts 2:9-11 in connection with Pentecost we have mention of Ethiopia and Cyrenaica and Parthia – they know these far-away places and the Gospel hasn’t reached these places yet! The ends of the earth is the whole of the inhabited world – the ultimate limits of civilisation!
So why does it end in Rome? Endings matters - why end in Rome?
The story is not complete! Acts 1:8 is not fulfilled with Paul’s arrival in Rome. Witness is to be to the ends of the earth – this is a target beyond Rome, which is not reached in Acts.
So where are the ends of the earth?? For Luke – probably Spain and Britain in the West – where the Celts were, Scythia in the North, India in the East, and Ethiopia in the South (Scott, p527)
And of course from our perspective – and we may suggest from God’s perspective – its us!!
But the crucial point is that the ending of Acts is a non-Ending. It is not an ending at all!! Why not?
Because Luke intended a Volume 3. Not one that he would write – but one that the Holy Spirit would write in the life of the church.
Like a movie where the movie writer ends with a sequel in mind.
Lord of the Rings! Harry Potter!! or Pirates of the Carribean
BUT in this case, Luke is not going to write Volume 3 – rather the Holy Spirit will with future Christians as actors!
Just to give you another indication that Luke intended to give an open-ended ending – note the following:
Acts 28:30-31 Paul lived there 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.
This is a progress report – a kind of summary. There are a whole range of other summaries in Acts. Note:
Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers
This is a summary – and leads into the account of Peter in Lydda and Joppa and of Cornelius and the gospel going to Gentiles.
Or take Acts 16:5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.
This again is a summary – and leads straight into Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia, and into his ministry in Philippi.
(OR Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20)
So all the summaries in Acts, mark a transition from one period of witness to the next. Summaries are followed by new phases of mission. Similarly, at the end. Luke writes a summary at the end of Acts so that it can be followed by an account of the spread of the Gospel in a new phase, or into a new region. But in this case, Luke doesn’t give the account – he expects the reader to have a part in writing the new story – to write Volume 3! Although the book has ended, the story has not! Luke finishes with the subliminal message – “to be continued”! The open-ended ending tells us that.
We as readers are to finish the story! We continue the writing! It is to include the readers in the continuing task of spreading the word. It challenges us to press on with the unfinished task! The way Luke ends makes that crystal clear.
A triptych! A trilogy
But what are the contents of Volume 3?
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The power of the Spirit at work in the Church and the world.
And being witnesses.
But there is also another way to look at the contents of volume 3. A three volume work will have connections between the volumes – themes that recur, echoes, parallels from one to the other. Think of the Lord of the Rings.
Its crucial to see the parallels between Volume 1 – Luke’s Gospel, and Volume 2 – Acts. For these very same parallels are to be continued in Volume 3.
So what are the parallels between volume 1 and 2? between Luke and Acts? Connections, themes, that recur, echoes and parallels.
Here are some thoughts about recurring themes:
- the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus, Peter and Paul
- parallel miracles – Jesus – Peter – Paul.
- the on-going preaching of the Word, and the on-going progress of the Word (4:31; 8:14, 25; 11:1; 13:5, 7, 44, 46, 48; 16:32; 17:13; 18:4)
- the theme of the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3, 6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31)
- journeys, not settling down!
- the importance of community, and of being together as disciples.
- the Christian life is one of suffering. It involves trials, imprisonment – and even death. In this the Christian is following Christ. The life of the Christian and of the Church is an imitation of Christ.
- despite the worst that can happen, the threats of Jews and Greeks, ordinary people and rulers - God’s word makes progress, spreads and triumphs.
I like the big picture … the full story – the over-arching narrative that Luke portrays! Here is a grand movie sequence – where we are actors in the sequel!!! A huge story in which we have a part, a panoramic vision. We become authors of the story of the progress of God’s word.
Luke wrote a 2-Volume work
The story of Jesus is not complete – the story of Jesus calls for, demands a volume 2 – which Luke accordingly writes! “Luke recognised that the story of Jesus was incomplete – it pointed forward to and demanded the church”. The story of Jesus does not stand alone – it demands, calls for the ongoing story of those who will follow Jesus. The life of the church – the ongoing life – necessarily develops out of the Jesus story!
And just as the story of Jesus called for a Volume 2 – so it calls for a volume 3 – and a very long Volume 3! The way Luke ends Acts makes this clear.
Volume 3 is a story that echoes the story of Jesus, a story similarly empowered by the Spirit, to be witnesses to Jesus to the ends of the earth. A story where we live out the reality that despite the worst that can happen, God’s word progresses, God’s power sets people free, God’s love transforms communities.
May we be faithful writers of Volume 3!