I’m not certain exactly how to summarise the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Luke did not write it precisely as a history, as we understand histories today, any more than he wrote his Gospel as a history. Rather, the Acts is his continuation of that Gospel demonstrating the ongoing abiding of Christ with His Church in the first years, as the Apostolic authority was erected in Jerusalem. But Luke was more concerned with Saint Paul, for they were companions in Paul’s travels, as documented in Acts, and he quickly moves in the narrative from the last escape of Saint Peter from the Jerusalem priests to the mission of Paul to the West. But let’s run through some highlights. We begin of course with Luke’s Ascension narrative.
“When He had said this, they saw Him lifted up, and a cloud caught Him away from their sight. And as they strained their eyes towards heaven, to watch His journey, all at once two men in white garments were standing at their side. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking heavenwards? He who has been taken from you into heaven, this same Jesus, will come back in the same fashion, just as you have watched Him going into heaven.’ Then, from the mountain which is called Olivet, they went back to Jerusalem; the distance from Jerusalem is not great, a sabbath day’s journey.”Acts of the Apostles, 1: 9-12
There still is a stone on Mount Olivet, east of Jerusalem, which is said to bear the imprint of Christ last foot-fall before that great leap that sent Him into the heavens. It is unfortunately now in the middle of a mosque. From this point, the Church now gathered around the Blessed Virgin, and awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Luke counts up the Apostles, who are at this point called no longer the Twelve, but the Eleven. For Judas, of course, is dead, and is now to be replaced, to restore the number of the Twelve.
“Coming in, they went up into the upper room where they dwelt, Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the brother of James. All these, with one mind, gave themselves up to prayer, together with Mary the mother of Jesus, and the rest of the women and his brethren. At this time, Peter stood up and spoke before all the brethren; a company of about a hundred and twenty were gathered there. Brethren, he said, there is a prophecy in scripture that must needs be fulfilled; that which the Holy Spirit made, by the lips of David, about Judas, who shewed the way to the men that arrested Jesus.”Acts of the Apostles, 1: 13-16
The first chapter ends with the appointment of Saint Matthias to replace Judas, and to form the twelfth foundation of the heavenly Jerusalem (that is, the Church). The second chapter is the great story of Pentecost, which we have been hearing in the last few weeks. On that first Pentecost, Saint Peter gave his first sermon and was already making Christian use of the Hebrew Bible, and especially Psalm 109(110), the great messianic psalm of King David.
“This man you have put to death; by God’s fixed design and foreknowledge, He was betrayed to you, and you, through the hands of sinful men, have cruelly murdered Him. But God raised Him up again, releasing Him from the pangs of death; it was impossible that death should have the mastery over Him. It is in His person that David says, ‘Always I can keep the Lord within sight; always he is at my right hand, to make me stand firm. So there is gladness in my heart, and rejoicing on my lips; my body, too, shall rest in confidence that thou wilt not leave my soul in the place of death, or allow thy faithful servant to see corruption. Thou hast shewn me the way of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness in thy presence.‘ My brethren, I can say this to you about the patriarch David without fear of contradiction, that he did die, and was buried, and his tomb is among us to this day. But he was a prophet, and he knew God had promised him on oath that he would set the sons of his body upon his throne; it was of the Christ he said, foreseeing His resurrection, that He was not left in the place of death, and that His body did not see corruption. God, then, has raised up this man, Jesus, from the dead; we are all witnesses of it. And now, exalted at God’s right hand, He has claimed from His Father His promise to bestow the Holy Spirit; and He has poured out that Spirit, as you can see and hear for yourselves. David never went up to heaven, and yet David has told us, ‘The Lord said to my Master, Sit on my right hand, while I make thy enemies a footstool under thy feet.’ Let it be known, then, beyond doubt, to all the house of Israel, that God has made Him Master and Christ, this Jesus Whom you crucified.”Acts of the Apostles, 2: 23-36
That short exhortation brought three thousand into the Church at once, as Luke happily records. These early Christians, at least for a while, lived a communal life that is best represented today by monasteries of monks and nuns. And miracles abounded, to confirm the claims made by the Apostles. Chapter three describes the first miracle of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint John, and Saint Peter’s following sermon, his second, in which he identifies Christ with the prophet Moses had mentioned centuries ago as one day replacing him (Moses) as a guide to the people.
“Repent, then, and turn back to Him, to have your sins effaced, against the day when the Lord sees fit to refresh our hearts. Then He will send out Jesus Christ, who has now been made known to you, but must have His dwelling-place in heaven until the time when all is restored anew, the time which God has spoken of by His holy prophets from the beginning. Thus, Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among your own brethren; to him, to every word of his, you must listen. It is ordained that everyone who will not listen to the voice of that prophet shall be lost to his people.‘“Acts of the Apostles, 3: 19-23
So, wasn’t it inevitable that the Temple priests would descend on these newly emboldened Apostles? Right on cue, in chapter four, the Sadducean priests arrive. As the Gospels told us, these Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and they could not abide the Christian preaching. The high-priest Caiaphas and his father-in-law, the chief-priest Annas, both of whom had condemned Christ appear once more now, to place the Apostles on trial. Saint Peter did not mince his words:
“On the next day, there was a gathering of the rulers and elders and scribes in Jerusalem; the high priest Annas was there, and Caiphas, and John, and Alexander, and all those who belonged to the high-priestly family. And they had Peter and John brought into their presence, and asked them, ‘By what power, in whose name, have such men as you done this?’ Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, and said to them, ‘Rulers of the people, elders of Israel, listen to me. If it is over kindness done to a cripple, and the means by which he has been restored, that we are called in question, here is news for you and for the whole people of Israel. You crucified Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, and God raised Him from the dead; it is through His name that this man stands before you restored. He is that stone, rejected by you, the builders, that has become the chief stone at the corner.‘”Acts of the Apostles, 4: 5-11
At this point, the Sadducees were merely surprised by the boldness of the Apostles and sent them away with a warning to stop their preaching in the City. The Apostles promptly convened and interpreted the situation as a fulfillment of Psalm 2 and prayed for strength to continue preaching:
“Now that they were set free, they went back to their company, and told them all the chief priests and elders had said. And they, when they heard it, uttered prayer to God with one accord; ‘Ruler of all, Thou art the maker of heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them. Thou hast said through Thy Holy Spirit, by the lips of Thy servant David, our father, What means this turmoil among the nations; why do the peoples cherish vain dreams? See how the kings of the earth stand in array, how its rulers make common cause, against the Lord and his Christ. True enough, in this city of ours, Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel to aid them, made common cause against Thy holy servant Jesus, so accomplishing all that Thy power and wisdom had decreed. Look down upon their threats, Lord, now as of old; enable Thy servants to preach Thy word confidently, by stretching out Thy hand to heal; and let signs and miracles be performed in the Name of Jesus, Thy holy Son.”Acts of the Apostles, 4: 23-30
The fourth chapter ends with the introduction to the Cypriot Joseph, whom the Apostles renamed Barnabas because of the great consolation he brought to the Church in Jerusalem. Saint Barnabas is of course very important to our diocese, for some at least of his relics are at our cathedral church in Nottingham. Chapter five tells us of the extraordinary power that attached itself to the person of Saint Peter, so that he could cause miracles to take place without even bending his mind to them. As took place with Christ Himself. The Old Testament already tells us of miracles worked through the physical presence of Saints like the prophet Eliseus (aka. Elisha) in both life and death, and this continued among the Apostles.
“And there were many signs and miracles done by the apostles before the people. They used to gather with one accord in Solomon’s porch. No one else dared to join them, although the people held them in high honour, and the number of those who believed in the Lord, both men and women, still increased; they even used to bring sick folk into the streets, and lay them down there on beds and pallets, in the hope that even the shadow of Peter, as he passed by, might fall upon one of them here and there, and so they would be healed of their infirmities. From neighbouring cities, too, the common people flocked to Jerusalem, bringing with them the sick and those who were troubled by unclean spirits; and all of them were cured.”Acts of the Apostles, 5: 12-16
All of this growth and activity now excited the envy of the Sadducean priesthood and they began to persecute the Church. They were at first restrained by the venerable sage Gamaliel at the end of chapter five, and merely scourged the Apostles and again forbade them to preach. They of course continued, and the Church grew further, causing the first organisational crisis, where the Apostles found themselves torn between the ministry of preaching and prayer and that of service to the community. They responded by ordaining the first deacons.
“So the Twelve called together the general body of the disciples, and said, ‘It is too much that we should have to forgo preaching God’s word, and bestow our care upon tables. Come then, brethren, you must find among you seven men who are well spoken of, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, for us to put in charge of this business, while we devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of preaching.’ This advice found favour with all the assembly; and they chose Stephen, a man who was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, who was a proselyte from Antioch. These they presented to the apostles, who laid their hands on them with prayer. By now the word of God was gaining influence, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly increasing; many of the priests had given their allegiance to the Faith.”Acts of the Apostles, 6: 2-6
I like that last line: it seems that some of the Sadducean priests became Christians, and certainly at least some of them would have been ordained by the Apostles for the Jerusalem Church. This would have created the wonderful circumstance of men who were simultaneously priests both of the Old Covenant and of the New! Chapter six and seven then tell of the great success of the ministry of Saint Stephen, one of the first deacons, and his arrest and long defence of himself before the Sanhedrin. He of course met the same fate as Christ had before him and in a similar way; but the end of his story introduces us to the great hero of the latter part of this book: the pharisee Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul.
“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, fastened his eyes on heaven, and saw there the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand; ‘I see heaven opening,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ Then they cried aloud, and put their fingers into their ears; with one accord they fell upon him, thrust him out of the city, and stoned him. And the witnesses put down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. Thus they stoned Stephen; he, meanwhile, was praying; ‘Lord Jesus,’ he said, ‘receive my spirit;’ and then, kneeling down, he cried aloud, ‘Lord, do not count this sin against them.’ And with that, he fell asleep in the Lord. Saul was one of those who gave their voices for his murder.“Acts of the Apostles, 7: 55-59
The murder of Saint Stephen was part of a greater persecution of the Church in Jerusalem and the Apostles now scattered across Judaea and Samaria, going further north and west. The greater part of the Church, the laity, went even further. Acts soon tells of nascent churches in Cyprus, Phoenice, Damascus and Antioch, in northern Syria. Before we are introduced further to Saint Paul, chapter eight tells us of the ministry of another of the first deacons, Philip, in Samaria. Philip was able to draw the people there to faith and baptise them, but called the Apostles up for Confirmation, because they were priests:
“Long misled by his sorceries, they continued to pay attention to him, until Philip came and preached to them about God’s kingdom. Then they found faith and were baptised, men and women alike, in the name of Jesus Christ; and Simon, who had found faith and been baptised with the rest, kept close to Philip’s side; he was astonished by the great miracles and signs he saw happening. And now the Apostles at Jerusalem, hearing that Samaria had received the word of God, sent Peter and John to visit them. So these two came down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, who had not, as yet, come down on any of them; they had received nothing so far except baptism in the Name of the Lord Jesus. Then the apostles began to lay their hands on them, so that the Holy Spirit was given them…”Acts of the Apostles, 8: 11-17
Philip has more success with beginning the Ethiopian church at the end of chapter eight, before retiring to Caesarea. Chapter nine presents the conversion story of Saint Paul, a great turning point in the eventual acceptance of non-Jewish believers into the Church. Paul had been a vicious persecutor of the Church, and he never forgot that, and it took the Apostles some time to trust him. His great intelligence, knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and enthusiasm was now turned to the advantage of the Church and it was long before the Christians had to send him away, in fear for his life.
“So he reached Jerusalem, where he tried to attach himself to the disciples; but they could not believe he was a true disciple, and all avoided his company. Whereupon Barnabas took him by the hand and brought him in to the apostles, telling them how, on his journey, he had seen the Lord and had speech with him, and how at Damascus he had spoken boldly in the Name of Jesus. So he came and went in their company at Jerusalem, and spoke boldly in the Name of the Lord. He preached, besides, to the Jews who talked Greek, and disputed with them, till they set about trying to take his life. As soon as they heard of this, the brethren took him down to Caesarea, and put him on his way to Tarsus.”Acts of the Apostles, 9: 26-30
This was only the beginning of the persecution of Paul by the Greek Jews of the diaspora. Paul himself was one of them, and his success in making Christians from among the Jewish communities of the diaspora led to continual plots against his life. While Paul was at Tarsus, Peter had his great vision and brought the first non-Jewish person into the Church, with his whole household. This was the centurion Cornelius who lived at Caesarea, and the story is told in chapter ten. This move by the Apostle was a dramatic one and would have to be defended repeatedly before the other Apostles and the Church in general could accept it, but it is the beginning for all of us non-Jewish Christians.
“And now the Apostles and brethren in Judaea were told how the word of God had been given to the Gentiles. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who held to the tradition of circumcision found fault with him; ‘Why didst thou pay a visit, they asked, to men who are uncircumcised, and eat with them?’ Whereupon Peter told them the story point by point from the beginning;”Acts of the Apostles, 11: 1-4
Chapter eleven now tells us that the Christians who had dispersed north and west of Jerusalem as a result of the persecutions had been busy spreading the word and creating small believing communities of both Jews and non-Jews (called Greeks here), but probably without priests in many places. The Apostles began to dispatch priests like Saint Barnabas north to bestow the Sacraments. Barnabas saw great promise in Antioch and went off to fetch the great fire of Saint Paul.
“Meanwhile, those who had been dispersed owing to the persecution that was raised over Stephen had travelled as far away as Phoenice and Cyprus and Antioch, without preaching the word to anyone except the Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they found their way to Antioch, spoke to the Greeks as well, preaching the Lord Jesus to them. And the Lord’s power went with them, so that a great number learned to believe, and turned to the Lord. The story of this came to the ears of the Church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas on a mission to Antioch. When he came there and saw what grace God was bestowing on them, he was full of joy, and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with steady purpose of heart, like the good man he was, full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith; a great multitude was thus won over to the Lord. He went on to Tarsus, to look for Saul, and when he found him, brought him back to Antioch. For a whole year after this they were made welcome in the Church there, teaching a great multitude. And Antioch was the first place in which the disciples were called Christians.“Acts of the Apostles, 11: 19-26
It was therefore at Antioch that non-Jews and non-Christians were able to distinguish the Church sufficiently from the Synagogue to give us a new name: Christian. The persecutions in Jerusalem continued however, and the first Apostle to fall was one of the Boanerges, Saint James son of Zebedee. Herod had a plan to execute Saint Peter also, but he was able to escape miraculously from prison and exits from our story, probably travelling north to Antioch, where tradition tells us he had his first bishopric. Chapter twelve, which tells this story, tells of the wretched end of Herod, who had had James killed. The narrative now shifts to Paul and Barnabas returning to Antioch, and then turning west. Their first voyage west begins in chapter thirteen: they went across to Cyprus and then up to Pamphylia (south-central Asia Minor) and further north to Antioch-in-Pisidia, then east towards Galatia, stopping at Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Their usual procedure was to begin at the local synagogue at each of these places, and then to preach openly in the public square. They tended to draw some Jews and many non-Jews into small Church communities, before being chased away with violence by other Jews from the synagogue, probably for blasphemy.
“On the following sabbath almost all the city had assembled to hear God’s word. The Jews, when they saw these crowds, were full of indignation, and began to argue blasphemously against all that Paul said. Whereupon Paul and Barnabas told them roundly, ‘We were bound to preach God’s word to you first; but now, since you reject it, since you declare yourselves unfit for eternal life, be it so; we will turn our thoughts to the Gentiles. This, after all, is the charge the Lord has given us, I have appointed thee to be a light for the Gentiles, that thou mayst bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ The Gentiles were rejoiced to hear this, and praised the word of the Lord; and they found faith, all those of them who were destined to eternal life. And the word of the Lord spread far and wide all through the country. But the Jews used influence with such women of fashion as worshipped the true God, and with the leading men in the city, setting on foot a persecution against Paul and Barnabas and driving them out of their territory; so they shook off the dust from their feet as they left them, and went on to Iconium. The disciples, meanwhile, were filled with rejoicing, and with the Holy Spirit.”Acts of the Apostles, 13: 44-52
Chapter fourteen has a bit of a humorous episode at Lystra, where the non-Jews took Barnabas for the Greek god Zeus/Jupiter and Paul for Hermes/Mercury, and tried to offer animal sacrifices to them. But the mission could be described as a success, for those nascent churches continued to grow and Paul himself continued to shepherd them through later visits and through letters sent to them, such as the letter to the Galatians that we have in our Bibles.
Chapter fifteen presents an ongoing problem in those early days that would have taken years to eliminate: the problem of Christians who were orthodox Jews and pharisees finding it difficult to mix socially with Christians who were non-Jews. Jewish Christians would arrive from Jerusalem to places like Antioch to find Christian communities that were majority non-Jewish, and would tell these non-Jewish Christians that they had to be judaised – that is, the men had to be circumcised and therefore formally inducted into the Jewish religion. This was a major doctrinal crisis, and the Apostles and priests now met in council at Jerusalem, their meeting chaired by the Apostle Saint James son of Alphaeus, who was the bishop of Jerusalem. Peter, Paul and Barnabas told of the greatest successes of their missions to the Gentiles and it was eventually decided that non-Jewish Christians would not have to be judaised. Now the word had to be sent around to all the new churches outside of the Holy Land.
“And they sent, by their hands, this message in writing; ‘To the Gentile brethren in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, their brethren the apostles and presbyters send greeting. We hear that some of our number who visited you have disquieted you by what they said, unsettling your consciences, although we had given them no such commission; and therefore, meeting together with common purpose of heart, we have resolved to send you chosen messengers, in company with our well-beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have staked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have given this commission to Judas and Silas, who will confirm the message by word of mouth. It is the Holy Spirit’s pleasure and ours that no burden should be laid upon you beyond these, which cannot be avoided; you are to abstain from what is sacrificed to idols, from blood-meat and meat which has been strangled, and from fornication. If you keep away from such things, you will have done your part. Farewell.'”Acts of the Apostles, 15: 23-29
Chapter fifteen ends with Paul desiring to visit his new churches in Pamphylia, Pisidia and Galatia, starting out with another Apostle called Silas. Newly in Galatia, Paul met at Lystra a young man called Timothy, who would remain a friend of his for the rest of his life. Timothy would eventually himself be ordained and become bishop of Ephesus. This time, Paul crossed over to mainland Greece, with Silas, Timothy and Luke, landing at Neapolis and carrying on to the Roman colony of Philippi (no synagogue). Here we discover one of the problems that Christianity brought to pagan societies: the new religion took away the professions of those profiting from superstition. There’s a longer description of a similar situation at Ephesus in chapter nineteen.
“And now, as we were on our way to the place of prayer, we chanced to meet a girl who was possessed by a divining spirit; her predictions brought in large profits to her masters. This girl used to follow behind Paul and the rest of us, crying out, ‘These men are the servants of the most high God; they are proclaiming to us the way of salvation.’ And when she had done this for a number of days, Paul was distressed by it; he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘I command thee to come out of her, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;’ and there and then it came out of her. Her masters, who saw that all their hopes of profit had vanished, took hold of Paul and Silas and dragged them off to justice in the market-place.”Acts of the Apostles, 16: 16-19
Being pushed around for no crime committed in a Roman city, Paul for the first time disclosed his Roman citizenship and set the local governors who had allowed him to be abused quivering with fear. Roman citizens had rights that had to be defended by Roman authorities. Chapter seventeen takes the four missionaries over to Thessalonica, where they started at the synagogue again and were again set upon by Jews from the synagogue and Paul and Silas had to be smuggled away to Beroea for protection. They were chased by Jews from Thessalonica and Paul went south with Luke to Athens and on to Corinth, leaving the others to catch up later. In Corinth, Paul was treated in the usual way by the synagogue, but the ruler was made of sterner material than Pontius Pilate.
“…when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a concerted attack on Paul, and dragged him before the judgement-seat. ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘is persuading men to worship God in a manner the law forbids.’ Paul was just opening his mouth to speak, when Gallio said to the Jews, ‘It would be only right for me to listen to you Jews with patience, if we had here some wrong done, or some malicious contrivance; but the questions you raise are a matter of words and names, of the law which holds good among yourselves. You must see to it; I have no mind to try such cases.’ And he drove them away from the judgement-seat. Thereupon there was a general onslaught upon Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, who was beaten before the judgement-seat; but all this caused Gallio no concern.”Acts of the Apostles, 18: 12-17
Paul ended this second great trip with a visit to Ephesus, where he had more success at the synagogue, before he returned to Antioch-in-Syria. This post is now long enough, so I’m not going to jump too far into the third journey. There are some touching little parts, which show Paul’s affectionate nature, and the return made to him by his new communities, and especially the local clergy, such as of Ephesus here:
“‘…I have never asked for silver or gold or clothing from any man; you will bear me out, that these hands of mine have sufficed for all that I and my companions needed. Always I have tried to shew you that it is our duty so to work, and be the support of the weak, remembering the words spoken by the Lord Jesus Himself, It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ When he had said this, he knelt down and prayed with them all. They all wept abundantly, and embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving most over what he had said about never seeing his face again. And so they escorted him to the ship.”Acts of the Apostles, 20: 33-38
Not only does this show that Paul determined to work and so support his own work, taking no funds from the churches, except as charity (second collections) to other parts of the Church in need, such as in Judaea, which was suffering a dreadful famine at the time. But he also provides here a saying of Christ that is not in any of the Gospels: It is better to give than to receive. Paul had made many enemies among the synagogues of Greece and Asia Minor because of his preaching of the Christian gospel. As he now approached Jerusalem and his first imprisonment and trial at Rome, he was constantly warned by Christian prophets that this imprisonment was imminent. Every Christian community tried to convince him to not go up to the Temple, but Paul was determined and took some precautions to keep a low profile. But he was well known and was inevitably lynched by a mob and had to be rescued by the Roman authority. Paul again used his Roman citizenship to acquire security against his Jewish accusers, even trying to mollify the mob by speaking in Aramaic/Hebrew, their own language (end of chapter twenty-one). But they could not tolerate the idea of non-Jews (Gentiles) in any form of Jewish church or community.
“‘…But, Lord, I said, it is within their own knowledge, how I used to imprison those who believed in thee, and scourge them in the synagogues; and when the blood of Stephen, thy martyr, was shed, I too stood by and gave my consent, and watched over the garments of those who slew him. And He said to me, Go on thy way; I mean to send thee on a distant errand, to the Gentiles.’ Up to this point, they listened to his speech; but then they cried aloud, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth; it is a disgrace that he should live.'”Acts of the Apostles, 22: 19-22
It’s a puzzling thing. The Hebrew Bible speaks repeatedly in the books of the prophets about the eventual ingress of the Gentiles into the promises originally made to Israel. But in the late Jewish period, all the Jewish authorities were concerned about was maintaining the status quo. So Caiaphas the high-priest had said of Christ that one man must die for the sake of the nation: that is, Christ must die to preserve the then current arrangement with the Romans. The Sadducees were determined to make an end of Paul, as they seemingly had of Christ, and the Romans of course did not know how to deal with this religious strife. When the tribune at Jerusalem heard of a planned murderous attack on this Roman citizen, he sent him to the procurator at Caesarea with a military escort.
“Then he summoned two of the centurions, and told them, ‘You are to have two hundred men from the cohort ready to march to Caesarea, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen; they will set out at the third hour of the night. And you must provide beasts, so that they can mount Paul and take him safely to the governor, Felix.’ (He was afraid that the Jews might seize on Paul and kill him; and that he himself might be falsely accused of taking a bribe from them.)”Acts of the Apostles, 23: 23-25
The procurator Felix had a prisoner and he would never be able to explain why Paul was imprisoned. Nevertheless, out of fear of the Jewish mob, he kept him imprisoned for two years, and handed the problem over to his successor, Porcius Festus. Festus, also trying to keep peace with the Jews, offered Paul the opportunity to be tried at Jerusalem, but Paul must have known that he would be killed there and, claiming innocence, declared that he would be tried by Caesar as a Roman citizen. Festus now had to find a way of describing Paul’s ‘offence,’ and he looked for assistance from the current Jewish prince, Herod Agrippa, who knew all about the Christian movement. Agrippa declared that Paul was innocent of any crime, but that he would have to go to Rome.
“‘…Dost thou believe the prophets, king Agrippa? I am well assured thou dost believe them.’ At this, Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Thou wouldst have me turn Christian with very little ado.’ ‘Why,’ said Paul, ‘it would be my prayer to God that, whether it were with much ado or little, both thou and all those who are listening to me to-day should become just such as I am, but for these chains.’ Then the king rose, and so did the governor, and Bernice, and all those who sat there with them. When they had retired, they said to one another, ‘This man is guilty of no fault that deserves death or imprisonment.’ And Agrippa said to Festus, ‘If he had not appealed to Caesar, this man might have been set at liberty.'”Acts of the Apostles, 26: 27-32
The rest of the book is of Paul’s sea journey west to Italy and Rome, with brief visits to Crete and Malta in the course of the stormy autumn weather on the Mediterranean. We end with Paul’s old procedure: start preaching to the Synagogue, have meagre success, and build the Church outside. We leave Paul in this his first imprisonment, awaiting trial at Rome. Tradition tells us that he was freed by the emperor Nero and enjoyed a few more years of active ministry before his second imprisonment and execution.
“So they made an appointment with him, and met him at his lodging in great numbers. And he bore his testimony and told them about the kingdom of God, trying to convince them from Moses and the prophets of What Jesus was, from dawn till dusk. Some were convinced by his words, others refused belief; and they took their leave still at variance among themselves, but not till Paul had spoken one last word, ‘It was a true utterance the Holy Spirit made to our fathers through the prophet Isaias: Go to this people, and tell them, You will listen and listen, but for you there is no understanding; you will watch and watch, but for you there is no perceiving. The heart of this people has become dull, their ears are slow to listen, and they keep their eyes shut, so that they may never see with those eyes, or hear with those ears, or understand with that heart, and turn back to me, and win healing from me. Take notice, then, that this message of salvation has been sent by God to the Gentiles, and they, at least, will listen to it.'”Acts of the Apostles, 28, 23-28
So there is the constant theme of the Acts of the Apostles, which is the theme of the Gospels: that the time of the Messiah had arrived and so the gates of Israel had been thrown open at last, and the promises of old had been made available to the Gentiles. The Apostles had to learn this, then they had to legislate for the Gentile Christians, and send out Apostolic letters to support missionaries to the Gentiles, like Paul, Barnabas and Silas. These men acquired eager coworkers among the Gentile communities, like Timothy and Lydia, and thus within a few years, the Church spread over the whole empire.