Happily Ever After? Thoughts on the Ending of the Acts of the Apostles - Pt 1

Happily Ever After? Thoughts on the Ending of the Acts of the Apostles - Pt 1

The ending of the Acts of the Apostles has proven a puzzle, to say the least.[1]  In the fourth century, John Chrysostom asked, "But of [Paul's] affairs after the two years [i.e., of Acts 28:30], what say we? (The writer) leaves the hearer athirst for more: the heathen authors do the same (in their writings), for to know everything makes the reader dull and jaded." Chrysostom's reflections are perceptive. He recognizes that Luke has not given readers the ending to Acts that they may want. He also recognizes that Luke is no careless author. The ending of Acts is a work of craft.

One wishes that Chrysostom had said something more about how he thought Luke ended Acts. Even so, it is doubtful that such a pronouncement would have stemmed the tide of efforts to account for Luke's conclusion. In the last century or so, there have been three influential but unconvincing explanations. First, some have proposed that Luke intended to write a third volume. Either Luke never ended up writing this book, or the book has been lost to posterity. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence from the early church that Luke drafted such a work. Further, literary study of Luke and Acts has shown that these two volumes are a complete whole. Luke-Acts does not prompt the reader to look beyond Acts for their conclusion. 

Second, some have suggested that Luke, the sometime traveling companion of Paul, finished Acts while Paul was in Rome awaiting trial before Nero. Luke ends Acts as he does because he has no more information at his disposal to report. One problem with this explanation of Acts' ending is that all indications in Acts are that Paul will be acquitted of the charges against him (see 23:29, 25:25, 26:32). Furthermore, this explanation assumes that Luke was bound to report all the information that he had about Paul's circumstances. It is at least possible that Luke intentionally withheld the outcome of Paul's trial from his readers. 

Third, others have argued that Paul appeared before Nero, and was promptly sentenced and executed. Luke has withheld this information from his readers for fear of the damage that it might cause to the politically vulnerable Christian church. We have already registered one reason why this explanation is not persuasive. Luke's narrative suggests that Paul will be declared innocent in Nero's court. Furthermore, Luke has already devoted considerable space to the martyrdom of Stephen. Why would he then shrink from describing Paul's martyrdom, if in fact Paul had been martyred? 

Each of these positions expresses in its own way dissatisfaction with the ending that Luke has provided in Acts 28. It is not wrong, of course, to wonder what happened to Paul after his two years in Roman detention (Acts 28:30-31). But our curiosity should not get the better of us. The fact remains that Luke has provided an ending to Acts. We should do our best to understand that ending on the terms on which Luke has provided it. 

What, then, is Luke saying to us in the closing verses of Acts? What does he want us to understand about the ministry of the apostle Paul? He wants us to see that, with Paul's arrival in Rome, the apostle's mission is now complete. He also wants us to see that, with the completion of that mission, a once-for-all apostolic foundation has been laid. 

In Acts 28:17-31, Luke shows us that Paul's apostolic mission is complete. Luke's account of Paul's mission spans much of the latter half of Acts (Acts 13-28, esp. 13-20). In the course of that mission, Paul rises from Barnabas' junior colleague to a senior and veteran missionary. We also see Paul laboring in wider and wider spheres in the Eastern Mediterranean basin. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to see that activity grind to a halt in Acts 21-28. In these chapters, a sizable portion of the text of Acts, Paul is in captivity, his movements dictated by Roman officials. But Paul's captivity is not without meaning, as though it were the outcome of a random and unpredictable concourse of events. It is the way in which Jesus accomplishes his sovereign purpose to bring Paul to Rome (23:11, 27:24, cf. 19:21). 

When Paul arrives at Rome (28:14), Luke's trial narrative (Acts 21-28) has come to its intended conclusion. But how has Paul's mission as a whole come to its intended closure? One way Luke tells us that Paul's stay in Rome brings his mission to closure is through the detail that Paul stayed in Rome for "two whole years" (28:30). Luke has earlier told us that Paul's ministries in Corinth and Ephesus spanned a comparable period of time (18:11, 19:10). Paul's ministry in Rome, then, is no less full and profitable than his ministries in Corinth and Ephesus were. His tenure in Rome is a critical part of his missionary endeavors. 

Another indication of the closure of Paul's mission is Luke's documentation in Acts 28:17-31 of a number of similarities with Paul's ministry in Pisidian Antioch (13:16b-47). These two scenes serve as bookends for Luke's account of Paul's public ministry. The parallels between these two accounts suggest that Luke understood Paul's two years in Rome to be the formal conclusion of Paul's mission documented in Acts. What are some of these parallels? First, each account focuses upon Paul and the synagogue. Second, each account consists of two scenes, separate in time. In the second scene, more people gather to hear Paul than in the first scene (see 13:14-43, 13:44-48; 28:17-22, 28:23-29). Third, each account follows a similar pattern. Paul preaches, and that preaching is met with opposition. Paul then delivers what has been called a "parting announcement" and indicates that he will turn to the Gentiles. On each occasion, he justifies that turning to the Gentiles by an appeal to the prophet Isaiah. 

Paul's two years in Rome, then, represent the completion of the Pauline mission that Luke documents in Acts. This observation only accentuates the difficulty that many commentators have expressed about Luke's ending. What kind of open-ended closure has Luke given us? To answer that question, we need to turn to the second point Luke is making in these closing verses - with the completion of Paul's ministry a once-for-all apostolic foundation has been laid. 
 To be continued

Guy Prentiss Waters is the James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss. USA


[1] This and the subsequent article originated as my 2014 Convocation Address at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Miss., upon the occasion of my formal induction into the James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. Both articles are less technical and undocumented statements of my "With a Whimper or a Bang? Acts 28 and the Ending of Acts" Reformed Theological Review (forthcoming).