The third section of Acts, which is contained in chapters 13-21:15, records the ministry of God’s great apostle Paul. He went out to many places north and west of Israel and proclaimed the word of the gospel to many people, mostly Israelites, to whom those who went out proclaiming during the Great Scattering period had not reached. This ministry was first to Cyprus, Pisidia, Lycaonia, and Galatia, as we read of it in Acts 13-14. Then, Paul went to Macedonia, as we read in Acts 15-17. His ministry in Achaia follows in Acts 17-18. He carries the word to Asia in Acts 18-19. Then, this period ended with Paul’s journey to Jerusalem. He visited those of Asia one last time, and met with believers in many other towns on the road as he made his way to the city where God chose to place His name. Finally, he arrives there in Acts 21:15, and this ends the period of Acts that was concerned with Paul’s Ministry. Now in the remainder of Acts we will be seeing Paul in quite a different light, not as a herald of the gospel, but as a prisoner. For in this section we will see Paul arrested and imprisoned, and will read of his trials before various men or groups of men, and his travels as a prisoner, finally ending with his ministry at Rome. This is the fourth and final section of Acts, and we would call it “Paul’s Imprisonment and Trials.” We will study this fourth great period of the book of Acts and Paul’s Imprisionment and Trials in this study.
Now the record of the life and work of the apostle Paul really begins in earnest in chapter 13, although we do have several significant events in his life recorded prior to that, starting in chapter 7. Yet from 13 on, Paul is the central focus of the book, and with the one exception of 5 verses focused on Apollos in Acts 18:24-28, the book follows him exclusively from chapter 13 to the end. Yet the record in these 16 chapters divides quite obviously between the ministry portion in chapters 13-20 and the imprisonment and trials portion in Acts 21-28.
One obvious difference is just how detailed chapters 21-28 are. During Paul’s ministry, we have Paul’s entire work in some very important places briefly presented to us in a few verses. For example, his ministry in Thessalonica, a place to which he wrote two books, is covered in just 9 verses in Acts 17. Though Paul stayed in Corinth for close to two years, his time there is covered in just 18 verses in chapter 18. Yet when we come to Paul’s imprisonment and trials, we read in detail of each trial, and follow his exact movements and activities very closely. Things that would have been passed over in a verse or two in the ministry section can take an entire chapter here. The question we could ask is: “Why? Why is this section so different? Why is the entire ending section of the book of Acts so absorbed in the imprisonment and trials of the man Paul, rather than in something perhaps more important about the work God was doing at the time? Why was this the way God chose to conclude this great book of Acts?”
To answer these questions, I believe we have to try to get into the minds of those who were living in the many places in which Paul had labored during his ministry, and look at things from their perspective. Paul had come and ministered to them, and his topic had been the kingdom of God, as we read in Acts 20:25 in Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders.
25. And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more.
He proclaimed the kingdom of God in all these places, and the people in them must have known fairly accurately where Paul was. Yet then Paul leaves and heads to Jerusalem, and he more or less drops out of sight as far as the believers of the time were concerned. Consider some of the time elements given to us, first of all in Acts 24:27.
27. But after two years Porcius Festus succeeded Felix; and Felix, wanting to do the Jews a favor, left Paul bound.
So Paul was two years in prison in Caesarea, as is set forth in this passage. Then, he was sent to Rome, which journey covered around half a year. Then, we read in Acts 28:30 of another long time period.
30. Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him.
So this means that for well over four years, Paul was detained, and was out of sight as far as the people to whom he had ministered were concerned. During this time, as we know, a great change took place at Acts 28:28. The kingdom of God was delayed to a far-future time, and a new work, what we call the dispensation of the grace of God, began. It was God’s great pronouncement given through Paul in Acts 28:28 that brought about this great change.
28. “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!”
This great change, and the startling end to the Acts period miracles and powers that accompanied it, must have come as a great shock to those living and believing in Christ at the time. They really had believed that the kingdom of God might well come in their lifetimes, and the fact that it was not going to must have been hard for them to deal with. They must have been quite disappointed, and looking for someone to blame for the change.
A very convenient person to blame for the change would have been Paul. After all, it was through him that God had made the great pronouncement that ended His Acts period work. Moreover, Paul had made this pronouncement after he had been out of circulation and invisible for several years, and he was likewise invisible for several more. All they heard of him were several books written by him during this time, all of which contained very strange and different doctrine from those that Paul had written before the dispensational change. Suspicions could well have arisen in the minds of many. What was Paul doing all that time after he disappeared into the land of Israel and was not heard from? What caused him to make a pronouncement that to them appeared quite terrible, ending their hopes for the kingdom in their lifetime? What had caused him to change his teaching to the new and radical things he was teaching in books like Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians? No one knew for sure, but rumors must have abounded, and bad things must have been suggested by those with enmity against Paul. Even his friends must have wondered what was going on, and whether or not Paul’s new teaching really was from the Lord.
What was really needed at this point was an understanding of what went on while Paul was gone in Jerusalem and Rome, and the exact circumstances that led up to his making the great pronouncement in Acts 28:28 that led to the dispensational change. Then, it could be seen that Paul had not been doing something clandestine or formulating some new teaching on his own or otherwise apostatizing from the faith he had formerly proclaimed. To fulfill this need was no doubt one of the reasons the Lord through Luke had the record of Acts written down. Now, this last section of Acts focuses on this portion of Paul’s life and work, and answers these questions that his followers must have had. We learn exactly what was going on with Paul during these five years or so when he was out of sight of those he had ministered to. That seems to be the primary purpose of this fourth and final portion of Acts.
Now the first thing we learn in this final section of Acts is that Paul’s character was in question by the Jerusalem believers. We learn of this in Acts 21:20-21 from the Jerusalem elders.
20. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; 21. but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
In order to counteract this false report, they propose that Paul fulfill his Nazarite vow along with four other men they have with them who also have just finished a vow. Paul is not only to companion with them, but to pay for them to complete their vows. Since the Nazarite vow was accompanied by almost a “who’s who” of Old Testament sacrifices, this would mean that Paul would pay for these vows at no little expense. In other words, he would be putting his money where his mouth is to show that he still supports keeping the law.
Paul is carrying out this plan, and has come to the seventh day when the vow was to be completed, when his enemies accuse him unjustly when they find him in the temple.
27. Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28. crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29. (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)
Based upon this false assumption that Paul has defiled the temple, he is about to be stoned by an angry mob of zealous Israelites. However, he is rescued by the Roman soldiers, who hear that Jerusalem is in an uproar, and run down to dispel the mob. They wrongly assume Paul must be at fault, since he is the man everyone is mad against. However, they do at least save him from execution by arresting him. Yet they cannot determine why he has this crowd so angry against him. Paul pleads with the commander to be allowed to speak, and he is given permission. The crowd listens until he speaks one word they cannot stand to hear.
21. “Then He said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’”
22. And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!”
The thought that the nations would hear a message from God when they would not was so odious to the Jews of Jerusalem that they attempted once again to murder Paul. The Roman commander again rescues him. However, he is convinced once again that Paul must be guilty, and is going to have the truth beaten out of him. When Paul reveals he is a Roman, however, the commander must back off from his plan, knowing that Paul must be given the rights of a Roman citizen.
The commander is still intent on learning what Paul is charged with, and for this reason brings him before the Sanhedrin, as we learn in Acts 22:30.
30. The next day, because he wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them.
This plan does not work out so well for him, however, for the Holy Spirit has little interest in dealing with the Sanhedrin once it becomes clear they are not willing to listen to His messenger. Therefore, he has Paul disrupt the trial before the Sanhedrin with his words in Acts 23:6.
6. But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”
This quickly throws the Sadducees and the Pharisees into a great argument, and the commander is again forced to extricate Paul from the situation, as we read in verse 10.
10. Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.
At this point Paul’s enemies make a move, and certain of them plot to kill Paul, swearing an oath that they will not eat or drink until they have accomplished this goal. However, this plot becomes known to Paul’s nephew, who brings word to Paul, who then sends the young man to the commander. The commander quickly formulates a plan to save Paul from the plot, and to rid himself of the difficulty of the situation by turning him over to his superior, as we learn in Acts 23:23-24.
23. And he called for two centurions, saying, “Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; 24. and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor.”
This plan succeeds impressively, and Paul appears unmolested before Felix, the governor of Judea. Thus Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem is completed, and now his imprisonment in Caesarea and his trials there begin.
Caesarea was the home of the governor and capital of the Roman rulers of Israel at the time. It is here that Paul’s trial before Felix is conducted. The Jews are determined to win this round, as we learn from Acts 24:1.
1. Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul.
Yet in spite of bringing in an expert orator, the Jews are not able to overcome Paul, who speaks by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It quickly becomes clear to the governor that Paul is in the right. Felix does not seem overly concerned with justice, however, for when the trial is concluded, he puts off having to make a decision.
22. But when Felix heard these things, having more accurate knowledge of the Way, he adjourned the proceedings and said, “When Lysias the commander comes down, I will make a decision on your case.”
In the meantime, Felix has a private audience with Paul. He hears Paul’s message, and is afraid, as we learn from Acts 24:25.
25. Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, “Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.”
He is not willing to let the matter rest, however, as he is hoping for a bribe, as we learn from verse 26.
26. Meanwhile he also hoped that money would be given him by Paul, that he might release him. Therefore he sent for him more often and conversed with him.
Paul was not forthcoming with a bribe, however, and so justice gives way to Felix’s corruption, and Paul remains in prison, as we learn in verse 27.
27. But after two years Porcius Festus succeeded Felix; and Felix, wanting to do the Jews a favor, left Paul bound.
So things remain at an impasse for two years until Felix is removed as governor and Porcius Festus takes his place. The high priest and chief men of the Jews waste little time in trying to win their way against Paul with this new governor, as we learn from Acts 25:2.
2. Then the high priest and the chief men of the Jews informed him against Paul; and they petitioned him, 3. asking a favor against him, that he would summon him to Jerusalem—while they lay in ambush along the road to kill him.
Thankfully, Festus wants to prove that he will not be pushed around, and so insists on a trial at Caesarea. Once again Paul answers for himself against the elite of the Jews, but with the Lord on his side, his innocence is quickly apparent. Festus proves no less corrupt than his predecessor, however, as we learn from verse 9.
9. But Festus, wanting to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?”
Having proved his strength, Festus is now willing to do the Jews a favor at Paul’s expense. Paul well knows that he will be murdered before he ever arrives in Jerusalem, however, and so appeals to Caesar. Festus has little choice but to comply, since this was an appeal that every Roman citizen had the right to make.
At this point, King Agrippa II, the last of the Herods, arrives in Caesarea to welcome Festus, and the case of Paul is brought before him by Festus. Festus knows he will look foolish sending a prisoner to Rome with no legitimate charges against him to send along to explain his presence, and hopes Agrippa might know something that will get him out of his difficulty and ferret out some actual charges that he can lay against Paul. Agrippa, on the other hand, has heard of Paul, and is interested in hearing what he has to say, so an audience with Paul is set up before Festus, King Agrippa, his sister Bernice, and certain high officials of the city.
In Acts 26, Paul makes his case known to King Agrippa. Ultimately, his appeal to Agrippa on behalf of Jesus Christ falls on deaf ears, for Agrippa refuses to hear it. However, he is at least impressed with the fact that Paul is innocent, as he expresses it to Festus in Acts 26:32.
32. Then Agrippa said to Festus, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”
However, Paul has appealed to Caesar, and nothing can stop him from making that trip. Thus, in chapter 27, Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea draws to a close, and we read of his journey from Caesarea to Rome. However, this journey is fraught with peril, as the ship on which he travels is caught in a terrible storm, as we learn in Acts 27:14-15.
14. But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon. 15. So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive.
Things look grim for Paul and his companions, yet the Lord steps in, as we learn from Paul’s words of encouragement in Acts 27:21-26.
21. But after long abstinence from food, then Paul stood in the midst of them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss. 22. And now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23. For there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, 24. saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25. Therefore take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me. 26. However, we must run aground on a certain island.”
Paul’s inspired words come true, and they all are shipwrecked on an island. The island is Malta, as we learn from Acts 28:1.
1. Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta.
The islanders are kind to the victims of the shipwreck, but the danger is not over for Paul, as we learn from verse 3.
3. But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
However, God has not abandoned Paul, as we learn from verse 5.
5. But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.
Paul shows that he is still God’s apostle. First, he heals the father of Publius, the chief man of the island, from a deadly disease. Then, he heals the rest of the sick on the island, as we learn from Acts 28:9.
9. So when this was done, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed.
However, for all this, we have no word that Paul proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ on this island. This demonstrates that this period is still consistent with Paul’s Acts period ministry, for there were no Jews on the island. The gospel was to the Jew first at this time, and if there were no Jews in a place, then there would be no proclaiming of the gospel there.
Paul and his companions winter in the island, and once the stormy season is over, they continue to make their way to Rome, at last arriving there in Acts 28:16.
16. Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him.
Three days later, Paul calls the leaders of the Jews together and presents his case to them. They testify in Acts 28:21-22.
21. Then they said to him, “We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you.
So Paul’s imprisonment really is over as far as the Jews are concerned. He has arrived at Rome without charges, and there will be no accusers there against him. He still must appear before Caesar, having appealed to him, but that will now be more of a formality, rather than an actual trial. However, these Jewish leaders wish to hear from Paul about his beliefs, as we read in the next verse.
22. But we desire to hear from you what you think; for concerning this sect, we know that it is spoken against everywhere.”
Paul obliges them, and we read of the meeting he has with the great men among the Jews in Rome in Acts 28:23-24.
23. So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening. 24. And some were persuaded by the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved.
For a whole day Paul teaches these leading Jewish men in Rome. The result is that they are split down the middle, with some believing the things Paul said, and some disbelieving. This leads to Paul’s great pronouncement in Acts 28:25-28, which brings about the dispensational change.
25. So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: “The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, 26. saying,
‘Go to this people and say:
“Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand;
And seeing you will see, and not perceive;
27. For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.”’
28. “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!”
What is meant by this great pronouncement and what exactly its results were we will discuss in our actual exposition of the passage. However, these are the words that end God’s kingdom work and begin the dispensation of grace in which we live today. At these words, the Jewish leaders leave Paul, and he spends two further years in Rome, as we read in the last two verses of the book.
30. Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, 31. preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
During these two years, four letters are written by Paul: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Thus our record of his actions come to a close. All we can learn about his movements from this time on, we must gather from the books he wrote after this time.
So this is the final section of the book of Acts, which we have called “Paul’s Imprisonment and Trials.” During this time, Paul disappeared from among those to whom he ministered during the third section of Acts. The unexpected dispensational change that took place at Acts 28:28 must have made those Paul ministered to suspicious of what happened during these years he was out of their sight. This final section of Acts is partially to dispel those suspicions, and to show exactly what happened to Paul and what was going on when God gave him this momentous declaration that changed so much and set up the work God is doing today. This is what we learn from this final section of the book of Acts.