A few years ago, I took Jenny to see the Coen brothers film, No Country For Old Men. I’ll keep quiet as I don’t want to spoil it, but I will tell you this: it finished so abruptly that Jen is still, to this day, annoyed about having to sit through the preceding two hours and three minutes of cinema. We like our loose ends tied up; we like people to live happily ever after.
And so it is with the end of Acts. For the last six-and-a-bit months we’ve been working our way forwards from the birth of Christ to the establishment of the early church. We’ve seen the sick healed, the dead restored to life, the worst of sinners blinded by God’s grace, and thousands upon thousands of people brought to faith in and through Jesus Christ. Yet there is a sense of anti-climax about the final act. Did Luke write a lost volume (Acts, part two)? Did he want to leave out the grizzly details of Paul’s death? Did he simply run out of paper? Or have we missed the point somehow?
From this passage, we see that Paul continues to advance the Kingdom of God, in spite of his circumstances. Paul is in chains – a citizen of Rome, a Jew, flanked by a Roman guard and under house arrest. He appeals to Caesar for his release, having been refused release by the Jews. In the meantime, the church that he is establishing, across many countries and seas, is seen as a “sect”. People everywhere talked against it. It had a bad reputation. And many did not believe.
Paul’s final words in Acts are a striking call-back to Jesus’ day: just as Jesus used Old Testament Scripture to highlight the chief priests’ hard-heartedness, so Paul uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to rebuke those who refused to be persuaded by the message of Christ. This provides us with a pointer as to why Acts ends as it does: Luke gives us a reminder that, whilst the Kingdom of God continues to grow, there are many who don’t believe.
And Luke paints a picture, at the end of Acts, whereby Paul is in prison, people everywhere are slandering the church, and even those in Paul’s presence are unconvinced. Yet Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”. What a testimony! Lord, may I be more welcoming towards others, even when my own resources of time and energy feel so limited. May I proclaim Your kingdom, even when so many people need you so much. May I teach others about You, so that they will come to know your Father heart for them. And may I do so with boldness, when I often feel so constricted by my own doubts and fears.
Maybe that’s why Acts ends the way it ends. The story of God’s church, His bride, was never wrapped up neatly, because God knew that His work wasn’t finished yet. Some time in December we’ll finally get to Revelation, the climax of God’s story, where… well, I won’t spoil the ending. But in the meantime, we have a commission to fulfil. We will be opposed, we will be slandered, and we will sometimes be disappointed. But we have such a precious message, and we are never alone.