How the Story Ends
Throughout Acts, the church has both grown and been opposed. Today we experience the same dynamic, but how does the story end? In the end, Jesus wins. The gospel of the kingdom will prevail among all nations.
Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Darrell Bock
Last October we began preaching through the book of Acts on Sunday mornings, and today we come to the end. The book began with 120 total Christians, all from the same ethnic group. Since then there have been kind of two things happening in parallel throughout the story. On the one hand, the gospel, the good news at the center of Christianity, has gone forth, people have been converted from different ethnic groups, and those groups have been brought together in assemblies called churches, so that by the end there are multiple churches in different places made up of different peoples, with the total number of Christians now in the tens of thousands. At the same time, there’s been opposition. Christians have been threatened, beaten, publicly shamed, falsely accused, imprisoned, and even executed for their faith. As the story comes to a close today, the most visible Christian leader is still imprisoned. We see a similar phenomenon of growth and opposition today: Christianity is blowing up in Asia, Africa, and South America, and even in what most consider a secular city like Philadelphia, churches like ours have recently been planted and grown, while at the same time Christians are killed for their faith throughout the world, and here we feel the pressure to reject the trustworthiness of the Bible, especially its teaching on gender and sexuality. So how does the story end? Obviously the last chapter of Acts will show us how the story of the book of Acts ends, but it also gives us a preview of how the whole story ends, and here’s what it shows us: The gospel of the kingdom will prevail among all nations. Jesus wins, and it shows us three ways how He wins. The gospel of the kingdom will prevail among all nations through faithful witnesses, clear witnesses, and bold witnesses.
Paul has now arrived in Rome, and after three days we read in verse 17 that he called together the local leaders of the Jews. This has been Paul’s pattern throughout his ministry: When he arrives in a new place, he goes to the Jews first. After all, the message he is proclaiming is, as he describes it in verse 20, “the hope of Israel.” So once again, he goes faithfully to the Israelites living in Rome. That said, he’s not had a great track record thus far sharing the hope of Israel with Israelites. Nonetheless, despite the prior opposition, the lack of success as we might think of it in reaching out to Jews, and the threat of future opposition, Paul goes to them first. He’s still trying to win them! He wants them to embrace the hope of Israel.
So he gets his chance and verse 23 tells us from morning to evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced, but others disbelieved. Responding to those who disagreed, Paul referenced Isaiah’s prophecy that the people of Israel would hear and not understand, see and not perceive. In other words, Paul, like Isaiah, faithfully carried out his ministry to the Jews, taught them the gospel with the aim to persuade, only to face consistent rejection for it. And yet, we don’t find Paul complaining. We don’t find him wavering. He’s not saying, “Man, why did I keep wasting my time on these people?” because he was faithful the ministry the Lord gave him, and that’s what mattered. He doesn’t even give up now, but expresses hope for the future that the Gentiles will listen in verse 28, and the book ends with him still preaching the gospel without hindrance. Despite all the suffering he went through throughout the book of Acts, he’s still going when we come to the end. The life of a Christian witness is a marathon, not a sprint. And if you’ve been a Christian for more than 5 years, you’ve probably been a Christian long enough to see people who start the course, but then don’t finish.
There are a number of reasons for this, but one is when we define success wrongly. If you define success as the number of converts you win, what happens when you go to share the gospel with someone and they don’t believe? You aren’t going to keep doing that very long. But if success is not actually measured by the number of converts you win, but by your faithfulness to the life God has assigned you, you can remain faithful to the end, even if the Lord calls you to a people, like he did Isaiah and Paul, who will overwhelmingly reject and even oppose the gospel message. Focus your energy on faithfulness to God’s mission. Don’t get caught up in the winds of success, popularity, and coolness. That’s how you persevere faithfully to the end.
John Piper is a pastor in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, one of the rougher neighborhoods in Minneapolis. He chose to live there simply because it’s where his church gathered, and over the now about 40 years he’s lived there, hundreds of others from his church have chosen to locate there. Their neighborhood was the object of a lot of the rioting taking place in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Faced with the injustice of Floyd’s murder and the subsequent riots, Piper realized after 40 years of being there that there was still so much sin and suffering in the neighborhood that he hadn’t solved. And yet, in an article published on The Gospel Coalition this week, they recount various things they have seen God do along the way, neighbors who have been helped, and most of all, how the gospel has been proclaimed through that time and along the way, people have come to glorify God for the first time as converts and to glorify Him together as a church in that community. Reflecting on it, Piper said this, “Your job is to be there, love people, declare the truth, and give a reason for the hope in you. My job is faithfulness. God’s is fruitfulness. We want fruit. But staying in the city does not depend on it.” Don’t let your faithfulness depend on your fruitfulness. Be faithful, and God will take care of the fruit. The gospel of the kingdom will prevail among all nations through faithfulness witnesses, and next, through clear witnesses.
Verse 23 tells us that when Paul had an opportunity to speak, he expounded to them from morning to evening, and in so doing he testified to a specific message: The kingdom of God, and trying to convince them about Jesus from both the law of Moses and the prophets. Paul was clear on what he wanted to talk to them about, and in fact he so desired that it be clear to them that he spent a whole day expounding it. So again in verse 31 what’s the description we read of what Paul is doing? Proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, what I’d summarize as “the gospel of the kingdom”. All the way throughout Acts, he has one clear message about the kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He often puts it in different ways, but the essential content is the same. We too, then, should be clear and consistent on what the gospel of the kingdom is, and what it is we want to convince people to believe.
The gospel of the kingdom begins with God, the good, wise, and just King creating all things and creating humans with the unique role of both living as God’s subjects, and ruling in His image on earth. So we were created to happily submit to God’s loving authority, and to rule the earth with the goodness, wisdom, and justice of God. However, we have all rejected God’s loving rule and set ourselves up as enemies of the kingdom of God, preferring instead to build and protect our own power to use for selfish ends. So there is idolatry, false gods we worship instead of worshipping the true God, there is injustice, oppression of other humans in service of our own kingdom and glory, and there is a constant power struggle between humans. As rebels against God the just king, we are therefore deserving of His judgment.
But God chose a people from the divided peoples of the earth, Israel, and committed Himself to bless them rather than curse them, so that through them all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. In response, He called them to turn from their rebellion and once again live under His loving rule as their king. However even they ultimately rejected God as their king, and so God sent them into exile under a foreign king who ruled them harshly and destroyed their land. And yet God also promised to come down, forgive them, and rule them once again. He promised that the rule of His anointed King would not only be over Israel, but over all the peoples of the earth, so that His kingdom would finally be realized in all the earth.
Paul’s announcement, then, the gospel of the kingdom we proclaim, is that God has in fact done this in Jesus Christ. In Him God became human, announced that kingdom of God was at hand, and called people to repent and believe that good news. In His ministry on earth, alongside proclaiming this gospel of the kingdom, Jesus displayed the kingdom through His works: Giving sight to the blind, healing the sick, driving out demons, rising the dead, and most impressively of all, forgiving sin. And as we’ve always done, the humanity of that day rebelled against Him and ultimately crucified Him. But rather than execute the judgment on us that we deserved, at that moment He took the judgment for us and was executed in our place! On the cross the true king took the place of His rebellious subjects and suffered the curse on sin that His own justice required. Then He rose from the dead and was exalted to the right hand of God, the position, the throne, of the true king, finally and forever. From heaven He sent His Holy Spirit to enact His reign on earth in the hearts of people, so that whoever believes is forgiven of their sins against the king, brought into His kingdom people, and given an inheritance in His kingdom forever. We look forward now to the day that is coming when God will judge the world in righteousness through King Jesus and restore all things.
That’s the gospel of the kingdom. Every time Paul proclaimed it, every time I’ve proclaimed it, and every time you proclaim it, your words will probably be slightly different, but the substance should be clear: God is the rightful King over all the earth, He created us in His image but we have rebelled against Him, so He’s become a human in Jesus Christ to die and rise again for our salvation, so that all who respond to Jesus with repentance and faith are forgiven of their sins and brought back into God’s kingdom forever. Turn from your rebellion, trust Jesus, and happily submit to His rule. That’s what we have to be clear on.
You ought to be a kind and loving person because that’s what Jesus is like, but just being kind and loving doesn’t proclaim this message clearly. And if you don’t proclaim this message clearly, you aren’t much like Jesus. There are a lot of other good, valuable things to talk about: We can talk about sports, weather, COVID-19, sexual ethics, justice, politics, philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and share our life stories, all very valuable, all things I myself often do, but none of which necessarily communicate the gospel of the kingdom and convince people about Jesus.
And I praise God because I know many of you want to talk to others about the gospel of the kingdom, but you do feel this struggle with clarity. A few suggestions: First, pray. One of the things Paul himself prayed for was that God would enable him to proclaim the gospel clearly. You’d be amazed how in the moment God can just give you words and you don’t even know where they came from if you’re just prayerful and available to the opportunities He brings. Second, immerse yourself in the gospel. Read your Bible a lot. Read good books, especially books that help you understand the Bible’s story better, like Biblical Theology, a short book by two guys named Roark and Cline. Read through the New City Catechism; download the app, listen to the songs with your kids. On that note, listen to music that is saturated with the gospel: Hymns, worship music, Christian rap. For example, check out some of Shai Linne, a local Philly guy’s rap music, and I guarantee your understanding of the gospel will grow. Swap out one of your tech podcasts for a John Onwuchekwa or Tim Keller sermon. Get around other Christians as much as possible through Citygroup, Discipleship Group, or any other means, and talk about the gospel. The more you’re hearing it, the better you’ll be able to communicate it. And third, final suggestion: Practice. Just start trying to talk about it. And that brings us to our third point: The gospel of the kingdom will prevail among all nations through bold witnesses.
Where our passage and the book of Acts ends in verse 31 we read that Paul was proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, which we just talked about, but then we get this description of the manner in which he was doing it: He was doing it with all boldness and without hindrance. Now remember, this is a guy who was in fact hindered in many ways throughout his ministry, as was the rest of the church: Threatened, beaten, falsely accused, and now imprisoned. And yet at every turn, in the end, the gospel prevails, and here, at the end of the story, we find Paul now preaching without hindrance and with all boldness.
People have often wondered throughout the centuries of the church why the book of Acts ends in this way. It seems abrupt, doesn’t it? All this time we’ve been waiting for Paul to get before Rome to appear before Caesar, and then Luke never tells us the story of Paul before Caesar. The book of Acts began with Jesus saying the apostles would be His witnesses to the end of the earth, but Rome doesn’t seem to be the end of the earth. What’s going on?
A couple things. One, while Rome is not the end of the earth, at this time of the Roman Empire, Rome was the gateway to the end of the earth. We could say it represents the end of the earth, so by the gospel getting there and being proclaimed with boldness and without hindrance, Luke is showing us what the gospel is going to do among all nations. Especially significant in that regard is Paul’s final encounter with the Jews ending with these words in verse 28: “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” To a Jew, the Gentiles represent the nations of the earth, so Paul is not only saying here that all the nations will hear the gospel, but that all nations will listen. That doesn’t mean every individual will be saved, but it does mean people from every people group of the earth will be saved. God will save a people for Himself from all the peoples of the earth.
And the book ends this way to indicate to us that such a work did not end with Paul. Some of you know we’re part of a church planting network called Acts 29. It gets its name from this idea: There are 28 chapters in Acts, and it ends with a mission that is sure to be completed, but that isn’t yet completed at that time. It is that mission we as the church are still on, to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to all the peoples of the earth. And we too are opposed in many ways. So where do we get the boldness to remain faithful to the mission in our day?
We get it from the same place Paul did. We get it from Jesus Himself. If He is your King, who died for you to make you His own, who cares what people think of you? They don’t rule you; He does. You don’t need them to tell you you’re a success; you just need to be faithful to Jesus, and He is such a merciful king, that even when you fail to be faithful to Him, He will be faithful to you. Not only that, but the ultimate outcome is already secure. You’re part of a mission that will be accomplished, and the risen Lord Jesus will see to it. We don’t know what that means for our particular part; remember Isaiah and Paul at various times had callings that bore little visible fruit. But, in the end, as Paul puts it, the nations will listen. The gospel will prevail. Jesus will save the people for whom He died, and the gospel will go forth with boldness and without hindrance. We’ve seen it happen for 28 chapters in Acts. Tomorrow’s Monday, and whatever that feels like for you, you and I will be living in Acts 29. We will be a part of this gospel prevailing among all nations as we witness faithfully, clearly, and boldly, and in the end our king will return to execute perfect justice on His enemies and to gather His people from all the peoples of the earth, and as the creed we said today puts it: His kingdom will have no end. Let’s get after it.