Lesson 5: Paul Arrives in Rome

Paul makes it to Rome, the end of the road. The writer of Acts appears to be making a point. This last trip under arrest is the longest section of his book, eight chapters, a fourth of the entire work. Paul gets there against all possible odds. He survives attack by a Jewish mob, arrest by the Roman government, ambush planned by Jewish fanatics, two years forgotten in a Roman prison, ship wreck, threat of being thrown over board, and poisoning by a viper. Can any of us object to the writer giving credit to the Holy Spirit for his successful arrival?

The significance seems to be just getting there. We are somewhat let down after his arrival. He lives quietly, preaches as usual, but does nothing noteworthy. Other traditions report that he and Peter were later martyred in Rome, but you would never know that, or even that Peter was there, from biblical accounts.

There seems to be religious and political overtones in all this. At the Ascension Jesus calls the apostles to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” before he returns to rule the earth. (Acts 1: 6-11) Preaching in Rome appears to set up the conditions for this to happen. This idea that Jesus was resurrected from death in the past and that all God’s people will be in the future was one of the most controversial elements of the Gospel. You might have detected that it was a constant objection to the sermons preached in Acts. The Sadducees believed there was no justification for it in sacred scripture. The Greek philosophers thought it was just nonsense. To this day people have had trouble with the Resurrection of the Dead.

The second major objection to the sermons charges this Gospel is subversive, because it proclaims Jesus as king rather than Caesar (Acts 17: 6-9). At one place Paul declares all one needs to do in order to be saved is confess “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9-13). That was the creed used at baptism and was obviously a rejection of “Caesar is Lord”. Paul also puts many of his confessional statements in political language, for instance proclaiming in the future every knee will bow to Jesus rather than to Caesar. (Philippians 2: 4-11)  To be baptized then was to trust Jesus’ rather than Caesar’s ability to provide peace.

Roman officials are usually pictured arresting Christians, because they disturbed the peace, subverting the Pax Romana. Their actions upset the status quo and with it Rome’s eternal peace. No wonder, critics claim Christians are turning the world upside down. Paul’s arrival in the eternal city would be a signal that challenged all Rome represented.

When we read Paul’s letters these political overtones will be more obvious. They are especially relevant, because the churches Paul served were in the eastern part of the empire where Emperor Worship was particularly prevalent. Temples honoring the divinity of the Caesars, which the Prophet John labeled “Satan’s thrones”, were prominent in many of those cities. Idolatry was not simply adoring marble statues, but even more praising the Caesars they portrayed as divine.

That did not mean Christians took political action. Jesus and the early Church refused armed rebellion, relying on the Word and martyrdom. Paul could counsel living a quiet life and being “subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13: 1-7) and John could plead, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not participate in her plagues.” (Revelation 18:4), but neither advocated armed rebellion. They simply pledged loyalty to their “commonwealth in heaven”. (Philippians 3:20)

We see again that Paul’s issues very often are our issues. We can hardly pick up a newspaper without reading something about the relationship of church and state. In fact, many scholars have said our post modern times resemble the first century situation more than previous historical periods.

As we shift from Luke-Acts’ picture to Paul’s own words, we are going to see the same thing. When reading Paul’s struggles with the issues of his time, we’ll hear echoes of our own. That leads me to observe your “comments” have vacillated from speaking of first century Christians as more dedicated than twenty-first century ones to seeing them sharing a common human nature. I think God operated then as now and people respond then as now, no better or worse. I find no basis for thinking it was easier in the past. People just reported religious experiences in different ways. That is the challenge, to translate their words into twenty-first century forms.

Try to read I Thessalonians in its entirety before next Tuesday. Paul intended his letters to be read to his congregation at one sitting. Be sure to remind yourself this is the first written record we have of the early Church. Almost every scholar agrees it is the earliest book of the New Testament, written about 51 A.D., about 20 years after Jesus’ death.

 

Addendum 

I chose to highlight only a few specific passages in Acts. “Comments” talked about some others. Some personal e-mails asked me to say a few words about the following:

1) Some noticed the writer sometimes spoke in the first person after Acts 16. (Acts 16:10-17, Acts 20: 5-15, Acts 21:1-18, Acts 27:1-28:16) Scholars speak of these as the “we passages” and are not quite sure what they are about. The most common theory has been the physician Luke, or someone else, who personally accompanied Paul sometimes inserted words from his personal diary or at least emphasized his presence with this wording. The second is someone else used passages from an earlier book that was written in the first person.  And the third maintains it is just a literary style in which first person plural is used when writing about sea voyages. The first sounds best to me.

2) Another person asked about Paul’s reply to his jailer question about what he had to do to be saved. “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:25-34) I imagine most first century readers would take for granted a family would be included when a father converted. We still acknowledge some of that in infant baptism. The radical individualism of our time is probably the more unusual in history.  Of course, Jesus’ words about people leaving family to follow him are pretty radical, too. I find the words assuring, as there are some people I would like to take with me.

3) Some asked about other readings. I find Gerhard Krodel’s Acts from The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament very helpful. I also like the book Rick Carlson uses at the seminary, Michael Gorman’s Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters.

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