Beyond the Lectionary Text: Acts 28:17-31
by Al Postma
“Let me tell you about that pastor.”
I’ve had a conversation with a pastor who was new to a church and I asked him what he thought about his predecessor. His reply: “I’ve never met the pastor, but I don’t like him!” As a new pastor, there were people who had shared their disappointments over the previous pastor, and it wasn’t long until their opinions had become his opinion. Thankfully, to cut out the middle-man, as it were, he had the willingness to actually contact the previous pastor and get to know him a bit, giving him as the new pastor the opportunity to begin forming his own opinion on this man’s leadership.
We all know that people can easily develop opinions about pastors, their ministry, their priorities, their lifestyle, or their beliefs without ever actually having gotten to know them (and, of course, this isn’t a phenomenon reserved for pastors either). It may be innocent enough, based on a misunderstanding that hasn’t been clarified. But some pastors have experienced it from a group bent on malicious intent, who either exploit those misunderstandings or fabricate falsehoods and write letters or spread gossip to discredit their work and cause them to lose their audience before they even have a chance to speak. They might stand at the door of ministry, blocked by people who say “I’ve never met you, but I’ve heard enough to know I don’t like you.”
When we’re on the receiving end of this, all we might ask for is a fair hearing. For people to suspend what they’ve heard and just listen to what we actually have to say rather than to label us or dismiss us pre-emptively. If we’re going to be shown the proverbial door, at least kick us out of the house once we’ve spoken rather than block us ever getting inside.
In Acts 28, this is what Paul is worried about. Paul seems to be keenly aware of how easy it is to be disinvited before even being invited. He’s had enough experience with people trying to shut out the message of Jesus that he is fully expecting that by the time he reaches Rome, word of his arrival will have travelled faster than his boat was able to carry him. And the word won’t be good—he expects notes of caution or condemnation may be waiting there for him and may have already spoiled his chance to be heard. In this context, all he wants is a fair hearing. All he wants is for people who won’t allow reports of him to form the basis of whether or not he is allowed to speak.
We can hear this in what he does, says, and how he is responded to.
First, what he does: Paul makes the strategic move of inviting the Jewish leaders directly in an attempt to seemingly minimize the damage that may have been done. I imagine that he understands that if he’s going to have a chance to speak, he’s going to need the leaders to accept him before anyone else. Second, what he says: when he does get them together, he basically tells them that he’s not in Rome on a mission to make trouble for them but instead is really on their team—after all, he is “bound in chains for the hope of Israel.” It’s hard to make a stronger case of allegiance. Finally, when the Jewish leaders respond, they also cut right to the chase and let Paul know directly that they’re not an audience predisposed against him; in fact, they haven’t heard anything from anyone specifically other than that everyone seems to be talking about this “sect.” If we were watching Paul at this moment, we would probably see him breathe out a sigh of relief. He was worried he’d be dismissed; the leaders know he’s worried he’ll be dismissed; and yet, he’s assured he has an audience.
Without making too much out of a short verse (Acts 28:23), I’d like to draw your attention to Paul’s method. When he does get a chance to speak to his audience, we hear three words used to flesh out his message. A grammarian may want to argue about subordinate clauses—and therefore whether Paul is doing three things (witness, explain, and preach), or one thing (witness) in a way (explaining) for a purpose (persuading). I think, however, that our congregations can be encouraged regardless of which direction you might choose.
First we hear that from morning till evening Paul witnessed to them. When we think of witness, we think of giving an account of what has happened. I imagine, for Paul, that this would naturally include his own experience of the gospel. He does this regularly throughout his letters, and this would probably not be an exception. For our congregations, reminding them that speaking about the gospel means giving an account of our own experiences can be, on one hand, refreshing, and on the other hand, terrifying. But it’s healthy to be reminded that we really do sit on the witness stand for Christ, sharing what we’ve seen with our own eyes.
Paul also explains to them the Scriptures. The gospel isn’t just our own experience with Jesus, but has a lot of history behind it. It starts with the Old Testament, moves into the present, and gives us hope for the future. Paul lays out these puzzle pieces on the table and starts assembling them with his audience. He does so in a way that builds on their agreed-upon picture of how God has acted in the past, but in such a way as to show how the picture is not complete.
This allows Paul to move into his purpose, which is to persuade them. He wants them to see how the puzzle comes together. He wants them to accept Christ. He’s not just an academic presenting the facts for their own sake, or a witness who is impartial to the results of a trial. He really wants them to come to accept Christ.
But he goes out with a parting message as well: God is circumventing the Jewish nation to bring salvation into the world. Although where Paul speaks to the Jewish audience first, he wants them to know that they are not the last. Those who sit on the sidelines will not act as a bottleneck for salvation. It is only they who will lose out in the end, because the gospel is already going out and is already being accepted. As people go out witnessing, explaining, and persuading, people of all nations are coming to Christ.
When I preached on this passage, I recognized that there were multiple themes I could focus on. We could spend our whole time talking about Paul’s reminder that salvation is offered to all nations and the Jewish nation would not become a bottleneck for its advance. Or we could talk about Paul’s method of sharing the gospel with witness, explanation, and persuasion.
What I decided on, however, was to highlight Paul’s experience arriving in Rome worrying about his reception. It seemed to have a stronger pastoral and practical appeal as I think of myself and the church in North America today. People in the church already know that the good news is available to all nations. They also either know or could learn the basic tenets of the faith and explore ways to share it and their own experience of God working in their lives. But what seems to hold people back (myself included) is often more the worry of how they will be received when they come to bring the message.
In North America today, there seems to be a growing gap between peoples’ perceived knowledge of Christianity and their actual knowledge of Scripture and what the church is all about. For the growing segment of people who haven’t grown up with any church connection at all, it’s easy to form an opinion based on news reports or their own brief encounters with Christians. Therefore, when I talk to someone about Christ and his church, one of the first thoughts in my mind is not what do I say but what do they think of Christianity already? We, like Paul, may worry that our chance of true witness has been damaged and, should we have the boldness to share our faith, we may wonder if we will truly get a fair hearing. And, God willing, we may also find a more receptive audience than we first expected.
The well-known story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf tells the tale of a mischievous boy who regularly fools the townspeople into believing that a wolf is nearby. Each time, the townspeople move into action to fend off this predator, only to find out that the joke is on them since there was no wolf at all. One day, there really is a wolf, and as he comes snarling towards the flock of sheep the boy is attending, he cries out for help. But to no avail. The townspeople refuse to be played for fools yet again.
The tragedy of the story is that the boy spoils his chance to be heard when it really matters. He does it to himself, but we might wonder: what if his chance to sound the alert was not based on his own tomfoolery but on someone else’s sabotaging of his character or his message? This brings to into Paul’s concern at the beginning of the passage.