Why does the apostle Paul hijack the book of Acts? I remember wondering about this question when studying Acts in seminary, and I was reminded of it in finishing Acts this morning. About halfway through the book, the narrative switches from a big picture account of the whole church to a more detailed account of Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. In fact, after the release of Peter from prison in chapter 12, and the Jerusalem council in chapter 15, we learn almost nothing more about the original disciples, about Peter and John, about James and the Jerusalem church, about the spread of the gospel in directions other than North-West. The narrative switches almost exclusively to Paul, and becomes much more detailed, giving a day-by-day account. Just compare, for example, chapter 4 with chapter 27, and the difference is palpable. This seems strange. In a book titled, The Acts of the Apostles, where did all the apostles go?
I think part of the answer is that Luke is Paul’s travel companion (hence the “we” starting in 20:6), so he was drawing from personal experience in the latter half of the book, whereas for the earlier chapters he was using sources, as he did for his gospel (Luke 1:1-4). As one who had lived through the harrowing shipwreck of chapter 27, for example, it makes sense that he would remember such nautical details as are described in 27:27-32. Another part of the answer would simply be that Luke is being true to history – the apostle Paul was God’s specially chosen instrument for advancing his gospel (Acts 9:15). His sufferings (II Corinthians 11), his sacrifices (I Corinthians 9), and experiences (II Corinthians 12) were unique even among the other apostles.
But the fullest and most illuminating answer, in my opinion, is that Paul is important for Luke because the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles is important for Luke. We tend to forget how big the Jew-Gentile issue was in the New Testament, but its a significant theme throughout Acts, from the disciples’ question in 1:6, to Peter’s experience with Cornelius in 10-11, to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, to Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles in the last sections of the book. Its also significant in Romans, where Paul devotes three chapters to discussing why so many Jews have not embraced their Messiah (9-11) immediately after his most thorough presentation of the gospel (1-8). By focusing on Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:8), Luke highlights the way the early Christian movement is shifting away from Jerusalem and out into the Gentile nations. Luke wants us to see how the mission of God is surging ahead against all obstacles, how God’s promise to bless the nations in Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) and bring light to the ends of the earth through the Messiah (Isaiah 49:6) is really coming to pass.
It is significant, in this light, that Luke concludes the book with Paul quoting from Isaiah’s commission in Isaiah 6 (“be ever hearing, but never understanding”) to the Jews in Rome (28:25-27), and an emphasis on the continued spread of the gospel among the Gentiles in Rome, the center of the known Gentile world (28:27-31). The implication is that Israel is being hardened, just as they were under Isaiah’s ministry, while the gospel continues to go forward and bear fruit among the Gentiles. This emphasis helps account for another perplexing feature of Acts’ conclusion – its abruptness. You might expect The Acts of the Apostles to conclude with the deaths of the apostles, or at least a kind of summary of their different ministries. But not only does Luke stay narrowly on Paul, but he ends his book before Paul’s ministry ends. (According to Eusebius and I Clement, Paul was released after his first two years in Rome, did further ministry and wrote I Timothy and Titus, was then re-imprisoned in Rome and wrote II Timothy, and was finally killed by beheading during Nero’s persecution). With so much else going on that he could have focused on, the picture Luke leaves us with is Paul in house-arrest in Rome, quoting Isaiah 6 to the Jews, and boldly witnessing to Gentiles there day after day. One gets the sense: the story continues. Just as the beginning of Acts highlights continuity with Jesus’ former ministry (1:1: “all that Jesus began to do”), so its closure points ahead to all that is to come. The mission goes forward.
Its awesome to get caught up in the story of what God is doing in the world. I remember Hans Bayer, one of my New Testament profs in seminary, saying during a lecture on Acts: “you can’t get caught up in God’s mission and hold onto your own.” Reading Acts reminds me how massive, how powerful, how unstoppable God’s mission is. Its like a tidal wave. It we let it, it will sweep us up, drown out our idols, give us something truly worthy to live for. God’s mission will interrupt our missions and give us something bigger and worthier to spend ourselves on. I want to join the apostle Paul in considering my life worth nothing to me, if only I may complete the ministry given to me by Jesus Christ, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (20:24).
One gets the sense: the story continues.