We like our hero stories. Well, I do anyway. You know how it works. The virtuous but beleaguered sheriff and the evil gunslinger meet in a dusty street for their final showdown. The ragtag Rebels take on the vast Galactic Empire. Two insignificant hobbits try to bring down the Dark Lord Sauron.
Who wins? Who’s supposed to win?
Good triumphs over evil; the hero is supposed to win the final battle. We might tolerate the occasional movie in which things happen differently, and call it art. But if evil keeps winning, we’ll stop watching.
The Bible itself promises such an ending; without it, there would be no hope. But as I have insisted throughout our study of the book of Acts, we must remember that God is, so to speak, the hero of the story the Bible tells. We are called to be part of that grand story, in which things will eventually work out for the best: one day, we will inherit the fullness of our salvation and resurrection life.
But that doesn’t mean our smaller, individual stories will end as well as we might like. After all, every one of them ends in death, and most of the time, not a particularly glorious one. The apostles themselves were martyred, despite the blood, sweat, and tears they poured out for God and the gospel. But beyond them, beyond us, the story goes on. It’s a story that ends in the restoration of creation and humanity together (Rom 8:18-21), and it is in that story that our hope as Christians resides.
It’s important to keep this in mind as we approach the final chapters of the book of Acts.
Luke’s retelling of the adventures of Paul, in the chapters we’ve examined recently, has been rather fast-paced. A year and a half of ministry in Corinth? Seventeen verses. Three years in Ephesus? One whole chapter. Paul’s subsequent travels through several locations, on his way to Jerusalem? A chapter and a half.
But when Paul reaches Jerusalem, the story slows to a comparative crawl. Where his personal story is concerned, chapter 21 of Acts is the beginning of the end. From here on out, he moves from place to place not as a missionary, but as a prisoner. Acts will end in Rome, where tradition has it that Paul was eventually condemned by Nero to death by decapitation.
Not quite the ending one might hope.
Nor is Paul’s end the only one in sight.
. . .
Scholars believe that Paul came to Jerusalem in AD 57. Nero was emperor. Antonius Felix was the procurator over the province of Judea, having been appointed in AD 52 by the previous emperor, Claudius, to whom he was related by marriage.
Felix was, to use the technical term, a piece of work — a corrupt and brutal tyrant. The Roman historian Tacitus sneered that Felix was a man of “savagery and lust [who] exercised the powers of a king with the disposition of a slave.” His extreme and violent ways of eliminating any opposition to his rule earned him the hatred of the people he governed. When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, therefore, anti-Roman and anti-Gentile sentiment were already running high.
All of this is the run-up to the Jewish-Roman war and the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, which led to the capture of the city and the destruction of the Temple. For a time, Jewish rebels still held out against the Romans in various strongholds including, most famously, the hilltop fortress at Masada.
But Masada, too, eventually fell. According to Josephus, the story ended with the mass suicide of nearly 1,000 Jewish Zealots. Scratch that: it wasn’t exactly suicide, since that was forbidden to Jews. They agreed to kill each other, until the last man standing had to take his own life and was therefore the only one to violate the law.
Some historians doubt Josephus’ account. But whatever the truth of the matter, it was not ending for which the people hoped.
. . .
Political corruption. Abuses of power. Ethnic hatred and violence. The names, places, and dates change, but the headlines remain the same. The world of the Bible, the world of Acts and the apostle Paul, was every bit as broken as our world today.
People have always needed hope.
But Paul isn’t going to ride into town, beat the bad guy, and clean up Dodge. Acts 21 is the beginning of the end of his story.
Yet this is also the man, who in the midst of his trials, writes, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5, NRSV). In the bleakest of circumstances — bleaker than most of us will ever face — Paul was certain of God’s love, certain that God would be true to his promise of resurrection and glory.
And somehow, it was enough.