Who will listen?

When it comes to words, more is not necessarily better. (Just ask the people who wish I’d write shorter blog posts.)

The apostle Paul had finally made it to Rome. As he waited for the emperor to hear his case, he remained under house arrest, chained to a soldier. That meant that he wasn’t free to follow his customary procedure of bringing the gospel to a city’s synagogues. But he was free to receive visitors — so Paul invited the Jewish leaders of the city to come to him.

During their first visit, he was keen to reassure them that he had no intention of bringing any legal action against the Jews in Jerusalem who had made false charges against him. The Jewish leaders in Rome, however, assured him in turn that they knew nothing about this.

Instead, they had something else to discuss with him: what did he think about this new sect of Judaism that had sprung up, that claimed to follow this man named Jesus?

It was just the kind of opening Paul would have wanted. They set a date for a follow-up conversation. And when the day came, the people came in droves to hear what Paul had to say. Luke tells us that “morning to evening [Paul] explained the matter to [the Jews], testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from the law of Moses and from the prophets” (Acts 28:23, NRSV).

One can imagine Paul drawing upon all of his learning and missionary experience, citing every text he could think of across the whole of the Hebrew scriptures as he laid out the case for Jesus as God’s Messiah. It took all day, and then some.

Was it a lecture or a conversation? It’s impossible to say. On the one hand, Luke’s language seems to favor the former. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine these leaders sitting quietly the whole time — particularly the ones who had objections to raise.

In the end, Luke reports, “Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other” (Acts 28:25). This was not, I imagine, a passive disagreement, in the sense of quietly holding different opinions and agreeing to disagree. The word Luke uses is the opposite of “symphony” — their disagreement was disharmonious, as in the clashing voices of a loud argument.

How did Paul respond? As his guests filed out, arguing among themselves, the apostle took his parting shot. He quoted Isaiah 6 to them:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, “Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.” Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.

Acts 28:25b-28

As we’ve seen in a previous post, Paul was using words that were given first to the prophet Isaiah and quoted later by Jesus; the gospel would continue to meet resistance from those with hardened hearts.

That’s not to say, of course, that no one would ever believe; some who listened to Paul that day were indeed convinced. Likewise, when John quotes Isaiah 6 in his gospel, he also notes, “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him” (John 12:42a).

But before we get too comfortable with that hopeful bit of news, we should remember what John says next: “But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42b-43).

Realistically, then, those who were convinced by Paul’s arguments would still have to face social pressure from the other leaders. This was doubly complicated in Rome, where Jews had been expelled by the former emperor Claudius, possibly because of conflicts over Jews becoming Christians. The Jews in Rome were probably being careful to avoid controversy so they wouldn’t be expelled again — putting additional pressure on any who might have been inclined to join the “sect” of Christians.

That hardly sounds like the way we’d want to end the book of Acts.

But not to worry. We’ve got a whole two verses to go yet.