The end of the beginning

Imagine this plot line for a Hollywood romantic comedy. The young crown princess of a small European nation is paying a visit to Rome. She feels boxed in by her overly regulated life and sneaks out of the embassy.

She meets an American reporter. At first, she doesn’t tell him she’s a princess, and he doesn’t tell her he’s a reporter who’s angling to get an exclusive story on the missing princess. Eventually, they fall in love, and the truth comes out. He decides, of course, not to publish the story. But the audience wants to know: across the divides of culture and class, can these two lovebirds be together and live happily ever after?

How would you want the story to end? How would you expect it to end?

In a nutshell, this is the plot of the 1953 classic, Roman Holiday, starring Gregory Peck as reporter Joe Bradley, and Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann. It was Hepburn’s first major role and first American film; she won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

But — spoiler alert! — how did the movie actually end?

Princess Ann decides that she cannot forsake the responsibility she has to her people. The “happy ending” isn’t the romantic one we expect. Rather, it’s that she’s grown up through her experience in Rome. She’s ready to rule with compassion and grace. The final scene has Joe and Ann respectfully walking away from each other, knowing that they will always love each other but can never be together.

That’s probably not the ending that fans of the rom-com genre would expect today.

So…how will the story of the apostle Paul’s visit to Rome end? Here too, it may not be the ending we’d expect.

In the book of Acts, Paul travels throughout the empire suffering for the gospel. The final eight chapters –nearly a third of the book — tell the continuous story of his arrest in Jerusalem, subsequent imprisonment in Caesarea on trumped up charges, and final voyage to Rome to have his case heard by the emperor.

How does the story end? How would you want it to end?

Maybe the Jewish leaders who persecuted him in Jerusalem might finally see the light?

The Jewish leaders in Rome, you’ll recall, had heard nothing about Paul from Jerusalem (Acts 28:21). That probably means that the Jerusalem leaders had dropped the matter from their end, knowing they had no case that could satisfy the emperor.

But conversion? Hardly. Instead, in Rome, the same old pattern repeats itself: Paul preaches to his fellow Jews and is largely rejected, prompting a decision by Paul to turn to the Gentiles instead (Acts 28:28).

Well, then, don’t we at least want to see Paul exonerated by the emperor?

Luke doesn’t give us that either. In fact, he tells us absolutely nothing about the trial or its outcome, and scholars have endlessly debated why. This is all we get: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31, NSRV).

That’s it. Finis. Cue the orchestra and roll credits.

Tradition, much of it based on second century sources, has it that Paul was martyred under Nero. But nothing is certain. Some historians have even begun reassessing whether Nero fully deserved the dastardly reputation we typically assign to him.

Whatever the truth of the matter, every sign in these final chapters of Acts seems to point to Paul’s exoneration. Not a single representative of Rome has found Paul guilty of anything (nor is Nero reputed to have cared much about such trivial matters of state). Moreover, some scholars argue that Luke doesn’t mention the outcome because he doesn’t need to; by the time Acts was written, Paul’s fate was already widely known.

More importantly, though, if we find Luke’s ending abrupt and unsatisfactory, we need to ask ourselves: have we misread Luke’s intent?

His purpose was not to write the biography of a “great man” — the heroic story of a man who fought for his vision against incredible odds. No: his purpose was to tell Theophilus (and anyone else who was interested) how the good news of a Jewish Messiah became a growing movement among the Gentiles.

That’s the ending Luke wants us to have. Paul continues to preach the gospel boldly and “without hindrance” — and neither house arrest nor chains will stop the spread.

In one sense, what happens to Paul after that matters, simply because we’ve come to care about this man and his adventures. But in another sense, what happens to him doesn’t matter — because Acts is not primarily his story.

This is, and always has been, the story of God’s Spirit working through God’s people. The end of Acts is the beginning of the rest of that history.

And as we’ll see in one more final post on Acts, that story is our story.