A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 28:17-31. The gospel for Jews and Gentiles.
a). Paul addresses Jews (28:17-23).
In accordance with his principle that the gospel is God’s power for salvation ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’’, (Rom. 1:16), even in the Gentile capital of the world Paul addressed himself to Jews first. Three days after his arrival (he gave himself no longer to recover from his arduous journey) he summoned the Jewish leaders to meet him. He emphasized three points. First, he had himself done nothing against the Jewish people (‘our people’, he called them) or their ancestral customs (‘our customs’, he said). Secondly, after being arrested and handed over to the Romans (17), and examined by them, they had wanted to set him free because they could find nothing against him deserving death (18). Thirdly, it was because the Jews had objected to his release that he had felt compelled to appeal to Caesar, although he had nothing against his own people (19). Thus, Paul had done nothing against the Jews, the Romans had nothing against him, and he had nothing (i.e. no charge) against the Jews. It was in order to clarify these points that he had asked to see them. He was in every way a loyal Jew; indeed it was because of the hope of Israel, Israel’s Messianic expectation fulfilled in Jesus, that he was a prisoner (20).
In reply, the Jewish leaders declared, surprisingly enough, both that no official letters about him had reached them from Judea and that no visiting Jews had said anything bad about him (21). They wanted to learn more about his views, however, because they knew that the Nazarene ‘sect’ was everywhere spoken against (22).
On the appointed day the Jews assembled in Paul’s lodgings in even greater numbers. Then all day long, from morning till evening, Paul concentrated on two things. First, he unfolded by explanation and testimony the character and coming of God’s kingdom (did he contrast it with Caesar’s?), and secondly he tried to convince them about Jesus out of the Scriptures (23). This is likely to mean, as on previous occasions when he addressed Jewish people, that Paul argued for the necessary identification of the historical Jesus with the biblical Christ.
b). Paul turns to the Gentiles (28:24-28).
Paul’s day long persuasive exposition split his audience in two, as so many times previously. Some were convinced by his reasoning; others ‘remained sceptical’ (NEB) or, since a deliberate intention seems to be indicated, ‘refused to believe’ (24). In other words, they were deeply divided among themselves and began to go home – but only after Paul’s summing-up, whose note of solemn finality no-one could miss. He boldly applied to them words which the Holy Spirit had spoken to their forefathers in Isaiah’s day (Is. 6:9-10), and which Jesus had quoted of his unbelieving contemporaries (Mt. 13:14-15; Mk.4:11-12), as also had John (Jn. 12:37ff.). This quotation draws a distinction between hearing and understanding, seeing and perceiving (26), and goes on to attribute people’s non-comprehension to their deliberately hard hearts, deaf ears and closed eyes, for otherwise they might see, hear, understand, turn and be saved (27). ‘In this fearful process’ wrote J.A.Alexander, ‘there are three distinguishable agencies expressly or implicitly described, the ministerial agency of the prophet, the judicial agency of God, and the suicidal agency of the people themselves.’ In other words, if we ask why people do not understand and turn to God, their unbelief could be attributed (in fact, is attributed in Scripture) now to the evangelist’s preaching, now to the judgment of God, and now to the obstinacy of the people. Alexander goes on to point out that in the Isaiah verses the first of these is the most prominent, in John 12:40 the second, and in Matthew and Mark passages, as here in Acts 28, the third. Although our minds find it hard to reconcile these perspectives with each other, since it is difficult to ascribe the same situation to three agencies simultaneously, yet all three are true and must be held fast with equal tenacity.
Because of the Jews’ deliberate rejection of the gospel, Paul wants them to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and that they will listen with open ears, whereas the Jews have closed theirs. Three times before, stubborn Jewish opposition has led Paul to turn to the Gentiles – in Pisidian Antioch (13:46), in Corinth (18:6), and in Ephesus (19:8-9). Now for the fourth time, in the world’s capital city, and in a yet more decisive manner, he does it again (28). Verse 29 belongs to the Western text and says that the Jews then left, ‘arguing hotly between themselves’.
Tomorrow: Acts 28:31-31. c), Paul welcomes all who visit him.