In the first part of the chapter (vv. 1-16) the journey to Rome reported in the previous chapter resumes and ends. The shipwreck survivors barely made it to the shores of Malta and the island’s inhabitants, evidently pagans, welcomed the survivors with «unusual kindness» (v. 2).
Paul was bitten by a viper as he was gathering wood for the fire, but he remained unscathed; then God gave him the opportunity to work many healings. All this amazed the Maltese, who let the shipwrecked depart, providing them with «whatever [they] needed» (v. 10).
After a few months they arrived by ship in Syracuse, then in Rhegium, finally in Puteoli (Naples), where the journey by sea ended. At Puteoli there was already a Christian church, which welcomed Paul and begged him to stay for a few days, after which the group set off towards Rome along the famous Appian Way.
A large group, like the one in which Paul was, moved slowly, not being able to leave behind the weakest. When in sight of the arrival, one would try to warn those whom they were going to, so as to not catch them unprepared: one way to do it was to send someone forward on horseback, or some young man skilled in riding fast. The guest was not expected while staying at home, but someone would go meet him to welcome him, bringing him a drink and taking over some luggage. All this helps us understand v. 15: «The brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us», a place not quite near Rome, since a note in the New English Translation states that the Appius Forum was located sixty-two kilometres from Rome, while the Three Taverns at forty-nine!
Going to meet those who were coming was a common way of doing things in those days and it is this kind of return of Jesus that Paul has in mind when he speaks of the coming of the Lord and of our going to meet him in the air (1Thes 4:15-17). But we will deal with this in more detail in Further Insight n. 17 placed later on.
Right after arriving in Rome, as usual, Paul wanted to first meet those of his NATION, the Jews, summoning to his house the most prominent. Paul totally identified himself with them and declared that he had been arrested « though [doing] nothing against [their] people or the customs of [their] fathers» (v. 17). There are those who define Israel as an “ethnic group” (a group united by blood ties) and some as a “religion” (united by a particular faith): two definitions that capture only one aspect; why then not adopt that of “NATION” used by Paul also in 24:17? Another point is that Paul had also respected «the customs of [the] fathers»: yet it is universally insisted that for Paul only the moral part of the law of Moses was valid, no longer the ceremonial!
The Jews of Jerusalem had unjustly accused Paul and wanted to kill him, forcing him to appeal to Caesar, but Paul made a point of clarifying that, as a good Jew, he wanted to bring «no charge» against his «NATION», indicating as the reason for his life «the hope of Israel», then trying to convince them «from the law of Moses and from the Prophets» (vv. 19-23).
Some say that there would have been a transformation of the “Gospel of Jesus and Peter for the Jews” into the “Gospel of Paul for the Gentiles”; Luke, though, tells us that it was through Peter that the first adaptation for the Gentiles took place (Acts 10), spread through the anonymous evangelisers of the Gentiles of Antioch (11:20) and established by Barnabas’ moulding work (11:22-24). Paul, therefore, only brought to maturity, and spread, an approach begun and established by others already. When Peter and Paul talked to the Jews, their approach was quite similar, closely anchored to the Old Testament (cf. Acts 2:22-40 with Paul’s preaching to Antioch of Pisidia, 13:16-41). Paul reaffirms the Gospel’s connection to the Old Testament not only in Antioch of Pisidia and in this last chapter (vv. 19-23), but also elsewhere (22:12-15; 24:14-21; 26:22).
As per usual, some Jews were persuaded, but the majority remained in unbelief. So Paul reaffirmed what he had previously stated (cf. 3:26; 13:46; 18:6) but which, reported by Luke now at the end of his story, is like its final seal: «Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen» (v. 28).
In brief, a story begun by a Jew who had lived as a Jew (Jesus), (a story) to which only Hebrews were initially called to join (Chap. 1-9) and to which also a people of un-circumcised was joined (Chap. 10-28); it is announced that this will end being welcomed, in the majority, by non-Jews. A real “somersault”, a reversal of roles, a change of direction that Luke describes in its very gradual development, capturing the “hows” and “whys”, otherwise the “somersault” can leave one confused. Sadly, Luke’s story is poorly studied (with the excuse that it would be “a transitional period now outdated”) and so the confusion and misunderstandings on the transition between the Old and New Testaments have become the norm.
It is interesting how Paul, after having so openly identified himself as a Jew, quotes to his fellow-countrymen Isaiah, the prophet addressing «your fathers» (v. 25). Perhaps he still remembered that even Stephen, after beginning the speech identifying himself with the audience (7:2), ends it with a warning in which he also uses the expression «your fathers» (7:52).
The overturning narrated by Luke posed to a Jew disturbing questions about the meaning of the Old Testament and God’s promises, but we have already said that for the answers to these questions Luke relies on a Letter to the Romans that was already in circulation.
We have already mentioned the fact that the book of Acts does not have a “closing formula”, appearing as one of those diaries in which one would have liked to continue writing, without having had the opportunity. This appears as an indication that, for Luke, the work of the Holy Spirit does not end after the two years that Paul was in Rome awaiting trial; indeed, Paul is there precisely because God wants to work powerfully in that strategic place, so that the Gospel may then echo throughout the Empire. What ends, however, is the story of the origins of the Church, which is an objective premise to the history of all the churches that originated thereafter.