On April 6, 2010

The Silence of Caesar

So this is my last post on the end of Acts, and I’d like to point out something here that I haven’t in the previous two posts. Acts has a really strange ending. If you think about it, Luke ends his story in a really bizarre way. It’d be like watching Luke Skywalker headed into blowing up the Death Star and all of a sudden the credits start rolling. But there is a reason that Acts ends this way.

Luke has been telling his story in such a way to raise the question, “What is going to happen to Paul?” Here is this apostle, risking everything, headed to Rome, the epicenter of world power. And he is going to stand before Caesar, the most powerful man in the world.

But then Luke stops short. He never tells us what happened to Paul.

And in order to find out why we have to back up a few chapters to Acts 1.

The disciples ask Jesus right before this whole crazy Christian movement gets kick started, “Lord, is it at this time that you are going to restore the Kingdom to Israel.” And Jesus answers in some kind of cryptic, none-of-your-business about times and dates response. Now we’ve always assumed that what that meant was that Jesus was saying “No” to their question.

But that’s only because we don’t live in the first century.

Because the very next moment after Jesus’ response is Jesus’ ascension. Which is huge. Because Jesus isn’t just channeling his inner Mary Poppins here. This is God making a statement, one last parable. To ascend meant something back then, and it’s implications are huge for today as well.

Notice how N.T. Wright says this:

As any watcher of the Roman Imperial cult could have told you (and the Imperial cult was the fastest-growing religion in the first-century Mediterranean world), the one who is seen being taken up into heaven is the one who is thereby revealed as divine, as the ruler of the present cosmos. That was how Augustus made out that Julius Caesar was divine. On the triumphal arch of Titus in Rome there is a carving of Titus ascending to heaven…From the pagan point of view, if the story  [of the ascension] means anything it means an implicit challenge to Caesar. The first thing we have to get our heads and hearts around as we read Acts is its unequivocal declaration and celebration of the fact that Jesus, the King of Israel, is the world’s rightful Lord.

In other words Jesus’ answer was yes.

The book of Acts only makes sense in light of this. These people are now unafraid of pseudo-kings and rulers, because they now know who those rulers and leaders answer to. And they’re proclamation means that no matter what those who have power do today, they will bow their knee to the world’s true Lord tomorrow.

I know that most of us would really like to know how this story ends. Does Paul live, does Nero kill him? But If you are asking if Paul died you’re asking the wrong question, because the truth is Paul was in a place where death could no longer touch him.

The reason Acts frustrates us so much is because we are asking how does this story end, does Paul die?

But Acts is asking are you ready to live?

See the reason Acts doesn’t answer what Caesar says is because Caesar isn’t Lord, he doesn’t have the keys to life and death. He can’t kill Paul, nothing can, because Paul’s life is hidden in Christ. Maybe the reason we don’t hear Caesar’s judgment in the end of the book is just another subtle way of saying what Acts has been saying all along.

That Caesar isn’t Lord.

Last year Rick and I did a study with our church where we pointed out that one of the top 3 reasons why people are walking away from churches is because, at least by outsiders, we are sometimes seen as a outpost for political purposes. Now I’m sure that there have been other seasons of our culture where people have been so outspoken (and sometimes downright mean) in political discourse. But I haven’t seen them. And if the church becomes just another bastion of that, than count me out too.

But that doesn’t mean that Christianity is just a private faith. It just operates much differently than Caesar’s tactics. And here’s where I think Acts has got something to say to us. Because to say Jesus is Lord still means something for our world today.

Look once again at Wright:

The claim that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was never, in the first century, what we would call a religious claim pure and simple. There was no such thing as religion pure and simple. It was a claim about an ultimate reality which included politics, culture, commerce, family life and everything else you could think of. And if you stop saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ out of deference to the private opinions of your friends and neighbors, Caesar smiles his grim smile and extends his empire by one more street. After all, the great eighteenth-century virtue of tolerance was developed not least by those who were keen on extending their geographical or industrial empires, and who didn’t want God breathing down their necks to stop them. Keep religion in the private sphere and we’ll run the public square. And to that idea Luke says a clear No; and so must we.

Caesar will always co-opt and coerce to make you think that his agenda’s must also be the Lord’s. And while Saul might have fallen for that, Paul will not. Because he’s seen the risen Lord and now he isn’t impressed by the parodies.

I think this is why Acts doesn’t let us hear Caesar’s voice. His judgment isn’t really that final, and in the end the man who everyone else is terrified of doesn’t have the last word. In fact, he doesn’t have a word at all.

Because he isn’t Lord.

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  • Peter Mosley

    I’m a bit skeptical about Christians not being vocal in politics — for example, I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political actions and John the Baptist’s rather political statements (that resulted in the martyrdom of both) weren’t necessarily wrong. I think the motives for getting involved in politics are, at times, the problem — whether Christians get involved because they genuinely care about people or whether they get involved out of pride or a viewpoint that’s not centered on loving God and loving people.

    That said, I really like your point about the end of Acts — it makes a lot of sense and is a really powerful statement about the ending. I think it was you who said at the Vine a while ago that we are still writing Acts today — that’s really stuck with me, so thanks.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Peter I think we agree. I believe the earliest Christians were very involved in politics in the sense of the actual word polis, which means city or society. Just not in the way that we tend to think of politics. That’s what I think the 2nd quote of Wright is pointing out. Apathy or privatization of faith isn’t an option. But I do believe we are called to change the world in a very different way. I just want to be careful not to let Caesar frame the story for me. Thanks for your thoughts brother.

  • Peter Mosley

    Man, don’t you hate it when someone “reads” your blog and doesn’t carefully consider it before commenting?

    Yeah, we agree, and I should have read the end of your post again and more carefully before commenting so I wouldn’t have missed out on that part of what you were saying. I’ll try to do so in the future. Thank you for those important insights.