WHY DOES THE BOOK OF ACTS END SO ABRUPTLY?
by Shawn Brasseaux
The Book of Acts opens where the Gospel Record of Luke left off (compare Luke chapter 24 with Acts chapter 1). Luke is again writing to Theophilus to tell him what happened concerning the Lord Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry and His Apostles’ ministry once He returned to Heaven (cf. Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2). Let us begin with a simple, quick survey of the Book of Acts.
A SIMPLE, QUICK SURVEY OF THE BOOK OF ACTS
Chapter 1 of Acts opens with Jesus Christ spending 40 days in His post-resurrection ministry showing Himself to be alive again with many infallible proofs. He teaches the Apostles all about the kingdom of God. Then, He ascends up to Heaven to His Father’s right hand. In chapter 2, the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the 12 Apostles. Peter delivers his well-known sermon to the nation Israel in Jerusalem. Messiah, whom Israel rejected at Calvary, has resurrected, and will return to set up that Davidic kingdom promised to Israel long ago! Salvation must begin with Jerusalem’s conversion.
As we progress in Acts, we see the expansion of the Messianic Church (Israel’s believing remnant, what Luke 12:32 calls “the Little Flock”). More Jews are responding to the Apostles’ preaching; they are repenting and being water baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, preparing to survive the wrath at His Second Coming. Envious and outraged, the satanically-inspired Israeli religious leaders persecute the Messianic Church, especially the Apostles. Signs and wonders—great miracles—verify the Word of God being faithfully proclaimed. Jesus Christ is alive and well, and the miraculous demonstrations prove that He is the Son of God and working through them.
In chapter 7, Israel reaches the pinnacle of her unbelief. Her religious leadership refuses to hear the Holy Spirit speaking to her through Stephen. Israel experiences her national fall as her leaders stone Stephen to death. Just as God’s wrath is about to come upon unbelieving mankind, in chapter 9, God reaches down in grace and mercy and love to save His chief enemy. Saul of Tarsus, leading Israel’s rejection of Messiah Jesus, meets the Lord Himself and is saved unto eternal life! God commissions him with a new message, the Gospel of Grace, to preach to all nations (Gentiles). A new program, the Dispensation of Grace, has begun. The Church the Body of Christ has started. That wrath has been delayed, having given way to a mystery program God kept secret in Himself until He revealed to Saul.
For the first time, in chapter 10, the Lord Jesus commands Peter to visit and evangelize Gentiles in Caesarea (Cornelius and his Roman associates). We see Gentiles in Antioch taking an interest in God’s Word in chapter 11, Saul of Tarsus eventually heading that ministry. The Jerusalem Church suffers intense persecution in chapter 12 under King Herod—Apostle James is beheaded. Beginning in chapter 13, the Holy Spirit directs the Antiochian Church to send away Saul and Barnabas to preach the Gospel of Grace throughout the Roman Empire. Thus begins Paul and Barnabas’ apostolic journeys. These—four trips in total—will continue until the Acts period ends. Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery, will be preached far and wide, and all will hear it!
From chapter 13 onward, the Apostle Paul is the main figure in Acts. Peter and the other 11 Apostles of Israel are passing off the scene because Israel herself has already fallen and has been diminishing since chapter 7. Paul’s ministry is being increasingly established and the Gospel of Grace is spreading farther and farther throughout the world. He visits (among other places) modern Turkey, Syria, Greece, and eventually Italy. Unbelieving Jews have been following and harassing him and his converts for many years. Still, the message of Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork as sufficient payment for man’s sins, is being heard and believed on far and wide. The Church the Body of Christ is growing.
In chapter 15 (Galatians chapter 2), Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to meet the Jewish Church’s Apostles and elders. Doctrinal issues must be straightened out. Paul teaches these Kingdom saints about the drastic dispensational changes that have occurred thus far. They come to realize how God the Holy Spirit is now working amongst the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry without the Law, without Israel’s prophetic kingdom, without the Gospel of the Kingdom. They see that their prophetic program is fading and Israel is diminishing. They release themselves from their Gentile commission, turning over all lost souls to Paul and Barnabas. The 11 Apostles will stay with believing Israel, the Little Flock. Paul and Barnabas will continue with reaching all unsaved Jews and Gentiles with the Gospel of the Grace of God. Their apostolic journeys continue throughout the Roman Empire. More idolatrous pagans under Satan’s control are being saved unto eternal life!
When Paul returns to Jerusalem in Acts chapter 21 many years later, the unbelieving Jews assume that he has taken a (defiled) Gentile, or non-Jew, into the Temple. An uproar is generated and Paul is physically beaten. The Roman soldiers, learning of the riot, arrest the Apostle. In chapter 22, he delivers a testimony-sermon to unbelieving Israel in Jerusalem, which infuriates them even more. Paul is imprisoned in Jerusalem to stand before Israel’s ruling religious body. Once it is uncovered that unbelieving Jews plot to kill Paul, the Roman army sends him to Caesarea to stand before Judaean Governor Felix. The trial is unfair; Felix keeps Paul illegally bound just to delight the unsaved Jews. Once Festus becomes governor, Paul has been imprisoned for two years (in Caesarea, remember). Festus also mistreats Paul to gain favor with the unbelieving Jews. Having enough of these incessant, unfair legal proceedings, the Apostle says that he appeals to Caesar, the Roman emperor, so that he may hear his case and render justice. Still, before Paul travels to Rome, Festus involves King Agrippa, whom Paul stands before to share his testimony. Agrippa mocks.
Entering a ship as chapter 27 opens, the chained Apostle Paul journeys from Caesarea to Rome. A great storm causes him and his company to be shipwrecked and stranded on the island Melita. Months later, he finally gets to Rome, the world’s capital at the time. In the latter half of chapter 28, he meets with unbelieving Jews who are curious about his ministry. Remember, he is still a prisoner. Soldiers take turns being chained to him. Acts 28:16 says: “And when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him.”
The closing verses of the Book are Acts 28:30-31: “And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.”
So, what happened to Paul in Rome? How did his trial before Caesar turn out? All we read about is he being under house arrest for two years, during which time he preached the kingdom of God and taught those things regarding the Lord Jesus Christ. Why did Luke leave us in suspense here? Why did the Holy Spirit stop the narrative here of all places? For centuries, theologians have wondered and debated about this sudden ending, this “cliffhanger,” of Acts. We would have expected an adequate conclusion, a resolution of some sort. Alas, there is none. (Or is there?)
THE BOOK OF ACTS, DISPENSATIONALLY DELIVERED
It has been rightly said that the Book of Acts is the most challenging Book in the whole Bible. Why is Acts so difficult? We just saw why, dear friends. It is a transitional Book. God’s dealings with man at the beginning of the Book are overwhelmingly different from His relations with man at the end of the Book. Take, for example, two sample verses from the Book of Acts:
- Acts 1:6: “When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?”
- Acts 28:28: “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.”
Acts 1:6 is an inquiry about when Israel’s earthly kingdom will be established; in stark contrast, Acts 28:28 involves salvation already going to the Gentiles. Recalling what Isaiah 60:1-3 (and other verses) said, Israel was to rise to kingdom glory and then salvation and blessing would flow through them to the Gentiles. Yet, those two verses from Acts do not fit Isaiah’s outline. Israel’s earthly kingdom was never established in the Book of Acts. Jesus Christ never returned to set up His kingdom in Acts. There still has not been that Second Coming in flaming fire taking vengeance on God’s enemies. Yet, Luke writes at the end of Acts that salvation has already been sent to the Gentiles. Surely, this is a departure from prophecy, something entirely different from what the prophets (such as Isaiah) expected.
It is apparent that the Book of Acts really contains two dispensations. God issues a certain set of instructions at the beginning of the Book, but by the end, a new set of divine instructions has already been given. Why this change? Why did God not keep one same body of information valid all the way from chapter 1 through chapter 28? (After all, having two bodies of information is more complicated than having one body of information.) We need not be troubled. We should not be intimidated. If we are willing to submit to the Holy Spirit’s teaching ministry, Acts is going to demonstrate itself to us to be a very helpful Book rather than the burdensome text so many have made it.
What is the purpose of the Book of Acts? If it is so confusing, why did God include that record in His Holy Word? Is Acts really out of place in the canon of Scripture? If you asked the average Fundamentalist or Evangelical, or even Roman Catholic, they would tell you that the Book of Acts is the record of the establishment and expansion of the Church the Body of Christ. They would say that it documents the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. They assume there is only one Church in the Book of Acts. Also, they assume there is only one Gospel message in the Book of Acts. However, these comments manifest Bible ignorance on their part. They have not really studied the Book of Acts. What they have done is repeated misconceptions and mischaracterizations of Acts, parroting what others assumed about the Book of Acts. Denominational biases—religious traditions—have clouded their thinking. They need to look at the pure Word of God, and stop wresting it to fit their theological system.
The Book of Acts can be outlined using Romans 11:11-14: “ I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.  Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?  For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:  If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.”
In order to understand this, we must refer back to the words that the Lord Jesus Christ uttered many years earlier. We read in Matthew chapter 12: “ Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.  And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
Israel rejected and contradicted what Jesus Christ preached to them throughout His earthly ministry, the Books of Matthew through John. The Lord Himself warned Israel that this sin would be forgiven them. On Calvary’s cross, once Israel’s rejection of God the Son came to a head, Jesus Christ cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Israel stumbled at the cross, but did not fall. Going back to Romans 11:11, “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid….”
Romans 9:30-33 explains their stumbling at Calvary: “ What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith.  But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.  Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;  As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”
Again, while Israel stumbled at Calvary’s cross, they did not fall. At some later point, though, they did fall. Romans 11:11 again: “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.” When did Israel fall? Again, we know it was not at the cross because God continued to deal with her in early Acts (chapters 1-7).
In order for salvation to go to the Gentiles, unbelieving Israel had to be set aside for time. Salvation went to the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry (Romans 11:13). Paul was saved and commissioned in Acts chapter 9. That means Israel fell sometime prior. As we mentioned earlier, Israel’s fall was really in chapter 7, when Stephen filled with the Holy Ghost confronted Israel’s religious leaders about their unbelief. They stoned him to death—their final rebellion against the Holy Spirit. As per Matthew 12:31-32, this sin would not be forgiven them. God’s wrath would consume them when Christ would return at His Second Coming to establish Israel’s kingdom.
Going back to Romans 11:11-14, we pick up the thought-flow: “ I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.  Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?  For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:  If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.”
Hone in on verse 13. Paul is “the apostle of the Gentiles”—the man whom God has sent to be His spokesman to the nations. Since Israel had already fallen in Acts chapter 7—and Romans was written in Acts chapter 20—Israel is just another Gentile nation in God’s eyes. Paul is not simply preaching to non-Jews in the Book of Acts. After all, he visits Jewish synagogues and preaches in them throughout Acts (Acts 9:20; Acts 13:5,14,15,42; Acts 14:1; Acts 17:1,10,17; Acts 18:4-8; Acts 18:19; Acts 19:8). Israel fell just before Paul was made an Apostle in Acts chapter 9.
Romans chapter 11 again: “ For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:  If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.” Why did Paul “magnify”—esteem, praise—his Gentile apostleship/ministry? Verse 14 tells us. He wanted to provoke to emulation some Jews. He desired the unbelieving Jews in the Acts period to behave like his Gentile audience. They too needed to trust Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour, for they were all under Satan’s control and were being offered God’s grace. Rather than believing the Gospel of the Kingdom and joining the Little Flock (Peter and the 11), however, they were to believe Paul’s Gospel and become members of the Church the Body of Christ (like us).
The Holy Spirit was conscientious throughout the latter part of Acts to reach lost Jews (those who had rejected the earlier preaching of Peter and 11). He provided them with revelation by sending Paul to preach in their synagogues. Paul, and his ministry companions, updated them concerning the dispensational changes that were occurring. The Jewish Apostles themselves heard about this information in Acts chapter 15 (and Galatians chapter 2) when Paul and Barnabas conferred with them. Jews scattered around the Roman Empire heard it in their respective cities as Paul et al. conducted his four apostolic journeys (Acts chapters 13–28). Since “the Jews require a sign” (1 Corinthians 1:22), God sent Paul with the apostolic ability to perform various miracles. Miracles would validate his message as they had corroborated the 12 Apostles’ message.
We want to pay very close attention to the word “diminishing” in Romans 11:12: “Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?” While Israel fell in Acts chapter 7, she diminished throughout the rest of Acts. She became less and less of an issue, but God was still speaking to her through Paul’s ministry. While the Dispensation of Grace was operating with Paul during Acts, there was also a transition from Israel’s prophetic program to our mystery program.
In order to show Paul as the perfect replacement for Peter, the Holy Spirit had Paul repeat Peter’s actions. Paul water baptized converts just as Peter did. Peter spoke with tongues; Paul spoke with tongues. Peter laid hands on people to receive the Holy Spirit; Paul did likewise. Peter went to Jews first; Paul went to Jews first. Peter healed the sick and raised the dead; Paul healed the sick and raised the dead. We could go on and on, but suffice it to say that God equipped Paul with power to do what Peter did. This was how God validated His Word amongst the Gentiles: Israel saw her signs and wonders amongst Paul’s Gentile converts. (If you could get this, my friend, you will avoid so much trouble people get into when they deal with this Acts period. However, if you fail to get this straight, you will never understand Acts!)
Three verses are at the heart of Paul’s Acts ministry. Notice them:
- Acts 13:46: “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.”
- Acts 18:6: “And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean; from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.”
- Acts 28:28: “Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.”
Israel heard of her national fall on three occasions. Scattered amongst the Gentile nations, Paul visited her and said in Antioch of Pisidia (Turkey/Asia Minor), “Lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). He said it again in Corinth (Greece/Europe), “From henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6). Finally, in the world’s capital (Rome), he said, “The salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles…” (Acts 28:28). These announcements covered a period of roughly 15 years (approximately one-half of the duration of the whole Book of Acts). Paul is getting farther and farther away from Jerusalem (which was the central city in the prophetic program). Something major has happened, and it does not involve the establishment of Israel’s earthly kingdom.
Contrary to popular belief, Acts was not meant to show us how the Gospel and Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond. “Christianity” as we know it was first identified in Antioch, Syria—not Jerusalem (Acts 11:26)! Furthermore, it is not about how the Body of Christ formed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and spread beyond. Remember, salvation going to the Gentiles did not happen until chapter 9—Saul was converted long after Acts chapter 2! It is not meant to provide us a pattern for Christian living or doctrine, for many things are changing in the Book. The standards for the Dispensation of Grace are not made clear until Paul’s Epistles, Romans through Philemon. We do not appeal to Acts to find our doctrine, lest we wind up in confusion!
In Acts, God is transitioning from the Little Flock (Israel’s believing remnant) to the Church the Body of Christ, from Jerusalem to the world, from Peter to Paul, from Law to Grace, from prophecy to mystery, from the Gospel of the Kingdom to the Gospel of the Grace of God. Israel, once prominent at the beginning of Acts, is now fallen and diminishing. The 12 Apostles loose themselves from their commission in Acts chapter 15 (Galatians chapter 2). From chapter 9 onward, Paul is conducting a special “signs” ministry to coincide with Israel’s diminishing, that some of apostate Israel believe his Gospel of Grace and join the Church the Body of Christ.
The primary reason for the Book of Acts is to show how God was just, fair, in setting Israel aside for a time. When the Book opened, national Israel refused to hear Peter and the 11 Apostles preach about Jesus Christ. Saul of Tarsus led the rebellion! So, God interrupted that prophetic program and began a mystery program that He had kept secret all along. With Saul, the Apostle Paul, a new Gospel would be offered to man. The Church the Body of Christ had begun and would now form of all believing Jews and Gentiles. Eventually, Israel’s Little Flock was sealed off to new membership. Salvation for lost souls would now be in Paul’s Gospel alone. Alas, all the unbelieving Jews did was harass and persecute Paul… and it was his Gospel of Grace that barred God’s wrath from falling upon them!
God’s purpose in the Book of Acts is not to show us doctrine for today as members of the Body of Christ. (Once more, for that, we go to the Pauline Epistles, Romans through Philemon.) Many heresies and hang-ups have sprung forth from Acts because it is not handled dispensationally. Acts is not our pattern; chapter 2 is not the beginning of the Body of Christ as commonly taught. It was designed to show us how God spoke to unbelieving Israel—first through the 12 Apostles, and then through the Apostle Paul.
Once Paul’s pronouncements against apostate Israel were made, the Book of Acts closed. It was not in God’s design in Acts to give us every little detail about Paul’s ministry and message. (Again, the doctrinal details of Pauline theology are found in Romans through Philemon!) Hence, we do not read about the outcome of Paul’s trial in Rome. Acts does not end “abruptly.” Its narrative terminates after it serves its final purpose—Israel’s last warning about her unbelief and salvation going to the Gentiles without her. Israel is not only fallen, but now diminished entirely. Contrary to the “Acts 28ers,” nothing new began with the close of Acts. However, something ended. Paul’s provoking ministry to Israel, the transitional part of the Dispensation of Grace is finished.
Dear friend, read the last 15 verses of Acts very slowly, and you will see the Book end right on schedule. Remember, Paul is in Rome, the world capital at the time. This is God’s worldwide message to Israel:
“ And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.  Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me.  But when the Jews spake against it, I was constrained to appeal unto Caesar; not that I had ought to accuse my nation of.  For this cause therefore have I called for you, to see you, and to speak with you: because that for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.  And they said unto him, We neither received letters out of Judaea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee.  But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.
“ And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening.  And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.  And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers,  Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive:  For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” (Notice Israel’s persistent unbelief accentuated here—cf. Isaiah 6:9-10 and Matthew 13:11-15. After Acts 28:25-27, God warns her no further.)
“ Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.  And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves.  And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him,  Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.”
» Were there two imprisonments of Paul, or just one?
» Can you explain Paul’s “Acts” ministry?
» Can you explain the ministry of the 12 Apostles in Acts 7-15?