We have already noted that the Spirit is explicitly absent from the narrative of Acts, from after Paul is arrested in Jerusalem (21:22–28:31). It is only in the closing scene, in Rome, that the Spirit is again mentioned. This is quite unlike the earlier concentrations of references to the Spirit, both in the Gospel and in earlier sections of Acts.
We have explored—and dismissed—some possible explanations for this mysterious disappearance of the Spirit in this final section of Acts. What other explanations might there be?
Perhaps the notion of a divine spirit, so integral to Jewish thinking, was strange and incomprehensible in the hellenistic world? Could this have led Luke to be reticent to refer to the spirit in this later, more strongly hellenistic section of his work?
The key problem with such an hypothesis, however, is that belief in spirits was actually widespread throughout the hellenistic world; there is indication of this from centuries prior to the first century in works such as Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (and see a comprehensive survey of occurrences in Greek literature in https://www.academia.edu/8368040/The_Term_Demon_in_Greek_Literature)
Further, as already noted, the interactions that Jesus had with unclean spirits during his ministry in Galilee indicates that this perspective held strong during the first century even within Judaism. In an earlier post, we noted that Jesus confronted the spirits in a man in the synagogue in Capernaum (4:33), in a demon-possessed man the country of the Gerasenes (8:29), in the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue (8:55), in the boy convulsing because of an unclean spirit (8:39, 42), and in the woman crippled for eighteen years (13:11). See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/02/towards-pentecost-2-the-spirit-in-the-story-of-jesus/
Another possible explanation for the disappearance of the Spirit after chapter 21 could be in the fact that the missionary activity of Paul came to an end with his arrest in the Jerusalem Temple. From this point onwards, there is no reporting of the speeches that Paul made to persuade people to believe in the good news of Jesus; rather, we hear series of apologetic speeches which Paul delivers to the various Roman authorities who are charged with dealing with him once he has been brought before them.
Paul speaks apologetically—that is, he defends himself and his beliefs, and also advocates for a better understanding of the beliefs and practices of The Way—in speeches that he delivers before a large crowd in Jerusalem (22:3–21), the Jewish Council and Roman Tribune in Jerusalem (23:1–6), Governor Felix and his wife Drusilla in Caesarea (24:10–21), Governor Festus in Caesarea (25:8–12), and finally King Agrippa, his consort Berenice, and Governor Festus in Caesarea (26:1–32). Luke explicitly notes that Paul offers a “defence” at (22:1; 14:10; 25:8, 16; 26:2, 24). His final speeches to the Jewish leaders in Rome (28:17–20, 25–28) also have the nature of a defence.
The techniques evident in these speeches (attributed to Paul, but clearly written and shaped by the author of the orderly account) reflect a high level of educational attainment and rhetorical finesse. Why would the Spirit be needed, we might ask, when the education of the speaker (mediated via the educated writer of the work) sufficed?
So a reasonable explanation could be that, because of the prowess that Paul demonstrated in his apologetic speeches, the inspiration of the Spirit was not needed. Certainly, the crowd in Jerusalem interrupted him to mock him: “up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live’.” (22:22). But Felix was persuaded by what Paul said (24:22–23); Festus was convinced by his argument (25:12, 25), noting the great learning that he displays (26:24); Agrippa wonders, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (26:28), and then determines that “this man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment” (26:31). Paul is presented as a most persuasive orator.
So perhaps we might argue that this whole section of Acts, where Paul speaks with rhetorical finesse and convinces Roman authorities, provides a strong vindication of words that Jesus spoke, much earlier in the Gospel, when he assures his followers that “when they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities … the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (12:11–12). Such public speaking is both spirit-inspired and learned.
Finally, we might observe that, whilst it is true that Paul is no longer on the front foot, travelling freely, preaching and establishing churches in numerous locations, and nurturing new believers, Paul is nevertheless still actively pursuing the theological agenda that Luke has outlined from early in his writings.
Simeon has declared that the child Jesus will bring “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32) and Luke has cited Isaiah’s words that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6, quoting Isa 40:5). Gentile receptivity to the good news is affirmed in many places: in the report that Jesus attracted “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17; the people from the coast would clearly have been Gentiles); in the instructions that Jesus gives in his parables to “go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled” (14:23); in the closing declaration of Jesus, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (24:47); and in other places in between these key markers.
Even though Paul is now prisoner, he is continuing the commission first given centuries before to The Servant: “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47, citing Isa 49:6). The narrative trajectory, as Paul travels from Jerusalem via Caesarea to Rome, is integral to Luke’s perception that the story demonstrates how Peter and John, Paul and his companions “will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). This geography reveals the theology at play: when Paul reaches Rome, he is at the centre of the Empire that reaches “to the ends of the earth”.
The story ends with Paul in Rome, spending two years proclaiming, debating, persuading, and we might well assume also guiding, nurturing and discipling. The fact that he is a prisoner under Roman arrest, not a travelling preacher, does not matter. The work of the Holy Spirit is continuing. The offer of salvation to the Gentiles (28:28) fulfils the ancient promise of the Spirit (28:25). Are we right, then, in deducing that the Spirit, barely mentioned explicitly in the final eight chapters, has been implicitly at work in all that has transpired? It seems the best possible understanding, to me.
Earlier posts are at