Preaching Acts

An Acts to Grind: using Acts as church manual

‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the way things are done, just as they were handed down to us by those who were foundation members of our particular denomination. Therefore, since I myself have carefully confirmed my own prejudices from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write a prescriptive handbook for you, most excellent twenty-first century reader, so that you may know for certain that you are right in how you do church*.’
[*Some authorities add: ‘and that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong’, here and everywhere else throughout their ecclesial practices.]

Although this may be an unfair caricature, it never ceases to surprise me the number of times I hear Acts preached as though it were primarily a manual for how we should do church. An issue of practice or strategy arises, and we thumb through its pages to find out how they did it back then – often with the unchallenged assumption that this will tell us precisely how we should do it, too. Unless, of course, it doesn’t fit with our own cultural preferences, denominational heritage, or the latest strategy in church growth to emerge from North America – at which point we mumble something about ‘cultural context’ and try our luck in the pastoral epistles.

Even if we are able to shed the lenses of our own ecclesial prejudice and come to the text as impartially as possible, is the Acts of the Apostles intended to be the definitive guidebook for how all future generations organise and conduct themselves as the people of God? More simply, is Acts prescriptive as well as descriptive? Entire denominations have been built on this premise, but is the premise itself valid?

Part of the attraction of this approach is that the narrative of Acts refers to many of the issues we face today: mediating internal disputes, determining the frequency and nature of church gatherings, relating to secular authorities, giving and stewardship of possessions, providing systematic care for believers in need, exercising the charismatic gifts, formulating strategies for mission, and proclaiming the gospel to a variety of different audiences and cultures – just to name a few. Given the divisive nature of many of these issues, wouldn’t it be great if we could simply consult a handbook to sort them all out?

The problem, of course, is that Acts isn’t written like a handbook. It’s a story. And like the vast swathes of narrative in the Old Testament, it doesn’t set out to teach by proposition, but through implication and illustration. Just because an action is recorded in a biblical narrative doesn’t mean other believers can or should do likewise – indeed, it may be recorded as an example of what not to do! Other times (I would argue, the majority of the time) the action is incidental to the story and to the author’s purpose.

Fee and Stuart (‘Acts: The question of historical precedent,’ in How to read the Bible for all its worth) provide an excellent introduction to the dangers of using Acts as a church instruction manual, and provide some very careful guidelines for the cases in which we can derive principles of church practice.[1] Particularly valuable is their insistence that while many of the patterns of practice found in Acts are ones the church would do well to imitate in some way, they are not binding commands. That is, Acts provides examples worthy of imitation – examples of how Christians in the first century lived a life centred on Christ and the proclamation his gospel, in the midst of a hostile world. However, it rarely provides us with a definitive, ‘thus saith the Lord’ which we are to follow in our own day. For the most part, it teaches generic principles for Christian community without the specific, first-century application being binding.

A great example of this kind of application is found in Bill Hybels’ well-known Acts 2 church vision-casting sermons. He draws out the characteristics of the first Christian community as presented in Acts 2:42-47 (which, I would argue, is intended by Luke to function as a paradigm of Christian community values) without limiting us to specific way in which they are realised in that particular time and culture. He then suggests ways in which his church can fulfil these ideals of hospitality, care for the needy, meeting for teaching and prayer, etc., in ways that are appropriate in twenty-first century America.

Having said this, if this is the only way in which we use Acts – or even the primary way – then I believe we are missing the point. Even a legitimate use of Acts to inform our way of ‘doing church’ is secondary application at best, for the simple reason that it was not Luke’s intention to write a church handbook. If we get some good ideas from studying the example of the first Christians, then that’s all well and good. But if we persist in only asking of Acts our questions, we risk missing Luke’s purpose in writing. We need to understand Acts firstly in terms of Luke’s own purposes in writing, and read it through the eyes of its first reader. In other words, to apply Acts today we need to discover Luke’s purpose in writing to Theophilus.

Sharpening Acts to a point: Luke’s rhetorical purpose

To this end we must be grateful to Luke for providing us with an explicit statement of purpose in the preface to his two-volume work (Luke 1:1-4). Luke-Acts is historiography, a genre going back several centuries to pioneers like Thucydides and his accounts of the politics and battles of the Greek city-states. We see this right from the very beginning, where the form of his introduction contains the usual elements one would expect to find in the preface to an ancient historiography;[2] most notably for our purposes, this includes the reason for writing on the chosen subject.

Luke tells us he wrote to Theophilus ‘that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’. He did not write so that Theophilus would know how to organise his church, the appropriateness or otherwise of speaking in tongues, or effective evangelism strategies for reaching the culturally diverse urban populations of Asia Minor. He wrote both Luke and Acts in order to reassure Theophilus that his newly-embraced faith was indeed certain and based on rational conclusions rather than mere superstition. His first volume focused on the person of Jesus – his claim of divinity, and the various evidences thereof, culminating in the resurrection appearances. His second volume then looked at the expansion of this faith in Jesus, son of God, as a worldwide phenomenon, bringing many to faith both through the power of the Holy Spirit and the persuasive and reasoned appeals of the apostles[3].

Clearly, then, this should direct the purpose of our preaching of Luke-Acts. Our overarching purpose should be to persuade our hearers of the certainty of what they have been taught; it should firstly bolster faith both in Jesus and the gospel message. This is achieved both through rational argument as well as by simply telling the stories of individual lives and families and cities as they are transformed by the gospel. The preaching of Acts should appeal both to head and heart.

Further, unlike biography, historiography is less concerned with a person’s character and more on actions; in particular, actions that had an impact on the world. It investigated cause-and-effect, and presented historical events in a clear chronological and geographical arrangement (cf. Luke’s claim to present an ‘orderly account’, the job of an historian). From its genre, then, we can deduce that Luke intended to present the impact of certain actions – firstly of Jesus, then of his apostles  – on the history of the world.

We can thus see that the overarching purpose of Acts is far bigger than ‘how to do church’ or even ‘how to do mission’ – it is the story of how God was doing mission and building his church in the years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. It traces the ripple effect of the life of Jesus, through his followers, not only chronologically but also geographically (Acts 1:8): beginning in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and in a movement ever-westward, to the ends of the earth (or Rome, as it was then called!).

Again, any time we preach from Acts, we are preaching the big story of God’s building the church of Jesus Christ through the power of his Spirit. Against this majestic backdrop, whether we should celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly or monthly fades somewhat into the background.

Variety Acts: The problem of repetition

Now these big-picture purposes of shoring up faith and celebrating God at work in his world are foundational concepts for applying Acts as well as inspiring topics for any preacher. And yet, relying on these alone can make preaching a series through Acts a little repetitive. Each week we are true to Luke’s stated aims, but each week ends up sounding a lot like the previous week.

This is particularly the case when preaching through Paul’s missionary journeys. In the case study we’ll look at in detail a little later (Acts 17:1-15), by the time we arrive at Thessalonica we’re all too familiar with the usual pattern of events: Paul arrives in a new location and immediately begins preaching to Jews and Gentile God-fearers in the synagogue, where he meets with some measure of success. Very soon, however, his message encounters opposition from those who are in some way threatened by the gospel, eventually forcing him to move on to the next city. We have already encountered this pattern in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Iconium and Lystra (Acts 14), as well as Philippi in the previous chapter (Acts 16).

In each of these passages the primary application is concerned with the power of the gospel to advance, despite opposition. In addition, a prominent secondary theme is Paul’s practice of preaching first to the Jews (a theme he develops theologically in Romans, see 1:16-17). At first glance it seems that our passage in Acts 17 contains more of the same; and in terms of primary application, this indeed proves to be correct. Any way you preach it, this passage needs to be grounded firmly in Luke’s wider narrative of the spread of the gospel both geographically (from Jerusalem around to Rome) and ethnographically (from having a predominately Jewish character to being a multi-racial movement).

But is there anything about this passage that is unique? Anything that sets it apart from all the other narratives that follow the same pattern of arrival-proclamation-opposition-departure? Anything that stops it serving merely as a foil for the more celebrated proclamation to the philosophers in Athens later in the chapter? Before attempting to answer that question specifically, we need to look a little more closely at some of Luke’s other purposes in writing.

Agenda bias: Luke’s other implied purposes

Like any historian, Luke has a number of agendas in his presentation of history. After all, it’s explicitly written to persuade not merely to inform. Not all of these agendas are spelled out for us, however, and so it is up to the careful and historically informed reader to discern some of the less-obvious aspects of Luke’s intent in writing. Space doesn’t permit an exhaustive exploration of this (which is, after all, the role of a commentary!), but we will take a quick look at a handful of the more common, and which I have found most fruitful in terms of preaching application.

A prominent theme in Acts is the inclusion of the Gentiles in what was originally a Jewish sect; by the end of the book, the gospel has reached the capital of the Gentile world and Gentiles have become a majority in the church. Listening through the ears of Theophilus, we find reassurance that the message of Jesus is not just for Jews. While we might not have precisely the same concerns (unless there is a significant Jewish element in our community), the broader issues of race and the inclusive nature of the gospel are sadly still relevant both in the wider society and in many of our churches.

Acts also appears to function as an apologetic intent on legitimising the Jesus movement as the fulfilment and continuation of Judaism. Approximately the first quarter of the book details a transfer of divine power from the temple authorities to the apostles,[4] pertinent if Theophilus were previously a synagogue adherent (‘Godfearing Greek’). Luke also attempts to legitimise Christianity as an honourable religion in the eyes of Gentile society[5]: it was not a destabilizing force which threatened the social order, but a responsible movement which had a positive impact on the world. We see this especially in Paul’s presentation as a responsible citizen who remains in gaol (16:28), works for the common good during the shipwreck despite being in custody (chapter 27), and operates within the Roman legal process. It scarcely needs pointing out that Christianity is in desperate need of a similar apologetic to counter its consistently negative portrayal in the media. Against the (sometimes justified) charges of intolerance, repression and abuse of power we need to lift the eyes of the world beyond the stale institutions and crazy cults, showing how the church for the most part works responsibly for the benefit of society.

There is also the oft-discussed concern of Luke with socio-economic status and the role of the poor in the kingdom. Throughout Luke’s gospel we see established values turned upside-down as the poor and marginalised embrace Jesus’ message, while the rich are left trying to make their camels more compact. This theme continues in Acts with attention drawn to the first Christians’ concern for the poor. It can’t have escaped Theophilus, Luke’s wealthy patron, that there are significant implications for wealthy and important followers of Jesus such as himself. Western Christians would be well served by preachers who help them hear the story of early Christianity through the ears of Theophilus, and how he might have been impacted and challenged by Luke’s presentation.

This flows on into the idea of the church as a radical counter-culture in a hostile world. It is a community in which socio-economic barriers are broken down so that high status in society does not necessarily translate into leadership roles in the church (take note, Theophilus!). It is a community in which members engage in radical, self-sacrificial care for the needy and goes far beyond the self-promoting, public generosity required of the nobility (are you hearing me, Theophilus?). Again, a fruitful and almost limitless source of application for our own believing communities.

However, lest we unfairly caricature Luke as merely the theologian to the poor, it must also be noted that Luke includes some positive messages to the wealthy elite. As a complement or counterbalance to his focus on social reversal, Luke’s very presentation is couched in the forms and language of the privileged classes. The most rhetorically adept writer of the New Testament, he portrays the Christian faith as being a rational belief; he depicts the gospel as being successful across socio-economic lines, even highlighting the success among those of high status in order to further persuade his patron. This is in fact a very promising line of application, which we will now investigate further in our case study, below.

A preaching ‘workshop’ on Acts 17:1-15

So to set the scene again: we find ourselves preaching Acts 17:1-15 (Paul in Thessalonica and Berea) as part of a series through Acts. We are conscious that the basic pattern of events has occurred several times previously – indeed in last week’s sermon from chapter 16. Is there anything in this passage that stands out as being unique? Are there some subtler agendas going on in Luke’s presentation of this particular episode? Let’s take a look.

The gospel is reasonable

The first thing to stand out is Luke’s emphasis on the reasonableness of the gospel proclamation. Take note of the underlined words in the description of Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica:

2-4 ‘As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, ” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas’

We see a similar occurrence in Berea:

11b-12a ‘[they] examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed’

The gospel is proclaimed with rational, logical proof; those who respond are persuaded by that appeal to reason when they evaluate it and find it to be true. It seems that Luke is reporting the material in order to stress that the gospel message makes sense.

Now although it might seem that we’re making a lot out of a little, we must remember that this fits with Luke’s broader intentions. These are explicitly stated in the prologue to his two volumes: he has ‘carefully investigated everything’, including the testimony of ‘eyewitnesses’, for the express purpose ‘that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’ (Lk 1:1-4). Then throughout Acts in particular he records numerous speeches that demonstrate the rational basis for faith in Christ, mostly to Jewish audiences but also, significantly, for Gentile pagans (Acts 17:16-34). The reasonableness of the gospel message is no mere passing remark in our text; it is a key concern of the whole of Luke-Acts.  

The gospel is embraced by the educated elite

Connected with this is a curious emphasis on the social status (and gender) of those who responded positively to Paul’s message, both in Thessalonica:

4 ‘Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.’

and in Berea:

12 ‘Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.’

This is not the first time in Acts this has been emphasised:

13:7b ‘The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.’

Why does Luke draw attention to the ‘prominence’, or high status of those who were persuaded? In Luke’s day those of high status were the best educated; indeed, for women only the elite received more than a basic education. It is most likely, then, that he is intending to rehabilitate the Christian faith by showing that the gospel is persuading people of education and importance. (In fact, among the literary foils in the narrative are the ‘bad characters’ – the working class day-labourers – who are rounded up to start a riot against Paul and the gospel.)

This is more important (and less ‘snobbish’) than we might think. We need to realise that there were new religions coming and going throughout the empire all the time. Most of them were mystic cults that originated with rural peasants, full of ecstatic experiences and  bizarre beliefs. Mostly it was only the poor and uneducated who would tend to get caught up in them. Since Christianity had its initial success among the lower classes, there was a very real danger that Christianity would simply be viewed by the educated as just another religion for superstitious peasants.

It must be remembered that Luke is writing in the first instance for someone named Theophilus, most probably his wealthy patron who financed his writing. It is therefore understandable that one of Luke’s purposes in writing to such a person would be to reassure him that the gospel was not only reasonable, but that it was being embraced not only by the lower classes but also by the educated elite. Accepting the gospel message, then, is being presented in our text as the smart choice.

Sidenote: Why stress that they were prominent women? It may be simply part of Luke’s agenda to present a positive view of women in the new community. However, from other sources we see that a lot of the time when important men in Greek society were converted it was their wives who first responded to the gospel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in My Big Fat Greek Wedding the mother of the bride boasts that the husband may be the head of the home, but the wife is the neck and she can turn the head wherever she wants! My theory – although it’s purely speculation – is that Mrs. Theophilus may have been first to follow Jesus; Luke might be highlighting the role of such women to reassure Mr. Theophilus he’s not alone. However, since it is only speculation, I won’t be preaching that!

The gospel is for the mature

As well as painting acceptance of the gospel as a rational decision for an educated person to make, there is also another rhetorical strategy at play in Acts 17. Luke explicitly portrays those who reject and oppose the gospel as doing so for immature reasons. In verse 5 he attributes the hostility of the Thessalonian Jewish leadership to jealousy. Paul and the gospel message were taking their place as God’s gatekeepers, and they weren’t happy. So they decided to turn the people against Paul and Silas by portraying them as a threat to everyone:

6b-7 ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus’

In other words, they have upset the peace and stability in other cities, causing trouble wherever they go. They are peddling a new religion that refuses to offer sacrifices to the emperor. They are disloyal to Caesar by proclaiming another king (which was prohibited by law). If they are allowed to stay, the city risks the wrath of Rome coming down upon them. Suddenly, the selfish motives of the Jewish leaders were shared by everyone, forcing Paul and Silas to flee.

However, the response in Berea is different:

11 ‘Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.’

Luke says the Bereans were more ‘noble’, which in the first century was code for being more mature: doing what was wise, just and sometimes courageous; not acting purely out of self-interest. The decision to embrace the gospel was not only the smart choice of the educated person, it was also the noble choice of the mature person.

Putting it all together

So as we now have discovered, there is far more possibility for applying this message than a simple rehashing of the previous proclamation episodes. Just as it was part of Luke’s agenda to rehabilitate the gospel in the eyes of the educated, it can also inform the agenda of our sermon. This is possibly an even more pressing need in our society today, where faith in Jesus is often mocked and ridiculed in the media, patronised or treated with contempt in academia, and viewed as a crutch by those who are ‘successful’ in the eyes of the world. The rhetorical intent of the sermon, then, can seek firstly to reassure believers (and persuade the unconvinced) that the Christian faith can stand up even to the most rigorous of scrutiny. Secondly, the message can present a challenge to join Luke in his agenda; to be involved – in many and various ways – in defending the reasonableness of the gospel.

Again, however, it must be stressed that we need to ground this in the primary theme of both the passage itself and the book of Acts: the power of the gospel to advance despite opposition. The references to the ‘many’ who were persuaded (verses 4 and 12) remind us of this, and provide suitable material for a concluding exhortation to be confident in the success of the gospel.

Sample sermon outline

Here is the outline for the sermon I eventually preached, to illustrate how even this brief socio-rhetorical analysis can not only be used in a sermon, but dare I say drive its structure and intent. In the outline I’ll show the lines I took with application, but won’t rehash the exegetical work presented above.

The gospel: the smart choice

Introduction: reassurance

A series of short illustrations to show that when we’ve just made a significant decision involving some degree of risk (a large purchase, a new job, to get married), we often look for reassurance that we have made the right choice.

This is linked to the experience of first century Christians who risked much in deciding to follow Christ. And the educated elite (like Theophilus) had the most to lose.

Luke writes to reassure his readers that they have indeed made the right choice (Lk 1:1-4)

It’s the smart choice

People are persuaded by rational argument (17:2-4; 11-12 – see exegesis above)

When people come to trust in Jesus they can do so for rational, logical reasons. It makes sense. You don’t have to check your brain at the door on the way in to church. You can question Christianity, and it will stand up to scrutiny. It’s the smart choice, says Luke – see, Theophilus, there are rational people like yourself coming to faith in Christ!

Even educated people are persuaded (17:4, 12 – see exegesis above)

Luke wants to remind Theophilus that Christianity is different. It can’t just be dismissed as another one of these crazy peasant cults that will come and go – this is the real deal. It’s for everyone: it deserves attention not only by the poor and oppressed, but will withstand scrutiny even by the most educated of people. It’s the smart choice.

Do we need to rehabilitate Christianity today in the eyes of the educated?

A series of brief illustrations showing how our culture patronises and ridicules Christianity as being for the ignorant.

A series of examples of how some people in our church are actively joining Luke’s agenda to rehabilitate Christianity from this false impression. This is followed by a look some of the rationale behind John Dickson and Greg Clarke’s setting up of the Centre for Public Christianity.

A challenge for everyone to get involved in some way, not just leave it up to the nerds: you can still have a normal, fulfilling social life and know the reasons for your faith!

Suggestions of books, courses, etc., as well as making it a part of our church’s culture to discuss the defence of the faith in order to stimulate and equip one another.

It’s the ‘noble’ (mature) choice

Those who aren’t persuaded are threatened (17:5-8 – see exegesis above)

The Jews were threatened by the gospel, and so reacted immaturely, out of jealousy.

By contrast, the Bereans were more ‘noble’ (17:11) in their mature response.

Who gets threatened today?

Many people who reject the gospel do so not because it doesn’t make sense (see point 1) but because it threatens their self-rule.

Society gets the most threatened by Christians not when we talk about love or acceptance or social justice, but whenever we start talking about moral absolutes; about Jesus being the only way. People are happy to hear about a God who forgives them. But they don’t want anything to do with a God who has expectations about our behaviour; about a God whose rules we have broken; about a God who actually tells us what he’s like, rather than allowing us to make up our own comfortable idea of God. The gospel threatens our self-rule.

When are others the most threatened, or disturbed, by your Christian lifestyle? Not really when you go to church, or give money to the poor, or insist on being nice to people. No-one really minds Christians doing that kind of stuff. Other people are most threatened when they are confronted by radical, counter-cultural lifestyles. (A series of examples…) What aspects of your lifestyle are a threat to non-believers?

Our radical, Christ-centre lifestyle should be a threat to others, so don’t let it dissuade us. Although the culture around us might be competing with our decision, try to make us think we’ve done the wrong thing; although our own emotions might be competing with us – Luke reminds both Theophilus and us that following Jesus is the noble, mature choice.

Despite the opposition, it’s still a popular choice (17:4, 12)

Despite all the opposition, it’s still a popular choice. (V4 even in Thessalonica ‘some’ of the Jews and ‘many’ Greeks were persuaded; v12 in Berea, ‘many’ Jews and ‘many’ Greeks believed.) The overall picture of Acts is that despite the opposition, the gospel moves ever-onward, having great success.

In the first century following Jesus was the smart choice; it was the noble choice; and it was even becoming a popular choice. And in the twenty first century nothing has changed. Be reassured, in following Jesus you’ve made the right choice. And join Luke in making it part of your agenda to tell this to the rest of the world.

Further reading

Hopefully this has given a concrete illustration of how the study of Luke’s rhetorical intent (and its social background) can inform and shape our preaching of Acts. A great place to start picking the fruit of this kind of socio-rhetorical analysis is through Ben Witherington’s series of commentaries[6]. For an introduction to the big picture of the discipline, David DeSilva’s Introduction to the New Testament provides not only a series of summary articles but an application of the process to each book of the New Testament. His Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity is also well worth a look. For material specific to Acts, as well as Witherington’s commentary I suggest The Social World of Luke-Acts (ed. Jerome Neyrey).

However, this kind of reading is but a necessary precursor to the real work of not only listening to the book of Acts through the ears of its original audience, but then working out for ourselves how Luke’s words ought to persuade us, our congregation, and our world.

Tim MacBride

Lecturer in New Testament & Preaching, Morling College

Notes

[1] Space prevents a fuller treatment of their material here, but I thoroughly recommended it to every beginning preacher.

[2] The other elements are: (1) requests and dedications; (2) comments on the value and utility of history; (3) mention of predecessors (often in a critical way); (4) assurance of impartiality; and (5) use of appropriate methodology. See David A. DeSilva, Introduction to the New Testament, 349.

[3] Note the emphasis, like any good historian of his time, on speeches: the power of the persuasive word to effect change.

[4] DeSilva, 357-61.

[5] Witherington, Acts, 74, suggests Luke is giving Theophilus an answer to these questions of legitimacy: ‘How can the Christian church be the true Israel when it is rejected by Jews and there are so few Jewish converts to it? How can it be legitimate if the Roman state opposes and persecutes it?’

[6] See also Witherington’s, New Testament rhetoric: a handbook, 2008, which provides a thorough and readable entry point into the field.

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