As a preacher, I always have to resist the temptation of preaching from biblical narratives, either Old Testament or New Testament. I love them. Well, I just love stories generally. Actually, most of us do. From kids to 'prime timers', Christians love the stories of the Bible. Why, even Hollywood loves them as it regularly presents the stories of Moses, David, Esther, and the passion of the Christ on both the big and the small screen.
Stories have a universal appeal. Just watch people on trains or planes passing the time reading the latest Grisham or Clancy. Wise journalists often present a news item by beginning with a story. A report on the latest Middle East conflict, or a plane crash, or stem cell research will often begin with a human-interest story about someone affected by the particular issue.
So, I don't need to be convinced to preach from books like Acts because the battle in gaining and maintaining audience interest is already half-won.
The Challenges of Narrative Preaching
Yet, despite our love affair with stories, preaching from biblical narratives like the book of Acts have their challenges.
(i) Length of Passages
Firstly, there is the length of many of the passages. One of the attractive things about Jesus' parables, for example, is their brevity. On the other hand, if you want to speak on Stephen's sermon and martyrdom you're dealing with some sixty-eight verses (6:8-7:60), Paul in Ephesus is forty-one verses (chapter 19), and Paul's shipwreck is forty-four (chapter 27). It is quite a challenge to faithfully cover the material in these accounts in your allotted time of 20-25 minutes, without being too superficial,. Of course, you may choose to make break up one of these sections into two or three 'bite-sized' pieces.
(ii) Repeating the Obvious
Another challenge is what \do you do when the narratives seem self-explanatory. There may seem little point in just repeating the story. Some of the narratives raise important issues that need to be addressed, but then there are others that seem to simply recount events. This was a challenge that faced me when I turned to expound Acts 28:1-14. It is the entertaining account of Paul shipwrecked on Malta. While lighting a fire he is bitten by a snake and miraculously healed. Then he is treated hospitably and generously by the Malta's equivalent to the wealthy James Packer. All quite fascinating, but strikingly the apostle to the Genhtiles doesn't appear to preach to anyone, no-one is converted, and there appear to be little 'spiritual fruit' from his sabbatical on the island. How does one explain and apply that to a 21st century audience (apart from the obvious, that congregations ought to provide their pastors with lengthy, well-endowed sabbaticals, preferably on a Greek island!)?
(iii) Prescriptive or Descriptive?
Thirdly, the question is often raised of how we apply 1st century narratives to 21st century believers. There is the old theological chestnut of the extent to which these narratives are descriptive or prescriptive.
Actually, I don't think that question is as difficult as it is some times made out to be. In reality is it not that hard to discern which of the activities we read about are particular to that time and place. Pentecost clearly has a unique place in salvation history, as does the Council of Jerusalem.
More difficult are passages like Acts 18:24-19-7, the account of the beginning of the ministry of Apollos, and the perplexing story of the disciples of John the Baptist, whom Paul meets and baptizes into the name of Jesus. To what extent are these characters representative of saints today? Are the disciples of John models for the need for a two-stage conversion, firstly, water baptism then Spirit-baptism?
Again, the clues are in the text itself. Apollos is described, literally, as "boiling over with the spirit". It is the same expression Paul uses in Rom 12 where he tells us to be "aglow with the Spirit". In short, Apollos has heard about Jesus and, by the power of the Spirit, has come to believe and follow him enthusiastically. On the other hand, in the next passage such terms are not used to describe these disciples of John. Superficially, they may seem to share a lot in common with Apollos: both are Jews, and believing Jews. That is, they know about the Messiah because they both know the Scriptures. But the Baptist's disciples are clearly different from Apollos since they "have not heard if the Holy Spirit is" (v.2). They knew that the day of the baptism of the Spirit was coming, but had not heard that it had arrived. So, unlike Apollos, here are Jews who are waiting for their Messiah, but are still living in the old age. They have not yet entered into the experience of the new age, the age of the Spirit. So what does Paul do? He does whatever he does when people come to faith for the first time: he baptises them in the name of the Lord Jesus.
From time to time in Acts we will meet people caught up in 'the turning point of the ages'; in that moment when the day of promise gives way to the day of fulfilment. Of course, their situation is unique. However, passages such as this one provide a wonderful opportunity to discuss the place of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
(iv) Applying Narrative
After 30 years of preaching, and hearing sermons, I am convinced that the most difficult part of the sermon is the conclusion. It may also be the most important part. They are the last words the congregation hears before you say, 'Amen'. Yet, the ending of many sermons is often anti-climactic. The problem is exacerbated when it comes to working out how to apply a passage in such a way that it is God's prophetic word to this people (St Cuthberts) in this place (Melbourne) at this point in time (2007), and is an appropriate application consistent with the writer's purpose (as much as that can be discerned).
Often in Scripture the application is clear and unambiguous ("Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth"), but what does a preacher do, say with a passage like Acts 27 which simply describes, in painstaking detail, Paul's shipwreck. Luke, the narrator, gives us no clear word of exhortation? How is this scripture "profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"?
The chapter contains a vivid description of Paul and some other believers caught and tossed about in a terrible storm. Apart from that last brief word of prophecy, there is nothing in the story that you would call spiritual. In order to find an application for today, one very common approach is the 'Anchor's in Life's Storms Approach'. Let me quote from one sermon: (web-based sermons are often invaluable in guiding you how not to exegete a passage!).
A man drives to work at 6.30 am as he has for 8 years. When he arrives he's confronted by his boss who again berates and humiliates him as he has done repeatedly over the years. This time the man quits. STORMS.
A strong thunderstorm sweeps through the area and destroys a farmers crops and barns. STORMS
A widow faces an empty house and bed for the first time in 40 years. STORMS
Parents sit on the couch. It's 3 in the morning. Their 16 year old son hasn't come home yet from the party. They fear he's been drinking. STORMS.
We all face storms. Some are physical, some are personal. The right question is not whether they will come, or when, but how we will respond to them. Paul faced a life-threatening storm and did not panic. As the crew panicked Paul stood and shared the anchors that held his life secure. The anchors of courage, protection, purpose and presence. Anchors which keep us steady and safe while we live through the storms of life. Have you cast out the anchors in the storms of life?
I want to suggest to you that when Luke, inspired by the Spirit of God, wrote this vivid account the storms of life were the furthest things from his thoughts, and the only anchors in his mind were the wooden ones that were attached to that ancient ship.
So, if allegorising is not the right approach, what can we say about a passage like Acts 27? Well, you'll have to order a copy of my talk from Summer Under the Sun to find out (and all proceeds go to CMS). But, just to summarize: Paul's long journey to Rome really starts back in chapter 21 when Paul is arrested in Jerusalem. He faces what must seem like an endless series of obstacles: riots, trials, imprisonments, attempts on his life, and last and not least a violent storm at sea. Small wonder that Paul might have doubted whether God's word that he would testify before Caesar would be fulfilled.
In the light of that, we can demonstrate to our congregation how Paul understands the comforting truth of the sovereignty of God. Especially in this chapter we see how knowing and trusting God's purposes will be fulfilled produces not presumption or inactivity, but confident, tireless labour. Secondly, like the apostle we can be confident that the same divine hand orders and guides the events of our lives. Even should we make foolish decisions, with all the consequent ramifications, nevertheless God's ultimate purpose to glorify his Son through us will not be frustrated. Finally, we see that God's good purposes for his people are usually fulfilled in the context of suffering, hostility and, even, the tumultuous groanings of a creation in travail, such as a storm at sea. Yet, in the midst of this there is the certainty of the triumph and the fulfilment of the purposes of a sovereign God.
Why We Should Preach Acts
Let me just suggest 4 reasons why Acts should be a 'priority book' for our preaching.
Firstly, it is important for our ecclesiology. It describes the birth of the church, which is our church. It doesn't present to us some idealised picture of a pristine primitive church, but of a church beset with the same problems we face. There is deceit and apostasy (ch.5), dissension (ch.6:1-6), and prayer that demonstrated little faith (ch.12). Acts presents to us the constituent elements of the church (Acts 2:42-47). It informs our often-uddied thinking about issues such as fellowship and the Lord's Supper
Secondly, it is crucial for our understanding of mission. Acts reminds us of the gospel that the apostles preached. In a contemporary context where mission has been broadened to include almost anything a Christian does vis a vis the world - and strikingly, often omits or marginalises that which is central in the ministry of the first 'sent ones' – it is crucial that we keep returning to Acts and reminding our people of the nature and urgency of world mission, and the central place of proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Thirdly, and related to the above, Acts is an important and stimulating resource for our evangelism. How did the apostles seek to proclaim Christ to an ignorant, superstitious, but very 'spiritual' culture? Indeed, as one reads the accounts of Paul's ministry in places like Lystra, Athens and Corinth, you are struck by how similar Paul's world and our own 21st C Australian world have become. I have been struck by Paul's appeal to general revelation in his preaching to Gentiles, his emphasis on the resurrection, and the fact that he doesn't shy away from reminding people, even outright pagans, that God has appointed a Day.
Fourthly, Acts reminds us that suffering is an unavoidable feature of the Christian life. The story of Acts is the narrative of the progress of the gospel and the inevitable triumph of the word, but always in the context of opposition, suffering and frustration. Acts is a great reality check for a church tempted to triumphalism and a gospel of comfort and prosperity.
Series on Acts
While I've delivered a number of 'one-off' talks from Acts, from time to time I have presented a short series of sermons.
Laying the Foundations
Acts 1:1-11 The Ascension
Acts 1:12-26 Lessons from a Death
Acts 2:1-41 The Day the Spirit Came
Acts 2:42-47 What We Do When We Go To Church
Acts 3:1-4:12 No Other Name
The Gospel and the World
Acts 14:1-20 Something Stupid
Acts 17:16-34 Mission in the Marketplace
Acts 18:24-9:7 The Difference the Spirit Makes
Acts 19:8-41 Confronting the Idols
The Last Journey
Acts 27:1-26 Paul's Perfect Storm
Acts 27:27-44 Shipwreck
Acts 28:1-14 Adventures in Malta
Acts 28:11-31 And So We Came to Rome
What's Worth Reading
The commentaries by David Williams and I.H. Marshall are both worth consulting, although a preacher may be looking for more detailed comments than these series are able to provide. John Stott is, as always, reliable and edifying, although, like some other writers, he seems to run out of puff about half-way through. His comments on the second-half of Acts (from chapter 15 onwards) are much briefer, and more general, than the first half. The NIV Application Commentary series is generally very useful, but I consider Ajith Fernando's contribution on Acts the weakest I've read in this series. I've personally found Ben Witherington's The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary the most useful resource for preaching. For a general introduction for preachers Chris Green's, The Word of his Grace: A Guide to Teaching and Preaching Acts contains some good, practical advice.
Michael Raiter is the Principal of the Bible College of Victoria.