(Image credit: Isaac Mui)
Our church has journeyed through the book of Acts over the past 6 months as part of our 30th anniversary theme, “How Firm A Foundation”. It’s been timely for my own heart to dig deeper into this important book with a team of preachers as we saw time and time again how (as the Quizworx team once put it): “The message of the risen Lord Jesus cannot be stopped!”
To help prepare for the series, I translated most of Acts from the Greek text and read a few commentaries. On the Greek text, Scott Kellum’s EGGNT volume was a reliable guide. On planning the series, David Cook’s Teaching Acts (Proclamation Trust) was especially helpful in highlighting how to navigate the larger sections (e.g. Acts 24-26) and suggesting listener-friendly outlines. Alan Thompson’s The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus (NSBT) offered some really helpful explanations of Old Testament fulfilment. For issues relating to the social and cultural background of the many speeches and writings, consulting Ben Witherington’s Acts: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary was heavy(!) but helpful. Other conversation partners included Sam George’s Journeys of Asian Diaspora and a range of missions biographies and prayer partners.
For preachers, bible study leaders and keen readers, here’s a few thoughts in no particular order:
- Acts is a historical narrative first addressed to Theophilus and his fellow readers (Acts 1:1-3), and much of what follows this introduction is described, not prescribed. For example, we’re not instructed to get a snake bite like Paul, or hang ourselves like Judas; it’s described! So we need to discern from context why something occurs, and whether we are given a direct command (e.g. “repent and be baptised”, Acts 2:28), a pattern to follow (e.g. “preach the whole counsel of God”, Acts 20:27), or broader principles to trust (e.g. God is in control of all of circumstances, good and bad, Acts 27). Asking “Is this described or prescribed?” and “why did Theophilus need to hear this?” helps us to consider questions like “does Acts teach us to pursue a second Spirit-baptism?” or “is speaking in tongues a mark of a true believer?” in a clearer way.
- Also, Acts completes what Luke’s gospel started and earlier prophets hoped for. This means much of why something happens has an Old Testament background. The speaking in tongues at Pentecost reverses the confounding of languages at Babel and fulfils the hopes of Joel 2:28-32 that sons and daughters will prophesy and that everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD shall be saved. The conversion of the Ethiopian fulfils the Servant Song promises in Isaiah 56:3 that foreigners and eunuchs will one day be part of a spiritually fruitful family. Before we look forward and pursue a specific “Acts” experience or strategy, it’s helpful first to look back and see what hopes from Israel’s world are being fulfilled in the lives of the first Christians — and understand our own questions in that light.
- Acts is a drama in three “acts” – Acts 1:8 is the interpretive key to the whole book, where the risen Lord Jesus declares to his disciples: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” From this, you have the three main movements of the symphony that is Acts: Jerusalem (ch. 1-7); Judea and Samaria (8-12); and to the ends of the earth (13-28). I took David Cook’s suggestion on structuring Acts as three mini-series or “seasons” along these divisions.
- The story of Acts is to be continued! It was a treat to welcome several guests who shared their missions and church-planting experience alongside the expounding of God’s Word, including Johan and Debbie Linder (church-planters in Thailand), Matt and Cristelle Nicholas (heading to the Philippines), Rowan Hilsden (Auckland EV) and more. During our third series in Acts 13-28, we also took time to pray specifically for a number of different countries and people groups (and enjoying their delicious food!).
- Acts is a multi-cultural story – Preaching Acts in an immigrant church highlighted some of the cultural and language-related aspects of the storyline I’d failed to notice before. Whether it’s the grumbling between Hebrew and Greek-speaking Jews in Acts 6, or Paul switching languages when talking with different people in Acts 21:37-22:2, the early church was a diverse mix of immigrant and diaspora groups who spoke several languages and had to cross cultures frequently. We are not the first generation to wrestle with the gospel and “biculturalism”, meetings in multiple languages, and how to welcome “outsiders” into our midst!
- Reading Acts cross-culturally also helps us make sense of the diverse ways that the Word increases and multiplies greatly. Some entered God’s Kingdom through patient reasoning until they understood Jesus as the promised Messiah. Others had no knowledge about Jesus but yearned to worship unknown gods that Paul makes known to them (Acts 17:16-34). Still others needed a power encounter with the unsurpassed authority of King Jesus (e.g. among the superstitious people in Ephesus and Asia Minor). Because God is calling different cultures to Himself, different metaphors of Jesus will connect with different people. Notice too how each sermon in Acts is tailored to a particular audience: whether in a Jewish synagogue, outside a pagan temple, or before rulers and authorities. While the content of the gospel doesn’t change, what is effective evangelism and ways to communicate this will vary depending on our particular audience.