Stepping Out Into a New World

The last year has felt like a whirlwind for us all.  There have been constant government guideline changes and the kinds of interruptions to everyday life that most of us have never seen before.  Now it feels like we are starting to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

The world has been shifting.  Due to the pandemic or due to societal changes, the world is not the same place as it was just a few years ago.  So my mind has gone to the second half of Acts.  Acts 13 and following chronicles when the followers of Jesus first stepped out to take the message of Jesus to a very different world.

Let’s take Acts 13-14 as a case study to consider.  Here we read Luke’s account of the first missionary journey.  The church at Antioch in Syria sent out Barnabas and Paul.  These two travelled to Cyprus, then up to what we would call Turkey.  We read of their ministry in places like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.

Perhaps we can note some basic principles that will be helpful to us as we step out into our new world with the message of Jesus today:

1. God is active in the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:1-4, we see how God is the initiator who launched the mission of Barnabas and Saul.  As we read further, we can recognize that God is involved in every aspect of their ministry.  That same God was not surprised by the challenges of 2020.  He is continuing to work out His purposes in 2021. 

2. The enemy opposes the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:8-11, we read about the active opposition of a false teacher called Elymas.  This “son of the Devil” was trying to turn others away from the faith.  Paul did not hold back in dealing with that opposition.  Remember that this was a foreign culture, but the apostles knew that people everywhere need to hear the truth about Jesus.  We will face opposition as we seek to speak of Jesus this year.  Let’s pray for the courage and boldness we need to carry that message effectively.

3. People respond to the message in different ways.  In Acts 13:42-52, we witness a typical response to Paul’s preaching.  Some of the hearers were stirred and wanted to know more.  But opposition arose from the local Jews who eventually drove the apostles out of town.  We might expect the opposition to come from overtly evil people. However, often it is the religious and self-righteous who prove to be most resistant to the good news of Jesus.   We should never be discouraged by a mixed reaction to the gospel.

4. Remember to begin at the very beginning.  In Acts 14:8-20, we watch Barnabas and Paul as they came to Lystra.  These were not Jews with a background understanding of the Old Testament.  These were pagans with no Bible background at all.  They soon gathered in a crowd with the local priest of Zeus, ready to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul (who they mistakenly thought were Zeus and Hermes in the flesh!).  Barnabas and Paul could have seized the opportunity.  After all, here was a crowd, including a strategic influencer, who all thought Paul and Barnabas were gods – they could have worked with that position of influence!

Paul could have launched into preaching about God’s greater sacrifice.  Or he could have demonstrated the similarities between Zeus and the true God.  With some careful editing, it is always possible to forge the connections between other deities and our God.  Lystrans believed Zeus was the sovereign of the universe, master of heaven and earth.  It sounds biblical.  Zeus was concerned with justice and order; God too.  Zeus showcased his power in extreme weather; there are Bible stories that come to mind. 

But Paul and Barnabas did not entertain this approach at all.  Why not?  Because truth matters.  And the truth of the matter was that the God they had come to represent was not like Zeus or any other god hanging around the area.  The true God was so much better!  So Paul launched into a brief message introducing the true God.  Paul spoke boldly, calling them to turn from vain things.  He also spoke invitingly, calling them to turn to God.  And he spoke clearly, setting out the character of the true God: the living and generous creator God, patient and kind. 

The God we represent is not the same as the other gods worshipped in our world.  People worship the gods of other religions, or celebrities, or ideologies.  We can always edit the details and form connections. Still, the foundational truth is that the true God is different, and He is better because He is so so good!  Let’s be sure to start at the beginning, with the God question: which God is God?  What is He like?

5. Be prepared to suffer because it is worth it.  In Acts 14:19-23, we see Paul stoned, dragged out of the city and presumed dead.  When the disciples gathered around him, though, he stood up.  Amazingly, he then went back into the city!  After travelling on to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas don’t continue down the road to their ultimate destination, their sending church in Syria.  Instead, they turn around and go back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – the three cities involved in trying to kill Paul! 

Why would they do something so inherently dangerous?  Because it is worth it.  It is worth it to help people know the true God instead of their false gods.  And it is worth it because those small groups of new believers matter to that God.  We may be offering encouragement and teaching to unimpressive little groups of young believers in Europe this year, but they matter to God!

There is plenty more we can learn from this section of Acts.  Let’s find encouragement in these missionary journey accounts, and then let us press on in our ministries empowered by God!

Review – Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vols 1&2

KeenerActsCraig Keener’s Acts: An Exegetical Commentary is a vast and incomplete piece of scholarship.  It is vast because in print form it is over 2100 pages.  It is incomplete because these two volumes only cover up to Acts 14:28.  For the purpose of this review, I am looking at the digital version on my Logos software.  I have not read every page, of course, so this is not a full scholarly review.

Keener is meticulous.  Anyone who has used his previous commentaries on Matthew, John and Revelation will know that.  This can be highly beneficial, or at times, frustrating.  Almost two-thirds of the complete first volume is introductory material covering such issues as genre (zeroing in on Acts as a work of ancient historiography), historical interpretation of Acts, Acts and Paul, the speeches, the author, audience, Luke’s perspective on women and gender, etc.

Once you get into the commentary proper, you start to see the fruit of his socio-historical approach.  The format and layout is relatively straightforward (i.e. no complicated internal structures that require skipping around to find what you need, but at the same time not much in the way of helpful textual layouts as some of the more modern commentaries are offering – such as Schnabel’s on Acts, for instance).  As well as relatively straightforward, it is also long.  Keener appears to have a meticulous tendency that leads to a massive project like this one.  Every detail is engaged and discussed.  Other scholarship is engaged and discussed.  At times it feels like everything is engaged and discussed.

This is where my having the works on Logos makes a difference to me.  Rather than flipping page after page and scanning tons of text, I can find what I want to access very quickly on Logos.  For instance, I can right click on the commentary and then select “search this resource.”  Then I can search in just this commentary with something as simple as “Stephen’s speech” and immediately have access to the 71 occasions Keener refers specifically to Stephen’s speech.

Equally, with a work of this magnitude, I find it helpful to have the table of contents showing on the screen.  Thus I can expand and contract sections to locate the specific section I want to see.  I can also get a sense of how long the section is before I just start reading (very useful in such a long piece of work).

I suggest that if you are preaching through a Bible book, then you should have access to a couple of the better commentaries on that book.  With Acts, I am putting Keener’s work into my top two or three resources to check (alongside Bock and Bruce, which are excellent and shorter!)

If you want to find out more, click here to go to the Logos page for this resource.

(Full disclosure: I am grateful to Logos Bible Software for providing the resource for this review.)

The Challenge of Narratives 4: Acts

Unlike the Old Testament narratives, and in some senses, even unlike the gospel narratives, the Acts narratives should be easier to interpret and preach.  After all, this is now church history, not ancient Israel history.  But there is a challenge:

The challenge of “normativeness” – how are we to understand and apply descriptions of a unique season in history – the founding of the church?  Three comments on this:

1. Acts is not “mere history” – Don’t make the mistake of saying we shouldn’t preach from Acts because it is merely a historical account.  It is inspired theological Scripture.  It is as much theology as the epistles!  Acts is history, and it is more than that.  However,

2. Acts is not “all history” – some elements of the Acts story are unique and we shouldn’t presume that it is all normative for where we stand in that same history.  Possible examples include the following.  Should we be concerned that the apostles have died?  Should we be looking for qualified replacements?  Some sing that we need another Pentecost, but what are we suggesting about the work of the Spirit in the Church?  Should we expect Ananias and Sapphira-type church discipline to occur every time there is sin in the church today, or should we be learning from a unique event?  What about the “Gentile tongues” at conversion that are presented as a sign to the apostles at a key transition moment in the progress of the gospel?  Acts is not totally typical of all church history.

3. Acts is “all applicable” – Just because some of the events may not occur again, this doesn’t mean that the text is irrelevant (think about the crucifixion of Jesus, for instance).  All Scripture is useful, applicable, but the challenge is having the wisdom to discern how to apply it.  We need to consider Acts in light of the clear teaching of the epistles, as well as the progress seen within the epistles (consider the different emphasis in 1Corinthians as compared to the later Pastoral Epistles – both concerned with health in the local church, but a different emphasis).  Let’s be careful not to automatically use “Acts” labels for contemporary experiences that may or may not be the same thing as what occurred back then.

Acts is rich and fertile soil for study and preaching, but whatever your theology, I trust you’ll agree that it is not without its challenges!

Preaching As History Making

The book of Acts is a fascinating study.  It is the only inspired account of the birth of the church and early church history.  Yet like all of inspired Scripture, it goes beyond mere history.  While some are quick to oversimplify their categorization of New Testament genre into stories of Jesus (gospels), instructions for the church (epistle) and history of the early church (Acts), plus the apparently troublesome apocalyptic book of Revelation (their view, not mine), this is too simplistic.

Acts, for example, is an inspired historical document, and it is also inspired theological writing.  We do Acts (and ourselves) a disservice if we too quickly dismiss Acts as being non-normative or applicable for the contemporary church.  Equally, we get into confusion if we too quickly apply every element we choose and claim it is normative for all situations (most who over-quickly apply Acts tend to be selective in this approach).  We need to carefully consider the book of Acts with appropriate hermeneutical skill and submit ourselves to appropriate application of the whole text.

In Acts we find historical narrative accounts, and we find recorded speeches (or better, inspired summaries of speeches).  In fact, Walter Liefeld helpfully points out that while quoted speech typically serves in ancient literature as introductory to action, in Acts the speeches are the action.  In my spare moments lately I’ve been enjoying a personal study of the speeches of Acts.  Apparently (I rely on the arithmetic of others), in the roughly 1000 verses of Acts, roughly 300-365 verses consist of speech material.  Some of this is preaching, some is leadership speech, some is legal speech (not mutually exclusive categories).

Ben Witherington asks why Luke includes proportionately so much more speech material in his history than ancient writers like Herodotus, Tacitus, Josephus, Polybius, or Thucydides, for example?  His answer is worth considering:

“This is because Luke is chronicling a historical movement that was carried forward in the main by evangelistic preaching.  This distinguishes his work from that of these other historians who are more interested in the macrohistorical events involving wars, political maneuvering, and the like.”

Before we even give ourselves to consideration of appropriate hermeneutical principles for interpreting and applying the book of Acts; before we engage in rhetorical analysis of the speech material; or before we enter the debate about whether the speeches are accurate representation of the original speaker, or Lukan theology placed in their mouths, etc.  Before any of that engages our attention, let’s not miss the obvious.  The history of the early church is carried forward by the planned and impromptu speech of preachers.  Much of it is evangelistic, some is primarily to believers, some is perhaps opportunistic.  But this much is clear – the history of the church, in the early years, down through the years, and in these years, is carried forward in the preaching of those to whom God gives opportunity. Let’s allow that truth to soak into our souls, fire our hearts and ignite our ministries!