Archive for the ‘Acts’ Category

How do the apostles and other disciples preach the Prophets in the book of Acts?

  • They preach Christ crucified – Peter’s expository sermon on Joel (and a passage from Joel that seems at first sight to be more about the Spirit than Christ) begins, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth… crucified” (Acts 2:22-23). Philip picks up on Isaiah 53 and “beginning with this scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35).  It may be true that less that 2% of OT prophecy is specifically Messianic in the direct sense of Isaiah 53 but the apostles have got the message of Luke 24:26-27 that the prophets’ business was preaching the sufferings and glories of Christ (Acts 3:18; 10:43; 26:22-23).
  • They hold out the OT hope of the resurrection – Paul sees his message as completely consistent with the hope of the prophets and their hearers through the centuries. It’s focus in the resurrection day which has now been guaranteed and begun in Christ (Acts 24:15,21; 26:6-8). Paul and the apostles are not trading in cheap quick worldly hopes but holding out an awesome Christ-centred eternity.
  • They transpose certain OT themes and imagery into a NT key – We have discussed before how the OT curses and blessings are racketed up and these are massively important when it comes to handling the prophets (see Acts 3:26).  Other themes include the land, the Temple, Jerusalem and Israel which are seen through the lens of Christ as prototype or synecdoche for the New Creation, Christ and the Church. E.g. look at Acts 15:14-17 in context where the days of the restoration of the Davidic ‘tent’ are understood as the days of the church.  As we were reminded at ‘Raising the Bar’ in February the way you know when to make these sort of transpositions is simply by knowing our Bibles better – there are no short cuts. We need to know the whole Bible story more and more in all its scope and detail and gradually see more and more of how and why the NT makes its myriad connections and allusions to the OT.
  • They don’t over-allegorise – The apostles don’t go to the extreme of reading gospel meanings in every single word of the prophetic texts. They understood that sometimes the prophets use poetry, sometimes prose, sometimes they are speaking to a specific historical context, sometimes they are making more shadowy and distant prophecy.  It’s interesting to compare how Stephen (Acts 7:42-43) and Qumran (esp. CD 7:14-15) interpret the same passage – Amos 5:25-27. Qumran uses all sorts of linguistic tricks to read the ‘tent’, the ‘star’ and the ‘images’ allegorically as referring to their righteous community being persecuted and forced into exile – the complete reverse of the passage’s meaning. Stephen takes the plain sense and historical reference of Amos seriously as talking about the idolatry of Israel in the wilderness and the unstoppable slide from there to the Babylonian Exile.
  • They argue from the text – You see Paul reasoning, explaining, proving from the Scriptures in Acts 17:2-3 and again at the end of Acts we find “from morning to evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from… the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). He wasn’t just shouting at them. He wasn’t just using emotive anecdotes.  He was appealing to the minds of his hearers, attempting to show them from the words and clauses and arguments of the Prophets that Jesus really was the one they promised.

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There are a couple of extremes we can go to on the whole issue of strategy in gospel ministry:

  1. Prayer and the Word alone – This is the extreme to which I’m tempted to go. Strategy sounds worldly. Let’s just stick to preaching Christ and depend on God. This is the ‘spiritual’, ‘orthodox’ sounding option.
  2. Strategy alone – No one aims for this but you can gradually slip there. We start to act as if strategy has the power to change people. Our church or organisation ends up being driven primarily by business plans rather than God’s plan, by Stephen Covey rather than Jesus Christ. It’s business strategy lightly dressed as Christianity.

I’d still want to say that option 1 is preferable to option 2 but I was challenged recently by an article by Ray Evans to see that there is a place – a very important one – for strategy. He showed me something I hadn’t seen before in Acts 6.

“Here is a classic combination — growth and grumbling (v.1)! An issue of complexity has led to a potentially disastrous situation. It’s what the apostles do about it that’s so helpful. First, they set priorities for themselves and the church (vv.2,4). You’ll notice that word and deed both have to be carried out by the church. They invent a solution and initiate a plan. This is not ‘steamrollered’ through but they gain the ownership of the whole church (v.3). A team is identified, and then publicly empowered for the task (vv.5,6). The result is… more growth — both in quantity and ‘quality’ (v.7).

“Notice also what they did not do: no sermons about contentment, or calls for special prayer for members to be less difficult! Some difficulties need an ‘Acts 6 approach’, where elders ‘manage’ change by identifying problems, develop plans to deal with issues, gain ownership by the church and empower people and teams to take on major responsibilities.”

What I’d seen from Acts 6 before is that the ministry of prayer and the word must take priority. That was what the apostles were commissioned for: to preach Christ, forgiveness and repentance, to wrestle in prayer for eternal things. That’s what changes lives forever. What I hadn’t seen before is that for word and prayer to remain the main thing in ministries and in the church, there must be strategic action. Without strategy, even with all the best intentions, prayer and the ministry of the word will get squeezed out. There are 100 things a church or organisation can do and many of them it should do but how do you keep the main thing the main thing? How does a pastor focus his time on the main thing? Strategy.

Sammy reminded us of the need of a prayer strategy at Raising the Bar – exactly when and where and how am I going to pray, when and where is the church going to pray together? A pastor at the same conference was sharing how he sometimes needs to leave the house and hide somewhere no-one can find him for a few hours to prevent being constantly disturbed in his sermon preparation. That’s strategy. How are we to ensure that there is faithful administration, bills get paid, genuine communication takes place, people are cared for, and there is still time for hours with the Lord, hours of discipleship. hours of sermon preparation? Strategy.

Strategy is not the means of gospel growth – the Word of God is (Acts 6:7) – but in a supportive role, keeping the main thing the main thing, strategy is vital.

P.S. I’m not good at this – we need to help each other!

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Miracles, healings and prophecies can all turn out to be worthless (Matt. 7:22; 1 Cor. 13:1-3) but there is one thing that cannot be faked – rejoicing in Christ in the midst of suffering. This is the peace beyond all human understanding. A miracle that can only be produced by the Spirit of God. When Paul prayed for his suffering to be removed God did a greater miracle – sufficient grace – boasting in weakness (2 Cor. 12). When the apostles were given 39 lashes (Acts 5:40) and they went off ‘rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the Name’ (Acts 5:41) was that not a greater miracle than the healing of the lame man in Acts 3? Joni Eareckson Tada – confined to a wheelchair after a diving accident as a young woman – said, “God didn’t heal me physically – he did a greater miracle – he kept me in a wheelchair and put a smile on my face.” When I hear someone testifying to how Christ has brought them to a place of complete assurance and contentment in Him, how he is their joy in the midst of continuing pain or singleness or childlessness – then I praise God for a far greater miracle than a testimony of healing or marriage or conception.

(You can hear Joni speaking on suffering here.)

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Just type “prophecy” into Google and you will come up with hundreds of thousands of sites. Most of it completely bonkers. When is prophecy authentic? Do we need it? What’s it for? There are a lot of things that could be said on the subject but four questions spring to mind as particularly important ones to ask:

  1. What exactly do you mean by prophecy? Sometimes our confusions and debates over this issue come down to different vocabulary and church cultures. What you call prophecy I might call a word of knowledge or a word of wisdom or a burden or a hunch. Some people might say “God said to me” while others might describe the same experience as “A picture came into my mind” or “I feel that the things I’ve been reading in the Bible recently and certain circumstances and conversations are all pushing me in this certain direction.”  In some ways it doesn’t matter too much but it can lead to confusion or, at its worst, putting a feeling on the same level of authority as the Bible.
  2. How does it fit with the biblical picture of prophecy and of the Christian life? There’s massive variety in the content and form of biblical prophecy but it is interesting that in the New Testament the few prophecies that we have recorded are more often warnings of suffering than promises of blessing. Agabus prophecied famine (Acts 11:28) and persecution (Acts 21:11). The prophecies to the churches (Rev. 2-3) contain more rebuke than affirmation. Jeremiah warned of false prophets declaring “Peace, peace” and “It shall be well with you” (Jer. 6:14; 23:16-17).
  3. Does it glorify Jesus? This is absolutely crucial. The Spirit of prophecy is the breath of Jesus, his self-revelation (Rev. 19:10) just as the Jesus is the Word of God, the Father’s self-revelation (John 1:1). The Spirit’s desire, in prophecy as in every other utterance he inspires, is not to exalt man but to humble man and exalt Jesus (John 16:7-14). Is the prophecy I’m hearing giving me a vision of me-and-my-prosperity or of the Jesus of the Bible, the risen crucified Lord, the Lamb who was slain?
  4. Is the Bible enough for you? Often our seeking after ‘new words from God’ comes from a spiritual restlessness and lack of faith in the Bible as the completely sufficient Word of God. When we are not enjoying the amazing feast of soul-satisfying, life-giving words in these 1200 pages, when we fail to see new and wonderful pictures of Jesus in this Word each day, when we are not resting in the wonderful promises there that He will be with us and sustain us and carry us through all the pains and uncertainties of life to an unspeakably wonderful eternity, when we are not content with Jesus’ words written for us then inevitably we will start seeking after other food, other pictures and other promises. There may well be authentic prophecy in our time and in our churches – we pray that it would be Jesus-exalting and true to the reality of following him in the way of the cross – but we do not need it. We have The Faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Let us rejoice in that.

P.S. For what it’s worth (and I wouldn’t go to the stake for this) my personal understanding is that prophecy, as a fully inspired communication, a) will continue in the church until the day we see Jesus face to face (1 Cor. 13:8-12); b) is probably quite rare (just as miraculous healings are happening today but much less frequently than in the times of the apostles); c) seems to function mainly as a kind of naming or framing of contemporary situations  with Old Testament images and metaphors (e.g. Rev. 11:8) so as to move the heart of the hearers to flee idolatry and run to Christ (I’ve done some research on this summarised here). But I may be wrong on this – what I’d want to underline is point 4. above.

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Preaching Acts

Just a few thoughts (all second hand) on preaching through the Book of Acts:

  • It’s already preaching! A large proportion of Acts is sermons and in fact the whole thing is Luke preaching to us. So our job is really just to let it preach.
  • It’s Part 2 (see Acts 1:1) so you need to remember Part 1 – all about Jesus who came to seek and save the lost, about a historical narrative, the unstoppable power of the Word, and coming to certainty, about reversals, about the climax of salvation history, about repentance, about The Way, about suffering and joy.
  • As Sammy pointed out to us the other day, David Cook sees Luke 24:46 as a summary of Luke’s Gospel and Luke 24:47 as a summary of the Book of Acts: Repentance and forgiveness of sins proclaimed in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (in fulfilment of the Scriptures – Luke 24:45-46). Another summary I have heard is: The Word of Christ (or the Word of Grace) preached in the power of the Spirit to the ends of the earth. That doesn’t mean that we preach this same Big Idea every time we open Acts but our message each time should be in line with (or nest inside) that theme.
  • The word of his graceThere’s a great book by Chris Green called ‘The Word of His Grace: A guide to teaching and preaching from Acts’. You can read the introduction here including his eight (very useful) principles for handling Acts. There’s a thoughtful review of Green’s book here with a bit more of a taster of the content.
  • As Green notes, structure is very important. Just as Luke wrote an ‘orderly account’ in Part 1 he writes a very orderly account in Part 2. The basic (geographical) structure is given by Acts 1:8. On top of this there are also loads of doublets and triplets – where roughly the same thing happens more than once: a healing, an arrest, a trial, a speech, a conversion account. Sometimes the point is that there is an intensification the second time; sometimes it is to make the point that Peter and Paul are completely united in doing the same thing, preaching the same gospel; sometimes it’s just to beat these things into our heads!
  • Just to underline – it’s all about Jesus from first to last (Acts 1:1; 28:31). If we go to Acts primarily for patterns or promises for ministry, if we look first for ourselves in the narrative, we’ll go astray. If we fix our eyes on Jesus and who he is and what he is doing in the narrative and how his gospel takes the world by storm then we’ll find great treasures and great encouragements to keep proclaiming Him.

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