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Preaching the Bible for all its Worth: Acts

Pentecost, Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery

Acts is unique among the books of the New Testament in telling the story of the early church: it is Luke’s “volume two” following on from his Gospel. The two books are linked by a common addressee, Theophilus, a Roman official (Luke 1:4; Acts 1:1), and a common aim: to tell the story of Jesus. Acts begins by summarising the Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), implying that Acts is the story of what Jesus continued to do and teach. This signals a key feature of Acts: Jesus is not an absentee, and nor does the Holy Spirit take over his role (as Superman to Jesus’ Clark Kent). Jesus continues to work and act, but now from his place in heaven.

The ascension of Jesus is thus a key moment in Acts, for it establishes that Jesus is now at God’s right side, sharing God’s rule over the universe. Peter’s Pentecost speech explains this and provides scriptural support for this claim from Psalm 110:1, one of the most widely-cited scriptural passages in the New Testament, going back to Jesus’ own use of it to identify himself as “great David’s greater son,” Israel’s Messiah (Luke 20:41–44). Not only that, but Jesus’ place alongside God means that Jesus is now the one who pours out the Spirit (Acts 2:33). This is remarkable, for in the Jewish Scriptures and later writings, it is clear that YHWH and YHWH alone pours out the Spirit (e.g., Joel 2:32, quoted in Acts 2:17; see also Isa 44:3; Ezek 36:26–27). There is thus a christological “big bang,” as Jesus is rapidly recognised as standing alongside God, and thus deserving of worship and an appropriate addressee of prayer (e.g., 7:59).

Jesus continues to intervene in earthly events, as ascension geography expands our understanding of space to recognise that Jesus’ (re-)entry into the heavenly world means the barrier between earth and heaven is now much more porous. Jesus can appear to Saul of Tarsus (9:3–6). Jesus heals Aeneas (9:34). Jesus’ name is powerfully effective in healing and deliverance (3:6, 16; 4:10, 30; 8:5–7, 12; 16:18), as well as salvation, understood more broadly (4:12). Of course, Jesus pours out the Spirit, at Pentecost (2:33), on the Roman centurion Cornelius’ household (10:4–47) and on the twelve disciples of John the baptiser in Ephesus (19:1–7).

Why is this important for preaching? It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming Jesus is absent in Acts, as Hans Conzelmann claimed, and thus to preach either by focusing on the work of the Holy Spirit or by making too much of the work of human leaders of the Jesus movement.

The first error leads to neglecting the incipient trinitarian shape of the mission of God in Acts. It would be anachronistic to treat Acts as expounding fourth-century trinitarian theology, but it would be an equal error to fail to recognise that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the drivers of the mission. For example, in Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about the restoration of Israel (1:6), Jesus answers by reference to the Father, who sets times and seasons for events (1:7), to the Holy Spirit, who will come on them to empower them (1:8a), and to himself, for they will testify to Jesus to the end of the earth (1:8b). In preaching, it’s crucial to help people see the wholehearted commitment God has to mission, for they then know that they are working with the grain of God’s purposes.

The second error leads to thinking it all depends on us and neglecting the divine initiative to which believers respond. It’s all too easy for individual Christians, groups of Christians, churches and parachurch organisations to make plans and strategies for their life and work which ironically neglect the triune God who should be their focus. Evangelical Christians are activists, one of David Bebbington’s four markers of evangelicalism, but this cannot and should not be at the expense of prayer, worship and spirituality. For sure, Luke tells the progress of the mission without constant reference to these features: it’s at crucial turning points that he says more, such as Barnabas and Saul leaving Syrian Antioch at the prompting of the Spirit during a period of fasting and prayer (13:4), and Paul’s turn away from Asia, eventually to cross the Aegean Sea to Macedonia in response to a dream-vision (16:6–10). The latter shows the unique feature of the Holy Spirit forbidding and preventing Christians. It was not that God intended them never to go to the province of Asia – Paul’s longest settled ministry, over two years, was in Ephesus, the capital of that province (19:1–20:1). Indeed the whole province heard the word in that period (19:10), including those who went home and planted churches in other cities, such as Colossae (Col 1:7; 4:12 names Epaphras). God’s purposes included Asia, but not at this time.

So good preaching will display Christian spirituality as a key feature of Christian mission from Acts. As we engage with God-in-Jesus by the Spirit in worship, prayer and fasting, we shall be able to discern God’s purposes, and be open to God’s surprises. I suspect Paul and his companions had no sense of what would happen as they sought a place of prayer by the river in Philippi (16:13), and they discovered, to their delight, that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the gospel, and she became the host of the mission team (16:14–15). Probably, too, Paul and Silas did not know that they would end up in the inner prison because Paul’s deliverance of the slave girl had negative economic effects for her owners (16:16–24) – this was not what they signed up for when they responded to the dream-vision calling them to Macedonia! Both good things and hard things come as his people engage faithfully in participating in the mission of God.

Durer Pentecost

Further Reading

Patrick Schreiner, The Mission of the Triune God: A Theology of Acts. NT Theology. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), is a fine short overview of Acts which recognises its incipient trinitarianism, and its focus on mission.

Beverly R. Gaventa, Acts. Abingdon NT Commentary. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003) – an excellent commentary which keeps a God-centred focus.

Steve Walton, Acts 1–9:42. Word Biblical Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2024) – the first of a detailed three-volume commentary with a strong focus on God and mission throughout. Read the “Explanation” section on a passage first, and then dive into the detailed “Comment.”

Steve Walton, Reading Acts Theologically. Library of NT Studies 661. (London: T&T Clark, 2022; paperback 2024) – a collection of essays reading Acts from a theological perspective, considering how to read theologically, Luke’s portrait of the earliest churches and their world, and major themes in Acts.

Rev Prof Steve Walton is Senior Research Fellow in New Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, and is a Senior Research Fellow of the KLC.

Prof Walton’s Acts commentary
is set to be released in 2024.

walton acts commentary