Preaching on Acts 21-28
Preaching on Acts 21-28
Don’t skip what Luke says about Paul and the spread of the gospel to ‘the ends of the earth.’
The movie No Country For Old Men was released in 2007 to widespread acclaim, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The story presents itself as a well-executed, seemingly straightforward thriller. Our protagonist stumbles upon the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone bad in the Texas desert, and discovers a caseload of money. Making off with the cash, he is subsequently pursued by a murderous villain following the money, and a grizzled sheriff investigating the crime. It’s typical crime drama material at the outset.
But then, the narrative veers into unexpected territory. [SPOILER ALERT!] The protagonist is killed suddenly, almost by happenstance, and his death isn’t even portrayed onscreen. The story resolves neither redemptively (the villain gets away) nor conclusively (the movie stops abruptly in the middle of a conversation). First-time viewers might easily walk away wondering, “Wait—that’s how it ends?!”
The Book of Acts is like that. For twenty-plus chapters, Luke provides his readers with amazing accounts of God’s Spirit on the move: Christ’s ascension, Pentecost, Peter’s adventures, Stephen’s courageous testimony, Saul’s transformation, Gentiles converting, the church growing, the gospel advancing—this is gripping stuff, and these passages can be really fun to preach!
But then, during the final seven chapters, Luke bogs things down with lengthy narrative passages that seem repetitive, and fail to resolve neatly. Paul spends almost this entire time in prison. We get not one but two additional retellings of Paul’s Damascus Road experience; not one but five hearings before Jewish and Roman officials; and an ending that leaves Paul’s earthly fate unresolved. One imagines a first-century editor advising Luke: “Hey Doc, this is great stuff you’ve done here, but let’s rework that ending to give it more punch!”
Not that Luke had that choice, of course—he was writing divinely-inspired history, not a work of dramatic fiction. But Acts 21-28 may leave the preacher wondering, “Wait—that’s how it ends? How am I supposed to preach this?”
Why not just skip it?
This is a fair question, and more than a few preachers seem to make this their practice. It would certainly be easy to convince ourselves that “we’ve gotten most of what we need to get” from Acts 1-20, and never quite get around to preaching anything after Paul’s third missionary journey. It is the rare congregant who requests from their pastor a message on, say, Paul’s trial before Porcius Festus from Acts 25.
However, this isn’t one of those “roll call of Israelite tribes” or “handling an infectious skin disease” chapters that we comfortably never preach from; this is a full quarter of the Book of Acts we’re talking about, and the fourth quarter at that!
This is Luke’s account of the gospel finally extending to “the ends of the earth.” If explored, these final chapters afford us opportunities to preach the gospel, examine approaches to cross-cultural evangelism, contemplate how to respond to ministry setbacks and persecution, and be encouraged by the ongoing advance of God’s kingdom in the face of opposition and adversity.
Moreover, a careful reading of Luke’s writings bears out that he was very intentional about what material he included in his writings, and how he arranged that material for his readers. If we skip over these chapters, our churches will miss out on important lessons that Luke and the Holy Spirit evidently thought important for God’s people to understand. These chapters should prove increasingly relevant and helpful in an era where the Christian faith finds itself on trial in our culture.
How to preach Acts 21-28
I can attest from recent experience that the fourth quarter of Acts is eminently preachable. However, to do these chapters justice may require us to stretch some homiletical muscles we don’t often exercise. Here are some suggestions for preaching Paul’s trials, while avoiding my errors.
Dig a little deeper
Experience has borne out the truth I was taught in seminary, that no two texts from the same biblical author will have identical exegetical ideas. So, if I find myself landing on the same themes and applications over and over again, then I probably haven’t mined the text deeply enough.
When Luke gives us retellings of Paul’s Damascus Road conversion in Acts 22 and then again in Acts 26, I couldn’t simply settle for a rehash of my sermon from Acts 9. Instead, I needed to explore why Luke would record these accounts again, when a simple summary would seemingly have sufficed.
I looked for particular details that occur in one passage but not another, and checked for any theological or interpretive significance those details may imply. It took me awhile to figure out how to approach Acts 26, but I finally landed on a slightly more topical approach, exploring how evangelism is supposed to work and viewing Paul’s testimony in light of that.
Fly a little higher
Give yourself permission to not teach through every verse of each of these chapters. Yes, it’s all God’s Word and it’s all there for a reason, but with narratives this lengthy it’s alright to pass over some details to either return to on a later occasion, or else leave for your congregants to study on their own.
In developing a message from Acts 22, I decided to skip verses 22-29, where Paul asserts his Roman citizenship to avoid being flogged. While those verses are as just as inspired as the rest, for time’s sake I decided to simply allude to it rather than teach through it. And as an added bonus, I can return to that passage later for a message on enduring under persecution.
Throw a changeup
If your usual preaching style is expository, you might take the opportunity to vary your approach with a message that is more topical or thematic in nature. If your style is typically topical, you could experiment with a long narrative message, describing the action of the passage in detail, and saving your application for the very end. If you’re feeling ambitious, try preaching a first-person sermon in character as Felix or Festus, trying to make sense of the odd little fellow Paul and his controversial message. Or perhaps undertake a third-person narrative as Luke, dramatically recounting the events of that week’s text as an eyewitness. A little change for change’s sake can benefit our congregations and bring glory to God.
My fastball is expository, big idea preaching, but in tackling Acts 25 I could never arrive at one subject-complement statement that I thought did justice to that text. So with Sunday services looming, I went in a different direction. In “A Festus to Test Us,” I presented a list of principles, from Paul’s example in verses 1-12, of how to witness to those in authority. While I thought that sermon was true to the text and helpful for our congregation, for time’s sake I had to treat the conversation between Festus and Agrippa in verses 13-22 as more of an epilogue. If I ever get another shot at Acts 25, I’ll likely take it from Festus’ perspective.
Share the ball
Team teaching can provide another refreshing departure from the norm. It allows the congregation to hear God’s Word through different voices, and is particularly useful for mentoring less experienced communicators, who grow not only from sermon delivery but also from time in shared preparation. This is how Barnabas gave Paul his start (Acts 11:24-26). Different preachers can alternate different services or weekends, of course, but they can also handle different sections of one sermon, or preach one sermon together in a debate or panel-discussion format.
Because Acts is more descriptive than prescriptive, it allows for some creative tension in its exposition. Two preachers might helpfully debate the merits of the idea the Jerusalem elders posed for Paul in Acts 21, or whether Paul was out of line in his response to Ananias in Acts 23. Three preachers could be assigned the roles of Paul, Festus, and Agrippa in Acts 25-26.
Such approaches require some planning in advance and might not win any efficiency awards, but the Holy Spirit has a way of creating a whole that’s far greater than the sum of the individual teaching parts.
Visit the doctor
It can be helpful to explore with the congregation what Luke was trying to do (and not trying to do) in his writing. Instead of preaching through the text in the usual straightforward manner, examine a passage from the perspective of what Luke was hoping to accomplish in its writing.
Luke seems remarkably uninterested in meeting our expectations—even the major players like Peter and Paul pop in and drop out from the narrative at various points, the conclusions of their stories left untold. Nor did Luke leave us a treatise on early church order and polity. If we explore the whys and why nots of Luke’s approach under the guidance of the Spirit, it can help our hearers glimpse the mind of this remarkable historian, physician, and Gospel writer.
I invoked Luke a couple of times in my Acts 27 message, “Shipwrecked.” It’s a challenging passage to preach given its length, myriad details, and lack of definitive resolution. But asking the question aloud, “What was Luke’s priority in telling us this?” helped me know what to prioritize, and helped our congregation see how Paul trusted in God’s providence no matter what disasters befell him.
Several years before, I went all out with this approach by preaching Acts 28 in character as “Dr. Luke,” wearing a white lab coat, stethoscope, and head mirror. It was memorable, even if it tried my patients’ patience!
Luke does conclude Acts, of course, with a concise summary of Paul’s gospel ministry. May it be true of us as it was of him that we “proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:31).
David Ward is Pastor of Teaching Ministries for New Hope Church in Greenwood, IN.