Preaching A Hard Passage

Acts 1:12-26 is a challenge for a preacher. It seems like a transition piece―filler. We wouldn’t want to call it that, but we might think it. What is the passage about? What should pastors do with it?

I agree with Abraham Kuruvilla that we ought not distill a passage down to a “big idea.” God didn’t only give scripture in propositional form. He used all kinds of genres, and each one is doing something a bit different in its own context. Rather than reducing a passage to a “big idea” and structuring the sermon around that distillate, we should act as tour guides explaining and interpreting the entire passage. Then, in application, we apply the theology―what God is doing with what He’s saying? If my wife tells me the drip tray in the espresso machine is full, what is she doing? Is she just communicating information, or does she implicitly want me to do something with that data? Of course, she wants me to empty the drip tray!

When we preach a text, we should ignore the temptation to flatten it into one propositional statement. We show the people what God is doing with what He’s saying, then we give them practical steps to make that theology real in their lives to make them a bit more like Christ.

I’ll share a bit about how I did that with Acts 1:12-26. What would you do with it? You could focus on Judas’ death, his treachery, etc. You could chat about whether Matthias is really the 12th apostle … or whether it was Paul. But, is this what God is doing with what He’s saying? Did He move Luke to write this so we could wonder whether Matthias is the 12th apostle? I don’t think He did.

Kuruvilla has a good analogy. He says scripture is a stained-glass window we look at and consider―over and over. It isn’t a window we look through, but an object we look at. The pastor doesn’t look at a window scene of Christ feeding the 5000 and say, “this window is about Christ.” He points out the features of the window, the colors, the light, the characters, the scene. He explains. He leads the congregation to discover its richness together. Then, he applies the theology of the pericope to real life.1

So, what to do about Acts 1:12-26?

Well, I think we ought to consider how demoralized the first Christians were. They’re waiting, just like Jesus told them to (Acts 1:12-14). But, they’re hurt. Confused. Scared. Uncertain. Worried.

Jesus told them what would happen at least three times. Maybe they did believe it, but they didn’t “believe” it. There’s a difference between theory and reality. In seminary, we wrote confident papers with the right answers. Then real ministry happened, and our papers seemed so silly. When we were married, the pastor warned us there would be difficult times. We smiled and nodded; certain our love would overcome all obstacles. Then, reality hit.

Well, reality is here now for those first Christians―and it really sucks. Think about a personal disaster in your life. Think about a corporate disaster in your local church’s life. Then, you’re at a place where you can begin to understand what they’re feeling when Peter stands up to offer a suggestion (Acts 1:15).    

What do these first Christians do? What does Peter say?

He gets up to offer comfort. Wisdom. I think you and I ought to listen. If you’re going through a personal crisis, then listen to Peter. If your church is going through a difficult season, then listen to Peter! They’re where you’re at.

When Peter speaks (Acts 1:16-19), Luke inserts a rabbit trail about Judas, but we should do little but acknowledge it―it’s not what the passage is about. Leave it for the next bible study. What Peter shows us is that scripture has answers for us.

Do you really believe that? Do you really believe God has given us everything necessary for life and godliness (2 Pet 1)―that you don’t need anything else?

Do you really believe scripture is totally truthful and absolutely dependable―or is it an old book? Some people appreciate Shakespeare. I don’t like him. I think it’s old writing that has no power. It’s sawdust in ink. You might disagree, but you get my point―Shakespeare has no power for me. Is that how you view scripture? It isn’t how Peter saw it.

Do you believe Paul when he declares that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that we would be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16)?

Do you agree with Paul that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom 15:4)?

Peter says the Holy Spirit gave the scriptures to David. When we want to hear from God we turn to the Scripture. They’re His message, poured through the personality of authors like Moses, David, Asaph, Peter and Luke. If you’re dealing with a personal crisis, look to God’s word. If you’re in the middle of a church crisis, look to God’s word.

What lesson does Peter draw for their situation?

Peter quotes (Acts 1:20) from Psalm 69 (“May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it”) and Psalm 109 (“Let another take his office”). They aren’t literal fulfilment―they aren’t prophesies about Judas. In Psalm 69, David is in trouble and begs for rescue. He prays for God to destroy his enemies. This is analogous to Jesus, whose enemy is Judas. In Psalm 109, we see something similar. Enemies are circling for the kill. David prays for their destruction. Again, Judas becomes this enemy.

Peter says, “this is like that!” He searches the scriptures for a similar situation and draws wisdom and comfort from it. Jesus is David, and God destroyed His enemy―Judas. God protects His king.

Peter trusts God’s providence because he trusts the scripture God has given us, poured through personalities like David’s. He drew comfort from those scriptures―God heard David and destroyed the King’s enemies. I think this is why Luke inserted the bit about Judas, here. Peter’s point, of course, is that we need to trust God, too.

Now, Peter suggests they find a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:21-22). Why? Was this “biblical?” Was it sanctioned? Was it necessary?  

Why does Peter say they need another guy? To be a witness about Jesus with them. There were 12 tribes of Israel, so Peter seems to feel there ought to be 12 apostles to lead the way. Jesus certainly thought so!

In other words, Peter did what he thought best. He had no revelation―no “yes” or “no.” He just did what he thought was best.

What does this mean? It means we trust scripture and search it for answers. We trust God―He cares for His children. Then, we do what seems best. God won’t audibly speak to you from heaven, so don’t wait for it. If it isn’t sinful, then make the move that seems best. If God doesn’t want it, He’ll close the door. This is what Peter suggests they do. He wants 12 of them to lead the community together when Jesus pours out the Spirit. It seems like a prudent move in a tough situation.

So, the community put forward two candidates, then they prayed (Acts 1:23-26). Notice they didn’t pray after executing the decision. They prayed after making the decision, but before they did it. In other words, “I think we should do this. But, let’s pray about it!”

They didn’t throw out a fleece. They didn’t wait for a sign. I know a man who wanted to be a pastor and spent many years “waiting for a sign.” It would have been better if he’d acted, praying for God’s will as He went. That’s what the church did here―they prayed for God to guide their decision as they did it.

  • “Lord, as I do this (which seems to be the best option), let it turn out the way you want!”
  • “Lord, as we do this, let your will be done!”

This isn’t paralysis! Trust scripture and search it for insight for your situation. It has answers. Trust God because He takes care of His children. Make the best, most biblically informed decision you can. Then, pray for God’s will as you do it.

Does your decision tree look like that? Paul says the scripture was written for our example, so we’d learn from our brothers and sisters. Well, our passage in Acts is one example. It shows us how God’s community ought to act in a time of crisis, of demoralization, of fear and uncertainty.

That is how I’d handle the text. I pointed out the stained-glass window that is Acts 1:12-26, the features, the scene, the characters, the story. I never identified a “big idea.” I didn’t preach a deductive sermon by introducing a proposition (“the sermon today is about trust!”), then rattling off “my points” as if I were an attorney arguing before a jury. I pulled back the curtain and tried to show what was happening in the story that is Acts 1:12-26. Then, at the end, I offered specific suggestions for how to make that theology real―so we’d all be that littlest bit more Christlike.

That’s how this preacher handled Acts 1:12-26. What would you do with it? What is God doing with this story? I know what it says, but what does God want you and I to do with it?   

Notes

1 What is needed in the pulpit, then, is a creative exegesis of the text undertaken with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing―pericopal theology——enabling their experience of the text + theology. Traditional preaching focuses on ideation: proffering ideas to the audience. I suggest homiletics should focus on mediation: the text + theology curated by the preacher for listeners. This individual, standing between God’s word written to God’s people, primarily facilitates the latter’s experience of the theology of the former,” (Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea? A Fresh Look at Preaching,” JETS 61.4 (2018), p. 842).

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There are 7 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think maybe the big idea concept gets misunderstood sometimes...

When we preach a text, we should ignore the temptation to flatten it into one propositional statement.

It's not flattening, it's summarizing--and giving a sermon focus. I would suggest that if a piece of Scripture can't be summarized in a sentence/central theme for sermonic purposes, it's not the right sized chunk of Scripture. Use a smaller or larger piece.

But it looks to me like you did use a single proposition... you just didn't put it into a sentence.

You have this...

Well, I think we ought to consider how demoralized the first Christians were.

And later this...

What lesson does Peter draw for their situation?

And this...

our passage in Acts is one example. It shows us how God’s community ought to act in a time of crisis, of demoralization, of fear and uncertainty.

The big idea appears to be that when faced with a demoralizing situation, we should avoid paralysis by searching Scripture then doing what we believe is best.

We could debate whether that's the right big idea for the passage, but I want to focus on the idea of the "big idea"/single sentence.

If there isn't a central message, a sermon is going to lack cohesion and be hard for listeners to follow. Does there have to be a "single sentence" that you include in the message... near the beginning? I don't think so. That often gives away too much early on when you need tension to help listeners follow the development of the message.

But I think that "single sentence" always needs to be somewhere in the sermon-prep process--just to make sure the message coheres and has focus. But it doesn't have to be in the introduction... or even in the delivered part of the message at all. Not always. There's no need to be so rigid.

For me, the "single sentence" is usually the outline in condensed form. 

I don't always use the "outline that's in the text"--especially when preaching from narrative where 'outlines' tend to be chronological, but my outline is always shaped around the main claim.

Anyway, the concept of "big idea"/single sentence can be botched, like anything else in sermon prep, but I'm convinced it's an essential element of good prep and structure.

(Edit: I have to backpeddal a little: sometimes my outline isn't quite "shaped around the main claim"... with narrative passages. Sometimes there's kind of a two sections: sort of re-telling the story, then section two is "shaped around the main claim." So... not that different really, but I wanted to concede that some messages flow better by re-telling the story first, with a particular emphasis. Then developing. Other times--most of the time--even with narrative, I develop as I retell the story. So it's woven in. Not saying it's "THE right way," it's just what works for me.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JSwaim's picture

Tyler, I really have no corrective advice to you as to how to preach this passage better.  Most commentaries that I’ve read on Acts tend to wrestle with the theological implications of the text—why was Judas replaced as an apostle, is casting lots a legitimate way to engage in decision making, how is Peter using the OT scriptures and applying them in this situation??? 

I find that commentators who give insight about the structure of the text—frequent use of words or root words, use of unique words in a given passage, actions in one passage that are paralleled in other passages, or parallels within the passage, and OT passages that may be referred to or paralleled in the passage—are more helpful in uncovering the writers own theological meaning. 

A book that I plan to purchase that is soon to be released (or may have been recently released) is David Bauer’s The Book of Acts as Story.  These types of commentaries are more helpful in helping to uncover “the author’s doings” as Kuruvilla says.

Don Johnson's picture

After the resurrection? I don't think so. 
 

FWIW, I had six sermons out of that text. This was in April, 2016. Themes: the obedience of disciples; the doctrine of the church; the supremacy of the Word of God; the danger of denial; trust in providence (seen in the lot); and the guidance of the Spirit. 
 

almost every passage is a deep well from which we can draw much truth 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

....is that there is a great amount of gain to be had even from the passages where "I don't know" is the logical answer.  In this passage, where Mathias fits in is one of those questions--why is he named as an apostle, but really never appears again in the Scriptures?  What is our view of the other apostles appointing him--was it what God wanted, or were they getting ahead of themselves?  When false certainty is a big problem, introducing uncertainty can heal a great deal.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Don Johnson's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

....is that there is a great amount of gain to be had even from the passages where "I don't know" is the logical answer.  In this passage, where Mathias fits in is one of those questions--why is he named as an apostle, but really never appears again in the Scriptures?  What is our view of the other apostles appointing him--was it what God wanted, or were they getting ahead of themselves?  When false certainty is a big problem, introducing uncertainty can heal a great deal.

Other than Peter and John, and the death of James, which of the other apostles ever again appear in the Scriptures?

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

That would be some more "I don't know"s.  You could infer something from the church fathers and such, but of course, that doesn't carry the authority of Scripture.

(in other words, well said, and exactly my point)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

First, on "demoralized," ... not the term I would use, but I don't think we need to get hung up on that. They were certainly not happy about the fact that one of the twelve betrayed Christ and killed himself. So ... though the resurrection was huge (understatement), it didn't erase the problem of this major negative event for the apostolic leadership.

And what to do about it going forward was a major challenge. 

I think it was a more expectant time than a discouraged time, but either way--a challenging time.

Looked up my old sermon notes. 

When I preached through Acts--which was early in my pastoral ministry--I did 1:12-26 as a unit on "Expectant Prayer."

To me, the whole chunk is mainly about prayer and decision-making in that context. So the decision-making/problem-solving angle is still there, but it was a point in my message rather than the entire message, as a particular kind of/characteristic of expectant prayer. I referenced James 1:5, but as a sub-sub point. Today, I'd have a different emphasis on that fourth point of the message and James 1:5 would be more prominent.

But the application is very similar and summarizable in a single sentence: faced with a difficult problem, in the context of obedience to Scripture, you seek guidance, and you make the decision that seems wise.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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