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?
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).
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?