Out of one thousand books written each year, six hundred and fifty are forgotten by the end of a year. At the end of three years, one hundred fifty more have slipped from memory. Only fifty books survive as many as seven years. The fleeting popularity of the written word makes even more remarkable the lasting popularity of the Bible. Completed almost two thousand years ago, this book is still read, revered, and followed today.
What is your favorite book in the Bible? Different choices would merit our consideration. My favorite is the book of Acts, because this book tells the exciting story of the beginning of the church. Acts is the pivotal book of the New Testament for it continues the story told in the Gospels and explains the truths declared in the epistles.
Tertullian, early church father, explained the significance of Acts in these words: “Those who do not accept this volume of Scripture can have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit, for they cannot know whether the Holy Spirit has yet been sent to the disciples; neither can they claim to be the church, since they cannot prove when this body was established or where it was cradled.”1
Acts is important for another reason. Acts not only tells us about the church of the first century. It also provides information and inspiration to those who would seek to be the church in the twentieth century.
Christians today have searching questions. What is the church? What is our purpose? What is our source of power? How are we to relate to each other? To the world? To God? Answers to those questions can be found in the book of Acts.
Those in the Southern Baptist Convention have an opportunity to focus on the book of Acts in January since it is the January Bible Study book for 1991. Whatever your denomination, your church can benefit from challenges and characters of this pivotal book of the New Testament.
Approaches
Where do you start in preaching on the book of Acts? To preach through the book, giving exposition and application of every part of Acts, would involve such a long period of time that both pastor and congregation will lose interest. Such an approach might provoke the response one pastor received when he preached for three years on the book of Philippians. One of his weary parishioners said to a friend, “I still love my pastor, but I hate the book of Philippians!”
A selective approach to preaching from Acts is more effective. Let me make some homiletic suggestions for preaching from the book of Acts.
I. Preaching on the Theme of Acts
Perhaps you could begin your emphasis on Acts by preaching a sermon on the theme of the book. What is the book of Acts about? The title by which the book is commonly known is “The Acts of the Apostles.” However, after listing the eleven apostles and the new one elected in place of Judas, Luke never mentions nine of the apostles again. He gives only one sentence about James (Acts 12:2). John is only slightly mentioned. After Acts 12, Peter moves off the stage. Even the story of Paul who called himself an apostle (Romans 1:1) is not complete. Luke’s purpose was not to describe the acts of the Apostles.
What then was his purpose? The answer is found in the final word of the book. The book closes with the word “unhindered.” That word summarizes the theme which runs throughout the book. The central theme of Acts is that God was doing something in the world in Jesus Christ that nobody or nothing could stop.2
To explain this theme, preach a sermon on “The Unhindered Movement of God.” Develop the following outline.
1. Unhindered by Persecution, Acts 2:5-8:4, Persecution by the Jewish leaders did not thwart the spread of the gospel but instead enhanced it. Persecuted Christians became evangelists everywhere they went.
2. Unhindered by Racial Prejudice, Acts 8:5-15:35. The barriers between the Jews and the Gentiles presented a formidable obstacle to the spread of the gospel. The response to the efforts of Paul and Barnabas as well as Peter’s encounter with Cornelius provided a platform for the Jerusalem Council which officially opened the gospel to every person who believed in Jesus, regardless of racial identification.
3. Unhindred by Geographic Boundaries, Acts 15:36-21:8. The challenge to take the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome seemed unreachable. Yet, the gospel spread through the efforts of Paul until it finally was rooted even in Rome.
4. Unhindered by Human Bondage, Acts 21:9-28:31. Paul, the church’s chief proponent, was arrested and sent to Rome as a prisoner. Would this curtain the spread of the gospel? On the contrary, as Paul explained to the Philippians (Philippians 1:12-13), his imprisonment led to the furtherance of the gospel. Nothing could stop the work God began in Christ. It was unhindered.
Preaching such a sermon which involves so much biblical material is difficult. However, giving the general overview of the book of Acts in one sermon will provide a context for understanding other messages from this dynamic book.
II. Preaching on the Characters of Acts
The pages of Acts are filled with unforgettable characters, men and women through whom God carried out the work of the church. A series of sermons on the characters of Acts can provide the framework for communicating many of the truths of the book. The value of such an approach is that you cannot only communicate the message but also provide a model which illustrates the message.
You could preach a series with the following messages: “Peter, the Preacher” (Acts 2); “Barnabas, the Encourager” (Acts 4); “Ananias, the Hypocrite” (Acts 5); “Philip, the Witness” (Acts 8); “Paul, the Transformed Man” (Acts 9); “Mark, the Quitter” (Acts 13); “Elymas, the Imposter” (Acts 13); “Lydia, the Businesswoman” (Acts 16); and “Mnason, the Disciple of Long Standing” (Acts 21:16). A series of eight biographical sermons preached in the morning and evening services for a month or preached on eight successive mornings would provide insight into the book of Acts.
As an example, you might preach a sermon on Stephen called “A Man for All Times.” Using Acts 6 and 7 as your text, develop the following outline:
1. His Character, 6:3. Philip’s character is summarized in two phrases. He was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Philip was a man of faith, fully committed to Christ, and a man of power, fully open to the Holy Spirit.
2. His Compulsion, 6:8. Set aside to wait on tables, Stephen was willing to go beyond his assignment. In addition to waiting on tables, Stephen also shared his faith with those who needed to hear. He had an inner compulsion to serve Christ in every way he could.
3. His Countenance, 6:15. Stephen’s face shone like the face of Moses when he returned from Mt. Sinai (Exodus 34:29) and the face of Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2). The shining face of Stephen indicated he had spent time in the presence of God.
4. His Comprehension, 7:2-53. In a spontaneous message, Stephen accurately summarized God’s work with the people of Israel and clearly explained how that was connected to the new work through Christ. This message flowed extemporaneously out of the knowledge of God’s word which Stephen had stored in his mind over a period of study.
5. His Courage, 7:54-55. Stephen was a man who had the courage to be consistent in his commitment to Christ, even if that commitment led to his death. As the first Christian martyr, Stephen gave the testimony that being a disciple of Christ is a costly undertaking.3
Biographical preaching is an effective and fresh way to proclaim the truths in the book of Acts. These first century Christians were like we are today. They had weaknesses and blind spots. They, like us, carry the treasure of God in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7).
III. Preaching on the Churches of Acts
Since the book of Acts focuses on God’s work through the church, an informative homiletic approach would be to preach a series of sermons on the churches of the book of Acts. After carefully describing the characteristics of the churches of Acts, you would then apply these characteristics to the church today.
You could preach a series with the following messages: “The Church at Jerusalem” (Acts 2); “The Church at Antioch” (Acts 11:19-30); “The Church at Philippi” (Acts 16); “The Church at Thessalonica” (Acts 17); “The Church at Berea” (Acts 17:10-14); and “The Church at Corinth” (Acts 18:1-17).
As an example, you might preach a sermon on the church at Antioch entitled, “The Church of the New Age.” Using the text of Acts 11:19-30, develop the following outline:
1. The church at Antioch was evangelistic in nature, 11:19-21. These Christians at Antioch understood their primary purpose to be sharing the message of Christ.
2. The church at Antioch was sound in doctrine, 11:26. Barnabas and Paul spent more than a year explaining the basics of the Christian faith. The church was not just interested in making converts. They wanted to make disciples.
3. The church at Antioch was bold in character, 11:26. The followers of Jesus were called Christians, belonging to the part of Christ, because of the boldness of their commitment. They lived their lives in such a way that others could tell they belonged to the party of Christ.
4. The church at Antioch was caring in attitude, 11:27-30. They responded to the prophet’s announcement of a famine in Judea by giving generously of their own resources to meet that need.
5. The church at Antioch was missionary in spirit, 13:1-4. The full story of the church at Antioch is not told until we trace the missionary journeys of Paul, for it was out of this church that Paul was sent. The church at Antioch was a church with the world on its heart.4
These churches of Acts were not perfect. They were like our churches today. They had their flaws and their conflicts. And each was unique. The Jerusalem church was conservative while the Antioch church was progressive. The Philippian church was warm-hearted while the Thessalonican church was impractical. Yet these churches were a vital part of the inauguration of the Christian faith. Understanding the dynamics of these churches can be informative for us today.
IV. Preaching on the Sermons of Acts
The first Christian preaching is recorded in the book of Acts. Different words are used in Acts to describe the preaching event. Kerygma (Acts 8:5 and 9:20) means to herald a message. The word eventually was used to refer to the message which was heralded, the plain, uncompromising statement of Christian belief. Didache (Acts 5:21, 25, 28) means teaching. This was the explanation of the kerygma. Paraklesis (Acts 11:23, 14:22, 15:32) means encouragement or exhortation. This was the call to accept and act on the teaching which had been presented.
Those words clearly describe preaching in the book of Acts. These first Christian preachers proclaimed the gospel message, explained its application, and then challenged the listeners to respond to it. A series of messages which focuses on these first sermons will provide further understanding of the book of Acts.
This series of messages on the sermons of Acts might include the following messages: “The First Christian Sermon” (Acts 2:22-36); “Preaching to God’s People” (Acts 3:12-26); “A God of Promise and Fulfillment” (Acts 7:2-53); “Preaching to the Pagans” (Acts 16:22-31); “A Message for Believers” (Acts 20:18-35); “A Confessional Sermon” (Acts 26:2-23). Each of these messages proclaim the central truth that Jesus came to fulfill God’s plans and meet man’s need. Yet the sermons are different enough to provide an interesting series of sermons.
As an example, you might preach a sermon on Acts 16:22-31 entitled “Your God is Too Small.” The message Paul preached to the pagans at Athens was a message which focused on God. In the midst of their intellectual confusion and moral depravity, that is the message he felt they most needed to hear. You might develop this sermon around the following four points:
1. God is an existing God, v. 23. Paul began with an assumption that God exists. At this point, he agreed with the Athenians. They too believed in God. In fact they had altars to their gods all over the city. Paul said, “You are right at this point. God does exist.”
2. God is an eminent God, vv. 24-26. Paul added that this God who exists is a God who is above and before all things for it is He who created the peoples of the world and determined the boundaries of the nations.
3. God is an embracing God, v. 27. Paul explained that God’s purpose in all of His creative acts was that mankind might experience His presence. In fact, Paul added, God is not very far from any one of us. This God who created the world is a God who cares enough to come to us and embrace us.
4. God is an exacting God, v. 30. Paul concluded that God makes a demand on our lives. He has provided an opportunity for mankind to experience life in Him. Each of us must make a choice about how we will relate to Christ. On that basis we will eventually be judged.
These first sermons focused on God and man, sin and forgiveness, the offer of grace and the call to repentance, messages which we need to hear today.
Conclusion
These are some suggested approaches to preaching from the Book of Acts. Because Acts is such a long book, short term series will probably be more effective. Because Acts is such a well-known book, creativity is demanded.
A decision to preach on the book of Acts will increase your commitment to the church and will enrich the understanding of your people on who we are and what we are to do as God’s people in the world today.
For Further Study
For further study sees the following resources.
F. F. Bruce has written a helpful commentary on Acts called The Book of Acts, published by William B. Eerdmans (1954). It is a part of the New International Commentary on the New Testament. This provides a scholarly look at the book of Acts.
Another scholarly source is Frank Stagg’s commentary, The Book of Acts, published by Broadman Press (1955). He suggested that the theme of the book is to declare the unhindered work of God.
Bruce Larson’s book on Acts, Wind and Fire, published by Word (1984), is a more devotional approach to the book which provides some interesting insights and illustrations.
Also see my book, Living Expectantly, published by Broadman Press (1990). This is a devotional commentary on Acts with many sermon ideas and outlines as well as illustrations. It is the first volume in a series of devotional commentaries on New Testament books. The series is entitled, Living the New Testament Faith.
Fifteen full length sermons on the book of Acts are available through Brian’s Lines, a monthly mailout of sermon resource material which I send out. These are available through Brian’s Lines, 1404 Chesterton, Richardson, TX 75080.
1. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 25.
2. Frank Stagg, The Booh of Acts (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1955), pp. 1-3.
3. This sermon is developed more fully in Brian Harbour, Living Expectantly (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), pp. 65-70.
4. This sermon is developed more fully in Brian Harbour, Living Expectantly, pp. 99-103.

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