A Better Way to Apply the Book of Acts - Radical

A Better Way to Apply the Book of Acts

Many people come to the book of Acts looking for specific steps to implement in a missions strategy. I referred to this previously as a “playbook” approach. This is where we look to Luke, the author of Acts, to give us specific “plays” to run so that we can reach our missional goals.

Rather than taking a “playbook” approach, I am convinced that receiving Acts as the “book of a play” yields fresh insights for our missions thinking today and is in accord with Luke’s intentions in writing the book. Through this literary work of art, Luke is telling a story with an intended purpose (Acts 1:1–3).

But if we divorce our application of Acts from the point of Luke’s story, this can potentially lead to missiological missteps. The story should shape the strategy. But how?

Seeing the Bigger Picture

In a previous article, I showed how the story of Acts can shape our understanding of what it means to “reach our Jerusalem.” Here I want to do something similar with the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13–14, a section that often gets used like a playbook. But first, we need to step back to look at the bigger picture.

As the director of this “play,” Luke has an odd way of closing the curtain. He ends with a cliffhanger to draw readers into the drama. “Without hindrance” is the last word,[1] leaving us with a puzzling picture of Paul, bound in prison, while the Word continues trucking along “unhindered.” This recalls the forceful refrain repeated throughout Acts: the Word tore through the ancient world at every turn (6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 13:4, 16:5, 19:20).

This book does not end with a definitive period but a “dot … dot … dot.” It invites us to pry open the half-closed curtain so that we can find our role. The playbook approach, on the other hand, encourages us to mimic the players themselves. Consider how these approaches affect our application of Acts 13–14.

Imitating the Actors

Using the playbook approach, we see Paul and Barnabas venture out on their first missionary journey. Their actions layout the “biblical method” of church planting, which we are supposed to imitate. This is not completely wrong. But it is not the first step to take in our application.

When we jump straight from witnessing their actions in the text to mimicking their actions in our time, their playbook often ends up resembling missionary discoveries and current practice. By bypassing Luke’s literary agenda in the interpretive process, our reading of the players’ actions ends up reflecting and reinforcing our own.

Follow Luke’s Literary Agenda

Rather than treating the text like a window we look through to see the actors, we should look at the text to see what the author is doing with the actors on stage. His agenda should dictate how we interpret the character’s actions and how we respond with our lives.

Luke highlights the prevailing power of the gospel to create a people empowered by the Spirit who are marked by three recurring threads (see below). Like most episodes in Acts, Acts 13–14 is tethered in some way to these threads.[2]

An Uncommon Boldness by the Spirit to Proclaim the Resurrected Jesus.

Paul and Barnabas boldly speak about the resurrected Lord despite opposition (13:46, 14:3), which connects their missional activity to the Holy Spirit’s presence and power (Acts 1:8). As a result, the Word prevails upon many (Acts 13:48–49), disciples are made, and churches are established. The mission moves on as the Spirit empowers uncommon boldness in proclaiming the resurrected Jesus.

An Uncommon Bond in the Spirit that Transcends Diverse Cultures.

An uncommon bond also emerges from these chapters. If we simply try to repeat the actions of Paul and Barnabas (as in the playbook approach), we miss the pattern of unity Luke has embedded into this episode of the “play.” Consider, for example, three different ways Luke has intentionally highlighted the unity between the ministry of Paul and the ministry of Peter.

First, one of Paul’s texts in the synagogue of Antioch was Psalm 16, a text that Peter just “happened” to preach earlier (compare 13:35–37 to 2:25ff). Second, Paul heals a man lame from birth, again following Peter’s footsteps (compare 14:8–10 to 3:1–9). Third, Paul and Barnabas denounce worship directed at them (14:15), echoing Peter’s words in a similar situation (10:26).

Luke has merged these actors intentionally, and the attuned audience witnesses the drama in Acts 13–14 with an odd sense of deja vu. This intentional mirroring makes more sense when we recognize that one of the central tensions of the book reaches its climax in Acts 15 with the Jerusalem Council.

The potential unraveling of the unity between Jewish and Gentile believers in the early church threatened the forward momentum of the mission. Yet Luke has countered that tension by connecting Peter’s message and ministry, which was largely to Jews, with Paul’s message and ministry, which was largely to Gentiles. Acts 13–14 shows the uncommon bond in the Spirit that transcends diverse cultures.

An Uncommon Allegiance to Jesus as Lord in the Midst of Suffering.

The third brushstroke woven throughout Acts 13–14 is the church’s uncommon allegiance to Jesus as Lord. This reveals itself in Paul and Barnabas’s defiance, as they keep preaching in the face of opposition. That sense of déjà vu returns for attuned audiences. But this time it is not the ministry of Peter being emulated.

Seeing the church righteously suffer mirrors the footsteps of the Lord Jesus in his earthly ministry. Paul and Barnabas connect their ministry to the “Servant of the Lord” (13:47), a reference to Jesus from Isaiah 49:6. The “Light” that was on the earth, they now take to the ends of the earth.

The Takeaway for Us

The takeaway for us today is not wooden repetition of the actions of Paul and Barnabas, as the playbook approach might suggest. Rather, by continually internalizing the scripted story Luke narrates, our senses are attuned to what God is up to in the world. We find ourselves immersed in the drama, carrying on the mission, stepping into the “unhindered” possibilities for the Word to spread through us. [3]

We should be left asking the question, “What’s waiting behind that half-closed curtain for my church … and for me?”

[1]This is true in English translations and in the original Greek, where the word akōlūtōs (“without hindrance”) closes out the book of Acts.

[2] Acts 13–14 is a tightly packaged literary unit bookended by Luke’s use of the word “work” (Acts 13:1, 14:26).

[3] N.T. Wright has a helpful illustration of this way to apply the book of Acts in his essay “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” His basic point is that the actors that faithfully carry on the not-yet-concluded plot of Acts would be those who so immerse themselves in the narratives of Acts that they instinctively press the plot forward by living according to the scripted drama of the earlier “acts” of Acts, to use the language of a play. This approach would do justice to the literary artistry of the story itself in its consistency with Luke’s vision while also pressing forward in mission in the here and now of our time.

Chip Bugnar

Chip Bugnar lives with his wife and four kids in Birmingham, Alabama, and serves as the Global Pastor at The Church at Brook Hills. Before coming to Birmingham, he and his family served among Muslims in Central Asia for seven years.


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