David Cook, Principal of Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC) in Croydon, NSW, Australia, recently authored an excellent guide for those wanting to preach through the book of Acts: Teaching Acts (Christian Focus, 2007). Peter Hastie speaks to him about preaching, mission and what the book of Acts has to say about church growth.
Peter Hastie: The book of Acts is said to be a ‘tonic for the soul’. What are some of the things that Luke says are crucial for our spiritual strength and vitality?
David Cook: The expression ‘tonic for the soul’ is a quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I would have expected him to have said that about Romans. But he says, “I know of no greater tonic for the soul than a thorough reading of the book of Acts”.1
I think the matters that Luke believes are a spiritual tonic are the things he constantly repeats. It’s one of the reasons why I suspect that Luke was a father. I don’t know whether he was or not, but he seems to repeat the really important things three times, just like a father would to his kids: the coming of the Holy Spirit; the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile Christian; the conversion of Saul (or Paul), who becomes the primary messenger of the gospel to the Gentile world and the means through which people like Cornelius (e.g. Martin Luther, John Wesley, Charles Wesley) come to saving faith in Christ; and the declaration of the Jerusalem Council that the gospel is based on faith in Jesus Christ alone and that we don’t need to supplement it with additional things, like circumcision, in order to be saved. Luke is saying, “Listen to these things: they are vitally important to you. They are crucial for the spiritual life of the church.”
PH: What purposes did Luke have in mind when he wrote Acts, and to what extent do you think Acts is a book about preaching as the means of church growth?
DC: I think the book of Acts is primarily about the progress of the Word, which is why I find it ironic that it’s called the book of Acts. It’s really about the victorious movement of the word of God from Jerusalem to Judea, over to Samaria and then on to the ends of the earth. That’s Luke’s great emphasis: he follows the preaching of the word of God by the apostolic messengers throughout the known world, and in doing so, he shows us that the Word is unstoppable. Of course, this has considerable implications for church growth and for preaching, but I don’t think that the book of Acts is primarily a book about preaching as such; it’s essentially a book that reminds us that mission lies at the heart of God and that God’s purpose is for the gospel to reach the ends of the earth. Luke wants us to sense that nothing can frustrate God’s plan for the gospel.
EM Blaiklock, the late professor of Classics at Auckland University, said that to press beyond the fringe is always sound policy, provided it’s done with vigour and devotion. He sums up the major lesson of his commentary on Acts as “Acts… is calling us to press always beyond the fringes”.2 It doesn’t matter whether it’s the next house, the next street, the next suburb, the next village or even the next city; God’s purpose is always that the gospel reaches the ends of the earth. I think it’s significant that the very last word in Acts in the Greek manuscripts is the word ‘unhinderedly’: Luke says that when Paul gets to Rome, he preaches and teaches the kingdom of God ‘unhinderedly’. What a dynamic finish!
I have a hunch that Luke wanted to write a third volume: Paul said in the book of Romans that he wanted to come and visit them (Rom 1:10-15), and he had achieved this by the end of Acts. However, he also said that he wanted the Romans’ support for his trip to Spain (Rom 15:24). In the ancient world, you couldn’t go any further west than Spain. In fact, the Rock of Gibraltar (which was also called the Rock of Hercules) was considered to be the end of the earth. Paul wanted to go there. I imagine that Luke thought, “I’ll follow Paul to Spain and that will be my third volume”. There is a sense in which the book of Acts remains unfinished because the gospel continues to make progress in our day. Even now we are seeing it reach out to the very ends of the earth. And this is what we want to be involved in—in pushing it out. The church in every generation needs to push beyond the fringe.
PH: In Acts 2:42, Luke makes it clear that the early church was a growing church that devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching. On your reading of Acts, how critical is expository preaching to the health and mission of the church?
DC: It’s absolutely vital. Throughout the book of Acts, faithful, biblical preaching precedes people’s repentance and trust in Christ. The great apostolic model for pastoral ministry with respect to preaching is found in Act 19 and 20. Paul tells us that he preached in the hall of Tyrannus for two years (19:9-10), and that he was teaching and preaching the word of God. Luke also tells us that during this period, God did some extraordinary miracles through him (19:11).
Luke’s reference to preaching and miracles is really interesting. John Woodhouse, Phillip Jensen and I once went to see John Wimber before his ‘Signs and Wonders’ crusade in Sydney. We asked him to leave the city and not conduct the crusade because we believed it would be harmful to people’s spiritual growth. We met him in the basement of his hotel. Interestingly, he was quite congenial towards us. But he had a theological advisor who had much more of an edge to him who said to us, “The trouble with you people in Sydney is that you are looking for an epistle-led recovery and it’s not going to happen. John Wimber, on the other hand, is on about an Acts-based revival.” They were taking Acts 19 as the model for evangelistic ministry. They said that such ministry consisted of both signs and wonders, and preaching. They claimed that both elements together would lead to people being saved. However, if you read Paul’s rehearsal of what he did in Ephesus in Acts 20, he does not mention the signs and wonders phenomena at all. What he mentions are four Greek words: ‘I have declared’ (v. 20), ‘I have taught’ (v. 20), ‘I have testified’ (v. 21), ‘testified’ (v. 24), ‘proclaimed’ (v. 25) and ‘declared’ (v. 27). This was the burden of his ministry. These terms define what he did, and he did these things in public and from house to house. His ministry was ‘Word’-based.
So if you asked Paul, “What is the apostolic model of ministry?”, he would say that it’s the ministry of the Word, both publicly and privately. It is proclaiming, teaching and testifying to the word of God. He qualifies as true preaching anything that’s spiritually helpful—declaring repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus, testifying to the gospel of God’s grace, preaching the kingdom and proclaiming the whole counsel of God. I think that’s what Paul means by preaching—the sort of preaching that is meant to permeate the church. I think Paul rehearsed his Acts 19 ministry in Acts 20 so that the elders in Ephesus would duplicate it. He did not focus on signs and wonders because he realized that they are passing things. Instead, he wanted them to continue the preaching of the whole counsel of God.
PH: You said that Luke highlights the ministry of the Word in Acts. What implications should we draw from this for mission-minded church leaders today?
DC: Luke gives us statistical summaries throughout Acts as to how the word of God is going: he says, “And the word of God continued to increase and spread, and 3,000—5,000—and so on were added”. To me, this shows that his interest is in the progress of the Word. What is really fascinating is how he contrasts this progress with other incidents of a problematic nature. For example, the Greek-speaking widows grumble, but “the word of God continued to increase” (Acts 6:7); Herod is eaten by worms and dies, but “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24); the people bring out all their magic scrolls and burn them but “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20). The contrast is his way of saying, “Look at what’s happening! The word of God is triumphing, while other things fall by the wayside.”
The other thing I love about his statistical summaries is that he gives us summaries of 3,000 and 5,000 people converted, and then he focuses on one man. You might ask, “Why is he telling me about the Ethiopian eunuch?” (Acts 8). I think he’s indicating that every individual is precious to God. He’s saying, “Now let me tell you the story of one man because God’s dealing with this one man is typical of his dealing with the many, and everyone is precious to him”.
One final thought about these summaries: they warn us to be careful about parochialism. They remind us that we need to be encouraging people to push out into new places all the time. We need to realize that Sydney—and, indeed, the world—is not bounded by the Shoalhaven, the Hawkesbury, the Blue Mountains or the Pacific Ocean. That is not the world. We have got to push beyond those boundaries. Geographical parochialism is very short-sighted.
PH: John Piper has said that today’s preaching atmosphere is plagued by triviality, levity and flippancy. Is that sort of preaching completely out of step with what we find in Acts?
DC: Yes, it is. In Acts, preaching is weighty. The apostles were dealing with eternal issues. People’s destinies were being determined. What was preached was of vital importance. That’s why I emphasize to students “Never tell jokes”. I am not against humour, but I think that telling jokes is unwise. I never do it because I think it trivializes what is a weighty matter—the preaching of the momentous news of God.
When I was the minister at Ashfield, I used to visit the old Western Suburbs Hospital and I could never get parking there. So I used to park right out the front where it said “Reserved for Doctors Only”. I was always ready for anybody who wanted to challenge me: my answer was, “I am a doctor. I’m a doctor to the soul and I am about the business of eternity”. I think ministers have lost that idea—that they are ministers of eternal things. We have accountants, lawyers and plumbers, and they look after important earthly matters. But we also need pastors who watch over our souls and keep us accountable to God.
I think that when you stand up to preach, you are preaching to people about the weightiest matters of their lives—about the health of their souls. We have lost that sense of accountability to God. Paul talks about it in Acts 20:26b-27: “I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God”. You don’t find any triviality in Acts. We are involved in important business—weighty matters that have eternal consequences.
PH: What levels of application should preachers be aware of when preparing a sermon?
DC: I think you need to be aware of three levels of application. Firstly, what is the necessary application of this passage? What must I do in response to this passage? Secondly, I think it’s important to go to the opposite of the necessary and ask “What is the impossible application of this passage? What must this passage not mean?” I guarantee you that in any audience, at least half are probably living consistently with the impossible application of the passage.
For example, in Matthew 6:24, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” The verse starts with “no one can” and ends with “you cannot”. Jesus is saying, “You cannot serve both God and wealth; you just can’t do it”. Now, the necessary application of the passage is “I must not serve both God and money; I must serve God alone”. It means I must repent of serving only wealth or of using God in the service of wealth. The impossible application of the passage is “I can serve both God and money”. Interestingly, this is the very opposite of what the passage teaches. I think if you work out the impossible application of a passage, it will help you get the necessary application. For example, Paul says we are only saved by grace through faith in Jesus. The impossible application is you need to add something to Jesus’ work on our behalf. I think most people add things to their salvation. That is the impossible application of the passage, but people still follow it. This means that when I preach, I state both the necessary application and the impossible one: I say, “This is the way this text applies to everybody, and this is the way it cannot apply to anybody”.
Finally, I get to possible applications: “This is how the text may apply to you”. At that point, I talk about how it may possibly apply to me. I then say that it may apply to them in that way as well, or it may not. But I am careful not to push the possible application into the level of the necessary, because then I may have transformed what is only a wise insight into a general rule that is binding on everyone. I have to be careful. How does this work out for me—that I serve God and not wealth? It may work out in the way I budget. I might give you an experience of this so that you can see the way it might work for you. But then again, it might not; it’s only a possibility, not the imperative of the necessary.
PH: Is there a link between godliness and powerful preaching in the book of Acts?
DC: Yes, there certainly is. It is one of the givens of the book that the apostles in Acts are people who are living consistently under the lordship of Christ. Sadly, our political leaders believe that you can be one thing in public and another thing in private. There is no such distinction in Christian leadership. We are to be people of transparent integrity, and we are to preach from that transparent integrity. In other words, we are to walk consistently with our own preaching. Throughout the book of Acts, Luke warns us against the danger of hypocrisy. The sons of Sceva are good examples. So are Ananias and Sapphira. What you see in Acts is a clear contrast between people who are ‘playing a part’—the hypocrites—and the apostles, who are walking and preaching with integrity.
PH: Luke emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. What is the significance of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and what does Acts tell us about our need for the Spirit?
DC: The Holy Spirit dominates the pages of Acts from the very beginning. Luke refers to the Spirit at the outset in Acts 1:2: “…until the day when [Jesus] was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen”. Here we are introduced to the Spirit, and Luke then goes on to show us that everything the church achieves is really accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit comes to the Jews in chapter 2, the Samaritans in chapter 8 and the Gentiles in chapter 10. These three comings are absolutely vital to the message of the book. When we come to the book of Acts we have already met Peter, but he has just failed Christ by denying him three times. However, here Peter proclaims Christ to a hostile crowd. There’s no mystery why this change in Peter occurs: Luke writes, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said…” (Acts 4:8). Peter’s courage comes from the Spirit. True Christian preaching is undertaken in the power of the Spirit. I think this is a necessary corrective because it’s easy to be theoretically correct in our preaching while having little confidence in the Holy Spirit to help us.
Many of our students are keenly aware of their weaknesses. I’ll say to them, “There’s a job going in ministry in such-and-such a place”, and they will say, “Oh, I could never do that!” While I am always encouraged by their humility, sometimes their responses exhibit a lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit. I mean, who among us is really capable and worthy of doing this work? None of us are. I need to remember constantly that the Holy Spirit lives in me, that he empowers me and that—note this—he continually reminds me of Jesus. Now I say this because, in a rather paradoxical way, I think the message of the book of Acts is “Don’t seek the Holy Spirit”. Luke is at pains to emphasize the Spirit’s work, but he wants us to realize that we must come to Jesus in order to receive the Spirit. Paul deals with a deficiency of knowledge about the Spirit in Acts 19 by telling the disciples of John about Jesus.
PH: Do you think that Richard Baxter was right to identify the principles we find in Acts 20 as setting out the model for pastoral ministry?
DC: Absolutely. I think two of the great needs in pastoral ministry today are the systematic preaching of the word of God and the regular visitation of the people of God. I am convinced especially of the latter because I find that few pastors visit on a regular basis. If pastors are going to help people change, they must love them, and one of the ways you love people is by visiting them.
PH: Ministers are often bewildered about how they ought to spend their time when faced with so many competing demands. Does Acts 6:4 contain any priorities for Christian leaders about how they should use their time?
DC: I think Acts 20 is the great apostolic model, but Acts 6:4 is also a key section because here we see a problem within the church that threatens to impede the progress of the gospel. The Greek-speaking widows grumble about the fact that they are being unfairly treated in the daily distribution of food. Now, the apostles display clear leadership here by reminding the church that it would not be right for them to divert their energies from the ministry of the word of God in order to focus on issues of welfare relief. Mind you, looking after these widows was a very important priority for the church, let’s not forget that. But the apostles realized that they must not neglect their first priorities, which were prayer and the preaching of the Word.
I think AW Tozer expressed this principle very well. You might remember that he was once asked, “Do you ever read a good book?” He replied, “I never read a good book; I only ever read the best. The good is the enemy of the best.”3 Now, is it good to distribute food and welfare to the poor? Yes, it’s good, but it’s not meant to divert the apostles from their main work of prayer and preaching. For them, that is the best. That’s why they set apart seven men for table service so that they could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
It’s interesting that when the apostles responded by giving their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word of God, Luke makes a statement about the progress of the word in Acts 6:7: “the word of God continued to increase”. In fact, he says more than this; he says that it penetrated deeply into the priesthood in Jerusalem. I think we are meant to see that the deep penetration of the Word within the Jerusalem community was due to single-minded leadership on the part of the apostles.
This is an edited version of an interview that appeared in Australian Presbyterian in February 2008. It has been reproduced with kind permission.
1. D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Warfare: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10-13, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1976, p. 274.↩
2. EM Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles: An Historical Commentary, Tyndale Press, Leicester, 1967, p. 50.]↩
3. Source unknown. ↩