As you may know, I (Rick) have the privilege of teaching preaching (homiletics) courses at Heritage. Recently I spoke to our students about an issue preachers encounter when speaking from narrative sections of Scripture–like the book of Acts. While I realize many who read our blog are not pastors, I thought you might find it interesting to learn about some of the challenges preachers face when seeking to communicate God’s Word in a faithful and effective way. The last post dealt with theological lessons from Acts 27. In this post, I’ll focus on preaching from Acts 27.
In terms of high adventure and suspense, Acts 27 is a page-turner. Luke records, in vivid detail and nautically-precise terms, the voyage taking Paul from Caesarea towards Rome. Bad weather causes a detour to Crete. From Crete, things really go south (and west). The ship is driven for two weeks by an unrelenting storm; finally, the waterlogged boat shipwrecks off the coast of Malta. In the midst of it all, we watch Paul become the unofficial chaplain and captain of the crew!
I can see how preachers (including myself) tend to preach this passage as an example of godly leadership. Paul rises to a place of great influence in a situation where he was officially powerless. His speeches are inspirational and motivational. He models courageous and effective leadership in a tough situation.
I can also see how this passage is preached from the angle of “facing the storms of life with faith.” Paul demonstrates faith in God’s promise and protection even when deluged by danger. He demonstrates faith when others are giving way to fatalism (“we finally gave up all hope of being saved”—20) or fear (“keep up your courage”—23).
A question preachers must ask is this: is it homiletically (and hermeneutically) legit to preach Acts 27 in a way that focuses on “leadership principles when things get rough” or “faith in the storms of life”?
My answer would be “Yes, but not completely yes.”
On one hand the Bible draws from the stories of people in Scripture to highlight lessons of faith. If you wonder about that, read Hebrews 11 again. The writer of Hebrews draws faith lessons from the lives of Old Testament believers. So, yes, there is biblical precedent for drawing faith lessons from biblical stories. At the same time, I would have to add a word of clarification and caution.
While exemplary leadership and buoyant faith are legitimate themes of this narrative, I don’t think either are the central theme of Acts 27. In the flow of the book, Luke records the events of Paul’s dramatic voyage to show how God is sovereignly keeping His promises and fulfilling His grand purpose of sending the gospel to the nations.
At the start of the book of Acts, Luke records Jesus’ commission to His followers to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). The rest of the book chronicles the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem and Judea (chapters 2-7), to Samaria (chapter 8) and on to the ends of the earth (chapters 9-28).
Paul’s story is part of the larger story of the spread of the gospel to Gentile lands. After blinding and opening his eyes, Jesus commissions Paul to take the message to “Gentiles and their kings” (9:15). Further, the Lord Jesus promises Paul he will testify in Rome (23:11). Acts 27 records how God’s promise about witnessing in Rome would be fulfilled in spite a “perfect storm.”
In Acts 27, Luke highlights God’s sovereignty over the storm, over the soldiers and sailors, and over Paul’s life. It was confidence in God’s power and promise that allowed Paul to step into the role of spiritual leader for this ship. And the promise of protection was not simply about Paul’s safety; it was about the proclamation of the gospel. Acts 27 shows God’s sovereign control and solid commitment to seeing the gospel go to the ends of the earth.
So how should all of this impact our preaching of Acts 27? Remember as expositors we seek to make the main message of the text equal the main message of our sermon (see Millar and Campbell’s helpful book, Saving Eutychus). In other words, as preachers, we should generally put our primary sermonic focus on the primary focus of the passage. And the primary focus of the book of Acts, as well as chapter 27, is the gospel going to the ends of the earth (1:8). We should keep the big story of the book in mind as we come to the individual sections of the book. Focusing our sermons primarily on leadership principles or storm-tested faith risks missing the forest (overall purpose of the book) for the trees (individual sections of the book).
So is it wrong to preach about godly leadership or storm-tested faith from Acts 27? No, these sermons can be helpful and can highlight biblical truths. Further, these sermons have a great deal of “pew appeal” as they touch felt needs in the lives of our hearers.
However, we should make sure we don’t only preach about storm-tested faith or godly leadership as we exposit Acts 27. We may focus on lessons related to faith or leadership, but we should set them in the context of Luke’s purpose in writing the book (the spread of the gospel of Christ) and God’s sovereign control and missional heart. As we call our hearers to emulate Paul’s faith in God’s promises and power, we will also call them to be part of God’s larger purpose of getting the gospel to the ends of the earth.