What is the book of Acts all about? In today’s Bible study Wes visits with Marcus Stenson, Preaching Minister for the Leander Church of Christ. Marcus has been preaching through the book of Acts and has some amazing insights to share.
The book of Acts is about the church’s mission to share Jesus with the world. However, on several occasions Christians allowed their prejudices and preconceived ideas to get in the way of that mission. Even the apostle Peter told Jesus, “No.” Jesus had to reshape his people in order for them to take the Good News to the world.
Marcus is trying to help people experience that same reshaping. He wants people to ask themselves if there are evangelistic opportunities that God is calling them into that they are resisting. Marcus truly wants to see people be disciples and make disciples.
As always, we hope this conversation helps everyone learn to love like Jesus!
Links and Resources:
- Watch this Episode on YouTube
- Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie Jennings
- The New Testament in Its World by N.T. Wright
- Marcus’ Sermons on YouTube
- Leander Church of Christ Website
Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)
WES: Welcome to the Radically Christian Bible Study Podcast. I’m your host, Wes McAdams. Here, we have one goal: Learn to love like Jesus. I want to begin today by reading from Acts 1:6‑11. “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'”
Today we’re going to visit with my friend, Marcus Stenson, about studying the book of Acts, and we hope that this study, as always, will help all of us learn to love like Jesus.
Marcus Stenson, welcome to the podcast, Brother.
MARCUS: Thank you so much, Wes. It’s always a pleasure to join you here. I appreciate so much what you do with this podcast, man, so it’s a pleasure, it’s an honor, and I look forward to our discussion today. It should be good.
WES: Yeah. It’s been too long since we’ve gotten to visit, so we may just be catching up today. It’s good to see your face. It’s good to have been listening to your sermons. I’ve been listening to a few of your sermons lately, and, man, I just ‑‑ I’ve missed hearing you preach, and I appreciate so much what you’re doing for the kingdom. I’m excited for what you’re doing for the church there in Leander. So let’s get into what have you been teaching lately?
MARCUS: Well, first of all, thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying the messages recently. To be honest, when I came to Leander, we were already in about Acts chapter 6, and they had kind of designed their study of Acts as a good bridge until they found their next preaching minister, and so I came along a little bit earlier than they expected, I think. And so anytime that you’re entering a new context, you really want to spend some time letting that congregation get to know you while you get to know that congregation, and I just felt that there would be a lot of value in spending time to complete that bridge. There’s so much for us in the book of Acts, and so that is where we’ve been spending our time for the last few months, and we’ve had quite the journey, I’ll say, from Acts 6 all the way up through Acts 16 now, so it’s been a lot of fun.
WES: That’s awesome. Well, let me get into a few of the lessons that I’ve heard little bits and pieces of. You were gracious enough to send me a list of some of the themes that you’ve been working on, but let’s talk about resurrection for a second because, you know me, that’s one of my favorite subjects in the whole world. But you pointed out how Paul, when he first gets the opportunity to really preach a message on his first missionary journey, resurrection is where he goes, and resurrection is always at the core of Paul’s message. So talk to us about that and why that’s so important to understanding the book of Acts, why it’s so important to understanding the gospel.
MARCUS: Oh, man, it is at the heart of everything. When we’re talking about somebody like Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, this is a guy who did not like Christianity. He did not like what it stood for. He hated it. The more he was exposed to it, the more violent and visceral his reaction was to it. He hated everything about it. He came from a background that it just seemed absurd and ludicrous to him, blasphemous, and the thing that becomes the tipping point for him ‑‑ I mean, I guess I could say that there were things that affected Paul, clearly, in his encounters with Christians before. Certainly seeing Stephen and his martyring was something that left an indelible impact on him. But it wasn’t until he realized that the resurrection happened that everything was undone and remade for Paul, and that’s something that he carries with him for the rest of his ministry. And I think, in many ways, if you look at the epistles and the letters that he writes and his interactions throughout the rest of the book of Acts, it’s at the center of everything that he’s unpacking and preaching. It’s at the center of his presentation. It’s at the center of his why for the Gentiles. It’s at the center of his why for the children of Israel. It begins and ends with the resurrection for him. Whether he liked Christianity or not, it didn’t matter because the resurrection was true, and if that is true, then it demands a certain type of response from me.
And so I just think Paul’s a really good example of that, and I think that applies to our modern context, too. There are lots of places where Christianity conflicts with various worldviews, ideologies, what we like and don’t like about the Christian worldview. But at the very bottom, you will end up at the same place that Saul of Tarsus did, and that is if this Jesus got up, then it changes everything. If that’s the case, it really doesn’t matter what I like. I have to figure out a way to reconcile this if I’m gonna be intellectually honest. And so I take every chance I get to jump into that because it’s at the center of everything in the book of Acts.
WES: Well, I think that’s such an important point, and I think it’s incredibly relevant because I think there’s a modern understanding of religion, and Christianity gets thrown into that ‑‑ and I would argue that Christianity is so much more than a religion, but it gets thrown into that idea that if it works for you, great, and if it doesn’t work for you, then find something that does work for you. So it’s this very pragmatic approach, this very personal and individualized approach to religion that says, “Hey, find the religion that works for you, whatever makes you happy.” It goes back to our therapeutic culture, that we’re really just pursuing happiness, and so if we think that Christianity works, then great, adopt that; and if it doesn’t, don’t adopt that. But to your point, if the resurrection is truth, if it’s reality ‑‑ I love the phrase that you used throughout that sermon, and the title of that sermon, that “Whether You Like It Or Not,” this is true.
MARCUS: Thank you.
WES: And so, Christianity, if it’s true for one person, it’s true for every person, and if it’s not true for every person, then it’s not true for any people. This is reality, and if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then he’s the king; and if he hasn’t been raised from the dead, then everybody should abandon it and find something else. Because it doesn’t matter what makes you happy; what matters is what’s true and what’s not true.
MARCUS: Yeah, one hundred percent. The “Whether You Like It Or Not” was an idea that just kind of comes out of life experience. There are certain things you have to deal with. There are only a few certain things in life, death and taxes, and you’ve got to figure out a way to work through those, regardless. And I think that you’re right; this pragmatic approach, the relativistic approach of what’s true for me is true for me and true for you is true for you, betrays the severity and the gravity of the reality that if this Jesus was crucified and resurrected, it is the most whether‑you‑like‑it‑or‑not thing in all of history that exists. It is the thing you’ve got to get to the bottom of before you’re going to be able to honestly and truthfully and fully put the pieces of the rest of your life together. Whether you decide to rebel against it or whether you decide to fall in line with it, it is there and it has to be dealt with.
So I love talking about that from a historical perspective, too. As you know, I spent a lot of time in that message talking about the fact that that modern approach that you’re speaking of ‑‑ we give ourselves a little bit too much credit from the purview of historical snobbery and just believing that these were a gullible people, almost, that these were people from an ancient context and they probably were way more prone and likely to believe that this sort of thing could happen or would happen, or that Jesus would be God and resurrected. That’s actually not true. They were just as skeptical as we are, for different reasons, coming from a different worldview, but these Jews, especially, were the last group of people, maybe in the history of the world, to ever believe, not just that someone was God, but that someone was resurrected in the scheme of time in our line of history. So there’s a lot there.
WES: Yeah, no doubt. Well, let’s kind of transition just a little bit to Peter because I love the way that you made a comparison between Paul’s conversion to Christ and Peter’s conversion of his thinking. I don’t know that I had ever really put those two stories together, that Paul needed to be converted to Jesus, but Peter was already converted to Jesus but he didn’t really fully grasp what he was getting into and what it was going to mean to fulfill this Great Commission that Jesus had sent him and his friends on, to go into the world and preach the good news to all creation. Apparently, he didn’t recognize that that was going to entail him hanging out with and eating meals with Gentile people, and so he hadn’t yet fully grasped the reality of this multi‑ethnic kingdom that Jesus was putting together. So talk to us about that idea of Peter being converted to a new way of thinking.
MARCUS: Man, I actually love this, and it’s something that we’re not done with. It keeps coming up again and again and again. I think that this is just common to the human experience. I think that it’s possible for us to intellectually believe things without going deeper and thinking through what the actual practical implications of that are going to be. And so it was possible for Peter to believe that he was going to be Jesus’ witness unto the end of the earth and really believe in who Jesus was, be a full‑blown disciple, early pillar of the church, and just never have it cross his mind that that might demand of him to go and do life with Gentiles who he spent his life, up to that point, feeling superior than, feeling better than, feeling intentionally set apart from. And those two things are brought into such a sharp cognitive dissonance in a way that, you know, Peter’s having this vision from God, this dream where he’s literally saying, “No, Lord” three times, and that shows how deeply we get entrenched in these ideas and why they become tremendous blind spots for us.
I think Peter deserves some grace because there are so many instances in our lives in which we can believe something intellectually but not think through what the actual reality is going to demand of us, and this is something that Peter will continue to struggle with. So Peter doesn’t realize he’s gonna have to go and be with Cornelius and that, “Oh, well, actually, yeah, the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the gospel going to the ends of the earth means the Gentiles are coming. The fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets means the Gentiles are coming into the Kingdom. The fulfillment of the gospel means that the Holy Spirit is going to be poured out on them just like it was poured out on us, and I’m actually a part of that, I’m a minister of that.” I love that he’s the one that has to speak up first in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 when the dissent breaks out over whether the Gentiles need to be circumcised to be saved or to be part of the body of Christ and part of the community. It’s his experience in bumping up against the reality of what this means versus what he initially just thought that allows him to be the needed voice in that council, and it doesn’t eradicate it fully for him. We haven’t gotten here yet, but, you know, later, Paul will talk about how he, you know, opposes Peter to his face because even then, sitting in Jerusalem, he was saying, “Yeah, the Gentiles are good. They’re a part of us. We shouldn’t bind this on them.” That intellectual admission was different than the reality of practice that Peter was going to engage in later.
We’re so much further from what we can think and believe and what that actually demands of us in practice sometimes, and I think we come by it honestly. So this is the great chasm that the gospel is crossing, the greatest of chasms, and I see this happening a lot of different ways all through the book of Acts. It’s one of the strongest recurring themes for me. So, yeah, I don’t know if you had some other specific instances you wanted to talk about there. It happens almost from the beginning.
WES: Well, let’s get into the Jerusalem Council because I think ‑‑ I mean, as you said, this is what the book of Acts is all about. It’s all about God bringing together Jew and Gentile, and, really, they begin to realize that this has always been God’s plan. This was always God’s plan to reconcile, not only himself to humanity, but to reconcile humanity with one another. Paul would say, in Ephesians, this is the mystery. This is the mystery of the gospel, is that this was always God’s intention. And then there’s not only the ‑‑ as you said, the intellectual acceptance of that, but then there’s the working of that out in reality.
To borrow a phrase from Paul to the church of Philippi, I think this is what it is to work out our salvation. It’s not an individual thing like, Marcus, you work out your salvation; I’ll work out my salvation. It is, together, the church was supposed to be working out what it means to be saved people. What does that look like in reality? And that is an ongoing process, something else you pointed out in one of your recent sermons. So talk to me ‑‑ you said in your notes that Acts 15 is a roadmap for navigating church hurt. I didn’t get to listen to that sermon, but I’m anxious to hear what you mean by Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, being a roadmap to navigate church hurt.
MARCUS: Oh, man, this is admittedly something that didn’t come up for me until I was getting ready to deliver that message. And I’m sure you’ve had those situations before where you’re going to hit the text one more time and then something totally just blindsides you and takes you a totally different direction. So we were going to talk about the Jerusalem Council. We were going to talk about the issue of circumcision and how the church handled that, and we were going to talk about it like normal, or like I usually would have, and then it just hit me that, one, Paul and Barnabas are on almost a rock‑star tour where they’re being met with such energy and God is doing works and signs and people are coming into the church in such a way and level that has not yet happened, that some, from the outside looking in, are saying, “Oh, it’s Zeus and Hermes. Look, these guys are gods.” And they’re having to say, “No, no, no, it’s not that. It’s something very different.” There’s so much success happening there that they willfully say, “No, we’re going to pause and we’re actually going to go back and deal with this issue because this is a big deal.”
And I put myself in that position, and I think that, especially where we are in our culture today church‑wise, we’re tired of hearing criticism. We’re tired of anyone pushing back on the way that we do things. It’s really easy for us to just say, “Man, look at what God is doing here. I don’t need to give my time over to this. We’re just going to keep going.” So something about Paul and Barnabas actually saying, “No, we need to go deal with this” just stopped me for a moment to ask the question, “Okay, what are the larger implications of what just happened?” It wasn’t just that some guys from Jerusalem came down and said some things that were out of pocket and not true and ruffled some feathers. It was that that was a sizable portion of the church back in Jerusalem felt this way that came out from that. There was an influential group of the church in Jerusalem that felt that way. But you also had this group of very young Christians who came from a totally different cultural context. At best, they were God‑fearers, like Cornelius, or maybe someone who was exposed before, like Lydia, but they were people from a totally different cultural paradigm. They had maybe left families. They had stepped into this world that was previously Jewishness. They’re outsiders looking in and they’re feeling like that they found community for the first time, hope for the first time.
I spent some time talking about why the resurrection overturned the Greco‑Roman worldview and paradigm between the Stoics and the Epicureans and why the resurrection offers so much more hope for Christians in the first century than anything that the world had ever seen before. And so you have people latching on to this and grabbing this for the first time, and then, out of nowhere, after totally giving their lives over, you have someone show up from home base, who you probably revere and consider to hold in high esteem, who just says to you, “You’re not really a Christian. You’re not really a part of us, and if you don’t betray all of your culture and your traditions, you’ll never be a part of us.” And I just thought about what that would have been like for the brand‑new Christian in those days to have to go home and sit across the table from their family who they were trying to convince that this gospel was real, that this Jesus was real, and their family looking back at them and saying, “You know, I told you they would never accept you. I told you it wasn’t real. You’ll never be one of them.”
And then it dawned on me, this is maybe the first instance of major church hurt and Paul and Barnabas are going to go back and deal with this because they know what’s at stake. They know that this has the potential to destroy the witness of the church in the Greek world where it is just gaining momentum and gaining steam. And I thought it was just really important for us to sit and think about that, because if there’s anything that I know, being around church folks in the last 20 years, everybody has a family member or a friend who’s no longer part of a church community, and it wasn’t the boogeyman of atheism that turned them away. It wasn’t because they thought the science led a different direction. It’s because they had an interaction with somebody that hurt them, wounded them, that they felt was hypocritical, that did ineffable damage to what they thought this Jesus movement was, this church was, and nobody’s ever reconciled that with them.
I saw a meme the week before of some folks from a nondescript church, and it was just basically stating, “Why don’t you admit the reason why you’re not at church is because you just don’t want to go?” And it was that assumption that the reason why people aren’t in church today like they used to be is because they just don’t care as much, they’re not as serious, they’re not as righteous, they’re not as good a people, and it was this maybe even unintended superiority that was coming off. It was a way to make myself feel better about being in church. And I just think that betrays our actual experience, and the actual experience is something that Mark Twain said: “Most people aren’t in church today because they’ve already been.” There is something that has hurt them.
And so then I looked ‑‑ okay, Paul and Barnabas are willing to stop what they’re doing to make sure that they handle this problem so they make the journey all the way back to Jerusalem, but all along the way they’re doing very important things. It says they’re testifying of what God was doing all along the way. Everywhere they stop, they’re making sure they’re meeting this contention that has arisen. They’re meeting this controversy that has arisen with the testimony of what God is actually doing, and it is bringing joy and peace and encouragement to the brothers, so they’re outweighing the bad that needs to be dealt with with the good.
They finally get back and they have the council. A couple of really cool things happen during the council. Peter speaks up, and his personal experience leads him to do that, and he shares that testimony. Then James speaks up, and they’re sitting under the scripture together and they’re like, “This is exactly what Amos talked about.” So they’re seeing the intellectual acceptance of the gospel going to the nations and remembering that this is what God always wanted. “It’s what he told us he was going to do, but we just didn’t see how it was coming together yet.” They’re connecting the dots. The Spirit is stitching these things together for them live, on the fly. And then they say, “You know what? We’re going to send a letter to let these brothers know that we’re sorry; no one should have bothered you.”
And this was the thing that really got me even more. They didn’t just send the letter. They didn’t just put out a Facebook post or a release in the bulletin, “We’re sorry about what happened.” They actually sent men hand‑chosen to meet them face‑to‑face, to look them in the eye and reconcile the damage that had been done. And I could not get around the fact that this is the model of how we ought to attempt to deal with this huge issue that we have in our church culture right now. Church hurt is a thing. If we want to pretend that it’s their fault and they’re just not as serious and put our head in the sand, that’s fine. Things are not going to get better. But if we really care about reconciliation, if you really want to see the hurt undone and the church be a place of healing and not hurt, then maybe we ought to get together, maybe we ought to sit under the scripture, maybe we ought to think about what God has done first, and then maybe we ought to be willing to go face‑to‑face and reconcile with people. I think that what happens in Acts 15, just like what happened earlier in the book of Acts, is a really good recipe for some issues that we’re really struggling to solve, even in our modern context. So yeah, it’s ‑‑ I mean, there’s big growth happening in Acts 15. It takes what could have been the thing that fractured the church irrevocably and it turns it into a moment of empowerment for the gospel, and I think that’s big for us to pay attention to.
WES: Yeah. Man, that’s so good. What a great take on that passage and how relevant that is for our world today, as you pointed out, and how often that’s not the way that we navigate those types of situations. As you were speaking, it struck me that they took responsibility for people who went out from them. The people who went out from Jerusalem, they claimed that James had sent them, but James didn’t actually send them. This wasn’t something that he authorized. It wasn’t something that the leaders in Jerusalem actually were behind. It was a group of the circumcision party that was going to Antioch and stirring up all of these problems, but they still took responsibility. They didn’t just say, “Hey, that’s not our problem. Those aren’t our people. We didn’t do it.” They didn’t abdicate their responsibility to deal with it. They dealt with the issue and they didn’t worry about, “Well, man, if we send a letter, it’s gonna cause bad PR and people might think that we’ve got problems, and it’s better just to sort of let it go away” because of the people who were being harmed. And as you said, Paul and Barnabas are concerned about these people that they desperately love and the future people that need to be brought to Jesus, and the circumcision party was putting a stumbling block in front of them.
And it just occurs to me how often we do that, and what a great point, that so many people are now out there in the world, not because the world has pulled them away, but because the church has pushed them away, and sometimes it is like this situation in Acts. It’s relatively well‑meaning, religious people who are putting their tradition and their rules, their legalism, above what the gospel says is true. And because of that, they’re pushing people away and they’re saying, “Well, they just don’t want to accept the truth. They just don’t want to accept the way things are.” And it’s like, no, no, no, you’re pushing them away and they’re leaving because they don’t want to accept your version of the truth. They don’t want to accept your religion, not the religion of Jesus. They’re not rejecting you; they’re rejecting what you’re trying to ‑‑ this burden you’re trying to place on them. So yeah, what an amazing way to handle that text.
MARCUS: Yeah, I think it’s ‑‑ man, one other thing that jumped out to me was that there wasn’t ‑‑ the men who came up from Jerusalem were wrong, but there did not seem to be a pronunciation of condemnation on them from the assembly even after they decided to go a different direction. It’s almost as if they knew and were aware that this is human nature. This is what we do. We are constantly being pulled back and we’re being constantly tempted to give up liberty for legalism because it makes us feel secure and it makes us feel safe, right? And the Spirit is on the other side of that, pulling us the direction that God knows things need to go, and we’re always kind of in that place of tension. So, man, it was important to see the grace that was around the entire situation, in my mind. And the way that it was solved was by coming back to the original fact that “We believe that they will be saved by grace just as we have, and let’s remember what the actual common ground is here instead of continuing to collect and pick up additional elements that we are going to force people to make common ground or we’re going to break fellowship from them,” so yeah.
WES: Yeah, absolutely. Let me ask you this: What additional resources ‑‑ have you found anything that has helped you ‑‑ maybe not particularly on the book of Acts, maybe particularly on the book of Acts ‑‑ but something that you’ve been reading or listening to that has helped you as you’ve been preaching through this?
MARCUS: Yeah, there is actually a resource that has helped me to see things, in some instances, just from a little bit of a different perspective, a much more personal perspective. There’s a newer theological commentary out on the book of Acts by a gentleman named Willie Jennings. Actually, I’ve got it here. I thought you might ask. I think it has done an incredible job of putting some contemporary connectors into the text for me, and I haven’t preached directly from it or anything, but in terms of bringing me back to the text to revisit it in a way where I’m not just looking for what I called, in the last message, the Aesop’s Fables of the book of Acts, where, yes, I believe that it’s true, but I’m just looking for a little nugget for my own personal application and maybe something that we can put a nice little bow on and feel good about as a church. That commentary, along with a study that I read on the book of Acts from Timothy Keller that was released years and years ago ‑‑ I dug that out when I first got to Leander and started to look at that again, and that’s been a real benefit when ‑‑ especially from a historical perspective and looking at the worldview in which the book of Acts takes place.
“The New Testament In Its World” is a great book, by the way, if you’re not familiar with that, just for understanding the powers that be that are vying for people’s worldviews and ideology at the time, and, historically, how could you account for the message of the gospel being so powerful that it would not just subvert, but totally dethrone and eradicate, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy in a matter of 150 years. It’s mind‑blowing when you really sit back and think about it.
But to your point, those resources have been really good to kind of spur me on to look at things from a little bit of a different angle this time through the book of Acts. I see things everywhere that I didn’t see before, and that’s always the case in scripture, but I feel like this time I’ve really just been pressed that there’s so much of us in this book still that we leave by the wayside. It’s always been taught to me, growing up in church, that, you know, the book of Acts is the only book of the Bible that’s still continuing because the church is still continuing, so we’re kind of the continuation of the story. But I think it goes even further. I think that we have the record of the book of Acts because the more that things change, the more people stay the same, and they are dealing with the same kinds of issues that we’re dealing with today, and, in many ways, walking much more closely in step with the Spirit and overcoming them in ways that we’ve faltered along the path. So it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a convicting study for me.
WES: Well, speaking of that, that’s my next question before we take a break. How has this study changed you personally?
MARCUS: I struggle to say that it is ‑‑ I struggle to want to say that it has really given me a dose of humility, because I believe that humility is so shy that as soon as you mention it, it goes away.
WES: That’s good.
MARCUS: But I can’t escape the feeling that you need to really take a step back and consider just how much of you needs to be transformed by this text. You make an awful lot of assumptions, Marcus, and you see lots of things that you don’t like about our current state and situation maybe culturally, the social moment that we’re in, things that are wrong in the church. You need to just calm down and sit with these people, these real people with these real issues, and see what’s actually there. And it has revealed to me that when I’m looking at the conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebraic Jews early in the history of the church, this is a conflict way bigger for them than I would’ve ever thought it was. We just thought some people were getting skipped in the daily distribution, but the truth is this was a boundary that was drawn in the early church that was unintentional but yet became drawn along a language barrier, an ethnic barrier, a racial barrier.
And so it became for me, okay, actually, their handling of this is a map for us in handling the issues that we still haven’t fixed today, because if it was a language barrier, the fact that we still have Spanish churches and English churches means we haven’t solved that the way they solved it. If it was an ethnic barrier or a racial barrier, the fact that the church stayed together and figured it out, and we still have white churches and black churches, means that we haven’t gotten to where they got to in the resolution of this issue. So I just started to see all of these places that just really humbled me and reminded me that this is the story of us as much as it is the story of the New Testament church, too.
WES: Yeah. Amen. Let’s take a little break.
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WES: Marcus, this conversation has been so rich. I’ve enjoyed it so much already. Let me ask you this: What do you hope that the congregation ‑‑ and, again, you mentioned that you just started in Leander, and so they’re getting to know you and you’re getting to know them. But what is it that you hope that they’re really learning and taking away, understanding that they didn’t understand before, based on some of these lessons?
MARCUS: Man, I hope, first and foremost, that not ‑‑ the most important thing is not for them to see themselves in the book of Acts, but I do hope that that is something that they’re connecting with, if not for the first time, for the first time in a while. We’re very familiar with the book of Acts, but we love going to the book of Acts to prove or to prop up things that we already believe and we already know. We love going to the book of Acts for nice little personal lessons, but the thing that Leander was extremely interested in and wants more than anything is how do we become successful in being Jesus to the community around us? And so there’s this emphasis on community and being the hands and feet, and so there’s really no better place than the book of Acts to explore, how did this gospel take over the world? What was so explosive about it? What was so attractive about it? Who were the people that were a part of that? What were the struggles? What were the obstacles? What were the persecutions? What were the internal, you know, stressors and things that had to be held in tension? I hope that they’re seeing this as a really comprehensive and robust picture of who we still are today and how God still works today and what God still wants today, and how these stories that we’ve heard, maybe from the time that we were children in Bible class, are actually much more than that. There is not just application to our modern context and what we’re living out right now; these are very much the same sorts of things that we wrestle with today. And so I hope that they feel very close to the book of Acts in a way that they haven’t felt before, because I do, and I hope that their experience mirrors mine.
WES: Yeah. It’s amazing how scripture is that way, that, on the one hand, we can look at it from sort of a third‑person perspective and simply celebrate what God has done for our brothers and sisters in history and just celebrate the fact that God has won victory after victory through the power of the Spirit, but then also learning to see how God is working in similar ‑‑ sometimes similar, sometimes dissimilar ways, but we’re learning the character and the nature of God so that we see that God is still active in our world and in our personal lives. And, yeah, you’re right; there’s so much relevance there.
Let’s kind of transition, but still related. How do you hope that people are applying this to their life not just on Sunday, but throughout the week? How do you hope that they are applying these lessons and their lives are being changed by what they’re hearing?
MARCUS: I hope that they are inviting God in in a way that they haven’t up until now. And what I mean by that is ‑‑ there’s been a lot of emphasis and a lot of ways of bringing this thread and drawing it into each message, that the God that we envision is often not the God that you actually need to have a collision with. And we started talking about that around the conversion of Saul because he has this collision on the road to Damascus, and what does that actually mean? What would that process be like for him? He goes and sits in the dark for a couple of days and just thinks about what he thought he knew about God. What he earnestly and genuinely pursued, he thought he was doing for God, and all of that has to be torn down and it now has to be remade from the ashes of the resurrection, and it changed everything for him, and that we all have a collision like that we have to have. Peter had to have that collision even though he was in the fold, so to speak, where how he envisioned this going did not match up with the reality of what the gospel was actually calling for.
And I hope that people are inviting God into that place and seeking that, that when we’re finished with Acts we will, individually and as a community, have a God that’s allowed to disagree with us, that the God that we serve is not just a projection of our desires for what we want God to be or think God should be or assume who God is, that there is a God that is constantly going to be colliding with us and sanctifying us and drawing us deeper and conforming us and transforming us into the image of his son. And that means, necessarily, that I don’t just, you know, agree with God intellectually, but there are actual practical applications and realities that I’m not yet comfortable with that he’s going to call me into that I don’t yet see that he’s going to reveal to me and sometimes that I disagree with, and it’s not going to matter if I disagree with it because Jesus did get up, and since the resurrection is true, this is the way that we’re moving now.
So I hope that that theme of what is happening to these people in the narrative of the book of Acts ‑‑ we’re moving closer to that individually and as a community. It has, I think, the potential to break us off of some legalistic tendencies that all of us have that we want to pick up and carry around, so I hope that’s where people are by the time we finish this study.
WES: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I love that idea of the difference between the God of ‑‑ the God that we envision versus the God that we need a collision with. I love that. I love that turn of phrase and I love that idea. The first person that I heard talk about something similar was Tim Keller, who talks about if God ‑‑ if your God doesn’t disagree with you, then he’s probably a God of your own imagination. And that idea that our version of God, the God that we envision, is really just ‑‑ I love the way you put that, he is a projection of our own thoughts and feelings and things like that.
And so I love that you’re confronting people with that idea that the God that you worship may or may not be the God of reality. This God that’s in your imagination may be just that, a figment of your own imagination, and that using that as a test of does this God that you worship ‑‑ is he allowed to argue with you and tell you that you’re wrong and disagree with you? And I love that you pointed out, in Peter’s conversion to a new way of thinking, that Peter is arguing with God ‑‑ explicitly arguing with God. One of the things you said in that sermon ‑‑ you said, “Who is God trying to send us to? And are we saying to the Lord, ‘No, thank you, I’d rather not’?” And I love that challenge that you put in front of people. Talk about that for just a second, if you would. What were you hoping people would take away from that idea that we very well might be arguing with God and say, “No, no, no, the people you want me to go and spend time with, I’d rather not, and I just want to sit in the seat. I just want to come to church. I don’t want to actually go out and be your hands and feet”?
MARCUS: Yeah, it’s the cognitive dissonance that we all suffer. Man, I think, in a modern church context, there is much that is made of wanting to grow and wanting to be vibrant, healthy communities of God’s people, and I think that often, without realizing it, we’re in that place of intellectually agreeing with and wanting something, but not thinking through the application of that, the reality of that, what activity it’s going to take to bring that about that demands more of us. We will say we want to make disciples and, at the same time, not think about the implication that it’s not something I can accomplish from a pew on Sunday, and that whatever I’m saying no to, and investing in the one that God brings in my way, and being willing to let God disagree with me about my preferences ‑‑ maybe the way I like doing things or the way I feel comfortable doing things might be robbing me from having the opportunity to share the gospel with someone who God is calling me to.
I just wanted people to stop and think, are there things that I have decided ahead of time that I’m not willing to budge on that are actually keeping me from evangelistic opportunities that God might be calling me into? Have I put barriers in the way that God is trying to tear down, and that nudging that I keep feeling is not actually an annoyance from someone else that I’ve interpreted it as, but it might actually be God saying, “Hey, I’ve been trying to get you to pay attention to this for a long time,” but you’re just not willing to hear it right now?
It’s something to think about, that if Peter ‑‑ the Peter that walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, reconciled with Jesus is having a vision from God in which he’s willing to say to God directly, face‑to‑face if you will, “No, Lord, I will not,” then for me to believe that it’s beyond my ability, beyond my stubbornness, beyond my shortcomings to do the same thing is speaking with a little bit of hubris. So I just wanted to create a point of internal reflection and inflection to think about that, some introspection. I think there’s lots of places where we do this.
WES: Yeah, no doubt. Let me ask you this. This is one of my favorite questions to ask other preachers because I know that, for me, I never get done with a sermon or with a series and not sort of regret some of the things ‑‑ “Oh, I should have said this,” or “I wish I would have added that,” or “I wish I would have said this a little bit differently or spent a little more time on this aspect.” So as you sort of look back at what you’ve already preached, is there anything that, if you had to do it over again, you would add to it or change how you said it before?
MARCUS: Is there ever a sermon that I deliver that I don’t think back and wish I would have said something differently?
WES: Me, too. Me, too.
MARCUS: There are, but, you know, I think I’ve settled into a really comfortable place in the midst of this series, and I’m holding myself to it. This is difficult to do, but I’m holding myself to it. If you’re trying to deliver a message from the overflow and your true goal is to let God speak through you and to not make it about you, then there’s two things I try to remember. Number one, I’m the only person that knows that I forgot to say something that I thought was the most important thing to say that day. And, two, I think that they are going to get from God what they need to get from God.
What I may do differently, if I was doing this series again, is I would put much more emphasis, from the beginning, on this being the story of us more than just we’re going through the book of Acts, and I would arrange everything through that filter and lens that I’m now operating through, that has been part of what has changed me in this series, because I think it would be really valuable in terms of setting the correct perspective that we’re looking at all these events through. I absolutely would do that, for sure. I don’t think that it does justice to the book of Acts to look at it as an archaic story of the New Testament church that maybe we can pull a pattern for worship from. I just ‑‑ man, we are leaving all the good stuff on the table with that, so…
WES: I love what you said there about if you had started over, you would have emphasized a little bit differently the story of us. I think about the fact that I like to plan my sermons out well in advance, as well, and sort of know what series I’m going to do and the sermon titles and all of that. But even as I sit down at the beginning of the month and look ahead at the series that I’m about to do, I sort of have an idea of the way this is gonna go and what the emphasis is going to be and the perspective is gonna be, but it always shocks me how I get changed the week of, as I really dive into the text, and it’s like, oh, I had no idea that God was saying this in this passage. I had no idea that there was this truth there.
WES: And so sometimes my perspective gets totally turned upside down the week of, and it’s like, oh, I wish I could start this series over or I wish I had known this going in, but that kind of spoils the whole idea that we are being changed in the process, that we aren’t coming to this as authoritative directors to say, “Hey, this is what you need to believe and this is what you need to do.” We’re coming as fellow students who are coming to the text with the congregation and we’re all learning together how to love like Jesus.
MARCUS: One hundred percent. And that has been my experience so far in this series. It just, you know, dawned on me looking at, you know, what’s coming up in the next few weeks, and it’s kind of exciting because I almost anticipate things like that happening now. We’re about to talk about, you know, Paul at the Areopagus. I hadn’t even thought about it because my world has been so rocked by, you know, what we’re doing in the Jerusalem Council and where we’re going, you know, this coming week, and, man, it is truly alive and sharper than any sword, and if it’s not cutting you, then you probably are not handling it well. So it’s always an adventure, that’s for sure.
WES: Yeah. Well, that’s so awesome that you are experiencing this, but I think that the way that you preach is also helping the congregation to experience this, experience a collision with God, allowing God to transform, allowing the text to not be something that is just dry and academic. That we are going to the text as a conduit, we’re going to the text as a way to be transported into the throne room of God and experience him and be transformed by him. And that’s what I love about the book of Acts. That’s what I love about your preaching, is that it really is an experience ‑‑ a transformative experience of being confronted, not with Marcus, but confronted with God and with the good news of Jesus.
MARCUS: I appreciate you saying that so much. I hope that’s the experience for everybody. I just ‑‑ I hope that they know that I can only relay that because I’m experiencing that. And as I think about the book of Acts at large, it is the story of us, and the story of us is a series and a sequence of incredibly impactful collision points between God and the world that was, and the world that he is making, and the world that is coming, and we’re just intersecting him at all of these places along the way. And some of them are internal. Some of them come from our past and baggage that we’ve picked up, and some of them come from our assumptions about the future, and some of them come from, you know, collisions with the outside world as the hope of the resurrection just turns everything on its head as the gospel goes out into the world.
But this is the way that God operates. This is the way that he does things. And that’s exciting to me because I look at these accounts and I realize that these people are actually us and we are them, but the God that is working through them is the God that is working through us and is present in us. So the same Spirit that was poured out on the Gentiles without distinction that Peter talks about in Acts 15 is the same Spirit that is poured out on us that operates in our communities, as well, and that ought to give us just as much hope as it gave the New Testament church, too. I think the closer we come to the text, the more encouraging it actually is, even though it’s filled with persecution and problems and pressures and all of these things. So I hope that that is what the folks who are tuning in to these messages are getting, as well.
WES: Amen. Well, thank you for this conversation, and, more importantly, thank you for your work in the kingdom, Brother. I love you and I pray for you, and I’m so thankful for the work you’re doing.
MARCUS: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a blast, as always.
Thank you so much for listening to the Radically Christian Bible study podcast. If you have just a moment, we would love for you to rate and review the podcast on iTunes, or wherever you’re listening. It really does help people find this content. I also want to thank the guests who join me each week; Travis Pauley, who edits this podcast; Beth Tabor, who often volunteers her time to transcribe it; and our whole McDermott Road church family, who make it possible for us to provide this Bible study for you. Now let’s go out and love like Jesus.