Author Interview: R. Albert Mohler Jr. on “Acts 13-28 For You”
R. Albert Mohler Jr. discusses his newest book “Acts 13-28 For You” on mapping the explosive multiplying of the church
A conversation with R. Albert Mohler Jr. about his new book, Acts 13-28 For You.
The volume begins with a treatment of the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13), then explores Paul’s many arrests and court appearances throughout his earthly ministry. The book then discusses the Jerusalem Council, the arrival of the church in Philippi, Athens, and Rome, and many other key moments from the Book of Acts. According to Mohler, the second part of Acts should embolden believers to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, just as Paul himself did.
Below, Mohler discusses the book, which was published by The Good Book Company and is available at major booksellers across the country. The conversation explores proper interpretation of the Book of Acts, the nature of Christian suffering, and the role of evangelism in the ancient and modern church.
This is the second book you’ve written in this two-part series on the Book of Acts. The first was Acts chapters one through 12, this is Acts chapters 13 through 28. Is there something especially interesting or powerful about the book of Acts to you that motivated you to write these books?
Behind the writing of the commentary is the preaching of the text, the exposition of the text. It’s grounded in the real-life experience of teaching the people of God from the Book of Acts. The story is about the church born and the apostles ministering. Acts is the first history of the early church, but it’s more than just history. It’s the Holy Spirit-inspired record of the acts of the Holy Spirit through the church in the Book of Acts. Writing this commentary on Acts has been an extension of the thrill of teaching and preaching the Book of Acts in the context of the local church.
Because this commentary begins in Acts 13, in this book you have to deal with the gospel expanding beyond Jerusalem and going to the ends of the earth. That becomes a major theme, both of your commentary and then of the Book of Acts. What should the modern Church’s response be to that theme? Shouldn’t that drive the Church toward missions and to going to the ends of the Earth themselves?
Absolutely. We often think of the ending of the Gospel of Matthew as the Great Commission, and of course it is. But that same commission is the urgency that represents the very last words of Jesus to the disciples as they were there gathered — where just prior to his ascension, he gave them this command to be his witnesses. In this apostolic evangelism, the church is found as witnesses everywhere and unto the ends of the Earth.
You know, it’s interesting to note that the disciples did not know that Jesus was just about to ascend. But it’s so important that we know as we read the Book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit has given us the Book of Acts through Luke, that these were the words with which Christ left the church. And that means we are left with those words right now until he comes.
One of the themes brought out in the commentary is this idea of Paul suffering in his mission, but trusting God’s sovereignty to make his mission effective and to even protect him until the end. Suffering is not really a word that we’re comfortable or used to using in the Western Church. We don’t suffer like our brothers and sisters do overseas and brothers and sisters of previous generations have, but suffering seems really important and foundational in the Book of Acts. So how do we rediscover a robust theology of suffering in ministry today?
I think the Church is often confused about this. And I think back to when I was a teenager, as a young Christian in a church, when you start reading about suffering, are we supposed to pray for suffering? Are we supposed to pray and be faithful through suffering? What exactly is suffering? And certainly, when you look through the Book of Acts, you’re seeing suffering unto death. Just think of the martyrdom of Stephen. You’re seeing suffering under persecution that’s beyond our imagination. But you’re also looking at real-life human beings who are sometimes suffering in ways with which we can immediately associate. So, I think the Church is often confused. Are we supposed to glory in suffering? No, we glory only in Christ, but we glory in Christ even in suffering. Maybe even especially in suffering, when we can’t glory in anything else or anyone else.
We also pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering and we pray that our suffering and their suffering will be witness. But you know, when I think of the Apostle Paul in particular and the theme of suffering, I realize the fact that Paul had to understand the sovereignty of God in a way that could only in his life explain how Saul could become Paul. And he had to know, and shares with us that great confidence he had, that nothing could separate him from the love of Christ.
So, here was the Apostle Paul, who shows us faithfulness through suffering. He was absolutely sure of this. Caesar was not sovereign; Christ is. Even in the midst of suffering, even physical threat, even eventually the threat of martyrdom as Paul is taken in chains to Rome, the reality is that he knew that he would not die one second before God’s purposes for him on Earth had ended and been accomplished. So, that is an even greater theme than suffering. It is that whatever happens to us, because suffering can often be very subjectively defined and it can become kind of obsessively worried over, I think the Apostle Paul would say, look, I’ve learned in whatever circumstance I am to be content, to give witness to the gospel, and to glorify Christ.
One of the reasons Paul was suffering so much was that Christianity very quickly became a threat to ancient Rome and to the state. What are the significant ways that the Church is a threat or should be a threat to some of the ruling ideologies of our day?
It’s interesting that when you think about the Church as a threat and you think about the Roman authorities, it’s really clear that in the beginning the Roman authorities were more puzzled by Christianity than anything else. And that’s one of the reasons why there were dips and rises and official imperial persecution. It’s because in the beginning it appears that the Romans, including the provincial governors, what perplexed them is not that Christians were worshiping other than the imperial cult, but that they would not worship the imperial cult. And so that’s what puzzled Rome. Rome was relatively untroubled by claims about other gods, so long as there was obedience and participation in the imperial cult. But that’s what Christians said they couldn’t do.
And that was a part of the other problem. Rome had tremendous interest in keeping peace in the provinces. And the most problematic province was Judea. And so it was an opposition from within the Jewish community that led to a great deal of the Roman anxiety at the same time. And so you look at all of that and you recognize there’s persecution, we see horrible moments of persecution, horrible decades of persecution by the Romans, but the Christians are being persecuted precisely because they could not bend the knee to Caesar, they could not confess that “Caesar is Lord.” And you know, that’s exactly where we are today. To bring that up to where we are in the 21st century, people around us will be relatively unthreatened by our spirituality. They are very threatened by the fact that we believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the only Lord. There is no other Lord. And so we’re going to be in the same predicament, just in a different context.
This is an expository commentary with exegetical insight, application, and each chapter ends with some questions for personal or community reflection. Who is this book intended for and how should it be used?
The commentary is intended for pastors and for those laypersons who want to understand the Bible better, and so there’s a good crossover there. In the library of any preacher, any expositor preaching on the Book of Acts, there needs to be a good exegetical commentary. But this is an expositional commentary and this is what pastors I hope will find help in as they think about how to do exposition of the Book of Acts. You explain it, you expose it, you teach it. You teach what it means, presenting the key issues present in every paragraph and every text, and flowing from a consistent hermeneutic and a consistent biblical theology.
So, there are roles for different kinds of commentaries and thankfully there are wonderful New Testament scholars now and throughout the history of the Christian Church who have been able to do wonderful exegetical commentaries of the Book of Acts. And I found, by the way, many of those exegetical commentaries extremely helpful as I was preaching and teaching through the Book of Acts. This book is the fruit of that process. This is exposition. And throughout the history of, say, preaching in the modern age, exposition has been a particularly important need. There have been many pastors and Bible teachers who need to see how others are faithfully offering exposition of these texts. And so I think there’s a reason why these expositional commentaries often have a very long and very wide influence.
It’s very helpful to a preacher to see how another preacher might go about talking about this text.
Exactly. And even in the 20th century, you had an expositional series by William Barclay on the New Testament that was extraordinarily influential. And by the way, my view of Scripture is quite a bit different than William Barclay’s. He did not affirm the inerrancy of the biblical text, but he had written this expositional commentary, and for that reason it had a lot of influence. A book written is going to have a lot more influence than a book not written. And there had been other series like this. I think that The Good Book Company has done a very good job of putting together this series. And it’s not all by one person; it’s by several contributors and all are committed to exposition.
Moving to the Book of Acts itself, there’s a very popular discussion about the Book of Acts and regarding which parts apply to us today and which don’t. This distinction is often framed as the “prescriptive” and the “descriptive.” What should maybe be more emphasized in our interpretation of Acts and how do we know which is which?
We begin with the understanding that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write the Book of Acts, and thus, it is exactly what the Holy Spirit intended for us to have. Every word fully inspired. And like reading any text of Scripture, we read it as it is given to us. So the Book of Acts is, before anything else, a record of the acts of the early Church, the Holy Spirit through the apostles in the early Church. The first thing we look for in the Book of Acts is the story of how the Church was established. How it began to preach the apostolic ministry beginning first of all in Jerusalem and then spreading out from there. And by the time you get to the end of the Book of Acts, just think in the span of just that one book, how far the gospel has gone.
Look at Paul’s missionary journeys in so much of Asia Minor and then into Europe and eventually again in Rome. And so, something else to consider in the Book of Acts is how much of the apostolic teaching is found in it. So we get to hear Peter preach on the day of Pentecost. We get to hear Stephen’s testimony on the day of his martyrdom. We get to hear the Apostle Paul preach in so many different contexts because sections of his sermons are included. We get to know what the Holy Spirit said to Peter about clean and unclean animals, and thus food and thus evangelistic importance as well.
So we have teaching, but it’s not exactly like Paul’s epistles. It’s a history. So when you talk about descriptive and prescriptive, I back off of that just a little bit because I think all of Scripture is prescriptive, but it has to be understood within its intended consequence. And so I firmly believe that in the age of the apostles (and oftentimes the more formal name of the book is the Acts of the Apostles) Christ performed miracles and showed his glory and confirmed the message of the gospel in particular ways, that even by the end of the New Testament are clearly not normative. So by the time you get, for instance, to Paul’s letters to Timothy, he is not saying to Timothy, your main responsibility is to perform miracles, but rather, to preach the Word, in season and out of season. So, we don’t read the Book of Acts outside the context of the New Testament. We don’t read Acts 14 outside the context of the Book of Acts.
At the very end of Acts, there are a series of chapters where Paul is appearing before state authorities. In some ways, he’s doing what a lot of us may have to do in our lifetimes and that’s going before the state and accounting for his religious behavior. Do you think there’s a moment like that coming for Americans in this generation or the next generation?
Well, I would say it’s already here in the court of public opinion. It’s already here if you’re on a major college or university campus in this country. It could well be here in court. Already it’s in court on certain matters of Christian faithfulness in the workplace and in the public square. I want to always be careful. I feel a certain instinctive humility here because we just don’t know what Christ intends for his Church in our generation, in our place, in our time, but we must be determined to be faithful, whatever may come. And a part of that faithfulness is looking at how the Apostle Paul responded to those authorities, Felix, Festus, and others.
And here’s what’s so interesting: The Apostle Paul did not show up as a passive defendant. He showed up as a preaching defender of the gospel. And that to me is just incredible inspiration. The Apostle Paul was never a victim. Of course, we see this most of all in Christ on the cross. He was never a victim. But those who are Christ are also never really victims, insofar as we’re serving a gospel message. The Apostle Paul took the opportunity of being on trial eventually for his life to preach the gospel.
Paul was willing to be unpopular in his day and brought to public shame for the sake of his ministry. How can the Church today be like Paul and speak the truth despite opposition?
You know, that is such a good question, and it requires us to look at that category that you just mentioned — public shame. So what did that mean? Well, the ancients, most importantly the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans, lived in an honor-shame culture. That was really the frame of reference. And that’s exactly what Paul’s talking about in in 1 Corinthians, and especially chapter 1 and chapter 2. He knew that to those who operated out of a classically pagan worldview, the Christian gospel of a crucified and risen savior looked ludicrous and humiliating. But the Apostle Paul embraced it. Oddly enough, I think we are for perhaps one of the first times in human history since the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, certainly since the evangelization of the Roman empire, we’re actually in the same position.
Again, I go back to an American college or university campus, certainly elite campuses. Put an 18-year-old Christian on that campus, what’s that young person facing? The threat of humiliation if people really knew what he or she believed. Embarrassment. “You really believe that salvation comes by a crucified and risen savior?” This is where we are and it’s evidently in the sovereign purposes of God that the Church be found here again.
Another common theme throughout Acts is Paul’s and the early Church’s dependence on the Holy Spirit. What does that look like for believers today — to be dependent on the Holy Spirit like the earliest Christians were?
We’re no less dependent on the Holy Spirit. That that must be very clear. How was the early Church dependent on the Holy Spirit? Well, for one thing, for utterance. How in the world did Peter know what to say on the day of Pentecost? What would Paul preach? What will Paul say when he’s dragged before courts? What will Stephen say as he’s facing stoning and martyrdom? And they were dependent upon the Holy Spirit right then and there to give them revelation that had not previously existed.
We’re not looking to the Holy Spirit in that same context, but we are just as desperately looking to the Holy Spirit. The first way we demonstrate our dependence on the Holy Spirit is our dependence upon Scripture, which is the Holy Spirit-inspired word. And that’s what we have. We have a New Testament that the apostles and the early Church did not have in the Book of Acts. So what I fear are Christians who say, “I’m dependent on the Holy Spirit, just like in the Book of Acts.” But the difference is we have Scripture, in particular with the New Testament. And so the first act of faithfulness and obedience as we depend upon the Holy Spirit is depending upon the Holy Scriptures and the New Testament, which the Holy Spirit has given to us.
Furthermore, we understand that we’re absolutely dependent on the Holy Spirit to open our eyes as we read that text now. We’re absolutely dependent on the Holy Spirit to open hearts as we preach the Word of God. We’re absolutely dependent on the Holy Spirit to give us understanding. We’re absolutely dependent on the Holy Spirit to open hearts to believe and hear the gospel and be saved. So we’re absolutely dependent on the Holy Spirit. The first way we show that is by a scriptural ministry. And I think every other way we show that is understanding that nothing we do is alive but by the Holy Spirit. No sermon we preach will be heard except by the Holy Spirit. No evangelistic witness we offer will be received except by the Holy Spirit. That’s very clarifying.
What does the Book of Acts have to teach us about evangelism?
Having preached through and taught through the Book of Acts and writing this commentary, I think one of the interesting things that came to me about evangelism is that evangelism is what the Church was before it was that which the Church did. So you kind of see it in all the verbs, all the active texts of the Book of Acts. And then you also see the different examples. You’ve got Philip talking to the Ethiopian eunuch. You’ve got Peter speaking on the day of Pentecost. You’ve got Paul, again, as we’ve already said, dragged before authorities and even chained to jailers.
Evangelism is wherever Christians are being found doing what Christians are to do. We have evangelistic programs. That’s good. We train pastors in evangelistic preaching. Absolutely. But evangelism is rightly the Church bearing witness to Christ, and that means to the specifics of the gospel. Telling people how they can come to know the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ and repentance of sins. That’s what the church is found doing wherever it’s found. Whenever, wherever, under whatever circumstances it’s found.
I think the Book of Acts demonstrates that tremendously, beginning with something as huge and public as the day of Pentecost and getting down to the Apostle Paul, who evangelizes while chained to a single jailer. In both cases, it comes down to witness to Christ.