Preaching in Acts
Luke wrote the book of Acts to set forth how Jesus worked and taught through His Apostles as He sent them out to bear witness to Him in Jerusalem, all Israel, and throughout the Roman Empire (Acts 1:1-3, 8). At crucial points in that narrative Luke went to great lengths to record the way the Gospel was proclaimed by Peter and Paul: Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), Peter in the Temple (Acts 3:11-26), Peter before Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43), Paul in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:16-41), and Paul on Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31).
These five sections represented the times when Peter or Paul would proclaim the Gospel to crowds; to that end they provide invaluable insight into the philosophy and substance of how the work of God in Jesus was set forth among Jewish and Gentile people of the first century. Luke also recorded the defenses, or apologies, of Peter, Stephen, and Paul (Acts 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 7:2-53, 22:1-21, 24:10-21, 26:2-29); they also provide great value and insight into apostolic witness of the Gospel, yet in a different context. In the five examples of Peter and Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel under consideration the Apostles and their message find no constraint and focus entirely on what God has done in Jesus; if we would learn from the Apostles how the Gospel should be preached, we do well to explore these examples.
In every instance the core, fundamental emphasis in the proclamation of the Gospel in Acts centers on Jesus’ resurrection: the proclamation of the resurrection as a factual historical event, prophesied in Scripture, and confirmed by apostolic witness (Acts 2:24-35, 3:15-26, 10:40-42, 13:29-37, 17:18, 30-31). References were made to Jesus’ life, ministry, and death, yet all to lead up to Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. Acts 2:22-23); the Apostles explained how Jesus was made Lord in the resurrection, and would come again in judgment, yet both were dependent on Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. Acts 2:36, 17:30-31). Among the Jewish and God-fearing peoples of Israel the Apostles assumed previous knowledge of what Jesus had done and that He had died (e.g. Acts 2:22-23, 10:36-37); it was the news that God had raised Jesus from the dead that shook the world and changed everything. Jesus’ resurrection allowed for a reassessment of His death: He may have been seen as an insurrectionist criminal, a failed Messiah, but the resurrection demonstrated how His death was to provide for the remission of sins and liberation from the forces of evil, fulfilling what had been declared by the prophets, and vindicating Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 3:15-26, 13:29-40). Furthermore, even though they had been granted authority from the Holy Spirit on high, the Apostles presented themselves as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and its implications (e.g. Acts 2:14-36). Even when Peter or Paul would point out the sinful behavior of the people, they provided the means of explanation or escape: they acted in ignorance, and God was now calling on them to repent (Acts 3:17-19, 17:30-31). The Apostles understood themselves as those sent with the message of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection: they did not claim or presume a posture of imperiousness, arrogance, or sanctimony, but gave all the glory to God in Christ.
The Apostles did not depend on their own witness alone; they understood that all things ought to be established by two or three witnesses, and as they preached the Gospel, they firmly rooted it in the heritage of Israel and the promises of the prophets. The majority of Peter’s proclamation on Pentecost set forth what Israel saw as the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 and Jesus’ resurrection as foretold by David in Psalm 16:9-11 (Acts 2:14-36). When Peter spoke of Jesus in the Temple he cited Moses’ promise of a prophet like him to arise among the people in Deuteronomy 18:15 and the Abrahamic blessing of Genesis 22:18; Peter’s entire presentation of the Gospel is saturated in oblique references to prophetic themes (Acts 3:11-26). Paul began his proclamation of the Gospel before the Antiochians of Pisidia with a recounting of Israel’s history, appealed to Psalm 2:3, 7 and 16:9-11 to set forth Jesus as the Son of God in the resurrection, and concluded with the prophetic warning of Habakkuk 1:5 (Acts 13:16-41). Even though Paul never explicitly quoted the Hebrew Bible when preaching to the Athenians on Areopagus, his rhetoric was rooted in the emphases of the psalms and the prophets: God as One, the Creator, displaying covenant loyalty, and not an idol (Acts 17:22-29). The Gospel of Jesus the Christ can never be divorced from the Hebrew Bible; the Apostles never suggested that Jesus could be accepted but His heritage dismissed. Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel and all God had promised Israel; the Gospel of Jesus cannot be proclaimed without reference to the story of how God has interacted with His people throughout time, and seen as the climax of God’s involvement with His people (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12).
The Apostles did not force or impose the Gospel on anyone; in each circumstance they were given the invitation to speak in some way or another, to explain what was going on or to provide a word of encouragement (e.g. Acts 2:12, 13:15). Peter and Paul sought the point of agreement in understanding, and began there: for Israelites, all the prophets had promised, and what Jesus had done; for Gentiles, the truth of the Creator God behind the religiosity they maintained in their ignorance (e.g. Acts 2:22-23, 17:22-29). Paul warned the Israelites about what the prophets had warned (Acts 13:41); Peter and Paul warned the God-fearers and Gentiles regarding the day of judgment to come (Acts 10:42, 17:30-31). Many heard and obeyed (Acts 2:41); others did not (Acts 17:32). Whatever the result, the Apostles had done what they were charged to do: they had witnessed to Jesus as the Risen Christ (Acts 1:8).
Christians today live almost two thousand years later and were not eyewitnesses of what God accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; nevertheless, we can gain much from how Peter and Paul preached the Gospel in Acts. Even if we do not see the signs and wonders as were performed in the first century, we still find opportunities to find and reach people with the Gospel; outreach and finding the opportunities are important, but as with the Apostles, so with us: until we tell someone about what God accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have not yet proclaimed the Gospel or truly evangelized. We do best to bear witness to what the Apostles witnessed as confirmed by the prophets, and to provide that witness when invited to do so. There is no place for coercion or compulsion in evangelism, or association between the faith and nation-states: it should never have been presumed that members of a given nation-state should have been Christians because they were citizens of that nation-state, and the “spread” of forms of “Christianity” by the sword remains forever lamentable. We ought to find the point of agreement with others, and from there explain what God accomplished in Jesus and what it means for the creation. People do need to have some understanding of sin and transgression and its eternal consequences in order to appreciate the forgiveness of sins offered in Jesus (Romans 5:6-11, etc.); nevertheless, warnings about judgment are only found at the end of the presentation of the Gospel by Peter in Paul in certain instances, not at the beginning, and with appropriate provisions to assure the people how they acted in ignorance and how God will forgive if they will repent.
The Apostles proclaimed Jesus the Christ crucified and risen, and the world has never been the same. The same Gospel still has the power of salvation, and God still desires for all to hear the Gospel and be saved (Romans 1:16, 3:10-11, 1 Timothy 2:4). We ought to be thankful for the examples of preaching in Acts; how would we know how to approach evangelism without them? We do well to bear witness to the apostolic witness and encourage all to anchor their trust in God in Christ and hope in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry