Mitchell Paul Stephens
The gospel has been presented in countless ways throughout the centuries. The proclamation of the gospel has been, is, and will be the turning point of lives, cultures, and histories. While the words we use change with every culture, it seems essential that the message stays the same. The gospel is not just any message of peace and goodwill with Jesus on top; the content of the gospel matters fundamentally. Therefore, an examination of what the early church preached is of paramount importance to the church today. What Peter, Paul, and others in the first century church proclaimed as the gospel is not an arcane academic pursuit, but the lifeblood of the church. This paper will examine the major evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts regarding content and presentation, and then present a commentary on how these sermons can instruct the modern church in both content and manner of presentation of the gospel.
The texts on which this paper is based are Acts 2:14-41, 3:12-26, 7:1-53, 10:34-43, 13:16-48, and 17:22-31.1)1
The Early Church Evangelistic Sermons: Content
Using six sermons provides a range of orators, backgrounds, audiences, and cultures, which allows us to regard the common themes as constitutive of early preaching2)2 as a whole rather than as isolated examples carrying no conceptually obligating force.3)3 There are four major themes that provide the basic outline, in terms of content, of the early church’s evangelistic sermons.
First, these sermons deal with the person of Jesus. Throughout all the sermons, the speakers refer to Jesus; it is obvious that their faith stems from belief in this historical person. If one were to remove Jesus from their rhetorical quiver, they would have no foundation for their proclamations, no basis for what they believe, and no person behind their arguments about who the Messiah is.
In Acts 2:22, Peter, stresses to his Jewish audience4)4 that he is talking about a real person,5)5 “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.”6)6 Peter reminds his hearers that not only did they witness Jesus’ life and miracles, but also they not long ago crucified Jesus. Similarly, in Acts 3:13, Peter remarks that the one of whom he speaks is “Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate.” Jesus is conspicuously absent from Stephen’s fatal sermon,7)7 but this absence is in itself an indicator that Stephen was interrupted. The crowd’s murderous eruption is the only thing that stopped his proclamation of Jesus.8)8 Peter’s sermon to the Gentiles in Acts 10 is filled with a summary of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and reminds the Gentiles “you yourselves know what happened.”9)9 His sermon is rooted in the person of Jesus of Nazareth of whom the Gentiles would have been aware. In similar fashion, Paul preaches a sermon to Antioch10)1011) rooted in the historical person of Jesus.11)11 In Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus, he refers to Jesus as the man appointed by God to judge the world.12)12 The early church preaching is primarily focused and built upon the historical fact of the person, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.13)13
This first theme provides a framework into which the next theme enters; Jesus is the Messiah that has been promised in the Hebrew Scriptures and thus brings salvation, characterized as forgiveness of sins.14)14 Most of the sermons in Acts are addressed to either Jews or God-fearers,15)15 but this claim extends beyond the Jewish worldview.16)16
In Acts 2, Peter claims Jesus is Messiah using the outpouring of the Spirit as the fulfillment of the end times prophesy of Joel 2:28-32.17)17 Peter also uses Psalm 16:8-11 and Psalm 110:1 as proof of the Messiahship of Jesus.18)18 Repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus then bring forgiveness of sins19)19 and in Acts 3:19 blot out one’s sin.20)20 Stephen uses the figures of Joseph and Moses as archetypes that prefigure Jesus to show his fulfillment as the true Messiah for whom Israel has waited.21)21 In Acts 10, Peter calls Jesus God’s anointed one and refers to Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins,”22)22 a Messianic claim.23)23 Paul uses Psalm 16:10, a messianic psalm,24)24 and language of forgiving sins. In his Areopagus sermon, Paul does not use Scripture, but alludes to Jesus’ Messianic role as judge of the world.25)25
This is the central claim and argument of the sermons.26)26 Much time and space is devoted to showing the Scriptural arguments27)27 that claim Jesus to be God’s promised Messiah who fulfills all that has been foretold by the Scriptures28)28 and offers salvation through the forgiveness of sins.29)29
The third theme in the sermons is subsumed under the arguments regarding Jesus’ Messiahship, the contrast between the human and divine judgment upon Jesus. These sermons repeatedly point out that there is a fundamental difference between who God says Jesus is and who the Jewish leaders and people say Jesus is.30)30
In Acts 2, Peter reminds his audience twice that they were the ones who crucified Jesus,31)31 which in Jewish culture is a mark of being cursed by God.32)32 The Jews thus declare with their actions that Jesus is a cursed man. Peter intentionally opposes this declaration.33)33 Peter declares though the Jewish authorities crucified him, declaring Jesus to be cursed, God raised him from the dead, the ultimate sign of Jesus’ vindication, God’s favor upon him.34)34 Peter also argues that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, which is proved by his outpouring of the Holy Spirit.35)35 Peter gives a direct comparison and juxtaposition, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified;”36)36 you say Jesus is a cursed, failed Messiah, but God says he is the true Messiah.
This compare and contrast theme is evident in the other sermons. Peter calls Jesus God’s glorified servant, the Holy and Righteous one, the Author of Life, whereas the Jewish authorities denied Christ, gave him to Pilate, and asked for the release of a murderer.37)37 The majority of Stephen’s sermon illustrates how, in the murder of Jesus, the Jewish authorities and people behaved exactly like their forefathers, rejecting the prophets of God.38)38 Peter’s Acts 10 sermon is powerful, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him;”39)39 the two judgments, cursed and exalted, are directly contrasted. Paul’s first sermon follows this pattern40)40 and his Areopagus sermon declares that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign of God’s judgment of Jesus.41)41 Throughout all the sermons, there is a strong and marked contrast between the judgments of humans and God concerning who Jesus is; unbelievers view him as a cursed and failed Messiah by nature of his death, but God, and thus the apostles, have declared him, with his resurrection and ascension, to be the true Messiah.42)42
The final common theme in these sermons is a response to the argument of who Jesus is.43)43The response is polarized; there is either belief and acceptance or disbelief and rejection. In Peter’s second sermon, some Jews believe, but the apostles also meet persecution from the Jewish council.44)44 Stephen calls his audience “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,”45)45 which seems to imply a call to change and accept the Holy Spirit’s testimony of Jesus, but their response is damning; they immediately stone him.46)46 In Acts 10, the Gentiles believe and are baptized after receiving the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s first sermon, many Gentiles believe, but Jews in the area force Paul and Barnabas to leave.47)47 In Paul’s Areopagus sermon, some pagans believe, but others mock him for proclaiming the resurrection.48)48In some form or another, these sermons evoke a response to the central argument about who Jesus is. If one believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah, then one would respond with belief, repentance, and baptism, but if one believes that Jesus is a cursed, failed Messiah, then one would respond by persecuting the church or by mocking it.49)49
The evangelistic sermons of the early church have four recurrent themes that give a broad understanding of their message. First, Jesus of Nazareth is a historical man, and second, he is the Messiah who fulfills the Scriptures. Third, even though the Jews declare him a cursed man due to his shameful death, God pronounces Jesus the Messiah by means of his resurrection and ascension. Fourth, this argument requires response, which is polemic in its nature; believe and repent or disagree and persecute the church.
The Early Church Evangelistic Sermons: Manner of Presentation
Although it is crucial to examine the content of these sermons, it is also fruitful for the modern church to examine how they were preached. There are three recurrent manners of presentation.
First, the sermons follow some miracle or display of God’s power.50)50 Peter’s first sermon comes after the apostles receive the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in tongues.51)51 His second sermon follows the healing of the lame beggar at the temple in Jerusalem.52)52 Stephen’s sermon does not have one specific preceding miracle; but rather follows many miraculous displays “Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.”53)53 Peter’s sermon to the Gentiles is occasioned by his and Cornelius’ divine visions.54)54 Paul’s first sermon is preceded by the silencing of Elymas the magician.55)55 Only Paul’s second sermon is not preceded by a miracle. However, it plausible that there was indeed a miracle, albeit unrecorded by Luke.56)56 Miracles act as a sign of the new age brought about by Jesus and are often the catalyst that draws a crowd seeking explanation; the explanation is then given by the apostolic preaching.57)57
The second recurring manner of presentation is the use of Scripture where it is understood and appreciated.58)58 In all but Paul’s Areopagus sermon, the speaker utilizes Scripture extensively.59)59 It is central, nigh indispensable, to their sermons. We must, however, remember that these sermons had specific audiences. When Paul spoke in the Areopagus, he was speaking to Athenian intellectuals, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophers, pagans who had no experience with or esteem for the Scriptures.60)60 To quote Psalm 16 to them would have had little effect on their disposition towards Jesus.61 Paul instead used their cultural prophets to great use.61)62
The final recurrent theme is rather obvious; these sermons were primarily given to a live audience and there was no effort made to hide or obscure who the speaker was.62)63 There was no deceit or trickery involved in the sermons. Peter, Stephen, and Paul stood tall in the crowd and were not afraid to be known (often to their detriment).63)64 Although the gospel was put down into writing and had great effect, we see in Acts that the gospel was propelled primarily by face to face proclamations.
The Modern Church: Implications and Implementations64)65
The same problem that faces the modern church was also faced by the early church: how to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to a variety of cultures and world-views. The examination of the evangelistic sermons in Acts gives us a starting point to instruct the modern church both in terms of its gospel content and in terms of manner of presentation.
The first thing to note is that, regardless of time, cultural venue, or language, the content of the gospel does not change. Preaching the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, as well as his Messianic identity is part and parcel the early church’s kerygma.65)66 To change our testimony concerning the identity of Jesus is to change our gospel. Either he is the Messiah that has been promised by the Scriptures or he is not. All the sermons focus on Jesus and his identity,66)67 and we ought not deviate from this model.
The second area of content regards the historical person of Jesus. Like the early church, the modern church needs to place heavy emphasis on the historicity of Jesus. Emphasizing that Jesus is historical and that there is good evidence to back that claim up is critical to the success of the gospel in the age of historical criticism and skepticism. Additionally, the historicity of the resurrection is important and the role of eyewitnesses to the resurrection is something that must be taken seriously. It is no coincidence that the Apostles were all witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It gave their testimony particular weight, which we must recapture.
Third, the modern church should take to heart the polemic response to the early church’s preaching. The gospel is a divisive message that demands a response.67)68 Communicating the gospel includes communicating the demand for a response as a necessary and non-negotiable aspect. This does not mean we ought to rigorously demand a statement of belief from every hearer of the gospel or that we should abandon those who respond with disbelief, but the reoccurrence of this idea throughout Acts indicates that we should preach in such a way that both evokes and invites a response. We can also see from the example of Peter, Stephen, and Paul that we cannot be afraid of this polemic nature. The modern church cannot be afraid to preach the gospel because it is divisive; the divisive nature is fundamental to the nature of the gospel.
There are therefore three manners of presentation that are affected by examining how the early church communicated the gospel. First, the verbal communication of the gospel must follow some manifestation of the Spirit’s power, the enactment of the coming age; there ought to be an occasion that requires explanation. This does not necessarily mean miraculous healings or speaking in tongues, although it may. The Holy Spirit also manifests itself through love, justice, mercy, and joy. Living lives that reflect the age to come are signs of God’s power that must precede the explanation and verbal proclamation of the gospel.
Second, the modern church should take a cue from Acts as to modes of communication, namely, face to face verbal proclamation.68)69 Although the church today has an arsenal of ways to communicate the gospel (Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, etc.), real life personal communication must surely remain the most fundamental, primary, and preferred way of doing so. Although the arguments are too complex to articulate here, face to face contact is the most human, effective, and Spirit filled manner of communication.
Lastly, the modern church should continue to look at how the early church used Scripture in evangelism. Scripture is of upmost importance and dominates these sermons, but it is used where it is appropriate.69)70 Paul, while remaining biblically grounded in his theology and worldview, uses contemporary culture when it is helpful.70)71 He also provides the modern church with another example, that of academic excellence. Paul can convincingly hold his own against the Athenian academia,71)72 which results in the conversion of pagans. This shows the modern church that timidity, fear, or reluctance towards philosophical and academic intelligence is unfounded, dangerous, and damaging.72)73
Using six evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts, we see several reoccurring themes in the gospel content: one, a historical Jesus; two, the claim that this Jesus is the Messiah promised by Scripture who offers forgiveness of sins; three, a contrast between the human and divine judgments upon Jesus; four, a response to the argument of the gospel. We also see three main themes in the presentation of the gospel: one, the sermons follow a sign of power; two, the use of Scripture when appropriate; and three, communication by means of personal, face to face interaction. This analysis gives the modern church several correctives towards its communication of the gospel, namely: a heavy emphasis on the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection, being unafraid of the divisive nature of the gospel, showing the power of God before the proclamation of the gospel, using Scripture when it is helpful (though always remaining rooted in Scripture and its worldview), face to face proclamation as the preferred manner of presentation, and above all, recognizing and honoring the fundamental, perennial nature of the content of the gospel, Jesus Christ as the Messiah and savior of the world.
1 Perhaps the most basic question in this endeavor is, “What counts as an evangelistic sermon in the book of Acts?” This paper will focus on identifying reoccurring themes through the sermons and thus these themes are a self- corrective towards understanding what counts as an evangelistic sermon. The reasoning behind the selective of these texts should be clear as the paper progresses and the reoccurring themes are identified. That being said, these texts provide a diversity of speaker, audience, geographic location, and theological approach.2 Eugene E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988): 3-17. I agree with Lemcio’s argument that there is a unified kerygma within the NT that does not sacrifice legitimate diversity without. My argument in this paper, however, differs significantly with his understanding of the NT kerygma, which is undoubtedly due in part to my focus on the preaching within Acts only.
7 Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Robert H. Stein and Robert W. Yarbrough, eds. BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 276.
8 Bock, Acts, 307.
9 Acts 10:37.
12 Acts 17:31. This was a claim grounded in Jesus’ humanity. He was not a divine spirit judge, but was a flesh and blood man who existed in history.
13 Bock, Acts, 136. Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005), 61. D. DeSilva, “Paul’s Sermon in Antioch of Pisidia,” Bibliotheca sacra 151 (1994):32-49. This point may not be spelled out in the text, but that is because the first century audience had no need of being convinced that Jesus was Nazareth was a real historical figure. Thus, the textual evidence is indirect and at times oblique rather than spelled out.
14 Johannes Munck, “The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Johannes Munck” (Revised by William F. Allbright and C.S. Mann, vol. 1 of The Anchor Bible, William F. Allbright and David Noel Freedman, eds. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967), 18-9. Bruce, The Book, 63, 84. Bock, Acts, 118. E.M. Blaiklock, “The Acts of the Apostles: An Historical Commentary” (of The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, R.V.G. Tasker, eds. London: Tyndale, 1959) 96. Green, Evangelism,104-118.
15 Flemming, Contextualization, 65.
16 Bayer, “The Preaching,” 268, “This message [of Jesus as Messiah and bringer of salvation] breaks through the initial confines of a particularly Jewish horizon… and assume universal dimensions.”
17 Munck, “The Acts,” 19. Bayer, “The Preaching,” 264. Bruce, The Book, 67, “His present impartation of the Spirit to them, attended as it was by sensible signs, was a further open vindication of the claim that he was the exalted Messiah.”
18 Bruce, The Book, 64. Munck, “The Acts,” 19. Green, Evangelism, 107.
19 Bock, Acts 143. It is interesting, with theological implications, that the Greek for forgiveness “is a commercial term normally referring to the forgiveness of debt.”
20 Bock, Acts 175.21 Blaiklock, “The Acts,” 76, 78. Bruce, The Book, 130, 139-40, 142, 152. “The implied parallel [between Joseph and Jesus] with the recent refusal of Jesus is too plain to require elaboration.”
23 Bock, Acts, 398. See also, Bayer, “The Preaching,” 273, footnote 80.24 Acts 13:34-5. Flemming, Contextualization, 60-1, who remarks that, “A key element of Paul’s contextualized gospel message in Acts 13 is the fulfillment [of Scripture] motif, mentioned three times in the sermon.” See also, Walter G. Hansen, “The Preaching and Defense of Paul,” in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, I.H. Marshall and D. Peterson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 295-324, specifically 298-99, for a more in-depth breakdown of how Paul uses Scripture in this sermon.25 Acts 17:31. Bock, Acts, 570. Bruce, The Book, 341, and see footnote 85. Munck, “The Acts,”171.
26 See DeSilva, “Paul’s Sermon,” 41-5, for an in-depth analysis of Paul’s scriptural argument in Acts 13.
27 The way Peter, Stephen, and Paul see Jesus as Messiah is notable; they see Jesus pre-figured in the entire Old Testament, from the covenant with Abraham to Moses freeing the slaves to the David kingship. See Green, Evangelism, 103, for a fuller explication of the early church’s exegetical method.
28 Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection,” (Pages 3-368 in vol. 10 of The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 62. Bruce, The Book, 63, 67, argues this is a central element in early Christian preaching. Bock, Acts, 111, agrees with this. Blaiklock, “The Acts,” 63. Flemming, Contextualization, 61, calls this a “keynote” of the gospel proclamation. Green, Evangelism, 104, rightly notes that, “Messianic expectations ran high in the first century,” and the Christians would have had to have clear and good Scriptural arguments as to why their “Messiah” was the true Messiah; this claim is “one of the main planks,” 94, in the Christian gospel proclamation..
29 Hansen, “The Preaching,” 304. DeSilva, “Paul’s Sermon,” 38, 46.30 Munck, “The Acts,”19. Blaiklock, “The Acts,” 60. Bock, Acts, 120. Bruce, The Book, 64, 68, 82, “Again it is clear how the apostolic preaching in Acts loves to emphasize the contrast between man’s treatment of Jesus and God’s.”
33 Green, Evangelism, 112.
34 Acts 2:24, 31, 32. Bock, Acts, 120, 133. Blaiklock, “The Acts,” 60. Bruce, The Book, 68, 84, “God had clearly declared his verdict by raising him from the dead.”
35 Acts 2:33. Munck, “The Acts,”19.
36 Acts 2:36.
37 Acts 3:13-15. Wall, “The Acts,” 80, “Jesus is glorified… envisages his vindication.”
38 Blaiklock, “The Acts,” 76. Bruce, The Book, 139-40.
39 Acts 10:39-40. Bock, Acts, 399. Bruce, The Book 214-5.
42 This is naturally an extension of the sermon’s argument that Jesus is actually the Messiah, but is, in my opinion, a significant portion of the sermons and thus deserves its own thematic recognition.
43 Bock, Acts, 111.
44 Acts 4:1-4. Bock, Acts, 187-8. Bayer, “The Preaching,” 262, remarks that Peter is “a prophetic preacher of repentance,” (emphasis added) which of course is a response of belief.
45 Acts 7:51
46 Bruce, The Book, 151-4. Bruce sees clearly that “Stephen in the same place was making the same claim on Jesus’ behalf as Jesus had made [that he was the Messiah],” and thus that “Unless the judges were prepared to admit that their former decision [to crucify Jesus as a blasphemer] was tragically mistaken, they had no option but to find Stephen guilty of blasphemy as well.”
47 Flemming, Contextualization, 64, blithely reports that “Paul’s message gets mixed reviews from the audience.” Acts 13:48-50.
48 Acts 17:32. Blaiklock, “The Acts,” 142. Flemming, Contextualization, 81.
50 Bock, Acts, 165, “an event leads to an explanation.”51 Acts 2:1-12.
52 Acts 3:1-10.
53 Acts 6:8.
54 Acts 10:1-33. 55 Acts 13:16-18.
58 Flemming, Contextualization, 61. Wall, “The Acts,” 247, “Paul’s appeal to appropriate evidence is central to all speeches in Acts.”
59 Green, Evangelism, 95, “In the early sermons in Acts this method of arguing from Scripture is everywhere apparent.”
60 Flemming, Contextualization, 75.
61 Green, Evangelism, 153, “To be sure he does not quote the Old Testament; that would have betrayed lack of sensitivity and would have been quite meaningless to them.
62 Wall, “The Acts,” 247.
63 This, like the historical personhood of Jesus, is rather implicit in the text rather than overt. I am drawing this out of the text largely because the modern church faces communication methods that the early church did not, namely the internet.
64 Acts 2:14, 3:12, 10:34, 13:16, and 17:22. 65 These are by no mean comprehensive, but are mainly responses to areas in which I have seen the modern church failing and in which the early church can provide help.
67 The absence of Christ from Stephen’s sermon has previously been discussed.
73 Wall, “The Acts,” 249, “By playing the role of Socrates in a university town Paul challenges the anti- intellectualism among believers today who are deeply suspicious of secular ‘learning.’”
Bayer, Hans F. “The Preaching of Peter in Acts.” Pages 257-74 in Witness to the Gospel: TheTheology of Acts. Edited by I.H. Marshall and D. Peterson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1998.
Green, E.M.B. Evangelism in the Early Church. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970. Hansen, Walter G. “The Preaching and Defense of Paul.” Pages 295-324 in Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts. Edited by I.H. Marshall and D. Peterson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Lemcio, Eugene E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988):3-17.
Lim, D.S. “Evangelism in the Early Church.” Pages 353-9 of Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by R.P. Martin and P.H. Davids. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997.
Munck, Johannes. “The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Johannes Munck.” Revised by William F. Albright and C.S. Mann. Vol. 31 of The Anchor Bible. Edited by William F. Albright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967.
Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” Pages 3 to 368 in vol. 10 of The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al.: Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
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