Preaching in the Early Church
What is the true gospel, the gospel revealed in the Bible? There are several ways to approach Scripture to learn what the gospel is.
One would be to focus on the teachings of Jesus, who often called his own message “the gospel of the kingdom of God.” We could see how he described the kingdom of God in his parables and in his other teachings. We have done this in previous studies.
But this is only part of the biblical picture. We should also remember that Jesus told his disciples some things privately, and told them not to tell the public until after his crucifixion and resurrection. So perhaps the gospel was more clearly revealed after the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles for their mission. Because of this possibility, we should also find out what Jesus’ disciples actually taught.
In this study, we will focus on the book of Acts. We will compare the apostolic gospel with the message of Jesus to see if they are the same.
1. When Matthew wrote his book about the life and ministry of Jesus, he was inspired to end the book with some final instructions—the last words of Jesus that the readers needed. What did Jesus tell his disciples to do? Matthew 28:19-20:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Luke also tells us what Jesus expected his apostles to preach. How did he describe it? Luke 24:46-47:
This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Jesus’ commission to his church can be phrased in several ways. It can be called the gospel of the kingdom of God, but none of the commission verses happens to use that particular phrase. The content of the message is much more important than the label we use for it.
The content of the message is repentance and forgiveness of sins, which will be preached in Jesus’ name, that is, by his authority, continuing the ministry he began. People who believe are to be baptized and taught, and they will be saved. It’s a message of repentance, salvation and teaching.
It is a self-replicating message and mission, since one of the commands that Jesus’ disciples are to teach is the command to go and make more disciples. It is to be taught and retaught to every generation.
2. The book of Acts reports Jesus’ last-minute instructions to his followers. What did he say? Acts 1:8:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Jesus gave his apostles the task of being his witnesses. Throughout the book, Luke shows that the apostles were witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Samaria and all the way to Rome.
The word “witness” is important in the book of Acts. “Witness” is a courtroom term. In a trial, witnesses are called to tell what they have seen and heard. Similarly, the apostles preached what they had seen and heard of Jesus. They were his witnesses, testifying to the truth about him.
The Greek word for “testify” is martyreo, and the word for “witness” is similar: martyr. We get the English word “martyr” from the fact that many people who were witnesses for Jesus were killed because of their faith. Their willingness to die for Jesus was a powerful testimony that they firmly believed that salvation was given only through him. They were his witnesses to the very end.
3. Luke includes numerous sermons in Acts, the “history of the early church.” What was Peter inspired to preach about on the Day of Pentecost? Acts 2:14-36.
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:
“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.’
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
Peter began by explaining the miracle of tongues. What was his focus after that? See verse 22 above. What was his main point? See verse 36. What were the people supposed to do with this information—what difference was it to make in their lives? Verse 38:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
4. Peter gave another sermon in chapter 3. Again, he began by explaining a miracle (verse 12). What then did he preach about? Verses 13-18.
When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.
“Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.
What were the people encouraged to do? Verse 19.
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.
The focus of these sermons is Jesus. Peter said that Jesus would return and restore everything, but the focus of his message was not on the future. Rather, he focused on what Jesus had already done, and how people were to respond to that right now.
Peter talked about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, his fulfillment of Scripture, and his identity as Lord and Christ. Peter called for repentance and baptism, and he offered the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. That was his concluding exhortation, the main point he wanted people to get.
5. The next sermon in Acts is a long message by Stephen, who preached to the Jewish court. He began with an overview of history (Acts 7:1-50). What accusation did Stephen then make against the Jewish leaders? Verses 51-52.
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.
This made them angry. What then did Stephen testify before the court? Verse 56:
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen’s witness made the Sanhedrin so angry that they cut his sermon short and stoned him to death. His witness to Jesus made him a martyr. We do not know for sure how he would have concluded his speech/sermon, but as it turns out, his dying words were a message about forgiveness through Jesus (verse 60):
Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
6. The next sermon that Luke reports is the sermon Peter gave in the house of Cornelius. This is a short sermon, perhaps because Cornelius already knew much of the message (Acts 10:37). But Peter repeated the most important parts. What was the focus? Verses 38-41.
You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
How did Peter summarize the commission Jesus had given the apostles—how did he conclude? Verses 42-43.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
7. Luke then gives us some sermons by the apostle Paul, who spoke to four different audiences: Jews in Pisidia, Gentiles in Athens, Jews in Jerusalem, and civil rulers. Although Paul used different approaches for these audiences, some aspects of the message remained the same. In the synagogue in Pisidia, Paul began with Israel’s history (Acts 13:16-22). What did he concentrate on for most of the sermon? Verses 23-37. What was the conclusion, the main point? Verses 38-39.
23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
“Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
“‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.’
God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said,
“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’
So it is also stated elsewhere:
“‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.
8. In Athens, Paul faced a different crowd. He could not begin with Scripture or Jewish history. But he could start with a contemporary situation (Acts 17:22-23) and introduce them to the Creator God (verses 24-28). What did Paul exhort the people to do, and how did Paul end his message? Verses 30-31.
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
9. In front of a Jerusalem crowd, Paul gave a more personal history—his own history before conversion, then his conversion and his commission. How did Ananias describe Paul’s mission? Acts 22:15.
You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard.
10. In front of King Agrippa, Paul again gave his personal testimony. As Paul describes it, what did Jesus tell him to preach? Acts 26:16-18.
‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
How did he describe his own preaching? Verse 20. How did he summarize his own message? Verse 23.
20 First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen —
23 that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.
Keeping in mind that some of the sermons were not finished, let us see what they have in common:
- All of them mention God.
- All of them mention Jesus.
- Seven of them mention Jesus’ death.
- Seven mention his resurrection.
- Four say that he is now exalted.
- Seven mention forgiveness of sins.
- Five mention repentance.
- Three mention the need for faith.
- Five of them mention Scripture.
- None of them use the word “kingdom.”
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1998 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
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Luke tells us that the early church preached the gospel of the kingdom of God, but from the examples he gives us, we see that it is not necessary to use the word kingdom when we preach the gospel. And we do not need to describe a future age.
The gospel is good news right now, but it is good only if we are able to participate in it— and we do that through Jesus Christ. He is the one we need to hear about, since he is the one who makes it possible.
The book of Acts shows us that gospel preaching should focus on Jesus Christ, especially his death and resurrection, and on repentance, forgiveness and salvation through him.
For further reading
For further study about the gospel, you may want to consult one of these titles:
- Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Eerdmans, 1970; Harold Shaw, 1995.
- George Eldon Ladd. “Kingdom of Christ, God, Heaven,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter Elwell (Baker, 1984). Ladd also wrote Gospel of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1959), and there are several relevant chapters in his Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1993).
- Harry Poe. The Gospel and Its Meaning: A Theology for Evangelism and Church Growth. Zondervan, 1996.
- Robert H. Stein. “Kingdom of God,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Walter Elwell (Baker, 1996). Stein also wrote The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching (Westminster/John Knox, 1995).