Preaching in the Book of Acts Part 2: Paul
In Acts 11, Luke takes us back in time and fills us in on some developments in Antioch in Syria. Greek-speaking Jews had been telling gentiles "the good news about the Lord Jesus." Many gentiles believed and repented (11:20-21). This was "evidence of the grace of God" (11:23). Through the work of Barnabas and Saul, many people "were brought to the Lord" (11:24). These phrases are descriptive of what the gospel of Jesus Christ does.
The Antioch Christians talked about the Messiah Christos so much that they became known as the Christianoi (11:26).
Paul's first major speech
Our previous major speech was the apostle to the Jews speaking to gentiles. We now move to the apostle to the gentiles speaking to Jews. This illustrates continuity. The message is the same throughout the apostolic history.
Barnabas and Saul were sent on a gospel-preaching journey, and Paul gave a sermon in a synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia. After a brief historical introduction, Saul gets to his point: "God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised" (13:23). Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. (Actually, Luke never uses promise in the plural. Christ fulfills the promise of the Old Testament.)
John the Baptist preached repentance and baptism, but Christ is greater: He brought a message of salvation to both Jews and gentiles (13:24-26). Paul gives the kerygma is his own words: In fulfillment of Scripture, Jesus was executed and buried, but God raised him from the dead, and he was seen by many witnesses (13:27-31). This fulfills God's promise (13:32-33).
Paul explains Christ's resurrection further (13:33-37). Therefore, Paul says, because Jesus has been raised, forgiveness is available through him. This is what Paul is proclaiming. "Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses" (13:39). We cannot be justified by the law of Moses — justification comes only through faith in Christ. (The "law of Moses" will be dealt with again in Acts 15.) Those who believe are "appointed for eternal life" (13:48).
Paul warned the Jews that rejecting the word of God is equivalent to rejecting eternal life (13:46); the implication is that the message Paul preached is about eternal life. The Lord had commanded him to bring salvation to the ends of the earth (13:47). Although different words are used, Paul's commission to preach salvation and eternal life is the same as being a witness of Jesus to the ends of the earth (1:8) and the same as preaching the gospel in all the world (Matthew and Mark).
Committed to the grace of God
Paul and Barnabas continued their journey. In Iconium, they preached the Lord's grace, and the Lord confirmed that message through miracles (14:3). In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas preached repentance from idolatry (14:15). On the return trip, they exhorted disciples to remain true to "the faith" (14:22; cf. 13:8). Christianity can be characterized by the one word faith. They had put their trust in the Lord and were to be faithful to him (14:23).
They returned "to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed" (14:26). The entire journey or commission or work was described as a commitment to the grace of God. We see that in 15:40, too, which tells us that Paul and Silas were "commended...to the grace of the Lord." The ministry Paul received from the Lord Jesus was to testify "to the gospel of God's grace" (20:24). Paul committed the Ephesian elders "to God and to the word of his grace" (20:32). That is the message Christ's ministers preach: Faith, repentance, grace, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life through the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Paul's first evangelistic trip demonstrated that God "had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (14:27). But not everyone could believe this good news. Some Jews insisted that the gentile believers ought to become proselytes by being circumcised and accepting the law of Moses (15:1, 5). At the Jerusalem conference, Peter explained that the gentiles had been given the Holy Spirit upon faith (15:7-8). God accepts people on the basis of faith whether or not they have been circumcised. Gentiles do not need to keep the law of Moses. There is no need to make it difficult for anyone to turn to God (15:19).
God cleansed gentile hearts (that is, he justified them) by faith (15:9). They are right with God on the basis of faith. And not only are gentiles saved by "the grace of our Lord Jesus," Jews are, too (15:11). No one can be justified by the law of Moses. The gospel of grace is given to both Jews and gentiles.
Paul's next journey
As Paul traveled, he reported the decision of the Jerusalem council, and the churches were strengthened in the faith (16:4-5). Paul eventually went to Europe and spoke to Lydia at Philippi. "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message" (16:14). She believed, and she responded appropriately with baptism and hospitality (16:15).
Paul and his party told the people "the way to be saved" (16:17). They told the jailer, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (16:31). There is little question as to what gospel Paul was preaching: a message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The jailer believed, and he responded appropriately with baptism and hospitality (16:33-34).
In a Thessalonican synagogue, Paul preached about the messianic promise of the Old Testament and proved that the Messiah "had to suffer and rise from the dead." He was proclaiming Jesus, and that he is the Messiah (17:2-3). Hostile Jews accused him of preaching Jesus as a king, and Paul went to Berea, where he was received more favorably. They examined the Old Testament prophecies, and many believed (17:11-12).
Luke is emphasizing that Christianity is thoroughly rooted in the Old Testament. This is something his gentile readers would need to know. It is also something Roman officials would need to know when they were asked to judge whether it was legal to preach the gospel. Judaism was legal. Luke records the judgment of Gallio, a Roman proconsul, that Christianity was a branch within Judaism and therefore outside the jurisdiction of Roman courts (18:14-15).
In Athens, Paul preached "the good news about Jesus and the resurrection" (17:18). He preached that we are God's children, that he is patient, that he commands everyone to repent (17:29-30). God "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 all men by raising him from the dead" (17:31). Every human being will be resurrected (thus our opportunity for eternal life). The proof of this is in the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead. His eternal life is the key to our eternal lives. Some of the Athenians believed (17:34).
In Corinth, Paul testified to Jews that Jesus is the Messiah (18:5). Many responded with faith and baptism (18:8).
Apollos "had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he...taught about Jesus accurately" (18:25). But he needed further instruction, presumably in association with Christian baptism. Priscilla and Aquila "explained to him the way of God more adequately" (18:26). What is the "way of God"? Is it a life-style, a behavior? Apollos, a disciple of John the Baptist, would already have had an impeccable life-style. What he needed more adequately was instruction about salvation through Christ. That is the way of God.
Apollos moved to Corinth and helped "those who by grace had believed" (18:27). He not only preached about Jesus accurately, he proved, from the Scriptures, that Jesus is the Christ (18:28).
Meanwhile, Paul was in Ephesus, where he informed more disciples of John the Baptist about Jesus. They were rebaptized and given the Holy Spirit (19:4-6). In the synagogue, Paul argued persuasively about the kingdom of God and preached publicly for two years (19:8-10). Great miracles were done, "and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor" (18:17). Many repented of their sorcery, and Paul persuaded many that idols were not gods (18:19, 26). A riot ensued, and Paul moved on.
On his way back to Jerusalem, Paul sailed to Miletus and called for the Ephesian elders (20:17). He gave them a heart-to-heart speech summarizing his work: "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (20:21). He had been given the job of preaching the good news about God's grace, and that is what he called preaching the kingdom (20:24-25).
We should not be misled by the way the word kingdom is used in modern cultures. Rather, we need to see it in its biblical context. The book of Acts shows that "preaching the kingdom" is done by preaching about the Messiah-King and about how humans can become part of the kingdom through faith in the King. It is not about the physical details of what Christ does after he returns. The New Testament simply does not give such details, and Paul argued for three months with people who knew the Old Testament prophecies. He was not preaching the Old Testament, but something new.
Paul noted that God's grace could build them up and give them "an inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (20:32). He reminded the elders that by "hard work we must help the weak" (20:35). After this farewell, Paul sailed toward Jerusalem knowing quite well that he had many enemies there. He knew their zeal and their willingness to kill. But he told the members in Caesarea that he was ready to die "for the name of the Lord Jesus" (21:13).
Paul a witness to the resurrection
Paul was eventually given Roman protection from his persecutors, and he had several opportunities to explain his message. He had seen and heard the Righteous One, the Messiah, and he had been appointed a witness of what he had seen and heard (22:15). Earlier, Paul had said that others were witnesses of Jesus (13:31); here he says that he is also a witness. In the bright light on the road to Damascus, he had seen and heard the risen Jesus. He believed and was baptized, calling on the name of the Lord (22:16). He gave testimony about him instead of persecuting those who believed in him (22:18-19).
Before the Sanhedrin, Paul summarized his conflict with the Jewish leaders: his "hope in the resurrection of the dead" (23:6). That is a crucial element of the gospel. There will be a resurrection, and the resurrected Jesus is the way in which people can be given eternal life in that resurrection.
The Lord appeared to Paul again, promising that he would not die in Jerusalem but would testify about Jesus in Rome, too (23:11).
Paul told Felix that he had a hope that there would be a resurrection of the dead (24:15). That was the central reason he was on trial (24:21). Felix heard Paul speak not only about faith in Christ Jesus, but also righteousness, self-control and a future judgment (24:24-25). Here we see that there is an ethical component to the preaching. Felix, who lacked self-control, did not like the implications of what Paul was preaching about the resurrection of the wicked, and he sent Paul back to jail (24:25).
Two years later, Festus explained to Agrippa that Paul was held in custody because of a religious dispute "and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive" (25:19). The dispute centered on whether Jesus had been resurrected. As Paul told Agrippa, "It is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today" (26:6). That promise, that hope, is the resurrection of the dead (26:7-8).
Paul recounted his commission from the Lord, the gospel he had received. Jesus had appointed him to be "a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you" (26:16). Paul was sent to the gentiles "to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God [i.e., repentance], so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me" (26:18).
Paul, always zealous, did exactly as he had been ordered. He preached repentance and good deeds (26:20). He stressed that his message was in complete conformity to the Old Testament, which predicted the suffering and resurrection of the Christ, and the preaching to gentiles (26:22-23).
To the Jews in Rome, Paul proclaimed that he was chained "because of the hope of Israel" (28:20). The hope of Israel is the resurrection, and Jesus is the first to be resurrected. So Paul, using the Old Testament prophecies, preached for two years about the connection between Jesus and the kingdom of God (28:23, 31). It is a message of salvation given not only to Jews who accept it, but also to gentiles who listen (28:29).
Resurrection and salvation through the Lord Jesus. That's the gospel according to the book of Acts.