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 have done this in previous studies. We saw how he described the kingdom of God and how salvation is based on a person’s response to Jesus.

But this is only part of the biblical picture. Jesus told his disciples some things privately, and he 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 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. Luke also tells us what Jesus expected his apostles to preach. How did he describe it? Luke 24:46-47.

Comment: 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.

Comment: Jesus gave his apostles the task of being his witnesses. In Acts, 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.

Comment: Peter began by explaining the miracle of tongues. What was his focus after that? Verse 22. What was his main point? Verse 36. What were the people supposed to do with this information—what difference was it to make in their lives? Verse 38.

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. What were the people encouraged to do? Verse 19.

Comment: 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 leaders. He began with an overview of history (Acts 7:1-50). What accusation did Stephen then make against the Jewish leaders? Verses 51-52. This made them angry. What then did Stephen testify before the court? Verse 56.

Comment: 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).

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.

Comment: How did Peter summarize the commission Jesus had given the apostles—how did he conclude? Verses 42-43.

7. Luke then describes 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.

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.

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.

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. How did he describe his own preaching? Verse 20. How did he summarize his own message? Verse 23.

Comment: 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 mention Scripture.

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. Nor do we 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.

    Michael Morrison
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