The church today is a continuation of first-century Christianity. We do not imitate every cultural detail of the church, but we do want to continue the faith and the message of the early church. To help us do this, let’s turn to a record of what they did: the book of Acts. Evangelism is a major theme of the book. Let’s examine it to see what the apostles preached.
The kingdom of God
Our first clue comes in verse 3: The resurrected Jesus taught the apostles “about the kingdom of God.” However, despite the many evangelistic sermons described in the book of Acts, the word kingdom is not used in any of them. Although Jews believed in the coming kingdom of God and had the Old Testament prophecies of it, Paul argued about the kingdom for three months in the Ephesian synagogue. His concept of the kingdom must have been considerably different than what the Ephesian Jews believed.
Paul’s message about the kingdom was coupled with a message about Jesus and grace and faith. That was true of Jesus, too. After his resurrection, he taught the disciples about the kingdom. What did this entail? On the road to Emmaus, “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He summarized his message: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (verse 44).
What was written? Here it is in a nutshell: “The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (verses 46-47). This is the kingdom message. As George Ladd wrote,
In the days after Jesus’ resurrection, he continued to teach them about the Kingdom of God (1:3). We are undoubtedly to understand this to mean that he was instructing them in the relationship between his proclamation of the Kingdom of God and his death and resurrection. (George Eldon Ladd, Theology of the New Testament [Eerdmans, 1963], page 332)
Jesus then reminded his disciples “You are witnesses of these things” (verse 48). That word brings us back to the book of Acts. Let’s see what the apostles preached.
What did the apostles preach about? Our next bit of evidence is in Acts 1:8. Jesus told his disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit, and then he told them what that divine power would enable them to do: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Witness is an important word in the book of Acts. It comes in several forms, both verbs and nouns, all built on the root martyr-. It refers to a witness in a courtroom, or the testimony that a witness gives in court. We get the English word martyr from this Greek root. People who were faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ sometimes became martyrs for their faith.
Let’s survey the occurrences of the martyr- words in Acts to see what the disciples were witnessing to. They were giving evidence in support of a particular fact.
1:8 – witnesses of Jesus Christ
1:22 – witness of Jesus’ resurrection
2:32 – witness of his resurrection
3:15 – witness of his resurrection
4:33 – they testified to the resurrection
5:32 – witnesses of his resurrection, exaltation and forgiveness
10:39 – witnesses of everything Jesus did
10:41 – Jesus was seen by witnesses
10:43 – the prophets testify about him and forgiveness
13:31 – those who saw Jesus are his witnesses
14:3 – he confirmed the message of his grace
22:15 – Paul will be Jesus’ witness of what he saw and heard
22:18 – they will not accept Paul’s testimony about the Lord
23:11 – Paul testified about Jesus
26:16 – Paul was appointed a witness of what he saw of the Lord
26:22 – Paul testified, saying that the Scriptures predicted that Christ would suffer, rise from the dead, and proclaim light to all nations.
The focus of the apostles’ testimony is Jesus, his resurrection, and the fact that grace or forgiveness is available. Let’s return to the beginning of Acts and see how often that message is repeated.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon
The first sermon that Luke includes in his apostolic history is Peter’s comments to the crowd at Pentecost. This is not only a landmark event in the church, it is a foundational speech in the book of Acts. First, Peter tells the people that the Spirit-caused tongues are a fulfillment of Scripture and a sign that the “last days” had begun and people can be saved (2:16-21).
Ladd summarized it in this way:
The age of fulfilment was dawned. “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets…he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). “And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days” (Acts 3:24). The apostles declared that the messianic age had dawned. (page 329)
Peter then makes his point:
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs…. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you…put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead. (2:22-24)
Peter explains that David had predicted the Messiah’s resurrection. The apostles are witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, and the exalted Jesus is now pouring out the Holy Spirit on his people. The conclusion: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (2:36). Jesus is the Messiah and the One we should obey.
The people believed. They had crucified the Messiah they had been hoping for! So what were they to do? Peter told them the appropriate response of faith: repentance and baptism, with the result of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit (2:38). Peter pleaded for them to do it (2:40).
Three thousand did, and their zeal is shown in Luke’s statement: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (2:42). Their willingness to share was legendary (2:44-45). They met at the temple, broke bread at home and ate together, praising God (2:46-47). They became a community, a fellowship.
Healing in Jesus’ name
Peter’s second sermon is described in chapter 3. It is given to Jews at the temple, and it has some similarities to Peter’s first sermon. A miracle was done; the people were amazed. They were ready to listen to Peter. He told them about Jesus.
What ironies! The Jews wanted him killed, even though Pilate did not. Instead of accepting the true Messiah, they asked for a false one. They killed the author of life! (3:13-15). God raised him and glorified him, Peter told the crowd.
The healing had been done by faith in the name of Jesus (3:15-16). The temple was the place of God’s name (1 Kings 8:29), but the healing was done in the name of Jesus. We are soon told that there is no name, other than Jesus, by which we can be saved (4:12). The name of Jesus far surpasses the value of the temple.
Lame people were not allowed in the temple, but by faith in Jesus, this man was now allowed to praise God in the temple. Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, makes it possible for more people to come to God. Readers would have already seen hints of that: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:21). “The promise is…for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). These are literary anticipations of the eventual opening of salvation to other previously restricted peoples, such as eunuchs, Samaritans and Gentiles.
Peter continues his sermon by noting the Messiah’s sufferings had been predicted (3:18). The desired response: repentance, resulting in forgiveness, and waiting for the return of the Messiah Jesus. Moses had predicted that God would “raise up” (same Greek word as “resurrect”) a prophet, and whoever rejects him will be expelled from the community of God’s people (3:22-23). If they don’t want to follow the leader God provides, then they won’t be part of his people.
In Abraham’s day, God promised to bless “all peoples on earth,” and he is now blessing the Jews “first” (a subtle hint of others to come later) through the servant he raised up or resurrected, and the blessing comes through repentance (3:25-26). Luke summarizes the Peter’s message in 4:2: “The apostles were…proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” The underlying implication is that Jesus’ resurrection proves that we can also be resurrected if we are aligned with him.
Peter’s witness to the Sanhedrin
The Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection, did not like the apostolic message. Peter and John were arrested and brought into court. The Jewish leaders asked Peter, “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). Peter said: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed” (4:10). You rejected him, but God made him the capstone and the only avenue of salvation.
The Sadducees still didn’t like the message, so they told Peter “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:17-18). But Peter replied that he had to speak about what he had seen and heard. He was a true witness, not one who could be forced to be silent or false.
Peter and John went back to the community of faith, and they rejoiced in prayer, acknowledging that the Scriptures predicted the conspiracy against the Messiah (4:25-27). They asked for boldness in speaking the word of God, and for miracles through the name of Jesus (4:29-30).
Luke summarizes: The believers shared their possessions, and the apostles testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (4:32-33). Grace and generosity are a result of Christian faith.
In answer to prayer, the apostles were bold, and many miracles were done (5:12-16). The Sadducees still didn’t like it, and the apostles were jailed again (5:17-18). An angel released them, and told them to preach “the full message of this new life” (5:20). Here is another phrase – new life – that characterizes the preaching of the apostolic church.
The apostles were again brought before the Sanhedrin and given opportunity to speak. Peter explained why he was disobeying the Jewish leaders’ orders: “We must obey God rather than men!” (5:29). He was obeying God’s orders to be a witness to the new life available through Jesus Christ. Peter then launched into his message:
The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead – whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (5:30-32)
What kind of obedience was Peter referring to? Not the Jewish customs observed by the Sanhedrin. Rather, the obedience Peter had in mind here was belief in Jesus as the Christ, and obeying his command to preach salvation.
The Sadducees were more angry, and wanted to kill the apostles. But Gamaliel, a Pharisee, advised them to let the apostles go: “Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (5:38-39).
Despite the threat of death, the apostles rejoiced and “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (5:42). There’s the gospel: Jesus is the Christ. His resurrection proves that he is the Messiah, the God-ordained agent of salvation.
Peter had a consistent message. He had seen something so life-changing that he had to tell others about it. He was filled with the Spirit, with zeal, with boldness, to tell others the good news.
The gospel focuses on the resurrection of Jesus, but several other related facts are usually included. This package of core facts is called the kerygma (a Greek noun meaning preaching). Here are the major components:
- Jesus’ resurrection: God raised Jesus from the dead.
- Jesus’ life and death: Jesus did many miracles, suffered, and died by crucifixion.
- Jesus’ exaltation: God glorified Jesus, raised him to his right hand as Messiah, Prince, Savior and Lord.
- Prediction: All this happened as predicted in Scripture. Jesus fulfills the promise of the Old Testament.
- Salvation: Because of Jesus’ resurrection, people are exhorted to repent and are promised forgiveness, grace, salvation, and new life in his name.
- Restoration: Jesus Christ will return.
This is the heart and core of the gospel – it is the message the apostles preached, despite threats of death. It’s a life-transforming message, a message about new life, a message worth living for, and a message worth dying for.
Stephen, Philip and Saul
Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jew, was arrested, and he preached a long sermon before the Sanhedrin. He reminded them of a central lesson of Israelite history: They disobeyed, resisted the Holy Spirit and persecuted the prophets (7:51-52). Moses predicted that God would raise up a prophet (7:37), but they killed the prophets who predicted Christ, and now they had murdered him.
Stephen’s last message was that the exalted Jesus, the Son of Man, was standing at the right hand of God (7:56). Stephen’s stinging indictment of the Jewish leaders led to his martyrdom, and his last witness was to the forgiveness that can be obtained from the Lord Jesus (7:60).
Persecution intensified, and the Christians were scattered, but they did not stop preaching despite the threats of death. Philip went “to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there” (8:4-5). Miracles were done, and the crowds listened as Philip told them about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus (8:6, 12). Many believed and were baptized. Philip eventually met the Ethiopian eunuch and accepted an invitation to speak. “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture [Isaiah 53:7-8] and told him the good news about Jesus” (8:35). The eunuch believed and was baptized.
Then we are introduced to the dramatic conversion and call of Saul of Tarsus. He was promised the Holy Spirit and was baptized (9:17-18). “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God…proving that Jesus is the Christ” (9:20, 22). That was the fundamental message. The Lord told Ananias that Saul had been chosen “to carry my name” (9:15). Paul was not preaching a new gospel, but a continuation of the same basic message taught by Christ and the apostles.
Peter’s gospel message to Gentiles
Peter’s speech to Cornelius is pivotal. The leading Jewish apostle gives the kerygma to Gentiles. They, like Jews, can be saved through belief in the Messiah. God accepts people “from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (10:35).
Peter acknowledges that Cornelius already knows “the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (10:36). He knew the story, starting with the ministry of Jesus: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and…he went around doing good and healing…. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem” (10:38-39).
The next item on the evangelistic summary: “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen…by witnesses whom God had already chosen” (10:39-41).
Jesus commanded these witnesses to preach that Jesus is the Messiah – “the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). As predicted in the Old Testament, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43). This was a message Cornelius already knew. He believed, and the Holy Spirit gave evidence not only that God accepted Gentiles, but also that he accepted this message of salvation going to them as well as to Jews. Peter continues to stress the now-familiar themes of the gospel. It is a message that brings salvation (11:14); it is a message about repentance and life (11:18).
1 To be complete, here are all the other verses in Acts that use martyr- words. These do not indicate what the apostles were commissioned to testify about, but show how the word can be used in other situations:
6:3 — men known to be full of the Spirit
6:13 — false witnesses gave testimony
7:44 — ancient Israelites had “the tabernacle of Testimony”
7:58 — witnesses at Stephen’s trial
10:22 — Cornelius was respected by the people
13:22 — God testified concerning David
15:8 — God showed that he accepted Gentiles
16:2 — the brothers spoke well of Timothy
20:26 — Paul declared that he was innocent
22:5 — he can testify that Paul persecuted the church
22:12 — Ananias was highly respected by the Jews
22:20 — the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed
26:5 — they can testify that Paul was a strict Pharisee
2 Philippe Menoud gives us this summary of the kerygma:
The preaching of the apostles…may be briefly summarized as follows:
God has realized the promises of the OT and brought salvation to his people (Acts 2:16-21, 23; 3:18, 24; 10:43).
This has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (2:22-24); 3:13-15; 10:37-39).
Jesus has been exalted as “Lord and Christ” (2:36).
The Holy Spirit in the church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory (2:33; 5:32).
Salvation will reach its consummation in the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead (3:21; 10:42).
The apostles have been chosen by God as witnesses of the ministry of Jesus and above all of his resurrection (2:32; 3:15; 10:40-41).
They address to their hearers an appeal for repentance and offer to the believers forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38-39; 3:25-26; 5:31; 10:43).
In short, the primitive preaching of the apostles is a proclamation of the work of salvation made by God in Christ and a call to believe and be saved. (P.H. Menoud, “Preaching,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 1962], volume 3, pages 868-869)