|EVANGELISTIC MESSAGES IN THE ACTS|
|The Content of Sermons by Peter and
How do these messages stack up with sermons
given by today's gospel preachers?
The Acts of the Apostles is sometimes referred to as "The Acts of the Holy Spirit" because of the blessed Spirit's activities throughout the period covered by the book. During this period of early Christianity several evangelistic messages were preached to crowds and to individuals.
The first recorded message was given by the apostle Peter and the eleven, and resulted in 3000 souls being added to the early church (Acts 2:41). Once Peter and John had preached the second recorded message "the number of the men had become [about] five thousand" (Acts 4:4).
In our modern era evangelistic crusades, gospel preaching in churches, personal witnessing and foreign missions have resulted in large numbers of professions of faith.
One question that came to the attention of the writer was the apparent difference in content of what we believe is "the gospel message for the unsaved" as compared with the actual messages presented by Peter, Stephen, and Paul. Today's popular evangelistic messages span the range from an "easy believism" gospel to a "hell-fire and brimstone" sermon. Their content often varies from an empty "feel good" presentation, all the way to a detailed doctrinal proclamations regarding the vicarious atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. Their requirements for conversion range all the way from "raising the hand," "going forward," and "signing a decision card," to a long drawn-out "praying through" exercise. The format of a gospel presentation varies from the simplest one-on-one witness, to meetings with big brass bands, entertainment stars, and highly paid bible thumping evangelists. And, of course, there is the "offering plate," a necessary fixture to support the huge production.
In our examination of the evangelistic messages found in the Acts, we will try to highlight the following points:
1. Peter's message on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-47)
The Evangelist: Peter, with the eleven.
The Dispensation: The day of Pentecost when, we believe, the Lord Jesus Christ, by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, first fulfilled His promise to create His church. Only Jews were present, no gentiles (Acts 2:5), so the Lord's command to "make disciples of all the nations" (Mat. 28:19) had not yet arrived. However, a special sign from the Holy Spirit, namely, the gift of tongues (Acts 2:4), was the beginning of the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy regarding the last days (Joel 2:28). "This IS that" said Peter, "which was spoken through the prophet Joel." Peter's message was given in the day of "prophecy." It had no connection with the "mystery" of Israel's blindness (Rom. 11:25), a mystery that would be revealed when Israel began to decisively reject God's message. And it had nothing to do with the "dispensation of the mystery" (Eph. 3:9), that would be revealed once Israel's heart had been decisively hardened (Acts 28:28).
Joel's prophecy, as quoted by Peter, is in two parts:
The prophecy, as we mentioned, was only beginning to be fulfilled. The prophecy that God would pour out of His Spirit upon "all flesh" (vs. 17), would not be fulfilled until Christ's command to "make disciples of all the nations" (Mat. 28:19) was carried. Why was that command not accomplished during the book of Acts? Simply because Israel rejected the gospel, and the Commission had to be carried out by believing Jews, not by unbelievers. Israelites whose hearts have been hardened against the word of God are not suitable vessels to carry God's truth to the nations. That Great Commission will not be carried out in its entirety until the 144,000 faithful Israelites preach the gospel of the kingdom to the Jews during the great tribulation period. For the same reason the "wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth" did not take place, because these signs and wonders will be part of "the great and gloriously appearing day of the Lord" (vs. 20).
Yet, Peter was entirely correct in saying "but this is that which was spoken through the prophet Joel" (vs. 16). That prophecy was, literally, beginning to be fulfilled.
The basic theme and doctrinal content of Peter's message
Just as the Jews gathered there on the day of Pentecost witnessed the miraculous sign of tongues, Peter mentions that "Jesus the Nazarean" was also borne witness to them "by works of power and wonders and signs" (vs 22). Peter blames these "men of Israel" (vs. 22) for delivering up their Messiah for crucifixion. He then offers a rather complete prophetic interpretation of Psalm 16:8 as proof of the Messiah's resurrection (vs.. 24-31), and adds "whereof all we are witnesses" (vs 22). He declares the ascension of Christ, commenting on Psalm 110:1, and concludes with the unequivocal declaration that "God has made him, this Jesus whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ (Messiah) (vs 36). This was the same confession he had made in Matthew 16:16, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
In summary, Peter blames the Jews for their part in their Messiah's crucifixion. He stresses the resurrection, and declares that the Lord Jesus is their Messiah. But there is no doctrinal exposition of the atonement. There is no statement that "God loves you," no statement that "Christ died for your sins," and "all you have to do is say 'yes' to Him." Which leads us to the next point.
The requirements Peter states for their conversion
Having heard Peter's message "they were pricked in heart, and said to Peter and the other apostles, What shall we do, brethren?" (Acts 2:37). Peter's answer:
"Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For to you is the promise and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God may call. And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, Be saved from this perverse generation." (Acts 2:38-40)
Peter's message is simple. Repentance and water baptism for the remission of sins. Repentance, particularly for their sin of delivering up their Messiah for crucifixion. And the ritual, performed in the name of Jesus the Messiah, to ceremonially wash away their sins. Baptism was well known amongst Jews as being a ceremonial purification. John the Baptist performed this ceremony. The Jews did not ask John 'what is the meaning of this water thing?' Their question was 'why are you doing it?' "Why baptisest thou then, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?" (John 1:25). John's answer to why he baptized was "that he [the Messiah] might be manifested to Israel" (John 1:31). The Jewish teachers had expected their Messiah to baptize. And, by the way, John's baptism, like the baptism of Acts 2:38, was "the baptism of repentance for remission of sins" (Mark 1:4).
A brief word about water baptism. Many today hold water baptism to be a "testimony" of one's new life after believing in Christ. But, scripturally, the idea of "baptism" relates to death not to life. Baptism was a ceremonial washing away one's identification with the old creation governed by the world, the flesh and the devil. Baptism was connected with salvation, not with a walk in newness of life as a testimony of one's faith. "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). It does not say 'he that believeth and is saved ought to be baptized.' Likewise, Peter writes concerning the ark in the days of Noah, "into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water: which figure also now saves you, even baptism . . ." (1 Pet. 3:20-21). At Saul's conversion Ananias told him, "Arise and get baptised, and have thy sins washed away, calling on his name" (Acts 22:16). But don't fall into the trap of any religionists who hold that water baptism "cleanses from original sin." That "in this sacrament we receive . . . everlasting salvation . . . also a new life in Christ." Or, that you have "assurance to know that your child has been baptized and thus is a child of God." It does not. It was meant only as an outward figure, an outward ceremonial cleansing, to "save" one from all that the outward world system represented. Similarly the Jews ceremonially "baptized" their cooking utensils (Mark 7:4), and "baptized" their hands before eating (Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38). It was by no means an 'eternal cleansing.' Finally, there are 'non-water' forms of baptism, namely, baptism by the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), and baptism into the death of Christ (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). The latter is labeled "one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). More on baptism in the future, as the Lord wills.
The result of the presentation
"Those then who had accepted his word were baptised; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers. And fear was upon every soul, and many wonders and signs took place through the apostles' means. And all that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and substance, and distributed them to all, according as any one might have need. And every day, being constantly in the temple with one accord, and breaking bread in the house, they received their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people; and the Lord added to the assembly daily those that were to be saved." (Acts 2:41-47)
2. Peter, John, and the lame man (Acts 3:1 - 4:4)
Just as those who repented on the day of Pentecost were "constantly in the temple with one accord," Peter and John had gone to pray in the temple. There they met an Israelite, a lame man, begging for alms. Peter said:
"Silver and gold I have not; but what I have, this give I to thee: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean rise up and walk. And having taken hold of him by the right hand he raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God." (Acts 3:6-9)
To whom was Peter's message addressed? "Ye are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God appointed to our fathers, saying to Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. To you first God, having raised up his servant, has sent him, blessing you in turning each one of you from your wickedness" (Acts 3:25-26).
And the miraculous healing of this lame Israelite was a sign to Israel that resoundingly echoed the prophecy of Isaiah:
"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf be unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and torrents in the desert." (Isa. 35:5-6)
This sign clearly announced to Israel that the time for the restoration of all things spoken by the prophets was now at the door. The millennial kingdom was at the door.
The theme of Peter's message
Like his message on the day of Pentecost, Peter blames the Jews for delivering up and denying the now glorified Jesus before Pilate. "but the originator of life ye slew, whom God raised from among the dead, whereof we are witnesses" (Acts 3:15). This man was healed by God's faith given to him.
The doctrinal content
"God has thus fulfilled what he had announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer. Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and he may send Jesus Christ, who was foreordained for you, whom heaven indeed must receive till the times of the restoring of all things, of which God has spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets since time began." (Acts 3:18-21)
Peter mentions the physical suffering of Christ, but not his sacrifice for sins.
The requirements for conversion
Their 'conversion' was based on their repentance. "Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins" (Acts 3:19). Again, as on the day of Pentecost, the message is strikingly similar to that of John the Baptist. There is no explanation of the vicarious atonement.
Furthermore, the 'reward' for their repentance was the literal return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth, and the times of refreshing to Israel. If they repented, the Messiah would return to earth and set up His long awaited kingdom. The latter is a clear reference to the theme of the apostles' question to the Lord before He ascended into heaven:
"Lord, is it at this time that thou restorest the kingdom to Israel? And he said to them, It is not yours to know times or seasons, which the Father has placed in his own authority; but ye will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you, and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:6-8)
The result of the message
We now have the first formal opposition to the truth by the organized religious leaders of Israel. This opposition would soon cause Yahweh to withdraw the offer of the kingdom, and begin breaking off the natural (Israelite) branches from the olive tree and graft in the despised gentiles into the place which was rightfully theirs.
"And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, being distressed on account of their teaching the people and preaching by Jesus the resurrection from among the dead; and they laid hands on them, and put them in ward till the morrow; for it was already evening" (Acts 4:1-3).
Yet, in spite of the opposition by official Israel, "many of those who had heard the word believed; and the number of the men had become about five thousand" (Acts 4:4).
3. Peter's message to the rulers, elders, scribes, and members of the high priestly family
Peter, specifically said to be filled with the Holy Spirit boldly confronts the Jewish clergy.
"Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, Rulers of the people and elders of Israel, if we this day are called upon to answer as to the good deed done to the infirm man, how he has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazaraean, whom ye have crucified, whom God has raised from among the dead, by him this man stands here before you sound in body. He is the stone which has been set at nought by you the builders, which is become the corner stone. And salvation is in none other, for neither is there another name under heaven which is given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:8-12).
Peter, obviously, did not read the book "How to Win Friends and Influence People," by Dale Carnegie. There is no soft peddling, no religious correctness, no syncretism, no political compromising with Peter. Only a bold desire to uphold the truth, and the Lord who said "I am . . . the truth . . ." (John 14:6).
Inasmuch as the high priestly family were all Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, let alone the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, Peter's message that emphasized the resurrection of Christ was not received by them. But the political poll-taker within them caused them to back off:
"But that it be not further spread among the people, let us threaten them severely no longer to speak to any man in this name. And having called them, they charged them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answering said to them, If it be righteous before God to listen to you rather than to God, judge ye; for as for us *we* cannot refrain from speaking of the things which we have seen and heard. But they, having further threatened them, let them go, finding no way how they might punish them, on account of the people, because all glorified God for what had taken place; for the man on whom this sign of healing had taken place was above forty years old." (Acts 4:17-22)
The result of their encounter
Not only Peter, but all their own company, were filled with a new boldness:
"And now, Lord, look upon their threatenings, and give to thy bondmen with all boldness to speak thy word, in that thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and that signs and wonders take place through the name of thy holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place in which they were assembled shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness." (Acts 4:29-31)
4. The second encounter with the Jewish clergy (Acts 5:26-42)
Here Peter's message to the religionists was very short, concise and to the point:
"The God of our fathers has raised up Jesus, whom ye have slain, having hanged on a cross. Him has God exalted by his right hand as leader and saviour, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things, and the Holy Spirit also, which God has given to those that obey him." (Acts 5:30-32)
Once again, Peter mentions the resurrection. The writer recalls attending a large stone "church" one Easter, many years ago. The minister made the statement, "It is not important whether or not you believe in the literal resurrection. The important thing is to have the spirit of the resurrection in your heart." One questions whether this so-called minister would be more comfortable in the despised company of Peter or in the company of the council and all the elderhood of the sons of Israel, including the priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests?
The result of their faithful message
". . . and having called the apostles, they beat them, and enjoined them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them. They therefore went their way from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonoured for the name. And every day, in the temple and in the houses, they ceased not teaching and announcing the glad tidings that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 5:40-42)
5. The witness of Stephen (Acts 6:8 - 8:2)
Stephen was one of the seven servants chosen so the apostles could devote themselves to prayer and ministry. But Stephen himself, full of the Holy Spirit, proved to be much more than a servant. He was an able minister of the word.
The dispensation had not changed. The gospel was still to the Jews alone, and included the signs and wonders of Pentecost.
"And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought wonders and great signs among the people" (Acts 6:8).
The theme of Stephen's defense before the Jews who disputed with him
The Jews had charged, "This Jesus the Nazaraean shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses taught us" (Acts 6:14). Stephen then gives a detailed, scholarly, sketch of the history of the Jewish nation from the time of Abraham to the time of Solomon. All is well, until Stephen, point by point, emphasizes the rebellious nature of the ancient Israelites, and likens their attitude to those listening to his discourse. Finally, he says,
"O stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, ye also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain those who announced beforehand concerning the coming of the Just One, of whom ye have now become deliverers up and murderers! who have received the law as ordained by the ministry of angels, and have not kept it. And hearing these things they were cut to the heart, and gnashed their teeth against him." (Acts 7:51-54)
Men of Israel, hear these words . . . ." (Acts 2:14-22)