The gospel according to Acts

I’m writing this from a children’s home in Mexico, where I’m with a group of men who are constructing a multi-purpose building for the children. It’s very rewarding and will bless the kids, but that’s not what I’m thinking about tonight.

Instead, I keep thinking about a song the kids sang for us. It’s in Spanish, and you can find it online if you search on the first few words. I’ll provide the Spanish words, and then an English translation.

Dios me ama
Y he pecado
Y Christo murió por mí
Si yo le recibo seré su hijo
Y es su plan para mí

In English, it’s:

God loves me
And I have sinned
And Christ died for me
If I receive him, I will be his child
And this is his plan for me

It reminds me of the “Four Spiritual Laws” which I heard a lot as a high school student in youth group. They go something like this:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God.
Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for sin.
We must place our faith in Jesus Christ as savior in order to receive the gift of salvation.

It seems to me that while everything in the song and in the laws is true, it’s NOT what the apostles preached when they evangelized.

If we walk through the evangelistic messages in the book of Acts, we see a significantly different picture. Their preaching has some similarities to the four spiritual laws, but also some glaring differences. There are nine evangelistic sermons recorded in Acts, and I’ll go through most of them.

  • Acts 2.14-40
  • Acts 3.12-26
  • Acts 4.8-12
  • Acts 5.30-32
  • Acts 10.36-43
  • Acts 13.17-41
  • Acts 17.2-3
  • Acts 17.22-31
  • Acts 26.19-23

Before I begin, take a minute to think about this: Luke took the effort to record nine evangelistic messages. Considering the effort it took in the first century to produce a document like the book of Acts, this is a compelling data point. Luke (and the Holy Spirit) thought it was important enough to document all these times; we would do well to pay attention.

The first sermon is in Acts 2. Peter begins by using the Old Testament to explain what the people are seeing as a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit. We then read this:

22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “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.”

Acts 2.22-24, 36-38

Note the assertions which Peter makes:

  • Jesus was crucified (v23)
  • God raised Jesus (v24)
  • God exalted Jesus (v36)
  • The people are to repent and receive forgiveness of sins (v38)

The next evangelistic sermon is in chapter 3. Again, Peter makes use of a miracle to begin his sermon:

13 “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all…19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.”

Acts 3.13-16, 19

Note the assertions Peter makes:

  • God has glorified Jesus (v13)
  • Jesus was killed (v15)
  • God raised Jesus from the dead (v15)
  • Repent and receive forgiveness of sins (v19)

Let’s go over one more example before we make some conclusions. In chapter four, we read:

8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4.8-12

Peter makes these assertions:

  • Jesus was crucified (v10)
  • God raised Jesus from the dead (v10)
  • God has exalted Jesus (v11)
  • Salvation is in Jesus (v12)

From these four three evangelistic sermons, we see that Peter has a consistent message. He changes the order a little bit, and uses different wording and different Old Testament proof texts, but the four ideas are the same in all three messages.

The same four ideas are present in the remaining sermons as well. The next one is in chapter 5.

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”

Acts 5.29-31

By this time, I’m guessing you can pick out the statements Peter affirms:

  • Jesus was crucified (v30)
  • God raised Jesus (v30)
  • God exalted Jesus (v30)
  • Repent and receive forgiveness of sins (v31)

Peter’s next (and final sermon in Acts) is in chapter 10, when he evangelizes the household of Cornelius.

39 “And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Acts 10.39-43

Again, Peter makes these statements:

  • Jesus was put to death (v39)
  • God raised Jesus (v40)
  • God exalted Jesus (v42)
  • Believe in Jesus and receive forgiveness of sins (v43)

Again, the specific phrases differ but the themes are the same.

Starting in chapter 13, the focus of Acts shifts to Paul, who delivers essentially the same message. Here is Paul’s first recorded sermon:

28 “And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“ ‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you.’
…38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.”

Acts 13.28-32, 38
  • Jesus was executed (v28)
  • God raised Jesus (v30)
  • God exalted Jesus (v33)
  • Forgiveness of sins is through Jesus (v38)

Paul, like Peter, uses certain relevant Old Testament passages to prove his point. He gears his message toward his particular audience, but he doesn’t fail to stress the same points.

Paul’s next recorded sermon is in chapter 17, when he is in Thessalonica.

2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

Acts 17.2-3
  • Jesus suffered (v3)
  • Jesus rose from the dead (v3)
  • Jesus is exalted (v3)

At first glance, this message is different; we don’t see the command to repent! Note, however, that many joined the disciples (verse 4), and we must presume that repentance was part of that process. Note also that in verse 7, Jesus is called king, which probably meant more to the Greeks than calling Jesus the Messiah. Again, Paul makes the same four statements that we saw him make earlier (customizing that message for his audience), and those are the same four statements we saw Peter make.

The last sermon I want to address is in chapter 17, also from Paul.

30 “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17.30-31

Again, Paul covers God raising Jesus (and from that we can assume he had died), God exalting Jesus, and the command to repent.

(For your own edification, you can evaluate the final evangelistic sermon recorded in Acts, found in 26.19-23).

From these sermons, and what we see — and don’t see — elsewhere in Acts, here are some conclusions I’ve reached:

  • The kingdom of God is important. The gospel message is summarized up several times in Acts as the kingdom of God: Jesus in 1.3, Philip in 8.12, Paul in 14.22, 19.8, 20.25, 28.23, and 28.1.
  • The resurrection of Jesus is essential. The word is mentioned in 4.2, 4.33, 17.18, 23.6, 24.15, and 26.7.
  • The word love does not appear anywhere in the entire book of Acts, nor do the apostles claim that God has a plan for our lives.

We really shouldn’t be surprised that this is the content of the apostles’ message. It directly parallels the command given by Jesus in the gospel of Luke, which has the same author as the book of Acts. Here is that command:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Luke 24.45-47

Death, resurrection, the exaltation of the name of Jesus, and repentance. It’s all there.

So what do we make of this? Again, the song the children shared isn’t in error, nor are the four spiritual laws incorrect. However, they are a far cry from the message of the apostles.

The four spiritual laws have no doubt been successful in bringing people to Jesus, but we should not think that it’s an endorsement by God. After all, he is so desirous of people coming to Jesus that he will use any and all means, even the weak preaching of weak believers. But if we want the results of the apostles, then I think we should imitate their approach. After all, why should we think that we should be changing the message the apostles preached? They gave us their own four spiritual laws and I see no reason why we should substitute our own.

So, here is my own 30-second gospel message, which follows the pattern set by the apostles in Acts. I want to memorize it and be ready when the opportunity arises:

Jesus predicted that he would be crucified. He further predicted that God would raise him from the dead. Lastly, he predicted that he would be exalted to rule over the nations. The facts are that he was crucified, God did raise him from the dead, and he was given authority over the nations. From that position of authority, he commands all people to repent of their sins and swear loyalty to him. In return, he promises to forgive our sins and give us eternal life.

What do you think?

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