The book of Acts is a book of sermons. Most people think that the book is a narrative, which it is. But, if you read it straight through you will see just how much preaching there is in this book. There are a total of 10 actual sermons in the book (1 Stephen, 4 Paul, 5 Peter) and 32 summaries of preaching. While there are miracles and wonders done through the apostles and angels, visions of Jesus, and voices from the heavens, the real work is the continuation of the work of Jesus: the proclamation of the kingdom of God empowered by the Spirit of God. Just as Jesus left his baptism, where the Spirit descended on him like a dove and the vindicating voice echoed from heaven, “This is my beloved Son in whom my heart delights,” so also Jesus having ascended poured out His Spirit in a baptism of fire onto His Church, and in a similar way proclaims, “This is my beloved Bride, in whom my heart delights” so that they, too, could follow His lead in preaching that original message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In fact, the dominant phrases in the book are “word” and its synonyms “gospel” or “message” and “Holy Spirit”. The Kingdom of God is said to be proclaimed and the Word is personified as “increasing” and “adding” to this kingdom community of those who entrusted themselves to Jesus as their savior-king.
So, how did their culture receive this proclamation of Jesus’ authority as King in the Kingdom of God? Well, you will find that they did the same thing that people do today when the true gospel is proclaimed. They filtered it. Jews heard that the gospel was a message against their Law, their Temple, their customs (6:14), an intolerant strike against their culture. Greeks thought the message was “that gods made with hands are not gods” (19:26), a judgmental exclusive gospel which demanded changing of allegiance, an intolerant strike against their values. We see the same response with religious and irreligious people today. The gospel demands submission to Jesus alone, not our performance and not our values. He alone is our righteousness, nothing else.
The actual presentation of the gospel was given in diverse ways, but it was always the same message. There was not a gospel for the Jews and a gospel for the Greeks, a gospel for religious people and a differing one to lessen the offense to others. The gospel was not modified or filtered in order to get a better reception. The gospel stands on its own and is the ferocity of God to transform any heart in any culture without partiality. Charles Spurgeon saw the concern that his brothers put on making the gospel palatable to his culture and said,
“The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.” (Charles Spurgeon, The Lover of God’s Law Filled with Peace, January 2, 1888)
The apostles preached to Jews and Greeks, to all peoples, so you can see how they presented the gospel:
Acts 17 – to Greeks in Athens: Paul doesn’t begin with the OT Scripture, but appeals to Natural Law, or General Revelation, and moves to Jesus as the One God appointed to judge the living and the dead because He was raised from the dead – doesn’t even get to forgiveness of sins
Acts 28 – to Jewish leaders in Rome: Paul “From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.” (Acts 28:23)
The center of their message is Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, ascended to reign in the kingdom of God. It is all about Jesus, His authority, both in power and in right. The message of Acts is only secondarily about the Church, as the purposed building of Christ’s Bride. In fact, in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and had healed a man who was lame, the Lystrans (modern day Turkey) loved the church! They wanted the church in their community! They saw how it could benefit them to have the church honored there and they longed to make it happen. But they didn’t understand the lordship of Christ. They revered Paul and Barnabas as super-heroes, as the gods come down for their good. Yet, look how the ambassadors respond in Acts 14, “They rushed out into the crowd and tore their clothes, saying, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men, like nature to you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these empty things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea…” (v15). Yet, the people didn’t want that God. They wanted their gods.
See, the gospel of Jesus brings about hostility and the book of Acts records this well, too. Look at the very next verse, v19. In one verse the people go from worshipping Paul and Barnabas to intending to murder them by stoning Paul and dragging him outside believing they had killed him. In honor or hostility the Church maintained its gospel of the crucified, risen, and reigning Son of God to whom people must turn exclusively.
Because the story is not about Peter or Paul. They do not replace Jesus. They are Jesus’ hands and feet, but not His head. They aren’t Christ to their communities, and never will you find in Scripture such a ridiculous statement as ‘Be Christ to somebody’. They could not be the Christ. United to Him, but distinct from Him, as a husband and a wife. They are Peter and Paul, ambassadors for Jesus. Proclaim Christ! Preach Christ! Jesus lives and reigns and sends, and He is distinctly the content of the gospel message, the King whom the Word of the Lord proclaims. It is not the winsomeness of Peter or the likability of Paul that grew the Church. It was the gospel itself. The message. The Word of the King. This is so much the case that Luke says “the Word of the Lord continued to increase” in 6:7 to describe the growth of the Church. The Word increased. The Word concerning the Lord Jesus. The emphasis is on the Word, upon the King, not upon the Church.
This Word, and the glorious freedom of people estranged from God and the fullness of their joy and life in Him, the way humanity is created to be, grows in the soil of opposition. With the preaching of God’s Word people are saved, and people are angered. The gospel, in the book of Acts, brings both reactions, usually in the same preaching event. As the Church grew, so did the intensity and vitriol of its persecutors. The book begins with Jesus ascended in triumph and the apostles returning to the Temple in joy and ends with Paul chained to a house in Rome awaiting trial. But the Word of God was not chained! It flourished in both opposition and the lack of hindrance.
It is our sure and certain hope, as revealed through this history of the early Church, that God does the miraculous work of raising dead hearts to life, hard hearts to fleshy hearts, of violent men to self-sacrificial men through the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Jesus is building His Church, and the violent mobs of social opposition, the narcissistic governors and kings, the rejection and disdain of the social elites, even the gates of Death itself cannot slow Him down. Their foolishness serves His purposes, for He has authority over all things. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, as you go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Look, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”