(Today’s post is adapted from Keith’s article “Evangelistic Preaching in the Book of Acts,” originally published in Expositor Magazine.)
Evangelistic preaching has a rich heritage.
The first evangelistic sermon of the Church Age was preached by the Apostle Peter nearly 2,000 years ago on the Day of Pentecost. Luke records the essence of Peter’s message in Acts 2:14–40. Luke reports five more evangelistic messages in the book, two further by Peter (3:12–26; 10:34–43) and three by Paul (13:16–41; 14:15–17; 17:22–31).
In addition to these six sermons, Acts states that the Word was declared (4:31; 8:4, 25; 11:19; 13:5, 49; 14:25; 15:35, 36; 19:10) without giving the specific content of the sermons. Acts is a book that emphasizes evangelistic preaching.
However, the purpose of Acts is not to prescribe a model of evangelistic preaching for the church. Acts was written under the direction of the Holy Spirit by Luke to a man named Theophilus, a Gentile believer in Jesus Christ, “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).
Through an accurate historical narrative in two volumes (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), Luke demonstrated to Theophilus how the gospel message initiated by Jesus had come to the Gentiles through the ministry of the Apostle Paul and his ministry team, which also included Luke (Acts 16:10).
Gentile Christians like Theophilus could be certain that it was God’s plan that the gospel had come to them and that the gospel to which they had responded was the true gospel. Therefore, Luke gives special attention in Acts to the gospel preached first by Peter and then by Paul, verifying that it was the same message they both preached. Thus, there is in Acts a special emphasis on evangelistic preaching.
The first two sermons preached by Peter in Jerusalem were addressed to “Men of Israel” (2:22; 3:12). In both, he specifically indicted both the leaders and people of Israel for the sin of killing their Messiah (2:23; 3:13–15, 17). But God had validated the claims of Jesus as not only Lord and Messiah (2:36), but also as God’s servant (3:13, 26), the Holy and Righteous One (3:14) and the Prince of Life (3:15), through the resurrection (2:24–32; 3:15) and the exaltation (2:33–35; 3:21) of Jesus.
All of this took place in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (2:25–28, 30, 34–35; 3:21–25). The Israelites needed to repent, acknowledging their sin, and to change their mind concerning Jesus as Lord and Savior that would result in different conduct (2:38; 3:19), with the personal response of baptism indicating their repentance (2:38). The result of this repentance would be forgiveness of sins (2:38; 3:19), the receiving of the Holy Spirit (2:38), and salvation (deliverance) from the coming judgment (2:40).
The third evangelistic message preached by Peter was to the relatives and friends of a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius (10:1–2, 24). The Lord prepared Peter to go to the Gentiles through a vision concerning unclean food (10:9–16, 34). Even though Cornelius had renounced his pagan idolatry and had embraced Israel’s God (10:2), he still needed to hear what God had done through His sending of Jesus who proclaimed peace (10:36; cf. Luke 2:11, 14) with His message validated by His miracles (10:37–38). This Jesus died and was raised from the dead (10:39–41) and had been appointed by God as the Judge of all men (10:42).
As the Old Testament prophets have testified, through faith in Jesus comes the forgiveness of sins (10:43). At this point, Peter’s message was interrupted as the Holy Spirit fell upon these Gentiles because they had believed the message (10:44). This was followed by their baptism and fellowship with the Jews who had accompanied Peter (10:45–48). Later, in Jerusalem, the belief (faith) of the Gentiles in Jesus was equated with the repentance which leads to life (11:17–18).
The three evangelistic messages preached by Paul are shown by Luke to have parallels with the three sermons of Peter. The first, like Peter’s Day of Pentecost sermon, was also addressed to “Men of Israel,” though Paul adds “and you who fear God” since there were Gentile God-fearers like Cornelius in his audience at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (13:16).
Paul began the sermon by stating the Old Testament anticipation of the Messiah which culminated in the preparatory ministry of John the Baptist for Jesus (13:17–25). He then used the more affectionate address, “Brethren” (13:26; cf. 2:29), adding “sons of Abraham’s family and those among you who fear God.” Paul, like Peter, directly indicted the Jewish leaders for killing Jesus (13:27–29; cf. 2:23); but God had raised Him from the dead (13:30; cf. 2:24–32) with the apostles as witnesses (13:31; cf. 2:32; 3:15; 10:39–41).
Paul confirmed Jesus’ resurrection by quoting Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 55:3, and Psalm 16:10 (13:32–37; cf. 2:25–32). Through Jesus, there was the proclamation of forgiveness of sins (13:38; cf. 2:38) and justification (13:39). If the message of salvation in Jesus was not heeded, there would be certain judgment (13:40–41; cf. 2:40). This sermon reflected what Paul consistently preached in the Diaspora Jewish synagogues and Luke showed how it was the same essential evangelistic message that Peter preached to the Jews.
Paul’s second evangelistic sermon followed a similar experience as Peter’s second message. Both came after the healing of a man lame from his mother’s womb which resulted in a gathered crowd (14:8–13; cf. 3:1–11). But while Peter addressed Jews, Paul, along with Barnabas, spoke to pagan Gentiles at Lystra (14:14–17).
This sermon was another sample sermon, this one showing how Paul addressed Gentiles. Paul indicted the pagans on the basis of creation and urged them to turn from their idols to the one true God. This was more fully developed in Paul’s third evangelistic sermon in Acts 17:22–31.
Again, Luke parallels his account of Paul’s third message with Peter’s. He provides a narrative background as to how Paul came to speak in Athens as Peter had in Caesarea (17:16–21; cf. 10:1–33). In both cases, the apostles found themselves invited to speak before an assembly gathered to hear them. But Paul was to address intellectual pagans, not God-fearing Gentiles.
Paul began by noting that the Athenians acknowledged a God of whom they were ignorant (17:22–23). This was the God of creation who cannot dwell in mere human temples and cannot be represented by idols made by human hands (17:24–29). Even Greek writers like Epimenides and Aratus inferred the latter (17:28). This God of Creation has now commanded all men to repent, think differently of idolatry, or they will face certain future judgment. This judgment is assured by the resurrection of a man from the dead (17:30–31).
Like Peter, Paul’s third message was interrupted, but not by a response of faith (10:44), but by a response of unbelief regarding the resurrection (17:32). Thus, Paul was not able to urge the Athenians to embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, though a few did believe (10:34).
What does the contemporary evangelistic preacher learn from the narratives and sermons recorded in Acts? Primary is the truth of the sovereignty of God in evangelistic preaching. In each case cited above, it was God who arranged the circumstances for the preaching. Miracles gathered the assembled crowds (2:1–13; 3:1–11; 14:8–13) to whom the preachers spoke, or the preachers were invited to speak by others (10:33; 13:13:15; 17:19).
In none of these cases was the preaching the direct result of the speaker’s initiative; God brought about the preaching event with those He had determined would hear the message. Further, it was the Lord who had called and commissioned the preachers, Peter (1:2) and Paul (9:15). Finally, it was God who brought about the response (2:37; 4:14; 11:18; 13:48; 14:18; 17:34).
Also significant is the consistency of the message. First, there was the clear statement of the hearers’ sin. The Jews were indicted because their sin was climaxed by their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. For the Gentiles, they had rejected the revelation of God in creation and had turned to the worship of idols.
Second, there was the validation that Jesus was God’s instrument of salvation. This was validated by the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy to those who knew the Scriptures and by the resurrection of Jesus to Jew and Gentile alike.
Third, the sinner needed to respond with repentance concerning his sin and faith in embracing Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Fourth, those who did not repent and believe faced a certain future judgment if they rejected the one way of salvation, Jesus. This was the message that Theophilus had heard and believed, and Luke affirmed that it was true. This is the same gospel message that the evangelistic preacher proclaims today because it is as true today as it was in the first-generation of the church.