This is a lengthy read, but I want all of it to be together. I’m thinking my readers can copy/paste/save and read it in one sitting. From the FC Lectures.
Phillip G. Mullins
These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. (Acts 17:6)
Was this a trumped-up charge? Was it hyperbole? Did the preachers of the book of Acts, like Paul and Barnabas, really turn the world upside down?
Viewed from its immediate context, such a statement appears to be an exaggeration meant to prejudice the Gentile rulers against the Way. Yet, when the work of the preachers of the book of Acts is viewed from a broad perspective, the Jews of Thessalonica were correct in describing the eventual impact of the powerful preaching that was rippling through the Roman Empire in the name of Christ.
Acts is one of the most important historical accounts known to man. Even beyond its pivotal role in the biblical narrative, Luke’s history of the first Christians and their exploits describes a major shift in human civilization. With the emergence of Christianity, the world begins a gradual transition to monotheism, leaving polytheism and the idolatry commonly associated with it to die a slow death in most of the world. The principles of Christ’s teachings come to dominate western civilization and even make inroads into the east. Culture, politics, art, and economics will be altered. The field of philosophy will be overhauled by New Testament ideas.
Most important will be the spiritual shockwaves sent throughout the world from the events in Acts. Multitudes will come to know the Creator through the Son to a degree previously unknown. An incalculable number of sins will be washed away. Jews and Gentiles will become one in Christ. God’s eternal plan un-folds into a movement that no earthly force can stop nor physical kingdom outlast. Countless lives will be redirected onto a path that will eventually lead to the throne of God in the hereafter. It is as if the coming of Christ—His work, death and resurrection— were the detonation, and the events of Acts, the explosion. In the aftermath, the history of mankind will never be the same.
All of this was inaugurated by preaching. The sermons of the apostles, prophets, and evangelists of the first century ignited a spreading flame that has encompassed the whole world and impacted eternity. The preachers of the book of Acts were used by God to initiate the dispersion of the gospel and to open the doors to the kingdom of Christ, thus turning the world upside down. These preachers were as varied in their background, personalities, and abilities as the people to whom they preached and the circumstances in which they found them. They showed a remarkable understanding of their hearers, an incredible ability to adapt, and a profound zeal for their mission. Their work was the most important human endeavor in history. Those who strive to preach the same gospel today share a bond with these men. All believers find in them a well of insights and motivation.
“And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14)
The book of Acts is not intended to be a biographical sketch of the first Christians nor the first gospel preachers. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is the main character. He guides the apostles and prophets, empowers them to perform miracles, and providentially brings together preachers with hearers who possess honest hearts. Yet, in the course of the narrative, one by-product is an extended history of figures like Peter, John, and James whom we find in the gospels and the introduction of men such as Stephen, Philip, and Paul.
Preaching is the action of Acts. At times Luke records the speeches (Acts 2:14-39) and on other occasions merely refers to what was proclaimed (Acts 8:35). Yet, preaching is the thing that is constantly drawing the reader’s attention. This emphasis reflects the instructions of Jesus in the great commission (Mark 16:15) and it proves the continuing essentiality of preaching in the plan of God.
It is the means by which forgiveness is offered and the invitation is extended for the kingdom of heaven (Acts 13:38; 8:12). Ultimately, preaching is part of God’s grand scheme of redemption. In discussing Luke’s use of the word necessary or must, Ferreira writes:
As Jesus had to suffer, so too the disciples must preach. Luke’s speeches therefore are crucial for his theological theme, they are not merely literary devices to vivify the narrative, or a convention of contemporary historiography. Without the preaching, God’s plan would remain unaccomplished. (211)
The men we see carrying the truth of Christ to a lost world were not from a uniform mold. Some had been trained by Jesus, like Peter and John. Others, such as Paul and Apollos, had experienced, even if unwittingly, unique preparation for the task. Others, such as Barnabas and Philip, appear to have no specialized training for it. Several were Jews, many were Hellenistic Jews, and a few were Gentiles.
Their approach was driven by audience and circumstance. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is not identical to the one to Cornelius’ household (Acts 2:14-39; 10:34-43). Paul’s preaching in Thessa-lonica was very different than when he stood before the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:1-3, 22-31). They were masters at reading their hearers and adapting their approach to most effectively relate the gospel to them.
Yet, there is a consistency in the sermons of each preacher and in what they all preached. Some modern scholars credit Paul with taking Christianity in a new direction, ignoring the common thread seen in the doctrine of all the first-century preachers. Paul’s sermon in Antioch of Pisidia mirrors both the sermons of Peter and Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 13:16-41). What additional revelation that did come through Paul by the Spirit only built on the foundation laid by the original apostles and the earliest evangelists. The claim that Jesus performed signs, died according to the Scriptures, was raised the third day, and now offered forgiveness to believers echoes through each sermon.
One of the most gripping aspects of Luke’s history is the tenacity seen in these men that is nothing short of inspiring. They
stood before hostile audiences (Acts 2; 6; 22). They pushed into new social situations (Acts 8; 10). They were willing to be used in any way as instruments in getting the gospel to the lost, planting churches, and defending the truth that Jesus was Lord. Most risked their lives in their preaching; some lost their lives because of their preaching (Acts 7:59-60; 12:1-2).
Yet, as crucial as their roles were and as heroic as their actions may have been, they were merely men. They were aware they were forgiven people being used to turn others to the Savior. If anything equaled their boldness, it was their humility. “Stand up; I myself am also a man,” stated Peter to the bowing Cornelius (Acts 10:25-26).
Therefore, their value to us is in learning how God used them. We know little about the background and personality of many of the preachers in Acts. They are not the story. What was important was the preaching, not the preachers. It is easy to confuse the importance of the message with the value of the messenger. What is amazing is not that these men were so powerful, but that God used them, as ordinary, weak and sometimes flawed as they were, to do this mighty work:
To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor. 2:16)
What do we know of these men? How did they approach preaching? What can they teach us and how may they motivate us after all these centuries as we labor in the same cause? There are six preachers in Acts who represent the whole and are worthy of specific profile.
Peter: The Passionate Pioneer
The preacher who is the focus in the early chapters of Acts is no stranger to the reader of the New Testament when Luke begins his second account. It is no surprise that the disciple who emerged as the leader of the twelve in the gospels occupies the same role in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter embraces his destiny as the holder to “the keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19).
There are few preachers in history who have been called upon to be more of a pioneer than Peter. It is Peter’s Pentecost sermon that Luke spotlights in Acts 2, the event referred to later as “the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Luke presents him standing in Jerusalem and proclaiming that Jesus, whom the Jews had crucified only seven weeks before, was both “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). It is Peter who heals the lame man in the shadow of the temple, causing a stir among the people, resulting in the censoring and eventual oppression by the Sanhedrin. It is Peter who stands before the Jewish leaders and declares without flinching, “We ought to obey God rather men” (Acts 5:29). It is Peter who is called upon to cross the social, cultural, and racial threshold and take the gospel to the household of Cornelius, thus inaugurating the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10-11).
Peter is the most colorful of the preachers profiled in the New Testament. He was a devout Jew, yet there is nothing about his background that indicated he was being groomed for this work. A fisherman by trade, he was not of wealth, status, nor education. He could be as tempestuous as the storms that blew up on the Sea of Galilee. He was quick to speak, to commit to extremes, to leap and to think later. Yet, when He met Jesus, his life was redirected; he left all and followed Him (Luke 5:10-11). Preaching was probably not a destiny he had envisioned, but he was taken with Jesus and as a result the gospel seized Peter. As he stated boldly to the Jewish council, “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Peter’s sermons are brawny and fiery, but there is also a rough-hewn skill seen in them. Though guided by the Holy Spirit to deliver the exact doctrine of Christ, the personalities and experiences of the apostles and prophets of the New Testament were not lost in the process. As a pious Jew anticipating the coming of the Messiah, he had a command of the Scriptures. Peter was articulate and even eloquent in showing how Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies (Acts 3:12-26).
One of the most remarkable ways in which the Lord used Peter was in the incident with Cornelius. Of all the preachers depicted in Acts, Peter was the least cosmopolitan. He did not have the Hellenistic background that so many of the others enjoyed. Everything about his raising and culture told him that entering a
Gentile’s house was taboo. What he was called to do could easily have been as socially, racially, and morally offensive to him as it had been to a certain prophet called to preach to the Assyrians (Jon. 1:3; Acts 10:5). Unlike Jonah, who at Joppa had attempted to flee from his heavenly assignment, Peter, in Joppa, obeys the Lord’s directive. When he was called, he went (Acts 10:19-20).
All the while, Peter lived and preached in the shadow of his denials the night Jesus was arrested. All the gospel writers record in detail the event by the courtyard fire as Jesus was inside being falsely accused, abused, and defamed (Matt. 26:57-75; Mark 14:53-72; Luke 22:54-65; John 18:12-27). This indicates how commonly known the incident was among the early disciples. It is amazing that Jesus still used him after such weakness and disloyalty; it is amazing that Peter could muster up the strength to be used after such a fall. Like Paul, Peter was a living exhibit of the grace of Christ and the power of the gospel to transform. Through this experience, the Lord infused Peter with zeal for the message of salvation and passion for those who needed it. Peter knew that “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (2 Pet. 3:15).
Stephen: The Courageous Contender
All we know about the background of Stephen is that he was a Hellenistic Jew whose good character and devotion to the cause resulted in an appointment as one of the seven servants to tend to the needy widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:3-6). He then explodes upon the stage of Acts as the chief debater with unbelieving Hellenists, contending that Jesus was “the Just One” of whom the prophets spoke (Acts 7:52).
Stephen’s preaching was accompanied by miracles and an obvious manifestation of the Spirit (Acts 6:8-10). So effective was his preaching, the Hellenists were tied up in knots trying to deal with his argumentation (Acts 6:9-10). So frustrated with him, they supplied false witnesses who attempted to undermine his teaching (Acts 6:11-13). So determined to stop Stephen, his opponents literally dragged him before the Sanhedrin, the same Jewish council that had similarly tried Jesus unjustly (Acts 6:12; Luke 22:66). ”
His sermon, the longest recorded in Acts, is both an extension of God’s mercy to the Jews, who had so long rejected Him, and a declaration of judgment. Stephen is used to articulate God’s position to the people who had been shown so much patience but repaid the Lord’s goodness with rebellion (Acts 7:2-53). It was not a pleasant task. The outcome proves how tense the atmosphere was and how piercing Stephen’s points were to the obstinate hearts of his audience (Acts 7:54, 57-59).
Stephen fills the role among the preachers of Acts as the contender who defended the truth that Jesus was the Christ. He exposed Israel’s pattern of disobedience and drew out the criminal spirit of the Jewish leaders. This preacher waged war. He did not use carnal weapons but rather the sword of the Spirit to cast down the false arguments of the unbelieving Hellenists (Eph. 6:11-17; 2 Cor. 10:4-5). Stephen does not cross the line by fighting fire with fire; he takes the high road in the face of competitive debate and in the midst of an emotionally charged situation. He represents faithfully the character of the gospel in the process of aggressively promoting it. He is not trying to win arguments nor score a personal victory over his opponents. His pure character and pristine motives are seen in the images at the beginning of his speech and at the end:
And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15)
Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:60)
Stephen was a noble, spiritual warrior.
Philip: A True Evangelist
Another of the seven servants of Acts 6 is Philip who, like Stephen, matures from his role of caring for the widows in the Jerusalem church to preaching Christ. Yet, Philip heads in a whole different direction geographically, and in the nature of his work.
Luke records in succession the two episodes that summarize the work of Philip—preaching to the Samaritans and to the eunuch of Ethiopia (Acts 8). They form one of several hinges in the narrative. As foretold by Jesus in Acts 1:8, the gospel is now coming out of Judea and away from the Jews. The Spirit uses Philip as the carrier which will prompt Luke later to describe him simply as “Philip the evangelist” (Acts 21:8).
Though Jesus had shown in his ministry the future role of the Samaritans in the kingdom, to reach out to the religiously and racially-mixed neighbors of the Jews was not an easy task. Philip risked being ostracized by Jews who had “no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). He would have had to overcome his own possible prejudices for this paganistic people who had a long history of being a thorn in the side of the Jews. Whatever obstacles there might have been, Philip scaled them and the outcome was notable (Acts 8:6-13). Of all places for the gospel to make its debut outside of Judea, it ends up being Samaria. The one-thousand-year-old chasm between Jews and Samaritans was not so broad that the gospel couldn’t bridge it. With a magnanimous spirit, Philip preaches to them salvation in the name of Christ.
It is in the second incident with Philip that the providence of God in salvation is seen most clearly. Queen Candace’s treasurer was primed for the gospel as he read from Isaiah on his return from worshipping in Jerusalem (Acts 8:27-28). God’s hand is all over the unfolding events and Philip knows it as the Spirit directs him to the traveler. He moved upon the eunuch assertively, yet approached him with a non-threatening but door-opening question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:26-30). The eunuch opened his mind and Philip seized the moment. He worked from the prophet’s vision of the Messiah and convinced his chariot companion that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 8:31-38).
Philip defines the work of an evangelist by displaying a willingness to go anywhere, to anyone, ready to press any opportunity to preach the gospel. He saw windows, not walls. He saw souls, not race and nationality. Philip was assertive, available, and adaptable.
Barnabas: The Builder
He is first presented as an exemplary disciple who gave sacrifi-cially to his brethren and established a reputation as a positive influence, thus earning a name that meant “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36-37). He proves himself to be one who believed in people and stood by them when others were unsure (Acts 9:27; 15:37-38). Barnabas is edification personified in Acts. It is his work with the church at Antioch in Syria which becomes Luke’s model for building up a local church.
The Antioch church was so important to the early years of Christianity. The city was one of the largest of the Roman Empire and one the most prestigious in the east (Stott 203). It was situated at a commercial and cultural crossroads. The church there stood as an example of how Jew and Gentile could be one in Christ (Acts 11:20; 13:1; 15:1-31). It became the base of operations for Paul and his companions on their ground-breaking missionary journeys (Acts 14:26-27). The foundational work in this vital congregation was done by Barnabas.
The Jerusalem brethren had great confidence in Barnabas and so he was their choice to go and assist the infant church in Gentile territory (Acts 11:22). He poured himself into the work and the church grew, brethren were edified, and teachers were developed (Acts 11:23-26; 13:1). Antioch becomes a benevolent church (Acts 11:27-30) and one concerned for the souls of others, committed to see the gospel spread (Acts 13:1-3; 14:26-27). Barnabas’ role was crucial in the whole endeavor. He was the one who nursed them along in the early years. It was Barnabas who stimulated the spread of the gospel in the Antioch area. He was the one who secured Saul of Tarsus to further insure the health and development of this church. It was in this last act that Barnabas shows his humble spirit and true motive to see the church prosper. He is willing to bring in another preacher, who will emerge as the dominant personality of the two, for the sake of the brethren and the furtherance of the gospel.
Barnabas’ labors to encourage, evangelize, and teach are used by the Lord to build up the Antioch church and bring it to maturity. His work with this church is the standard by which all local preachers should live.
Apollos: A Great Mind and a Humble Heart
At the end of Acts 18, the reader of Luke’s history gains insight as to how connected the Roman world was and how widely ideas spread. A Jew from Alexandria, Egypt walked into the synagogue in Ephesus in Asia Minor preaching about Jesus. In doing so, Apollos also walked into the history of the early church and became one of the movement’s most effective preachers by possessing a unique combination of traits.
Alexandria, Egypt was one of three great learning centers of the Greek world, along with Athens and Tarsus (Charles 49). It also contained a significant Jewish community and was renowned for its Jewish scholarship (Reese 259, 658). From such fertile Hellenistic and Jewish intellectual soil sprouted Apollos. In describing him as “eloquent,” Luke implies that he was either learned or skilled in speaking (Stott 302). The term is probably used to mean both since he was so effective in debate (Acts 18:28). At the core of his effectiveness was a command of the Law and the Prophets that Luke calls “mighty” (Acts 18:24). In addition, he combined knowledge with enthusiasm as the text depicts him as being “fervent in spirit” (Acts 18:25).
Though Apollos had so many elements in place to be used for great things, he was still lacking, for “he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). We are told he knew of Jesus, but was not aware of the great commission. He was deficient in his knowledge of the plan of salvation, and possibly of the concluding work of Christ, including the events of His death and resurrection. A husband and wife team who had spent much time with Paul, Aq-uila and Priscilla, privately enlightened him (Acts 18:26). Apollos went on to new places and new heights as he “vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
The one preacher whose knowledge and skills are so emphasized is also presented as lacking. Yet, due to a most admirable quality in him, his knowledge is completed. What humility Apollos showed in allowing two tentmakers to teach him. He demonstrates no pride that would keep him from learning from others. His meek spirit makes it possible for the Lord to complete him and use him in an even more potent fashion. He shows that to be a great teacher one must be teachable.
Paul: Persecutor Turned Crusader
The supreme irony in the book of Acts is that the one man who was leading the charge against Christianity with possibly the most vehement force, ends up being its greatest advocate. Saul of Tarsus not only changes his belief about Jesus and his treatment of the believers, but he also becomes a tireless herald of the good news. The early saints noted in astonishment, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:23).
Saul immediately begins preaching and is soon met with opposition (Acts 9:20-25). The record of Acts presents him as somewhat of a frustrated preacher at the beginning. The Judean brethren are slow to accept him and his flight from Damascus is followed by a flight from Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-30). Galatians 1:21-23 reveals that he was preaching in Syria and Cilicia before coming to An-tioch to work with Barnabas, yet the book of Acts does not record his labors there. It is his contribution to the movement in the post-Antioch years that Luke documents. In the biblical record, his ministry launches from Antioch and from then on it is a flurry of travels and adventures. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the preacher on a crusade to tell the world of Christ.
To the Roman church Paul wrote, “And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named” (Rom. 15:20). Paul was a planter. He pushed into new territory, probing first in the synagogue and then, wherever open minds could be found. He crossed Asia Minor, descended through Macedonia and Achaia, and laid plans to go as far as Rome and even Spain (Acts 13-19; Rom. 15:23-24). He was unmarried, unattached, willing to go at a moment’s notice, and able to live on little. In addition to broadly scattering the seed in so many places and in so many hearts, the Spirit used him to pen letters to churches, individual saints, and other preachers. Those epistles became the church’s doctrinal foundation.
Fully aware of his divine calling, he spoke of it as being a requirement placed upon him from the onset of his conversion (1
Cor. 9:16). Yet, it was a labor of love, even an obsession. Everything about his life was subject to him fulfilling his mission. His ceaseless motivation came from the awareness that though he was undeserving of it, he had been chosen to perform this most sacred task:
To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Eph. 3:8)
Paul was uniquely suited for the type of preaching the Lord called him to do. His opening description of his background to the bloodthirsty mob in Jerusalem provides a window into his qualifications:
I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. (Acts 22:3)
Hailing from a city rich in Greek culture and learning, Paul was well versed in Hellenism (Bruce 234). He had been taught by one of the most respected rabbis of the day. His knowledge of the law and devotion to Judaism was unquestioned and was the basis for his status as a rising star among the Jews (Gal. 1:13-14). On top of all of that, he possessed a Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25-28). It was as if all Paul had learned and experienced before his conversion had prepared him for preaching the gospel, first to the Jews, but especially to the Gentiles:
But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles…. (Gal 1:15-16)
Paul’s expertise in working among Jews and his ability to relate to the Gentiles are seen in two sermons recorded by Luke. In Antioch of Pisidia Paul displays an extensive knowledge of Israel’s history, a firm grasp of messianic prophecies, and a knack for knowing how to reach Jews (Acts 13:16-43). Then, in Athens, Paul delivers a masterpiece before the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34). Though some mocked Paul and the positive results were modest by Luke’s account, he did persuade some, including one of the members of the council. More importantly, the ideas that Paul articulates about the nature of God will echo among believers for years because of Luke’s history. Idolatry will meet its demise as Christianity swells in the Roman Empire in the coming centuries.
Paul’s work as a preacher was hard and dangerous. In the second letter to the Corinthians he summarizes the price he had paid by writing of the beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and other perils (11:23-28). Paul was misunderstood by unbelievers; Fes-tus accused him of being mad with much learning (Acts 26:24). He was misquoted by other Christians; he was accused of teaching that grace encouraged sin (Rom. 3:8; 6:1). He was maligned by brethren; some accused him of being a pseudo-apostle (2 Cor. 12:11-12). His life was threatened on several occasions by hostile Gentiles (Acts 14:19; 19:29-30). Yet, most disturbing was how he was treated by his own Jewish brethren who could not tolerate that he had embraced Jesus as the Christ. Paul became their prey. They were so fixated on stopping him that a pack of them vowed not to eat or drink until they killed him (Acts 23:12-15).
Yet, Paul would not relinquish his calling. He knew that he was involved in something bigger than himself (2 Cor. 4:5). His very being was tied up in the cause of Christ. One can see it in his defense before Agrippa (Acts 26). Even when his physical freedom was at stake, even when his life was on the line, he attempted to convince his hearers that Jesus was the Savior. Paul was really defending Christ, not himself. He lost himself in Christ, and consequently, found himself in his preaching (Gal. 2:20).
What These Preachers Teach Us and How They Motivate Us
Christians since the first century have been served well by the preachers in the pages of Acts. Their nerve, savvy, devotion, and boldness show what remarkable things can occur when people believe in Christ down to the core of their soul and are willing to be used to help others learn of Him. Through the Spirit supplying us with their example, we gain confidence in the gospel’s affect today and learn how to more effectively proclaim it. Theirs is an enduring legacy that continues to teach and inspire, as can be seen in the following points.
Preaching is vital to the work of saving souls and nothing will replace it. Every person saved in the book of Acts was saved when they responded to the message that was preached. Regardless of the performance of miracles, appearance of angels, or lights from heaven, preaching had to occur. Neither technique nor technology will replace it. Even with the existence of written revelation, God has chosen to use human messengers to broadcast His word. It will never go out of style; it will ever be relevant and necessary.
A preacher’s character is a vital aspect to his work. The moral integrity of the preachers of Acts is a given. It is emphasized with Barnabas in conjunction to his effectiveness and the progress of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:23-24). Preachers who are good men help churches. Preachers who are dishonest, immoral, and self-serving hurt churches and the cause. Peter and Paul were men with shameful episodes in their past. Yet, they were living proof of what God could do for sinners. They were helpful to others because the hope of their message could be seen in their changed lives and godly character.
Preaching is to be Christ-centered. From Peter at Pentecost to Philip in Gaza to Paul at the Areopagus, Christ was the focus of the preaching in Acts. It was all about the prophecies, His teaching, signs, suffering, death, and resurrection. The preachers connected all scriptures, all questions, and all occasions to Jesus. So comprehensive was this approach that Luke often summed up entire sermons by simply stating that a preacher had “preached Christ to them” (Acts 8:5).
Preaching is to grow out of the Scriptures. With Jewish audiences or devout Greeks, the preachers in the book of Acts drew heavily from the Scriptures. It was the basis of convincing so many that Jesus was indeed the Christ. It was not a cursory reference to Scripture, nor was it an attempt to squeeze an application where one did not naturally exist. They guided their hearers through the Law and the Prophets and connected references to Jesus. They were faithful to the texts and dependent on them. Great preaching will imitate this practice.
Preaching is to confront with the intent to convince. To preach that Jesus had resurrected and was Lord was risky in the shadow of the temple in Jerusalem. To proclaim that idols did not represent the one, true God was radical in the streets of Ephesus and in sight of the Acropolis in Athens. Yet, this was the confrontational message men like Peter, Paul, and Barnabas preached. Safe preaching is ineffective preaching. They were willing to declare the truth no matter the outcome. Yet, they had a purpose—to convince the hearers of the identity of Jesus and persuade them to turn to Him for the remission of their sins. Peter is not out to guilt and shame the Jews in Jerusalem for having crucified Jesus, though his words pierced their soul and convicted them. Paul does not mock the Athenians for their foolishness in worshipping dumb idols. The preachers in Acts at times delivered disturbing news to their audiences but they spoke the hard truth in order to turn them to the Way. Preaching is a powerful work and it potentially can be used to belittle, even crush people. While preaching includes correction and reproof, ultimately it is about convincing others of the right way. Preaching is not to be an attempt to drive people to do something; it is about teaching and persuading others of the truth so they will be convicted and personally committed to the right path.
Preaching is to appeal to the intellect and attempt to move the heart. There is a balance seen in the New Testament preachers of both an appeal to the mind and a stirring of the heart with the gospel. In their disputes with Stephen, the Synagogue of the Freed-men could not resist his wisdom (Acts 6:9-10). Paul described his pleading with King Agrippa as “the words of truth and reason” (Acts 26:25). Yet, because of the preaching in Acts people were both “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) and were left basking in great joy (Acts 8:8). Preaching that centers on emotional exploitation is shallow and does not produce devout disciples. Preaching that does not attempt to rouse the will and move men to action is likewise powerless in producing true servants for Christ.
Preaching must often be socially risky in order to break down barriers and unite people. The gospel will often fly in the face of social norms. The little unwritten rules that govern class structure, racial interaction, and group stereotyping have to be ignored in order for the gospel to reach others. Philip’s evangelism in Samaria,
Peter’s visit to Cornelius’ house, and Paul’s experiences in Athens serve as models for breaking down social barriers. Prejudice, of any variety, is an enemy to gospel preaching. A preacher must be able to overcome social intimidation or obstacles whether they be based upon race, economics, education, nationality, or culture, and treat all people with respect. Only Christ can truly unite people; all other human attempts will fail. By reaching out to people on the other side of social barriers, Christians can introduce others to the One who is able “to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus, making peace” (Eph. 2:15).
Preaching demands versatility and adaptability. The ability to adjust to audience and situation displayed by the preachers in the book of Acts was amazing. They knew that different people responded to different types of appeals. They would refer to the history of Israel and the words of the prophets with Jews while making logical arguments from nature with Gentiles. They knew when to lead, when to press, and when to shift directions. They were students of culture, philosophy, and history. They took readings on circumstances and people with meticulous care. Several of the highlighted evangelists were Hellenistic Jews (Stephen, Philip, Barnabas, Paul, and Apollos). Their backgrounds in Greek culture made them adept at taking the gospel to the Roman world. This is the reason why all believers—and preachers in particular— need to be aware of what people need, what questions they are asking, and what trends are working among them. An effective gospel worker must be an astute observer of society to be effective at reaching those in it.
There are different roles preachers can fill. Some preachers in Acts were planters, some contenders, and some builders. Some were moving often and covering much territory. Other preachers were more connected to a place or region. The Holy Spirit used these men differently because they varied in their backgrounds, personalities, and abilities. They were used for different types of work because of different needs and opportunities that arose. There is no one type of preacher and no one style of preaching required. Variety should be appreciated among preachers for there are many different roles that need to be filled.
The need will sometimes arise for preachers to partner with others. Barnabas secured Paul for the Antioch labors. Paul had a long list of co-workers including Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Titus. Egos or insecurity can prevent men from sharing the pulpit or other aspects of kingdom work but when it occurs the church suffers. Preachers must be willing to make room when other workers are needed and even step aside if someone else needs to do the job. The cause is much bigger than any one person.
It is necessary to move on from those who reject the gospel to find those who will receive it. Acts is a fast-paced history. One reason why the preachers kept moving is that they often encountered stiff resistance and hard hearts. When this occurred, they turned to another group or another location (Acts 13:46; 14:19-20). It is disappointing to see people push the gospel away. Yet, to remain productive, preachers must learn the practice of shaking the dust from their feet and moving on. The preachers in Acts were very aware that God was working through them and that events were unfolding for a reason. Preachers must trust God’s providence that when He closes one door, He will open another (Acts 16:7-9).
Alone, the preachers in the book of Acts were powerless. The reason they left a mark on history is because they carried with them a message that was dynamic, liberating, and that could alter the eternal destiny of anyone who would accept it. It was unlike anything man had heard before and it was needed more than any message ever spoken. It was the living and powerful gospel of Jesus Christ that still rings out today with the same potency and which still offers the same hope.
For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call. (Acts 2:39)
Florida College Lectures, 2007