This is the ninth in a series in which we examine this fascinating Bible book. You can catch up with the previous articles at www.gladtidingsmagazine.org.
IN THE ACTS of the Apostles we have a number of speeches made by the apostles. These were generally given for one of three reasons: they were speeches given to outline the Gospel for those who did not know it, or they were defences of the apostles against accusations from either the authorities or the public, or they were warnings to Christians about threats to the Gospel.
In this article we shall focus on the speeches in which the apostles were proclaiming the Gospel. The reason that these are important is that they show the message that the apostles proclaimed to the world, which is the message that people accepted before they were baptised.
There are six speeches in which apostles proclaimed the Gospel to people who had never heard it before. Three of these (Peter in Jerusalem and Paul in Antioch) were to Jewish audiences, and one (Peter in Caesarea) was to an audience consisting of Gentiles (non-Jews) who had been investigating Judaism. Two more (in Lystra and Athens) were delivered to audiences of Gentiles.
Speeches of this kind also tend to have a common format. They begin with a comment on the immediate circumstances which caused the audience to gather, followed by an explanation of the Gospel, which in turn is followed by a further section which deals with the crowd’s response to the Gospel.
Witness to the Jews
Acts chapter 2 relates Peter’s speech in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover, and hence 49 days after the resurrection of Jesus. Peter had been with Jesus only nine days earlier and seen him ascend to heaven with the promise that he would one day return (Acts 1:11).
At Pentecost Peter and the other disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and found themselves able to proclaim the Gospel in a wide variety of foreign languages. They went into the street and the multinational crowd who assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost gathered to hear them.
Peter addressed the crowd, and his speech can be summarised thus:
Context Verses 14–21
Peter speaks to the crowd about the miracle that they are seeing: the apostles speaking in foreign languages and proclaiming the Gospel
Core Gospel Verses 22–36
Peter delivers the main points of the Gospel:
Jesus has been raised from the dead; there is evidence for this (vs. 24-32)
Therefore Jesus has been declared by God to be “both Lord and Christ [the Messiah]” (v. 36)
Response Verses 37–40
The response required of those who hear the Gospel—repentance and baptism.
Around 3,000 people were baptised in response!
In Acts 13, the Apostle Paul was speaking in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Here he followed a similar pattern. This time the first part of the speech was a comment on Old Testament history. He then proclaimed the basic Gospel. The reaction of the crowd in this case was rather less encouraging than the reaction to Peter’s speech in Jerusalem.
The same pattern appears in Acts 3:12–26 where Peter explains the Gospel to a crowd in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Acts 10:34–43 where Peter explains about Jesus to the Roman centurion Cornelius.
In these speeches the section on the basic Gospel contains these facts:
Jesus was approved by God
He was killed by the authorities in Jerusalem
He was raised from the dead (‘resurrected’)
There are witnesses to the resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecies
By his resurrection Jesus is exalted and shown to be the Messiah who was foretold in the Old Testament
Jesus will be the judge of the world; he must return to earth to be judge
There is a need for people to repent of their sins and turn back to God
Our sins can be forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Witness to the Gentiles
In Acts 17, after Paul had been proclaiming the Gospel in Athens he was brought before the court of the Areopagus (Mars Hill) to explain his teaching. Here he gave a speech in which he again proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The speech began with a section tailored to his audience. In this speech the introduction concerned the tendency of the Athenians to produce statues and shrines for every conceivable god, including an unknown god. Paul then went on to talk about the real God as the Creator of the universe Who maintains mankind in existence. However, he then conveyed the main points of the Gospel in very few words:
Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising him from the dead
This encompasses the fact of judgement by Jesus Christ, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the need for repentance. These are some of the main points of the Gospel as mentioned in the speeches that the apostles made to their Jewish audiences, although there is rather less detail.
The Apostles’ Central Teaching
The main teaching of the apostles centred on the death of Jesus Christ and the fact that he was raised from the dead. The apostles gave evidence for this and they linked it to the message of the Old Testament.
The evidence they gave included the fact that the apostles themselves had met Jesus alive after the resurrection. The fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty was sometimes alluded to, but it never formed a major part of the evidence. This is what we would expect. The apostles had met the living Jesus; they had talked with him and been taught by him. This would be much more important to them than the tomb, which they possibly only saw once.
Paul’s List in Corinthians
The evidence of witnesses became a formal list later on. In 1 Corinthians 15, which was written in the late spring of 55ad, we have a list of people who met the risen Jesus. This includes only male witnesses. In the Jewish world of the First Century ad the evidence of women was not considered to be especially valuable (so it is significant that it was women who were the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Luke 24:1–7 and John 20:1–18).
Paul wrote that he received this witness from others: “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This means that the list is rather older than the letter; Paul must have heard it from other apostles. He set off from Antioch in 52ad, so he must have been given the information which forms this list before this. He had visited Jerusalem in 48ad for the Council of Jerusalem and before this in 46ad for a visit to relieve famine (Acts 11:28–30). It is likely that the list that Paul includes in 1 Corinthians 15 came from the apostles in Jerusalem before 50ad. The list, of course, includes more than 500 people who saw Jesus alive, some of whom were close associates of Jesus and some of whom were at the time hostile (James the brother of Jesus was both hostile and a close associate).
The message of the apostles always has one other crucial point: in every case there is a call to repent.
In the Bible, the word ‘repentance’ does not simply mean feeling sorry for past actions; it means making a decision to change your way of life. In their speeches the apostles always warned their hearers to turn away from their previous way of life to become followers of Jesus Christ.
In some speeches this is the end; the hearers don’t respond, or they are hostile. At Pentecost (Acts 2) 3,000 people were baptised.
The message of the Gospel hasn’t changed, nor has the invitation. We too are invited to change our lives around and become followers of Jesus Christ.