The Evangelistic Sermons in Acts
This short paper examines the speeches of Peter in Jerusalem and Paul in Athens, comparing their methods, assumptions, and success. Contemporary applications of this study to our evangelism are suggested.
Though not immediately apparent, there are several similarities between Peter’s sermon and Paul’s. First, they are both prompted by questioning from a puzzled audience. The perplexed in Jerusalem ask “What does this mean?” when they hear “the wonders of God” in their own tongues, just as the Athenians declare, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”»1 Both audiences “insult” the speakers!»2 Second, in each case, this curiosity is an open invitation for the gospel to be explained and proclaimed in response. “What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” says Paul, no doubt grabbing the attention of the Areopagus; Peter is no less bold - “Let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.”»3 The gospel is preached first and discussed later (if necessary). The apostles do not merely offer their own distinctive contribution to a discussion of what is true. What they say is presented as an authoritative proclamation.
Third, the message they bring begins theologically with God. Paul declares what God is like, what he has done and what he commands; Peter climaxes his sermon with a similar declaration of God’s action in Jesus. God’s initiative is the starting point for the gospel in the New Testament»4 and particularly in Acts.»5 This explains why it was declared rather than merely offered for debate - with its origins in God the gospel is authoritative.
Fourthly, both sermons revolve around Christ, particularly his resurrection, which very clearly marks a distinct change in the relationship between God and humanity. For Peter, Christ’s resurrection shows him to be Lord and Christ, the one who inaugurates the “last days” and the giving of the Spirit. For Paul, the resurrection similarly reveals Christ’s lordship, but rather than stress the new dispensation of the Spirit, Paul declares that the resurrection marks the end of the old dispensation to the nations: God will no longer overlook their ignorance - judgment is now at hand. Judgment and the Spirit are two sides of the same coin - a coin freshly minted after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The situation has changed, so we are not surprised to find a call in both sermons for a change of attitude and behaviour in response. The key word is “repent”»6. The gospel declares that a new situation has arisen which consequently demands a change of thinking, feeling and acting from those who hear. It is God who has brought about the change, through Christ, and it is God who demands the change of heart.
The results of both sermons are the same: some believe. At Pentecost, the number is much higher: some three thousand people are added to the community of faith. At Athens, the number is much smaller, but the call to repentance is still obeyed by some. Interestingly, there is also another common element in the speeches: divine purpose and foreknowledge. Peter draws attention to God’s preordained plan for Jesus and Paul mentions his foreknowledge and plan for all humanity.»7 In both cases God’s determination was intended to lead to blessing: Christ’s death and resurrection would lead to the giving of the Spirit, whereas his determination of the life-circumstances of all which Paul mentions was for the express purpose of leading us to reach out and find God. This retains the strong emphasis upon God’s sovereignty and initiative in salvation, with which the gospel began.
So, the apostles agree on the source of their message, its authority, its subject, its nature as a paradigm shift, and its demands. This is the common core. Whilst there may be disagreement over the exact nature of the overlap in New Testament theologies, that there is a common core is beyond dispute.»8 Both presentations here are occasioned by the curiosity of their audiences and both result in conversions. Despite this distinct core of basic gospel truth, however, both sermons also contain substantial differences.
Peter is able to assume a great deal more than Paul when presenting the gospel. His use of biblical quotations and terminology, for example, and his reference to the life, ministry and death of Jesus, would have been incomprehensible to the Athenians. He did not have to explain the call to baptism and the promise of the Spirit, the need to be integrated within the community and the special place of the apostles. These things were easily understood by those in Jerusalem at the time.
Peter’s sermon is also much longer than Paul’s, a fact which can probably be accounted for by reference to Luke’s purpose. In the flow of Acts, the real counterpart to Peter’s first major speech at Pentecost is Paul’s first major speech in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, where he uses a similar approach to Peter, and similar Old Testament texts. Thus Luke demonstrates the parallels between his two key figures. We are not to conclude, then, that Paul’s Areopagus address was necessarily shorter, only that Luke’s account of it is. It would, no doubt, have taken some time to explain to the Athenians what Paul was talking about, but Luke only needs to paraphrase»9.
Paul makes reference to more biblical doctrines than the average evangelistic sermon today,»10 in order to build up a picture of the world. Rather than talking about the “last days” he concentrates on the “first days”, establishing a worldview of humanity’s place in creation under a transcendent, independent, sustaining God. He mentions Jesus’ resurrection and role as judge, but not his miracles, his deity or his death.»11 This does not make his speech a “failure” - unless we impose our own a priori criteria of what constitutes a real evangelistic sermon onto Paul»12. Most controversial are Paul’s quotations from the pagan poets, which are taken quite out of their original context. Paul twists them to back-up the biblical picture, but also to expose the inconsistencies of his audience. Indeed, he cleverly plays off three different views of life against his biblical picture. He affirms some Epicurean and Stoic notions, denies others and uses them both to attack popular superstition»13.
The differences in the sermons can be accounted for by the different starting points of the audiences. The gospel remains the same but must be explained differently depending on context. Peter has no need to establish a worldview with God as creator, since this is already presupposed by his audience. Paul, however, must start further back if the message about Christ is to be understood by those who see the world differently. This intellectual exercise would be unnecessary if the gospel was simply about ethics or behaviour. What the apostles are communicating is a perception of absolute reality as revealed by God in the gospel, a perception of reality with concomitant behavioural implications.
Peter addresses a crowd composed of “both Jews and converts to Judaism”»14 who despite of their varied countries of origin, take for granted the existence and self-revelation of God in the Old Testament. Their common religious commitment gives them a relatively homogenous worldview. Paul, on the other hand, addresses pagans from two opposing schools of thought who in turn opposed the popular superstition around them. He must therefore tread a fine line, affirming their stance towards superstition (which he shares) whilst correcting their equally flawed “natural theologies”.»15
The core gospel does not change, but the way it is presented must, if it is to be understood and acted upon. Culture affects proclamation, but within “apostolic parameters”. As Paul Weston notes, “Cultural relevance was never at the expense of apostolic faithfulness.”»16
Our understanding of what the apostolic gospel is must be shaped by the whole New Testament. It would be wrong to highlight an aspect of the gospel found in one part of the New Testament at the expense of another. The gospel outline uncovered in these two sermons in Acts, for example, makes no mention of the cross; but it would be hasty to say that atonement has no place in the gospel, in view of Paul’s insistence on it outside of the narrative of Acts. The death of Christ for our sins is, of course, one of the matters of “first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15:3, where Paul specifically outlines the gospel he preached to the Corinthians.»17 Nevertheless, Acts seems more concerned with the resurrection/exaltation of Christ than with the cross; but this is still evangelism, according to Luke»18. This may come as a surprise to an older generation of evangelicals who perhaps take penal substitutionary atonement as the indispensible mark of every “true” evangelistic sermon; but at the very least it is possible to say that the cross does not have to be explained for the gospel to be proclaimed»19.
As John Stott writes, “There is only one gospel... taught by the apostles... and preserved for us in the N.T... it is still so today. If there is only one gospel in the N.T., there is only one gospel for the church. The gospel has not changed with the centuries... although its presentation may vary, its substance is the same.”»20 Since the gospel is unchanged, we must insist upon its unchanged authority. It remains a message from God to be declared - not altered, refined or redefined in the face of intolerance towards it. We may contextualize its presentation, but we are not at liberty to change its content. Perhaps this will lead to the same curiosity and misunderstanding as the apostles experienced: the gospel sounds just as “strange” to twentieth century pagans as it did to the Athenians, but the stumbling block of the cross (or indeed, the resurrection,»21) must remain. Only the apostolic gospel has divine authority and divine power to save, so we must be firm about content but flexible over method, and not vice-versa»22.
There are dangers to be avoided: As Diogenes Allen says, “The primary directions of Christian theology have been either to accept the principles and outlook of the modern world and to minimize the distinctive content and basis of Christian doctrines, or to retain Christian doctrines verbally while isolating them from the present day and in effect remaining premodern.”»23 What we must seek to do, like Paul, is to present distinctive Christian doctrines without isolating them from the contemporary world and forcing unbelievers to enter our premodern “language game”»24 and our incomprehensible sub-culture before they can ever hear the good news. The terminology of “salvation”, for example, is not readily understood by those outside the Judaeo-Christian worldview. To them, to be “justified” does not mean to be “right with God” - it means to have a good excuse; “Sin” is not falling short of God’s perfect standards for our lives - it is “naughty but nice”, a tabloid word with sexual connotations. If we cannot rescue biblical words then we must rescue the concepts and translate them into jargon our culture can understand. If we cannot assume, as Peter could, basic theological knowledge in our hearers, then we must, as Paul did, return to square one and build up the framework for them.
We need to preach sermons which fill in the biblical “plot-line” not just biblical doctrine. Systematic presentation of key doctrines may well remain faithful to the “given-ness” of the gospel, and may even be effective - with those who already have some knowledge of the Bible’s central story. Carson warns us, however, that if “you present these atemporal outlines of the gospel to those who know nothing about the Bible’s plot-line, and who have bought into one form or another of New Age theosophy, how will they hear you?”»25 The Apostle Paul set about summarizing the Old Testament; he told a developing story, from creation to resurrection, from the times of ignorance to the present call for repentance - a “meta-narrative” culminating in universal judgment of all by Christ. With such a structure, doctrine is more readily grasped and the gospel can be rightly heard.
Western culture in the twenty-first century is far more like Athens than Jerusalem. Our society, like that of Athens, is multi-cultural, religiously pluralist, sexually decadent, entertainment mad, and anxiety ridden. Paul Barnett writes that, “Our deconstructivist anti-rationalism and new-age mysticism find counterparts in their gnosticism, astrology and mystery cults”»26 but that does not make it impossible to preach the gospel in a meaningful way. “The gospel of Christ triumphed in just such a world. We must ask ourselves what they believed and did differently from us.”»27 “Postmodernism” is not a new phenomenon: Christianity has been preached, and preached with great success, in pluralist, immoral societies - without losing its distinctiveness.»28 The point of contact between such a culture and the biblical revelation could well be idolatry, just as it was in Paul’s day.»29 The Western world is just as “religious” as Athens, even while it protests that it is “secular”.»30
We must not leave judgment out! In a religiously pluralistic culture, the gospel can easily sound like just another lifestyle “option” for those who feel they need it. If we present Jesus simply as “the one who can meet your deepest needs” then those who feel that their needs are already met, and those who cannot see how Jesus can meet their needs, will simply ignore him... unless we present Jesus as the answer to our very real and very imminent judgment before God. “If God is going to bring the world to account, then the message about him and his son Jesus is relevant whether we choose to believe it or not” writes Paul Weston.»31 We do not need to rack our brains for applications or illustrations to show how relevant Christianity is. “Proclamation and service are not about striving to make the gospel real, but demonstrating that it is already indefatigably real” says Webster.»32 This will be an unpopular message in an immoral age, and one in which unpalatable absolute-truth claims are despised.
From the teaching of Acts we can see that there are several false-starts to be avoided in our evangelism too. Approaches which rely heavily on apologetics - “proving” the reliability of the New Testament documents and the existence of Jesus for example - can only go so far. Calvin recognized this many years ago, stating in the Institutes that, “Even if anyone clears God’s Sacred Word from man’s evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their hearts that certainty which piety requires.”»33 We may bring people to see the historicity of the resurrection by means of rational argument and judicial reasoning, but unless we preach its implications as Paul did, they will simply stare back at us and ask, “I believe it happened - So what?”»34 That is the question which both Peter and Paul tried to answer, and we must too.
Finally, we can learn from the relatively small number of converts in Athens as compared to Jerusalem. It will usually take longer for “postmoderns” to turn. We must not give up if they do not fit into a “quick conversion” model of evangelism. “Conversions,” Gavin Reid tells us, “usually take time, however crisply we may theologise about them... Increasingly those who hold set-piece evangelistic meetings... are seeing the need to set these within a process.”»35 This is immensely liberating for ordinary Christians engaged in evangelism! They do not have to cram their minds full of apologetics or force conversions with emotional appeals and rhetorical flourishes they have learned from the “professional evangelist”. It is time to give evangelism back to ordinary Christians who read the Bible, and know their friends.