Preaching in Acts: From Pentecost to Prison

May 19, 2013 No Comments »
Preaching in Acts: From Pentecost to Prison

By T.R. Robertson


More than one-fourth of the book of Acts is taken up with sermons. Another quarter relates the circumstances leading up to those sermons, and the telling of what happened in response or reaction to them.

The “acts” that Doctor Luke was recording in his book were focused solely on fulfilling the mission of Christ as recorded in Acts 1: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8).

The methods they used to fulfill this commission, and the sermons they preached, offer several key principles for restoring the primacy of preaching today.



The Main Theme

Peter and the apostles first preached the good news of the gospel on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2). Many topics might have been on Peter’s mind that day: the working of the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the gift of tongues, fulfilled prophecy, or the presence of such a broad spectrum of nationalities in the audience.

Peter addressed these issues but moved through them quickly, driving toward the most important point. In fact, it’s the central point of every sermon recorded in Acts, the one featured in the climax, no matter what other topics the speaker addresses: the identity of Christ as the Son of God and his historical death, burial, and resurrection.

We often find ourselves speaking to matters of politics, current events, morality, or popular culture. Those are the things on people’s minds.

But our preaching is pointless unless we work our way through those topics toward the truth that makes all the difference: Jesus died for all and was raised again.


In Response to the Work of God

Acts 3 begins with the healing of a man born lame, which attracted a crowd. Peter took advantage of the attention to preach to the crowd of witnesses. He quickly moved from the miracle in front of them to the truth about God at work through the resurrection of Jesus.

Every day God works in creation and nature. He works in our life experiences. We see his guiding hand in history and current events. Every instance is an opportunity to proclaim God’s power, grace, and mercy to people who need to hear.


Wherever God Puts You

Most of the preaching in Acts didn’t happen in a church building, a synagogue, or any other place of worship. The early Christians preached to whomever was present wherever they found themselves.

In Acts 8, Phillip found himself where the Spirit needed him most. He seized the opportunity, even chasing down a chariot in order to preach the gospel.

Most of the preaching opportunities in the book of Acts occurred far from synagogues or other meeting places. The early Christians were going about their daily tasks, on their way from one place to another, and saw God’s divine appointments as they were presented along the way.

We, too, should be observant and willing to chase down every opportunity to preach to whomever God puts in front of us.


A Natural Response to Salvation

Acts 9 tells how Saul the persecutor was converted to faith in Christ. The chapter isn’t half over when we read, “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (v. 20).

Saul knew what every Christian ought to know. The most obvious reaction anyone should have to being saved by Christ is to begin telling others about what you’ve learned and experienced. You don’t have to be told what to say; you just say what comes naturally as a new child of God.

Certainly the newly converted Saul would have thought it odd to hear any follower of Christ claim he just wasn’t called to be a preacher. He would say, as he did in 2 Corinthians 5:14, that the love of Christ compels us to preach to others about his love.


Preaching to the Concerns at Hand

Peter found himself in a new and unforeseen situation in Acts 10, faced with Gentiles who wanted to know more about Jesus. After getting past his earlier hesitation, he acknowledged the unique circumstance and used it to introduce his favorite subject: Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

No doubt Peter learned this tactic from Jesus himself, who responded to every off-the-wall question and startling situation by turning the conversation toward the kingdom.

I’ve been asked some pretty unusual and unexpected questions, especially in my years working in prison ministry. Whether it’s a prostitute asking me to explain the book of Hosea, or a lesbian asking if she can be saved and still indulge her temptations, my guiding principle is always to steer the discussion toward God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice.


Preaching to the Faith They Already Have

Very little of the preaching in Acts was directed at believers. The audience was almost always made up of nonbelievers or those who already held some other set of beliefs.

In Acts 13 Paul spoke to the leaders of a Jewish synagogue about God’s workings in the history of the Jews, bringing the story forward to its intended climax, the death and resurrection of Christ.

In Acts 17:16-34 Paul spoke to a crowd of Greek philosophers who held to a secular faith in their gods and goddesses. He directed their attention to an altar dedicated “to an unknown god” and preached to them about the true identity of that unknown God, bringing them to the same climax: the resurrection of Jesus.

Whatever sort of faith or philosophy we find in the people God places along our path, it’s always a good plan to begin the discussion where they are and move the conversation forward to the eventual deal maker or deal breaker: the resurrection of Jesus.


Preaching in Defense of the Faith 

Time and again the apostles were arrested, imprisoned, flogged, and warned to stop preaching. And yet the opposition seemed to encourage them to preach the gospel more boldly. In fact, they “rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

They also rejoiced in the opportunity to speak in defense of their actions and beliefs. 

First, Peter and John found themselves called to account in front of the Sanhedrin. Later Paul repeatedly defended himself before judges and rulers and angry crowds. 

They devoted scant attention to pleading their legal rights, and instead seized the opportunity to defend the truth about the resurrection of Jesus and God’s plan to reconcile everyone to himself.

There will be times when we have to explain peculiar opinions and actions. We can argue the politics, we can stand up for our legal rights, but we will most certainly lose the war if we fail to fight the battle God has sent us to fight: defending the truth of the faith we preach. 


Preaching to a Captive Audience

Even in the final chapter of Acts, when Paul had been taken away to Rome and placed under arrest (an imprisonment that would limit his coming and going for the remainder of his years), we find Paul preaching. As he taught the Word to the Christians who were seeking him out, he also preached the Word to the guards who were chained to him, and most likely to the officers, judges, and politicians he encountered.

You and I are also “chained” to certain people: coworkers, customers, shopkeepers, neighbors, and more. We may not be in prison, but we still have a captive audience. Maybe launching into a full sermon isn’t always the best approach, since that would be inappropriate and unwelcome in many situations. But we can make a habit of intentionally planting seeds in response to the situations at hand, and we can doggedly pursue opportunities to nudge the subject toward the one thing that matters most: the resurrection of Jesus.


T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.


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