There are many things we can learn from the New Testament about the development of the early church and the spread of Christianity. In the Book of Acts, we read about the impact of the first missionaries at a time when travel was tedious and even dangerous. We find descriptions of the preaching and methods of the Apostle Paul and other disciples of Jesus Christ.
These first Christians turned the world upside down in just thirty years. What was their main message, how did they get the word out, and what doctrines did they focus on? Did they argue and debate with others about Jesus? Did they try reasoning with people, and how did they handle the subjects of repentance, eternal judgment and hell?
At the heart of their message was the resurrection of Jesus. They believed His declarations of deity and the miracles He did which confirmed His words. Note that the earliest Christian preaching didn’t proclaim religious duties or reforming programs, they proclaimed the person of Jesus – who they knew was crucified, had died, and were eye-witnesses to the fact He was very much alive!
In Eerdman’s Bible Handbook, Mark Green writes about the early church and the fact the disciples had a pretty uniform pattern for preaching Jesus Christ. First, it was based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 which they had memorized and passed down to other believers before there were copies of Paul’s letters.
The early gospel they preached went something like this:
“The ancient prophecies have been fulfilled and the new age has been inaugurated by the coming of Christ. He was born of David’s family, died according to the scriptures in order to deliver us from the present evil age.
He was buried, rose again the third day as scripture foretold, and is now exalted at God’s right hand as Son of God and Lord of the living and the dead. He has given His Holy Spirit to His followers as an assurance of His Lordship and as a foretaste of His return to be judge and Savior of men at the last Day.”
So how do we proclaim these truths today? We have a Bible they did not have, but they knew the truth which had set them free. How do we defend the faith in today’s hostile environment in a society that is largely intolerant of Christianity? A key text for today is in the book of First Peter:
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; 16 having a good conscience; 1 Peter 3:15
Set apart the Lord Jesus in your heart, determining to give Him full allegiance and obedience. The Greek word translated “defense” gives us the English word “apologetics.” Peter is saying as Christians, we must understand what we believe and why we believe it! And then be able to defend the truth and explain our faith to others.
But is today’s church truly equipped to do so and if not, why not?
Some of this responsibility falls heavily on pastors and church leaders for not teaching diligently the whole counsel of God. Paul writes about this in Ephesians 4, the importance of equipping the saints for ministry, but we must also individually read and study the Bible ourselves and press on toward maturity.
The very first message preached by Jesus and John the Baptist was “Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Matthew 3:1-2)
Some people think repentance is mostly about feeling sorry for your sin. Remorse over sin or to feel sorry is good, but repent is an action word. It’s much more than just feelings. A change of direction is needed!
In today’s modern or American Christianity, repent is rarely used and can be practically a four letter word. Repentance implies a person is wrong and must change – and this offends a lot of people.
The call to repentance is important and it is the first word of the gospel.
- Repent was not only the first word of John the Baptist’s gospel;
- Repent was the first word of Jesus’ gospel (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:14-15).
- Repent was the first word in the preaching ministry of the twelve disciples (Mark 6:12).
- Repent was the first word in the preaching instructions Jesus gave to His disciples after His resurrection (Luke 24:46-47).
- Repent was the first word of exhortation in the first Christian sermon (Acts 2:38).
- Repent was the first word in the mouth of the Apostle Paul through his ministry.
Paul provides an example for Christian preaching in both style and substance. In the context of the early church, when speaking to Jews he stressed the deliverance Christ gives from the broken law of God. Cleansing, forgiveness, and justification as opposed to ceremony, traditions, and good works.
Jesus was shown as Christ the messianic deliverer, the climax of Old Testament revelation.
When preaching to Gentiles or pagans, the emphasis was generally on Christ’s deliverance over demonic powers – concerns to those in the ancient world. A big part of the focus was on the existence of one God and on discrediting idolatry and polytheism. By establishing the fact of natural revelation (God the Creator and Sustainer) early preachers sought to pave the way to the special revelation of God, the Son and Messiah, Christ.
Let’s look at a few examples and approaches from the Book of Acts.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas. Acts 17:1-4
Underline in your Bible “reasoning, explaining, and demonstrating.” Other translations use “proving, debating,” and even “disputing.”
As was his custom: When Paul entered a city, he first went to the synagogue and preached Jesus crucified and risen again to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles there. There were several notable aspects to his presentation of Jesus.
- Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures; “The Greek word translated ‘reasoned’ is the root for our English word dialogue. There was exchange, questions and answers. He dialogued with them ‘from the Scriptures.’” (Hughes)
- Paul did the work of explaining; “This word literally means ‘opening’…Paul opened the Scriptures with clarity and simplicity.” (Hughes)
- Paul did the work of demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead; “’Giving evidence’ (NASB; ‘proving,’ NIV); The idea is of presenting persuasive evidence to listeners.
- Paul emphasized in all this who Jesus is (This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ) and what He did for them (by suffering and rising again from the dead).
Whether preaching to Jews or Gentiles, the early Christians emphasized not only what God had done for them through Christ, but what He offers and what He requires. God offers new life through the Holy Spirit, and requires repentance, faith, and commitment to advancing the kingdom.
In this passage, a great multitude were persuaded, but it’s not always that way. One example is Felix, Governor of Judea, who had many conversations with Paul about Christianity but most likely never believed.
“And after some days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. 25 Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, “Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.” (Acts 24:24-25)
In Acts 18, we meet a man spoken of very highly in Scripture, but who still had some things to learn about doctrine. Interesting. I think most of us can relate!
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. 25 This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; 28 for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. Acts 18:24-28
Unlike saints of God such as Moses, Gideon, and even Paul, Apollos was an eloquent man. It also describes him as mighty in the Scriptures (the only time this is found in God’s Word!), and had been instructed in the way of the Lord. Apollos was fervent in spirit, which literally this means, “to boil in the spirit” with the idea of “bubbling over with enthusiasm.”
But what is interesting is the text says Apollos spoke and “taught accurately the things of the Lord.”
Wait a minute. Aquilla and Priscilla heard him preaching and had to instruct him further and “more accurately” about Jesus. One reason was Apollos was preaching John’s baptism of repentance, so they did something the would prove valuable for God’s kingdom. They helped someone who had a passion for God and disciple him; yet he had limited knowledge and therefore limited resources for truly effective ministry.
Now watch: he went to Achaia, greatly helped others in their faith, and “vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.” Apollos boldly defended the faith, the true gospel. What a great example of the fruit of Priscilla and Aquilla’s ministry and importance of discipleship.
Turn a few pages to chapter 20. This describes Paul and the elders of the Ephesian church, and his determination to finish the ministry the Lord gave him to testify of the grace of God. (v. 24)
He explains preaching in public the whole purpose of God, and following up by going to house churches. This is another key principle of evangelism and growth often missing from today’s church outreaches or crusades.
I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, 21 testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:20-21
Here in Acts 20, we get a unique picture of Paul the pastor – what was important to him as a leader and shepherd of God’s people. Be reminded they had the Old Testament and used it to prove that Jesus fulfilled the law and prophets.
The words used to describe the teaching and preaching of the early believers include ‘heralds’ and ‘debaters.’ Today, many of us fear offending someone with the truth, maybe about sin or maybe the exclusivity of the gospel, but they argued from the Scriptures and were always ready to give a defense.
One important factor must also be stressed here: they were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and their personal and social lives backed up their claims. The word of God gives us everything we need for life and godliness.
…the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:15-17
To ‘reprove’ is to criticize, refute, or disapprove of while to ‘correct’ is to point out, mark or remove errors or faults from. Wow. How often have we heard Scripture be used today for reproof and correction?
Next, the Old Testament is able to make you wise for salvation (vs. 15), understanding your need for a savior. All Scripture: This tells us how much of the Bible is inspired by God. [Psalm 119]
We need a first century understanding of Scripture. This is one reason why context is so important. When you read the Bible, there is an underlying presumption of knowledge and Christian maturity.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. Hebrews 6:1-2
Eternal judgment? Wait, doesn’t the Bible say somewhere ‘judge ye not lest ye be judged’? Um, context. Read Matthew 7:1-5, slowly.
The Bible will do its spiritual work in us, if we will let it. But quality time must be invested in renewing our minds. If not, it’s easy to be overwhelmed or even swept away in these crazy times – especially in 2020. Another response is to go into hiding. Neither option is right for a Christian.
Why does God still have us here? To shine the light of the gospel of Christ and to be the preserving salt this country and the world so desperately needs. We are called to stand strong and stay in the Word of God – oh and storm the gates of hell instead of playing defense most of the time.
The aim of the early church preachers was to make crystal clear the unique, saving work of the divine, crucified and risen Jesus who was both the Lord they served and the message they proclaimed. This must be our goal as well when it comes to pointing people to Christ.
At the same time, we must be examples of the truth we preach, striving to become Christ-like, conforming our desires to His will. Then we can be much more effective as godly influencers. Reinforce your foundation on the basics and grow from there. Let’s close with one more verse.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he referred to the church as the pillar and support of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:16 states:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
Jesus is Lord; He is seated at the right hand of God waiting to return to rule and reign. In the meantime, thank God we have the Holy Spirit. The Bible says believers have everything we need.
“The last days are upon us. You didn’t ask to be born when you were. God chose you to be alive now. With that choosing comes all the grace you need to stand and be a hero of faith in these awesome days. Embrace the tremendous privilege that is yours.”