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Apostolic Preaching

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“When [the Sanhedrin] had brought [all the Apostles], they set them before the council.  And the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’  But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.  The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.  God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savoir, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’”[1]

The world does not welcome any message that declares personal accountability.  This is especially true when the message holds individuals accountable for sinful acts.  Though a person may be ever so good in the estimate of his or her peers, to charge that individual with responsibility for the death of the Son of God is seen as a heinous wrong.  Since the days of the Apostles, no individual wishes to be charged with deicide.  Nevertheless, that was the message delivered by the Apostles to the very men who had clamoured for the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah.  Though it is difficult for modern individuals to accept, it is the message of Easter that is declared to this day.

Too often, we restrict Easter, and the message of Easter, to one day each year.  Though Easter is a special day, and though it is a joyous day for Christians, we err when we fail to declare the life of Christ the Lord day-by-day.  At the heart of apostolic preaching was the declaration that though the Son of God was crucified, He was raised to life in order to offer forgiveness of sin to all who will accept Him as Master of life.

Apostolic preaching was distinctive in comparison to what was commonly heard among the peoples of that ancient day.  I suspect that all else being equal, apostolic preaching would be considered distinctive today when contrasted to much of what is presented from modern pulpits.  Join me in exploring apostolic preaching by reviewing the message delivered to the Jewish Council when the Apostles were hailed before them on one occasion.

Religion Outside the Apostolic Faith — The model of religion that is demonstrated by the apostolic churches is distinctive from that of the religions that surrounded the people of God.  Apostolic faith is dependent upon communicating the message of life in the Risen Son of God.  Faith outside that model degenerates into mere form—rite and ritual, cant and creed.

The churches of the New Testament existed primarily to communicate the message of life in the Beloved Son and to build up those who came to faith.  It is true that the elements marking a New Testament church include fellowship and worship, but every action of a New Testament congregation is to fulfil the Great Commission given by the Risen Lord.  Christians are appointed to be evangelists!

The religions that surrounded the believers in the first century were distinguished primarily by their varied rituals.  Likewise, Israel had disintegrated with the passage of time into an ethical religion that was dependent upon precise forms of ritual.  One need but recall the manner in which Jesus excoriated the scribes and the Pharisees in order to verify this truth.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do.  For they preach, but do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others.  For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” [Matthew 23:2-7].

Of course, this was not the intent of God when He brought His people out of slavery and made them to be a people that He would call His own.  Through Moses, God had commanded His people, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” [Deuteronomy 6:4, 5].

Through the Prophet Hosea, God had taught,

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,

the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

[Hosea 6:6]

Through Micah, God had iterated this instruction when He said,

“He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?”

[Micah 6:8]

Therefore, the people substituted form for faith despite the judgements of God in the days of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The religions of the nations surrounding Israel were essentially expressions of ethical principles, supplemented with rituals designed to coerce the gods into doing the will of man.  In this, the ancient religions were not so different from essentially all the great religions of the world in this day.  Most emphasise doing something in order to placate a god or to obtain a benefit for the worshipper.

The same comparison could be made today when contrasting churches that endeavour to adhere to apostolic faith and practise with those that are content to emphasise rites as worship.  Whenever a church begins to emphasise ritual above the message of life, it has begun to move into the realm of mere religion.  The transforming message of Christ is entrusted to the churches so that the lost can be brought into the light of life.  Whenever a church begins to emphasise form over faith, growing unbalanced in failing to call the lost to faith, that congregation has begun to depart from apostolic faith and practise.  The church that permits fellowship to become more important than evangelism has moved away from the faith once delivered.

Jesus commanded His churches to deliver the message of life.  In every instance of Christ’s commission to His churches, He speaks of the witness of the Word, of testifying to what is known, of communicating the truths believers have received as true.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” [Matthew 28:19, 20].

 “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” [Mark 16:15, 16].

 “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things” [Luke 24:46-48].

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8].

Because our first responsibility is testifying to what we know to be true, the Apostle Paul speaks of our ministry in the Word.  “Since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching.  For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ” [1 Corinthians 1:21-23] [2].

The Christian Faith is not primarily an ethical religion, though those who are born from above will be godly and righteous in their actions and in their relationships with all people.  The Christian Faith is not primarily a religion defined by its form, though we do have rites that portray the truths we hold as those who have been saved.  The Christian Faith is essentially the life of Christ proclaimed and lived out through the Body of Christ, which is a church gathered in various locations throughout the world.

Opposition to the Apostolic Message — When the Apostles lived out their faith, lives were transformed and people were saved.  The unrighteous who endeavoured to associate with the people of God were judged by Holy God.  The sick and the hurting of society were shown compassion and obtained blessing from the prayers and the ministry of the people of God.  Above all else, the people with whom the Apostles came into contact heard the Good News of life in the Living Christ.

In the proclamation of the message of life, the Apostles were but emulating the model provided in the life and ministry of Jesus.  As Mark began his account of the Good News about Jesus, he said, “Jesus [came] preaching the good news of God” [Mark 1:14][3].  In His first act after His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah.  The passage He read announced,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

When He had finished reading the passage assigned for that day, Jesus “rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” [Luke 4:18-21].

The Master would “proclaim good news to the poor.”  He would “proclaim liberty to the captives,” and “recovering of sight to the blind.”  He would, through proclaiming the Good News, “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  Because He taught that man must receive this Good News, no longer depending upon experts who would teach them how to precisely perform rites and rituals, He incurred the wrath of the religious elite.  Nothing much has changed in the ensuing two millennia.

So, the Apostles, in obedience to the ascended Son of God, called all who would hear them to repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  However, that message was so effective that the high priests and all who sat with him on the Council were “filled with jealousy” [Acts 5:17].  Thus, “they arrested the Apostles and put them in the public prison” [Acts 5:18].  One must believe that the intent was to punish them severely, perhaps even kill them.  However, “an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out,” commanding them to “speak to the people all the words of this life” [Acts 5:19, 20].

Sending for the Apostles the next morning, the high priest was informed that though the prison was securely locked, there was no one inside.  Moreover, the preachers were standing in the Temple, fulfilling the command they had received to proclaim the Good News about Jesus.  Those dispatched to arrest them were intimidated by the crowds listening to the Apostles, they asked them to accompany them instead of seizing them as they might otherwise have done [Acts 5:21-26].

Haled before the Council, the Apostles were challenged by the high priest.  “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” [Acts 5:28].  Though they indeed demanded the death of the Lord, now they sought to deny culpability.

You need but recall their actions when Pilate tried to free Jesus.  “At the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.  And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.  So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’  For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.  Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”  Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.  The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’  And they said, ‘Barabbas.’  Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’  They all said, ‘Let him be crucified!’  And he said, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’  But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’

“So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’  And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” [Matthew 27:15-25]!

The gracious message of salvation was rejected because it destroyed the façade of lies that the religious leaders had built.  They could not escape guilt for their sinful acts.  They were responsible for the death of the Saviour, and they hated the message of grace.  I have often read the words John wrote, pondering the implication for those who are lost.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” [John 3:17-20]

Light has come into the world.  Yet, people rejected that light because they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”  Though it seems unimaginable to us who are born from above, it is nevertheless true that we were once in that same condition.  Perhaps we forget and need to be reminded, as we are when we read the words Paul wrote in the letter we know as Ephesians.  “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” [Ephesians 2:1-3].

The Word of God has accurately exposed our folly and the source of our opposition to God’s message of life.  “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

“‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

“Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” [1 Corinthians 1:18-25].

Our pride is wounded when God does not recognise our importance.  When our wisdom is exposed as folly and our strength is demonstrated to be weakness, our flesh rebels and we hate God.  He takes no cognisance of our ability, compelling us to rely on His grace and on His mercy.  All human advantage is stripped away, and we cannot tolerate losing the recognition we are convinced that we deserve.

We carefully construct a world in which we excel, creating a standard of righteousness that depends upon what we do.  When grace tears away the carefully constructed disguise, we are embarrassed and we react in anger.  Tragically, we carry the seeds of this loathsome disease in our bodies throughout all our days, and yet God reaches out to us in demonstration of mercy and kindness.

The Message of the Apostles — In the first letter to the Church of God in Corinth, Paul gives a pointed and exact definition of the Gospel.  “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” [1 Corinthians 15:3-8].

Theologians distinguish between what is called kerygma, meaning the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, and didachē, referring primarily to ethical instruction.  Though Christ provided didachē in such instruction as the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse, almost without exception the messages found in Acts are kerygma.  There are four aspects of the apostolic message, demonstrated in the words Peter spoke with the concurrence of all the Apostles.  The necessary aspects of the apostolic message are that Christ died for our sins, that He was raised on the third day, and that He was witnessed to be alive.  To this, the Apostles add that He ascended into Heaven where He is now seated on the right hand of the Father.  This message in isolation is informative, but it is as we receive the message as divine truth that we are redeemed.

It is important to note that the ethical teaching of the New Testament is not present in the sermons found in the account of advance of the early churches.  Reviewing apostolic preaching, we discover that the Apostles did not present ethical instruction, as did Jesus during the days of His ministry.  The reason for this seeming anomaly is not that they did not consider Jesus’ ethical teaching unimportant, but rather that the Apostles knew, as we should also know, that a person must first come to Jesus as Saviour before he or she can hope to fulfil His teaching.

It is true that we cannot have one without the other, but unless one first receives Jesus as Master of life, being born from above, that person does not have the ability to live the life that Jesus demands.  Tragically, much of Christendom has failed to realise this truth.  Consequently, many pulpits attempt to present a message calling for people to be good, when people outside of Christ do not have the ability to please God.  It is a neglected truth that until a person has received the New Birth, they have no power to please God.  You cannot do anything to make yourself acceptable to God.

The Apostles did not tell the members of the Sanhedrin to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  Rather, the Apostles commanded the religious leaders to repent of their sin and come to Jesus as Saviour in order to receive the forgiveness of sin.  This is the necessary message that we have received to be deliver until this day.

Earlier, I spoke of the condition in which all mankind lived at one time.  However, we who are saved have received the knowledge of salvation through faith in Christ.  Quoting the Apostle Paul, we say, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” [Ephesians 2:4-9].

Therefore, what is required is not simply that we hear the message of life, but that we believe that message and thus be born from above and into the Family of God.  Nevertheless, the message that we declare summarises the reason we rejoice at Easter and reveals why we Christians live confidently in the midst of a fallen and broken world.

The first element of apostolic preaching is the death of the Christ.  The Apostles attested to the high priest and those who together with him made up the Sanhedrin, “You killed [Jesus] by hanging Him on a tree.”  It is not merely that Christ died that is required for the Good News to be good.  What is necessary is that we understand that He gave Himself as a sacrifice for sin.  Writing in the second letter to the Corinthian congregation, Paul testified that “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5:21].  Indeed, Paul testifies that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses” [Romans 4:25].  We are taught, “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” [Ephesians 5:2].

Isaiah wrote of the sacrifice of the Saviour in the 53rd chapter of his prophecy.

“He was wounded for our transgressions;

He was crushed for our iniquities;

upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned every one to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on Him

the iniquity of us all.”

[Isaiah 53:5, 6]

The next element defining apostolic preaching is the resurrection of the Christ.  The testimony of the Apostles was that “The God of our fathers raised Jesus.”  Without the resurrection of the Christ, there would be no Good News.  However, Christ conquered death, raising from the dead and bringing life and hope to all who receive this message.  At Pentecost, the disciples attested, “God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death” [Acts 2:24].  In the house of Cornelius, Peter testified that though Jesus was put to death by being hung on a tree, “God raised Him on the third day” [Acts 10:40].  Paul’s message in the synagogues was that though all that was written of the Christ concerning His death was fulfilled, “God raised Him from the dead” [Acts 13:30].  Indeed, Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead” [Romans 1:4].

This is the basis for the salvation God offers all mankind.  God calls us to believe that Christ is alive when He says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” [Romans 10:9, 10].

The third element present in apostolic preaching is the ascension of the Christ.  Peter’s declaration before the Council was that “God exalted [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savoir, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”  The testimony of the Apostles was the God has exalted the Son.

Jesus told what the Father would do when He said, “As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.  The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father.  Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.  Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.  And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” [John 5:21-29].

That which was prophesied had now been accomplished.  Jesus ascended into Heaven before the eyes of many disciples who had gathered on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  “While [the disciples] were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” [Acts 1:9, 10].  Without the Ascension, there would be no promise of His coming again.  Without the Ascension, there would be no Ascension gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers cf. Ephesians 4:8-11]) given to the people of God.  Consequently, the building up of the Body of Christ, the maturing of the saints, would be lacking [see Ephesians 4:12-16].

The final element of apostolic preaching is the witness to the Christ.  “We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  The child of God who has been born from above has an overwhelming desire to tell others of what he or she has discovered.  This is the testimony of Peter and John in an earlier appearance before the Council.  Then, they testified, “it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” [Acts 4:20] [4].

This is precisely what the Spirit of God was to do when He came.  Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  And you also will bear witness” [John 15:26, 27].  You who are children of the Living God have a desire to speak of what you know to be true.  This is nothing less than Christ in you.  Let Him work through you to the praise of His glory and for the benefit of those whom you love.

The message of life that we declare today is the message that Christ died because of your sin and raised for your justification.  On the authority of God’s Word, we call all who hear this message to turn from pursuing their own righteousness.  Receive the forgiveness of sin offered in Christ the Lord.  Be saved as you believe this message and as you receive the grace God now offers.

The Word of God declares, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

That Word continues by promising that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9, 10, 13].

This is the call of God and this is the plea of the church.  Believe the Lord Jesus and be saved.  Do it today.  Do it now.  Come, as we extend the appeal and come as we now freely offer His salvation for your sake.  Amen.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006) Logos Electronic Edition

[3] Holman Christian Standard Bible (Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, TN 2003)

[4] NET Bible, op. cit.

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