The Christian Message

Lesson 1998
Tags: Ministry; Acts; Christianity; Gospel
Excerpted from Ministry Themes in the Book of Acts

When Paul visited Athens, some of the local philosophers were intrigued by the “new doctrine” that he preached and taught (17.19). Accustomed to treating worldviews like fads, they were obsessed with being apprised of the latest philosophical trends (17.20-21). Thus while most of them did not inquire about Paul’s message because of a sincere interest in knowing the one true God, they did recognize the uniqueness and novelty of the gospel. Indeed the Christian message was ideologically unique, distinct from any cultural or religious tradition of the first century. It is the purpose of this lesson to discover the essence of the Christian worldview.

A Theistic Message

The Christian message is first a theistic message. It assumes the existence of a self-revealing personal God, and it informs us concerning his character. When the early Christians shared their faith with members of the monotheistic Jewish community, they could do so on the basis of their shared belief in one God. However, when they witnessed to polytheistic Gentiles, it was needful for them to set forth their presuppositions about the existence of God.

The theistic element of the gospel is best recorded in Paul’s sermon at Mars’ Hill in Athens (17.22-31). He faced there an audience literally obsessed with idolatry. It would have been meaningless for Paul to attempt to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The Athenians needed to be persuaded to consider the possibility that there was actually only one God in the world, and that he had revealed himself in nature, in history, in Scripture, and in Christ. Thus Paul preached a message that began with the identity of the one true God as the Creator of all (17.24); as the immaterial Lord of the material world (17.24-25, 29); as the Giver of life (17.25, 28); and as Lord of history and culture (17.26). This foundation laid, he proceeded to describe God as a personal, knowable Being (17.27-28) and as the righteous Judge of all mankind (17.30-31).

The theistic element in Paul’s message served its purpose. It took into account the assumptions of the audience. It erected a philosophical platform from which Paul could talk meaningfully about Christ (17.31). And while it raised for some an insurmountable obstacle to faith, it drew others to the point of belief (17.32, 34).

A Messianic Message

The message of the apostles and first-century Christians centered around the person of Jesus. This is perhaps nowhere more succinctly stated than in Acts 8.35, where it is said that “Philip opened his mouth . . . and preached unto him Jesus.” The gospel was not a religious system consisting of various moral requirements and points of belief. It was (and is) revealed truth about a person, Jesus Christ, and the divinely appointed means of coming into a proper relationship with him.

The Messianic element of the apostolic message included two main areas of emphasis, the first of which was suffering and death. The Old Testament prefigured and foretold the atonement that Messiah would accomplish (e.g., Gen 22.7-8; Is 52.13-53.12; Dan 9.26). These aspirations and prophecies found their consummation in the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2.22-23, 36; 3.13-15, 18; cf. Heb 9.11-15). A second area of Messianic emphasis was victory and glory. The Old Testament gave indication that Messiah would overcome death (e.g., Ps 16.8-11; 110.1). Jesus demonstrated his Messiahship by rising from the dead (Acts 2.24-32; 13.29-37).

First-century Jews, though dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, retained their identity as believers in the Old Testament Scriptures. Their attendance at synagogues fostered a sense of Messianic anticipation. Not surprisingly, early church leaders sought to demonstrate the Messianic credentials of Jesus. In fact, it could be argued from the book of Acts that the apostles considered the identity of Jesus as Messiah to be the most important element of the gospel (e.g., 3.18, 22-26; 5.30-31; 13.16-41; 17.1-3; 18.4-5; 18.28; 26.22-23).

A Polemic Message

The book of Acts portrays the Christian message as a polemic one. The early church was not hesitant to challenge contemporary worldviews where they stood in opposition to the gospel. Paul and Barnabas confronted the pagan inhabitants of Lystra who, having witnessed a miracle, thought it right to offer sacrifice to them (14.11-18). When opposed by a wicked sorcerer, Paul addressed him with a scathing rebuke: “. . . O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” (13.10). It comes as no surprise that Paul was later reputed to have confronted idolatrous practices all over Asia (19.26).

Paganism was not the only belief system challenged by the gospel; Judaistic heresy received a rebuttal as well. There came a time in the life of the early church when certain Jews sought to impose the demands of the Mosaic Law on Gentile believers (15.1, 5). Their teachings threatened the very essence of the gospel message, and thus Christian leaders were obligated to formulate a response (cf. Gal 1.6-9). In the providence of God, representatives of the two most influential churches of the day, Jerusalem and Antioch-Syria, convened to settle the dispute (Acts 15.2, 6). When the edict was written, it was clear that the gospel would remain intact; the church had affirmed that works were not necessary for salvation (15.24). This conclusion was largely a product of the testimony of Paul, Barnabas, and Peter (15.7-12), each of whom had had a vital part in the conversion of Gentiles.

In sum, the early Christians believed in the uniqueness of Christ and the Christian message. This was perhaps never more succinctly stated than by Peter, who made the following proclamation to a group of Jewish religious leaders: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (4.12; cf. 10.42-43). The first-century church understood clearly that a proper stand for the gospel necessitated a stand against other systems of belief. Bruce summarizes this thought well: “Christianity . . . is the final and true religion by contrast with the imperfection of Judaism and the error of paganism. Not only does Christianity provide the proper fulfilment of that earlier revelation of God given through the prophets of Israel in Old Testament times; it also supplies the answer to the quests and aspirations expressed in the philosophies and cults of the other nations. It was divinely intended from the beginning to be a universal religion” (10).

A Prophetic Message

A fourth aspect of the Christian message is its prophetic character. The gospel is inherently concerned with future events as they relate to the execution of God’s design for the history of the world. According to Toussaint, the book of Acts includes some two dozen references to the kingdom of God and other eschatological topics (351). As the discussion below will demonstrate, prophetic themes are an essential part of the Christian message.

The prophetic message in Acts centers primarily around the concepts of imminent judgment, the establishment of Messiah’s kingdom, and the resurrection of believers. References to coming judgment may be found, for example, in Peter’s witness to Cornelius (10.42), in Paul’s Areopagus sermon (17.30-31), and in Paul’s defense before Felix (24.25). The Messianic kingdom appears not only in the book’s introduction (1.3, 6) and conclusion (28.23, 31), but is emphasized throughout. The kingdom theme was proclaimed to Jews (19.8), Samaritans (8.12), and Gentiles (14.22; 20.25). It is significant to note that Paul understood the gospel and the preaching of the kingdom to be closely related to each other (20.24-25). The hope of resurrection appears early in the book (4.1-2) but is especially prominent during Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem and Caesarea (23.6; 24.14-15, 21; 26.6-8).

The prominence of prophetic content in Acts leads Toussaint to conclude that “the purpose of Luke in writing Acts is to show how it is God’s intention for His millennial kingdom to include a population of believers taken from Jews and Gentiles during this Age” (351). Even if this conclusion is rejected, it seems beyond doubt that the first-century believers preached a prophetic message.

A Realistic Message

The gospel is finally a realistic message, a message that calls for serious action. The doctrinal aspects of the Christian faith should never be made so theoretical and technical that the conversion of believers and the discipleship of Christians are removed from view. The book of Acts demonstrates that the early church community understood the realism of the gospel.

The realistic character of the message is first evidenced by the fact that preaching and teaching were often accompanied by appeals for action. Peter’s Pentecost message concluded with a call for repentance (2.38-40). The same was true of Peter’s Temple sermon (3.19) and Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill (17.30). In other instances, such as Paul’s witness to the Philippian jailer, the necessity of personal faith in Christ was emphasized (16.30-31). The history of the early church states clearly that the proclamation of the gospel should issue in decision-making.

The realism of the message is also suggested by the early Christians’ method of personal evangelism. Specifically, they presented the gospel in terms of personal experience—the events they had witnessed and what the Lord had done in their lives (26.16). First-century believers emphasized the historicity of the events which undergirded the gospel, namely, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (4.19-20; 10.36-42; 26.22-26). They also stressed the fact that their hearers could come to know God in a real, personal way through Jesus Christ (17.27-28). So the apostolic message was one that offered real salvation through real repentance toward God who had revealed himself through real historical acts. Thus the faith of Christianity is squarely grounded both in physical and spiritual reality.

The Christian message is centered around the reality of the true God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. It is a distinctive message, one that refuses compromise with contemporary views of the world. It anticipates the future activity of God in the affairs of men. Finally, it is a message firmly based in truth.