We have now explored seven longer summaries of evangelistic messages in Acts plus some seventy, one-line summaries. All these passages are extremely valuable for training us to share the good news with others. Though the gospel is summarized multiple times to Christians in the letters in the New Testament, these passages in Acts are especially beneficial for clarifying the message that was spoken to non-Christians. There is no contradiction between the various summaries of the gospel in the New Testament, but there are some differences of emphasis. The summaries in Acts equip us to tell the good news to non-Christians.
Staying just with what these summary passages in Acts actually tell us, here are the main aspects of the gospel they spoke to non-Christians:
The Nature of God (17:22-29; cf. 14:13-18)
Only one of the seven summaries includes this theme, and it is the one spoken to a Gentile audience in Acts 17. Other than the God-fearers, the Gentiles generally did not know God’s nature like the Jews did. Paul begins by telling them that God is creator, Lord of heaven and earth and the one who gives life and breath to all. Acts 14 records another message to Gentiles, but I did not include with the seven longer summaries of the gospel because it does not appear that they had a chance to speak their whole message. Specifically, nothing at all is recorded there about Jesus. Still, the part of the message that they did speak to the Gentiles in Acts 14 was about the nature of God and matches what we see in Acts 17.
God’s work in Israel (13:17-22)
Paul does not tell their entire history but instead begins with the choosing of the Fathers and ends with David. Since he ends with David and the Messiah was to be a descendant of David (13:22-23; 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Matthew 1:1; 21:9; 22:42), it appears that his purpose in telling part of their history is to show that Jesus is a descendant of David.
John the Baptist (10:37; 13:24-25)
John is mentioned briefly in two of the messages.
Jesus’ ministry (2:22; 10:38)
They did not tell about Jesus’ ministry merely for the purpose of historical background but rather to tell what was happening in his ministry. God was attesting to Jesus through the miracles, and he anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power so that he could do good and heal all who were oppressed by the Devil. In other words, the miracles God did through Jesus attested to his special identity. The miracles Jesus did delivered people who were oppressed by the Devil and therefore showed his superiority over the Devil. The miracles Jesus did in his ministry were signs that pointed to his identity and the reality and power of the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ death (2:23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10-11; 5:30; 10:39; 13:27-28)
This is clearly a key part of the message. Still, we may be surprised that his death is not mentioned in one of the summaries (Acts 17). If you are like me, you’ll be even more surprised the first time you realize that nothing is recorded about Jesus dying for our sins in these summaries. Since they are summaries, it is possible that they mentioned his death on all seven occasions and that they did say his death was for our sins. Still, we are seeking to be guided by what is actually recorded in Scripture, not what “could have been” or “probably was” said. We also need to ponder the fact that, regardless of what else may have been said, the Spirit inspired Luke to record it as he did for a reason.
Instead of what we may have expected, the summaries focus on the Jew’s killing Jesus, using the words killed (3x), crucified (2x), and executed (1x). (They say “you” killed him when talking to people in Jerusalem and “they” killed him when outside Jerusalem.) Three passages describe it as hanging him on a tree (5:30; 10:39; 13:29; cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23). They also used the accompanying words delivered over, denied, rejected, and condemned. One passage makes the important point that Jesus’ death was according to God’s plan and foreknowledge (2:23). One passage states clearly that the Jews killed him because they not recognize who he was (13:27). In another, Peter says that the death of Christ fulfilled the words of the prophets who had said the Christ would suffer (3:18). The latter two passages indicate the connection between Jesus’ death and his identity.
Jesus’ burial (13:30)
This passage simply says that after they had carried out all that was written of him they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.
Jesus’ resurrection (2:24-36; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 34, 35-37; 17:31).
All seven of the longer summaries include the resurrection of Jesus. This is a clear emphasis of their message. In Acts 2, one verse is devoted to Jesus’ death (v. 23) and two others allude to it (vv. 31, 36), while twelve verses are devoted to his resurrection, including two Scripture quotations and explanations (vv. 24-35). This strong focus on the resurrection is supported by several of the one line summaries of the message (1:22; 4:2; 4:33; 17:18; 25:19; 26:8).
The resurrection of Jesus is always stated as something God did and is usually set in immediate contrast to the Jews’ killing Jesus. Killing him shows their view of his identity and worth; God’s raising him shows his view. It exonerates him from the shame of the cross and shows his identity (cf. Romans 1:4). Similarly, Peter reaches his conclusion about Jesus based on God’s raising him. That conclusion is introduced by “therefore” and is that, in contrast to the Jew’s crucifying him, God has made him both “Lord and Christ” (v. 36). In 5:30-31, God’s raising Jesus from the dead is associated with exalting him to his right hand as Leader and Savior. In Acts 17:31 Paul says that the resurrection is proof that Jesus will judge the world. In all these passages, Jesus’ resurrection shows his identity. We are so familiar with Jesus’ resurrection that we forget how startling it was to hear it the first time. Clearly one who is raised from the dead is utterly unique and authoritative.
Jesus’ appearances (10:40-41; 13:31)
The people to whom he appeared after his resurrection became witnesses of it.
Jesus’ unique, special identity (2:36; 3:13-15, 18, 22, 26; 4:10-11; 5:30; 10:23, 36, 42; 13:25, 33; 17:31)
Every one of the evangelistic messages says something about Jesus’ special and unique identity. Those of us who are very familiar with Jesus’ identity may pass over his titles quickly and not even notice how much this theme is emphasized. A variety of terms are used to describe who Jesus is. He is the Christ (4x), Lord (2x), Savior (2x), Judge (2x), Servant (2x), and (one time each) God’s Son, the Holy and Righteous One, the Author of Life, the Prophet, the chief cornerstone, and Leader. Verbs that communicate his identity include being exalted to the right hand of God (2x) and being glorified (3:13). Note that “my Son” in 13:33 comes from Psalm 2:7, a royal Psalm, and has connotations of being King. Much of the terminology used to describe Jesus entails great authority (cf. Matthew 28:18). This strong emphasis on Jesus’ identity is also apparent in a number of the one line summaries of the message spoken (5:42; 8:5; 9:20, 22; 11:20; 16:31; 17:3, 7; 18:5, 28; 28:31).
Response (2:38; 3:19, 22; 5:31; 10:43, 47-48; 17:30, 34)
The good news is presented as a work of God, but it calls for a human response. The most common responses called for are repentance (2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 17:30), faith (10:43; 17:34), and baptism in the name of Jesus (2:38; 10:47-48). The short summaries of the message indicate these same responses (2:41; 8:12, 36, 38; 9:35, 42; 10:48; 11:18, 21; 16:31, 33; 18:8; 19:3-5; 20:21; 22:16; 24:24; 26:20). We are also told that we must listen to all Jesus tells us (3:22).
Those who respond to Christ in the ways mentioned above will receive a variety of blessings. These include the forgiveness of sins (2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38), salvation (4:12; 10:25; 13:33 (cf. v. 23); cf. 2:40), the Holy Spirit (2:38; 5:32; 10:44-46), justification (13:39), being added to the number (of God’s people)(2:41, 47), having times of refreshing (3:20), being blessed by being sons of the covenant and by being turned from our wicked ways (3:26), peace (10:36) and ultimately that the Lord will send the Christ (a second time) to restore all things (3:20-21).
Warnings (3:23; 13:40-41; cf. 2:40)
They sometimes warned people that whoever doesn’t listen the Prophet (Jesus) will be destroyed and that those who scoff at God’s work will perish (13:40-41).
Some of these components of the message were mentioned more often than others and so may be regarded as the emphasis of the gospel told in Acts. Generally the message is Jesus, and more specifically they emphasized that the Jews killed him, God raised him from the dead, he is Lord and Christ, the right way to respond to the message (especially believe he is Lord and Christ, repent, be baptized in his name), and the blessings received (especially salvation, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit). That we are on the right track here seems affirmed by the fact that these same themes are also emphasized in the one line summaries mentioned in the previous post. I certainly would not be comfortable to omit any of these when I tell the good news to non-Christians today.
Again, if you are like me, you’ll be surprised the first time you hear that Luke does not record the early preachers saying that Jesus died “for our sins.” To be clear, Christ dying for our sins is truth, is vital, and is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. But if we are going to authentically allow the Scriptures to guide us by what they actually say, we have to admit that Jesus dying for our sins was not the main point of the messages to non-Christians in Acts. One would be hard pressed to say it is the main point if the Spirit did not once inspire Luke to include it in the summaries of the message.
Conservative New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie has written, “It may be wondered why the Acts account of early Christian preaching provides so little information about the atoning significance of Christ’s death. It must be supposed that the proclamation of the cross and resurrection was regarded as a sufficient basis for the message of forgiveness, without the necessity, on the initial preaching of the gospel, to give the rationale” (New Testament theology, pp. 462-463).
Instead, they told of Jesus’ death at the hands of the Jews, that God raised him from the dead, and concluded from these that he is Lord and Christ. As such he offers salvation, forgiveness, and other blessings. It is because of who he is that he offers these things. For example, in Acts 13 Paul says that Jesus is God’s Son (or the King)(v. 33) and that he was raised from the dead (vv. 34-37) and “therefore” (conclusion) it is “through this man” that forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you (v. 38) and “by him” we are justified (v. 39). They didn’t merely preach salvation—they preached Jesus and said that salvation is in him. Stated differently, they didn’t focus on the benefits; they focused on the Benefactor and said there are great benefits in him.
“They didn’t focus on the benefits; they focused on the Benefactor and said there are great benefits in him.”
As noted, there is a strong emphasis on the resurrection and identity of Jesus. His resurrection shows his identity as Lord and Christ. That’s what Peter argued (2:24-35) and concluded (2:36). Later he said that they put him to death by hanging him on a tree but God raised him from the dead and caused him to appear to witnesses (10:39-41). Based on what God did in him, He also commanded the apostles to preach and testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the world (10:42). “To him” the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes “in him” receives forgiveness of sins “through his name” (10:43). His resurrection show who he is, and because of who he is, he can forgive.
As noted, the most common responses to Jesus that were called for and that took place were repentance, faith, and baptism in the name of Christ. It is my contention that instead of arguing about these things we just need to teach them and do them. One cannot reasonably think that any of these things merit salvation. God created the way for us to be saved, sent his Son to enact it, and commissioned his spokespersons to announce the good news of what he had done. Responding to it by believing Jesus really is the Deliverer sent by God (faith), having a change of disposition toward God (repentance), and dying to our old life and resurrection to new (baptism) in no way earn or pay for what God has done. Still, the Scriptures are clear that these are the ways God calls on us to respond to his mighty work. Perhaps if we think of these responses as ways of pledging our loyalty to our King who is delivering us, we won’t be so tempted to legalistically check them off a list or think we are earning something by them.
The blessings of salvation, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit are also emphasized. It is worth noting that sometimes the response is mentioned before the blessings, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes the two are intertwined. Remember, the blessing of salvation includes forgiveness but much more. Jesus came not only to save us from the guilt and consequences of sin but also its destructive, enslaving, and debilitating power. Though we will not be fully rescued from its grip until he returns, he has given us power through his Spirit to be rescued from much of it and conformed increasingly to his image (cf. Luke 6:40; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Galatians 5:16).
Summary of the Summaries
The emphasis of the good news told in Acts is on Jesus being killed, God’s raising him from the dead, his identity as Lord and Christ, the appropriate response God’s work in these events and the blessings received. Personally, based on the guidance of the word of God in Acts, I wouldn’t dare tell the good news to a non-Christian without mentioning all these aspects.
At the same time, the good news was not told in only one way in Acts, and so it seems to me that we have some flexibility in how we tell it, as long as we keep the emphasis where they placed it. These summaries provide several other “components” we might include. For example, Acts 17 tells me that it is right to begin with God’s true nature when speaking to people who don’t believe in him or have extremely distorted ideas about him. We might also include something about Jesus’ ministry when we tell the news. Personally, I like to begin there because the powerful deeds in his ministry make the basic assertion people need to grasp, that Jesus is someone truly unique and special. This leads easily to his ensuing rejection and death, which seem to call his supreme identity into question. But then God’s raising him from the dead shows that he is in fact both Lord and Christ! This is good news for many reasons and calls for a far-reaching response from us. I have also occasionally added some warnings about not heeding what God has done, though I usually make them somewhat softer than those we noted above.
I hope these explorations of the good news told in Acts are causing you to evaluate your current understanding of the message so that you can tell it to others more faithfully. Next week we will end this series of posts with how I tell the good news told in Acts today.