What serious Bible reader hasn’t been a bit surprised by the way the apostles in Acts proclaim the gospel message? “Well, that’s not quite the way I would have done it,” he muses, turning the page. That’s at least how I began to reflect on the question “What is the gospel?” a few years ago.
Now it seems to me that this is a highly important topic. Christianity (or “the Way,” if we’re going to be Acts-ian) has been very message-centered from the get-go. We proclaim “something” and that “something” has the power to change ourselves and others. Yet interestingly, when it comes to this most central thing about our lives, assumptions abound. We talk very much about being gospel-centered and strategize very much about how to share the gospel, but fail to think seriously about what exactly we are centered on or what exactly we are sharing. Wouldn’t we honor God and maybe even experience more power in our proclamation if we were to reinsert this topic into the agenda for honest consideration?
Allow me to make a disclaimer about what will follow. I’m not intending to provide a comprehensive definition of the gospel in this article. Rather, I intend to take a hard look at the message as it appears in Acts only. We can and should say much more about the question from other places in the Scriptures, but I will not attempt that here.
The Kingdom of God
Whereas our explanations of the gospel have often narrowly focused on forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ death, the apostles in Acts seem to have had a different focus—namely, the kingdom of God. I want to suggest that this concept forms a consistent, though sometimes subtle, framework for the apostolic message.
We plunge right into this theme at the beginning of the book. Luke reports that after Jesus was raised, he was “appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of things concerning the kingdom of God” (1:3). Then, when he gathered his disciples for the last time, they asked him a question about timing: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). To me, this does not sound like a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission, as many have made it out to be, as if Jesus came not to do something real with God’s kingdom, but only something intangible and “spiritual.” Yes, the apostles have yet to discover certain things about God’s intentions with the Gentiles (see Acts chapters ten and fifteen), but their understanding of Jesus’ mission was spot on—he came to restore God’s kingdom in the world.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus does not correct the disciples’ question about timing, but answers it. “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the father has fixed by his own authority” (1:7). The implication is that Jesus would indeed consummately restore God’s kingdom; the disciples just weren’t supposed to know when.
We don’t have space here for a long discussion about what God’s kingdom is. At this point in my thinking, I link it to the future hope of a new world. When we think about God’s kingdom, at least in its consummated form, we ought to think about a newly created earth and sky (2 Peter 3:13) in which the resurrected and restored people of God live (1 Cor 15:50-52) under the rulership of God and his Christ (Rev 22:3). Prior to its consummation, it has a growing presence in those who are inwardly restored and do the will of God (Matt 6:10, 6:33, Col 1:13).
Peter taps into the restoration theme later in chapter three of Acts. “Therefore repent and return . . . that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (3:19-21). This “restoration of all things” may be equivalent to the restoration of the kingdom mentioned in chapter one, clarifying what the disciples must have understood from their final experience with Jesus. That is, that Jesus had ascended into heaven for an unknown period of time and would be revealed again at the time of the consummate restoration of the kingdom that the Father had fixed by his own authority. I say “consummate restoration” because it becomes evident in Acts that the apostolic message is framed by two realities: (1) the kingdom restoration of the future and (2) the position of Jesus as king already. The kingdom restoration had decisively begun in Jesus but would be completed in the future.
So far, then, we have seen that Acts begins with Jesus talking to the disciples about the kingdom of God, that the disciples learn that its consummate restoration will not take place until an unknown time in the future, and that Peter includes this concept in his gospel message of chapter three. Now watch how the theme continues in the following passages.
“But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.” (8:12)
“they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.’” (14:21-22)
“And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.” (19:8)
“And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face.” (20:25)
“And he was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (28:23)
“And he stayed two full years . . . preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.” (28:30-31)
Even these few texts are enough to confirm to us that the apostolic message consistently featured the kingdom of God, but the concept is also explicitly proclaimed throughout Acts in another way—in the simple word “Christ.”
While most of us have realized at some point or other that Christ is not Jesus’ last name, too often we have forgotten its rich kingdom associations. Anyone who reads the books of Samuel, for instance, will find that there are “Christs” lurking at every corner. At least, Saul and David both were Christs (1 Sam 15:17, 16:13), “anointed” kings over God’s kingdom. And the promise that was developed through the Old Testament was that a final Christ would come through the lineage of David. Think about psalms like Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth take their stand . . . against the Lord and against His Christ . . . He who sits in heaven laughs . . . But as for me, I have installed my king upon Zion” (Psalm 2:2, 2:4, 2:6). The early Christians in Acts quote this Psalm in reference to the opposition of the Jewish leadership to Jesus (4:25-28). Even though Isaiah 9 doesn’t include the word Christ, the Davidic connection is clear: “There will be no end to the increase of his government or of peace on the throne of David and over his kingdom” (Isa 9:7).
Remembering this background, it is easy to recognize that for the apostles to talk about the Christ was for them to talk about the kingdom of God. When Paul and the apostles were “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42; 9:22), they were preaching the kingdom of God. It is in this context that the Thessalonian Jews levy a now understandable accusation against Paul and his associates: “they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (17:7). Thus, as we will see more clearly as we go on, the apostles were preaching both the hope of a restored kingdom in the future and the reality of an exalted king now.
The Gospel Presentations in Acts
There are at least eight more or less detailed evangelistic messages in Acts. I submit that we can find the kingdom concept highlighted in nearly all of them. We may be able to use the three-part framework below as a rough summary of the components of the apostolic message.
1. Jesus is the Christ (as proven by his life, resurrection, and ascension; as testified to by work of the Holy Spirit; and as foretold by the prophets).
a. Implication: God’s kingdom restoration has decisively begun.
2. You are on the wrong side, part of the opposition against him. The Jews of Jerusalem killed him; the Gentile pagans worship idols.
a. Implication: Judgment is coming upon you.
3. But you can receive forgiveness and restoration if you will repent, believe in Jesus, and be baptized.
Jesus is the Christ
The first thing to recognize here is that the apostles rarely talk about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension with any other purpose than to demonstrate something about his identity. They don’t mention, for example, that his death brings forgiveness or that his resurrection brings new life, though these things can be proven true from other texts outside of Acts. Instead, their focus is to give an apologetic for Jesus’ identity as the Christ. Look at how this works in Peter’s Pentecost speech.
– Jesus’ life: “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst . . .” (2:22)
That is, the things that God did through Jesus demonstrate something about Jesus.
– Jesus’ death: “. . . this man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” (2:23)
Here Peter is making an accusation. Though it all was happening according to God’s plan, they—these Jerusalem Jews—were the ones who put him to death.
– Jesus’ resurrection: “But God raised him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (2:24)
Why was it impossible for death to hold Jesus? It is because he is the Christ. Peter quotes David to show this, concluding: “Because he [David] was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” (2:30-31). Thus, the resurrection shows that Jesus, the very one whom they opposed, is the long-predicted Messiah come to sit on David’s throne.
– Jesus’ ascension: “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”’” (2:33-35)
Peter clearly associates the ascension with royal exaltation. Once again, the prophet David predicted this event when he spoke, not of himself ascending to the right hand of God, but the Coming One. And it is from this exalted, kingly position at God’s right hand that Jesus poured out the Spirit.
Each of these four events surrounding Jesus, then, all drive at one conclusion: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36). So Peter had said all that he said about Jesus simply in order to assert that he is Lord and Christ, which of course is to say something important about the kingdom of God.
This burden seems to extend to the rest of the speeches to Jews and God-fearers in Acts. In chapter three, Peter points to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as well as the healing of a blind man to identify Jesus as God’s “servant” (3:13), the “Holy and Righteous One” (3:14), the “Prince of Life” (3:15), and of course, the “Christ” (3:20). When being questioned about the same healing event, Peter claims, “By the name of Jesus Christ [that is, King Jesus] the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected . . . but which became the chief corner stone” (4:10). The healing miracle and the resurrection are once again an apologetic for who Jesus is.
Yet again Peter uses a similar line of argument, standing before the Council in 5:30-32: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior . . . And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit . . .”
In the house of Cornelius (chapter ten), Peter outlines the same ideas. He begins by referencing the message about “peace through Jesus Christ (‘He is Lord of all’)” and then proceeds to argue Jesus’ identity by talking about the events that he had witnessed. He speaks about Jesus’ life (“how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power”), his death (“they also put him to death”), and his resurrection (“God raised him up on the third day and granted that he become visible”). The conclusion of it all is that “he is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.” The idea of Jesus being the king is perhaps not as evident here at first glance, but being judge is a part of his kingly role and that the judgment is an integral part of the kingdom restoration.
The message seems to take a slightly different shape in its two main iterations to pagan Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas’ speech in Lystra is the most difficult because it doesn’t even include a reference to Jesus. “We . . . preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God . . . In the generation gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without a witness” (14:15-17). I believe that this message does not include Jesus because it was rushed by the pressure of the situation. This is confirmed by Paul’s message to the Athenians in chapter 17, which takes a similar structure: (1) a call to turn from idols to a living God (“we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is . . . an image formed by the art and thought of man”), (2) an acknowledgement that God has overlooked the times of ignorance (“having overlooked the times of ignorance”), (3) and finally a third part which does not appear in the Lystra speech—a strong call to repentance based on the fact that God has appointed a man to Judge the world in the future and has proven this by raising him from the dead (“God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent because he has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed”).
It is clearly this third component which is the most important and which brings Paul to Athens in the first place. Paul is telling the pagans that something has changed in the world. That change isn’t that there is now a living God that they should worship rather than mute idols. No, this has always been the case. What has changed is that the times of ignorance and overlooking are over and that God’s kingdom restoration project has begun in Jesus, something which features a future judgment. Though he isn’t proclaiming “Jesus is the Christ” in so many words to this Gentile audience, he is clearly speaking in the spirit of Psalm 2, in which God pronounces judgment on the nations through his Anointed One and calls them to repentance.
It’s as if the world were like a corporation in shambles. For years, business had been lagging, bad decisions had been made, people had even been embezzling funds and abusing authority. All the while, the ownership had been essentially hands-off, allowing the employees to go their own way. Then one day, an email came to everyone’s inbox. “The ownership has officially brought in new management,” it read. “It is our goal to restore business viability and recreate an effective, principled, and enjoyable workplace. This means that all current systems and employees will be up for review. Effective immediately.” In other words, at the core of the apostolic message in Acts is how God has now brought the world under the management of Jesus and how this change must necessarily include a review of everyone, something we might call a judgment.
You Are On the Wrong Side
This leads to the next point. Not only do the apostles proclaim that Jesus is the glorified Davidic king, implying that God is reestablishing his kingdom, but they also labor to show how their listeners are not well-positioned in relation to him.
In the speeches to the Jews of Jerusalem, this is painfully evident. Each time, the accusation comes unfiltered:
– “this Man . . . you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” (2:23)
– “this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36)
– “the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life” (3:14-15)
– “by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified . . . He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone.” (4:10-11)
– “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross.” (5:30)
All of a sudden, these Jews had found themselves opposed to what God was doing. And the response the apostles were seeking was exactly the response that they got at Pentecost: “Brothers, what shall we do?” The simple proclamation that Jesus was the Christ and the reminder of their actions against him was enough to bring real conviction and even panic as they realized their precarious position.
But the brokenness and opposition was more deeply rooted than just this action of the Jews in Jerusalem. As we noted before, Peter’s discourse at Cornelius’s house does not bring the same accusation against these God fearers (“they [the Jerusalem Jews] also put Him to death”), but it does highlight the coming judgment (“this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge”) and assumes the necessity of forgiveness of sins (10:43). Peter was implying that, because of their sins, these Gentile worshippers were not on the right side of things either.
And then the accusation against the pagan Gentiles is that they were idol-worshippers. They had “gone their own ways” (14:16) after “vain things” (14:15), despite God’s witness to them through creation (14:17). They had decided to make their own gods rather than recognize how God made them (17:29), to confine him to temples when he is the one who made the heavens and earth and appointed the boundaries of their habitation (17:26). In the end, therefore, as the new management brings the world up for review, everyone finds themselves on the wrong side of what God is doing.
Forgiveness and Restoration
Up to this point the news of the gospel is really both good and bad for its hearers. It is good because it tells about how God is going to set the world straight again. It is bad because it warns about how that setting straight will include their judgment. The message does not become truly good for them until the call for a response.
Nearly every one of the gospel presentations in Acts include a call for repentance. “Repent” (2:38), “repent and return” ( 3:19), “by turning every one of you from your wicked ways” (3:26), “to grant repentance to Israel” (5:31), “turn from these vain things” (14:15), “that all people everywhere should repent” (17:30). This call to repentance is itself a harbinger of good news. It signals that there is hope, that the king is willing to make terms with those who oppose him if they will just leave behind their wickedness.
As we know, the other side of this repentance coin is belief in Jesus as the Christ. While we often think of faith or belief as trust in the finished work of Christ, the idea here in Acts seems more to be one of allegiance. In essence, it is a call to switch sides. They must turn away from their opposition to Jesus and instead embrace him as their king. It’s something like we find in Acts three: “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things” (3:19-20).
This text points us to the fact that the promise given to those who repent and believe in Jesus is forgiveness and restoration. If they will only forsake their wicked ways and give their allegiance to Jesus, they will be forgiven and brought into the wonderful project that God is beginning. Note this below:
– “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (2:38)
– “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things.” (3:19-20)
– “to grant repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (5:31)
– “Of him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” (10:43)
– “Therefore, let it be known to you that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” (13:38)
If we were to approach Peter or Paul after one of their gospel presentations, say at Pentecost or at Athens, and were to ask them what they had been talking about, I believe they would have answered, “I was talking about the kingdom of God.” At least, this is what Luke says they were talking about when he decides to record the event in short form rather than detail the speech. In this way he leads us to believe that the kingdom idea is an assumed framework for the apostolic message. Upon closer examination of the gospel presentations themselves, we discover that they can indeed be read within this framework, as they highlight the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the alarmingly negative position of the world in relation to him, and the call to repentance and allegiance to Jesus with the promise of forgiveness and restoration.