1. Introduction

1.1 The Problem

The purpose of this thesis is to attempt to answer the question “what was the Gospel message that the Apostles preached?” so as to learn how we in these days may better preach the Gospel. To answer fully this question it would be necessary to examine the whole of the New Testament, including Gospels and Epistles because in some sense, all of it is the “Good News”. Mark announces his whole book as being the Gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”[1] (Mark 1:1, cf. 1:15). Paul gives information about his Gospel message in a number of places, for example:

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you; unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. (1 Cor 15:1-5)

Because of limitations in space and time, this thesis will restrict its scope to the book of Acts, and examine the occasions recorded therein. Such a quest makes a fundamental assumption, and this assumption will now be discussed.

1.2 Can Acts be Treated as History?

From the viewpoint of some readers, the task set is an impossible one. While it is true that Acts is fundamentally a piece of theological literature, and the author has selected and arranged his production so as to best serve his theological purposes, many scholars working in the historical-critical tradition[2] would argue that he has so re-worked his sources that what we have is not directly history, but history viewed through Luke’s spectacles. For example, Flender argues: “Therefore, in order to interpret his statements we must combine considerations of history and theology, taking account of the fact that the historical tradition, in all its manifold variety, has been modified in the interests of a particular dogmatic scheme.”[3] Some would go further and argue that the speeches themselves are made up by Luke to reflect his view of history, and serve his purposes as propaganda.

These speeches, without doubt, are as they stand inventions of the author. For they are too short to have been actually given in this form; they are too similar to one another to have come from different persons; and in their content they occasionally reproduce a later standpoint.[4]

If this is the case, then the quest of this thesis is utterly futile as far as Peter and Paul are concerned. However, I have made two assumptions:

  1. Luke is accurate in all the history that he records.[5]
  2. Part of his theological purpose is to document the spread of the Gospel, and so those fragments of Gospel message that he has recorded for us are an accurate and representative sample of what took place.

The former assumption reflects my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, but there is also evidence that would support such a view of Luke’s method as a historian. Mounce gives four arguments: “(1) the marked dissimilarity to the imaginative speeches of the Greek historians, (2) the fidelity of Luke to his sources in the Gospel, (3) the strong evidence for Aramaic sources, and (4) the notable lack of Paulinism”.[6]

The latter assumption needs some support. Whatever Luke’s overall goal, it includes by his own admission an “account... of all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1), and by implication, Acts is a continuation of that account as Jesus continued his work and teaching through the Apostles. Furthermore, the fact that he has recorded so many speeches, some at length, indicates his interest in the message that was proclaimed.

This is not to say, however, that Luke has recorded the Apostolic messages word for word. As Lane has pointed out:

The criticism that the brevity of the speeches of Acts underscores the improbability that they are a record of what was actually said on a given occasion contains an element of truth. The speeches in Luke-Acts are not verbatim reports of all that was said on any occasion, but purport to be summaries of reliable tradition. After the first important speech in the Gospel (Acts 3:7-17) and after the first major address in Acts (Acts 2:14-38), Luke indicates that only a summary of what was actually said has been given (Luke 3:18; Acts 2:40). These statements, occurring after the initial address of the Gospel and of Acts, are programmatic for the other speeches in Luke-Acts; the speeches are summaries of much longer addresses given on various occasions.[7]

Mounce, after enumerating his reasons for believing that Luke is an accurate historian, as quoted above, sums up by stating:

—we conclude that while the early speeches in Acts are not verbatim reports, they nevertheless are faithful summaries of what was actually said. Since they are condensed accounts that reliably give the gist of the original speeches, we may with confidence use them in the reconstruction of the apostolic kerygma.[8]

1.3 The Main Questions to be Answered

This thesis will examine and compare the Gospel messages recorded in Acts, and attempt to answer the following questions:

  1. What themes, if any, are common to all messages?
  2. In what way does the content depend on the audience?
  3. In what way does the content depend on the speaker?

By discovering the content of the message, and the way in which this message was adapted, it is hoped that the preacher of today may learn how to improve their presentation of the Gospel to the very different audience of our times.

There are forty eight places in Acts where it is mentioned that Gospel preaching took place. These have been catalogued in the Appendix. In many cases, little or nothing of the content of the message is recorded, but substantial sermons by Peter, Stephen and Paul have been preserved.

This thesis will first examine Peter’s five recorded addresses, and then go on to look at Paul and other preachers.

One criticism that may be made of this approach is that it is in danger of separating the speeches from the literary context in which they occur.[9] Ridderbos defends himself against this accusation:

The first thing that may be said in this connection is that the speeches of Peter, together with similar discourses by other persons, are of special significance for the literary structure of the Book of Acts. It is clearly the purpose of the writer of the book—who in our opinion is none other than Luke—by means of these speeches to give illustrations of the preaching and progress of the gospel in the various historical situations which the Book of Acts describes. Thus the speeches serve the writer as material to characterize and illustrate his account.[10]

Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”, has often been taken as an outline for the book as a whole. The spread of the Gospel occurs in four phases: the Apostles, who receive the Spirit (1:9-2:4), Jerusalem (2:5-7:60), Samaria (8:1-12:24), and to the end of the earth (12:25-28:31). Ridderbos points out that not only are there speeches recorded in each of these phases, but it is possible to see “a more detailed indication of the further contents of the book”[11] in Acts 9:15-16, “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.’” The major recorded sermons of Paul neatly fit into these three categories. Ridderbos concludes:

On the basis of this we may conclude that the speeches in Acts are typical, carefully selected examples or illustrations of the witness to Christ in its progress from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.[12]

So, to answer the criticism of separating the speeches from the literary context: the speeches in Acts are not incidental material that is being unnaturally subjected to an analysis alien to its reason for being in the book. They are there as part of the backbone of the book, as a description of the witness of the Apostles to the risen Christ. Although this thesis will focus on the sermons contained in Acts, it is the intention to keep the biblical theological context firmly in view, and to take account of the function of the sermons in the structure of the book.

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version, Nashville: Nelson, 1983.

[2] For example, Conzelmann.

[3] Flender, p.1

[4] Martin Dibelius, A Fresh Approach to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature, (London, 1936), p. xv quoted by Bruce, “Speeches”, p.55

[5] For arguments in support of this, see Bruce, “Speeches”, §I and §II, pp.53-58

[6] Mounce, p.73

[7] Lane, p.263

[8] Mounce, p.73

[9] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.5

[10] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.5

[11] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.6-7

[12] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.6

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