This particular topic I believe can really instruct not only the modern pastor, but also the modern layperson as to what sermons should look like. Sitting in Starbucks the other day, there were some BBC students sitting next to me and they were doing research for their classes. One of them was googling “the best places to find sermon illustrations.” Not an illegitimate venture. I’ve used many a search engine to find illustrations. However it struck me as I was sitting there thinking about it, that I was witnessing a real life illustration of how many sermons are constructed today. All illustration. All story. All entertainment. Very little content. To be clear, I’m a fan of illustration. Charles Spurgeon called illustrations windows through which the light comes in. In fact, Jesus used illustrations, stories, and parables. He, who was God incarnate, approved of these invaluable literary devices. But let’s be honest, that’s what they are, devices or tools that serve as lights, illuminating the precious truths of Christ. They are not the truths themselves.
Having said that, the book of Acts contains the historically oldest sermons that followed the ascension of Jesus Christ. These sermons were soaked in Holy Spirit empowerment and loaded with the richest content straight from the source. These sermons were preached at great risk, not only to preacher’s lives, but also to the lives of their listeners. It is from these sermons that a type arrises for which all other sermons ought to be modeled.
THE BIG IDEA is that the first sermons were covenantal in nature, kā-rü's-sō in manner, and Christological in content.
I. Covenantal in Nature.
II. Kā-rü's-sō in Manner.
III. Christological in Content.
I. Covenantal in Nature
What do I mean that these sermons are covenantal in nature? Last semester we completed our covenant theology class which is not a disconnected idea from what we see here. A covenant is a binding contract or an agreement between two or more persons. A divine covenant is a “...bond in blood sovereignly administered.”
John Frame says something helpful here when examining the Biblical account “...the whole Bible, diverse in content as it may appear at first sight, can be seen as a story of God making covenants and man responding to them. The books of law show what God expects of his covenant people. The books of history indicate man’s actual response. The psalms contain the praise, the laments, the questionings, the blessings and cursing that should be on the lips of a covenant people. The wisdom books contain applications of the covenant law to human problems. The Prophets bring God’s covenant lawsuit against the covenant-breakers while at the same time promising covenant renewal.” (John Frame pg. 146-147 The Doctrine of the Word of God P & R Publishing 2010)
In the Gospels we see Jesus Christ, the Son of God, breaking into time, putting on flesh so that he can establish the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 with his own blood. In fact, we find Him using that language at the last supper when He said “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:26-28 When He rose from the dead, His followers were commissioned to go out and to declare to the world the terms of that covenant. I use “followers” instead of apostles because we find new disciples being spiritually raised from the dead who also carry these covenant stipulations to the world, and not just apostles. That same idea is undeniable true today as well.
Regarding the ingredients of a covenant, we see that both Biblically, as well as historical accounts apart from the Bible, that the elements of a covenant are the following:
1. Name of the great king
2. Historical prologue
3. Stipulations (laws)
a. Exclusive loyalty (=love)
b. Specific requirements]
4. Sanctions (blessings and curses)
These elements, more or less, are the DNA of the sermons found in the book of Acts. Lets look at some specific examples.
Stephen in Acts 7 spoke in terms of a covenant in the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts. His sermon might be the most complete picture of all of those elements. He refers to the name of the great king is in v. 2 “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,” This mention of the great king of the covenant is the ground for his entire discourse. Next we see the second element of a covenant being the historical prologue. Stephen makes mention of the birth of the nation of Israel, through the Exodus, through the kingdom, and makes mention of all the major players of the covenants being Abraham, Moses, and David. He then reminds his listeners of the third element being the stipulations of the covenants. To Abraham in v. 3, God says “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.” God then gives him the covenant of circumcision in v. 8. Stephen goes on to preach that those stipulations were expanded in the Mosaic covenant in v. 30ff. These stipulations demanded exclusive loyalty..., and specific requirements, in the form of the law, were laid out for God’s covenant people. Connecting to those stipulations, Stephen reminded his listeners of the sanctions, or the blessings and cursing, following obedience or disobedience respectively. First, God promises to bless and protect His covenant people in v. 6-7 “And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.” Likewise, we also see the cursing that follows his people because of their disobedience in v. 39 “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt.” Stephen tells of God’s response in v. 42 “But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven,” Of course the ultimate cursing came when Israel was completely cast out of their land by God. This demonstrates the administration of the covenant from first to last. Not only did God create it in the beginning, but He made sure that this binding covenant was carried out to the end. This covenantal nature was what made up Stephen’s sermon. We see these same elements scattered throughout the other sermons in acts, although not with the same comprehensiveness.
If we look at Peter’s sermon at the Temple in Acts 3, se see in v. 13 that he makes reference to the great king at the beginning of his address: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers.” A covenant is of course between two parties so he addresses them as being the lesser party in the covenant, v. 25 “You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’” His sermon is basically a retelling of the binding covenantal relationship that Israel has with her God.
Likewise we see Paul in Acts 13 preaching in Antioch starting off his sermon by making mention of God as the Sovereign administrator in v. 17 “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.” You can also hear the historical prologue and the sanctions that God bestowed on his people (back to the verse) “He made the people great” and “with an uplifted arm he led them out.” Paul preaches on in v. 32-33 “...we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus,” Here he points to the end in God’s administration of the covenant, in that God fulfilled his promise to the fathers by raising Jesus.
We see this same covenantal nature in the rest of the sermons, although not as explicitly laid out. However, they all do bear at least some of the elements of covenant in them.
So an objection could be made in regards to the “Gentile” sermons in the book of Acts. One could say that these “Jewish” covenants weren’t made with non-Jews. A couple answers immediately present themselves. 1) That the covenant made at creation is binding on all of God’s creatures, including Gentiles. This is why Paul in Acts 17 on Mars Hill tells the Athenians in v. 26-27 that God “...made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him,” The word “that” introduces the ground for God doing His actions. God did all these things so that mankind should seek him. That word “should” speaks of “oughtness.” All mankind ought to seek God, because God created them. That is the creational covenant that all mankind are bound under. This is exactly the argument we see Paul making in his letter to the Gentile Romans. God created at the beginning, and He is angry because mankind has refused to honor Him or give thanks to Him as God. In fact all mankind suppresses that truth and therefore break that covenant that they are bound under.
One more thing regarding this before we move on to the next section. The medium for the covenant was the written word of God found in the Scriptures. Over and over again throughout these sermons, you find the preachers constantly appealing to the Scriptures as the basis of authority. They would say things like “...this is what is spoken of through the prophet” Acts 2:16, or “Moses said” Acts 3:22, or “...I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass:” Acts 26:22 etc. It’s clear that these 1st century preachers were appealing to the covenant agreement that the Lord God gave to them.
II. Kā-rü's-sō in Manner.
What do I mean by Kā-rü's-sō in manner? This is the Greek word for preaching. When these 1st century preachers preached, they did so in a Kā-rü's-sō manner. Biblically defined, this means to “...to be a herald; to proclaim after the manner of a herald; to publish, proclaim openly: something which has been done; always with the suggestion of formality, gravity and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed.”
There is another word for preaching, but it has less to do with the manner, and more to do with the content. It is the word yü-än-ge-lē'-zō, and it’s where we get the word evangelize from. This word speaks to the good news of God’s kindness being brought to the nations. It is the literal spreading of the gospel. It is a proclaiming of glad tidings. It is a verb with content. Kā-rü's-sō speaks to the manner in which this preaching is done. Now the 1st century preachers certainly evangelized, but more than that, there was an urgency in their preaching. A sense of gravity and authority that must be listened to and obeyed.
I’ll give a few examples of this urgency in their preaching, but first we need to ask: where did they get this authority from? Jesus, in the great commission, said that “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”(28:18) On the basis of that authority He tells them in Mark 16:15 “Go into all the world and proclaim [Kā-rü's-sō] the gospel to the whole creation.” That’s just His first followers did. So listen to the urgency in their manner here. Peter in Acts 2:14 said “...let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.” Paul in Acts 13:16 said “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.” Paul in Acts 20 when he preached to the Ephesian elders “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock...be alert.”(v. 28, 31) The very last sentences in the book of Acts includes this Kā-rü's-sō again from the lips of Paul. In Acts 28:25-28, we find him in Rome. After trying to convince a Jewish crowd of the Lordship of Christ to no avail, he says this “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: “‘Go to this people, and say, “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” That quote from Isaiah was Isaiah’s direct commission from God to go preach with authority to the people of Israel in his day. Paul preaches here with Kā-rü's-sō applying it directly to his listeners. He was heralding these words and they bore the same gravity and authority that Isaiah rendered in his day.
This is how the 1st century disciples preached, in a manner of urgency, with gravity. There was no flippancy or a sense of being cavalier in their speech. It was ‘listen to these words as if your life depended on it, because in fact it does.’ Sin was not compared to chocolate cake in their preaching, like I’ve heard a modern “preacher” claim. That’s not Kā-rü's-sō, that is Ccrraappo.
So what about modern preachers? Where do we get our authority from? 1) I would point back to the great commission to where Jesus said that he would be with us always, even to the end of the age. The disciples who actually heard those words died long ago and their mission ended. Therefore, Jesus was commissioning all his disciples even unto the end of the age. 2) I would point out Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 2 Tim. 4:2 “...preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” That charge is to all of those who would take up the mantle of pastor especially. We are to preach the word. Again Kā-rü's-sō. We are to Kā-rü's-sō the word with all gravity and authority because it it in fact God’s own word.
III. Christological in Content
What do I mean by Christological in content? I mean that the center of the 1st century preacher’s universe was Christ. Their content was throughly Christ saturated and Christ centered. They preached in such a way that pointed away from themselves, and solely pointed to Christ. Amazingly this was even done when Paul gave his personal testimony. The part that he personally played in that story was a collateral effect of Christ breaking in as the main actor, the main player, the main mover and shaker in all of history.
A few examples of this:
1) In regards to the exclusivity of Christ, Peter at Pentecost says that “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Acts 2:21 Implication: only those who actually do call will be saved, all others will be lost. Acts 3:23 records Peter saying “And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.” That prophet is Jesus Christ as prophesied in Deut 18:15 Next Peter preaches in Acts 4:12 saying “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The only hope that was given in these 1st century sermons was that of Jesus Christ and His sole ability to save.
2) The Christological content of these sermons showed the suffering of Christ. Peter preaches in Acts 2:23 “...this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” At the temple he says in Acts 3:18 “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” In Acts 5:30 he preaches “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” Later, in Acts 13:28-29, Paul preaches in Antioch and tells of the part that the authorities played in the suffering of Christ “And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”
3) The Christological content of these sermons demonstrated the exaltation of Christ. This would not only include his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension, but His current ruling and reigning at the right hand of God as well. Peter at Pentecost speaks about David and connects his prophecies to Christ. Acts 2:30-32 “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ...[v. 32] This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” Resurrection. Ascension. Ruling and reigning at the right hand of God. Acts 4:11 says of “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” The chief cornerstone, that is the most important, the most prominent, the most exalted. Stephen before he was stoned to death was filled with the Holy Spirit and he “...gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:55-56 His exaltation of Christ were the last words that he spoke in his sermon before he perished.
4) The Christological content of these sermons demonstrated the grace of Christ. Although all of the listeners, and the preachers themselves were covenant breaking, God-haters, just like us, grace was offered in the preaching of the gospel. In Acts 5:31 Peter preaches that because Christ was exalted, grace will be granted. “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Paul at Antioch tells his listeners “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” Acts 13:38-39 In fact Paul before heading off to Rome basically tells the the Ephesian elders that He has not failed in preaching the whole counsel of God and that he “...testified both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Acts 20:21
5) The Christological content of these sermons demonstrated the treasure of Christ. Peter preaches in Acts 3:20 that the “...times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus.” A couple verses later he says that Christ is said to be the one in whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”(v. 25) Paul in his sermon/defense before Agrippa in Acts 26 records the words that Christ spoke to him when he commissioned him. He said “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Acts 26:17-18 NASB uses the word “inheritance” there instead of place. It means the same thing, that those whose eyes have been opened will receive an inheritance. That inheritance is nothing less than God himself.
In conclusion we see that the first sermons in the Book of Acts were covenantal in nature, kā-rü's-sō in manner, and Christological in content.