Gospel-Summaries in Acts

What is the gospel? At one level, the gospel is easy enough for a child to understand and believe. At another level, however, the gospel is multifaceted and difficult to thoroughly articulate. Various aspects of it are webbed together and almost seem to form a gospel-ecosystem.  If you over-emphasize one part to the neglect of another, the whole thing can get thrown off.  Or, like pushing in one part of a balloon, the whole thing looks different. There are many errors to avoid, some smaller and others larger in significance and consequence.

As I was recently reading Acts, a few observations about the gospel intrigued me. If you’ve read the book before, you may have noticed the many short summaries of the gospel. As Luke narrates the various occasions that the gospel is preached by the early Christians, he often summarizes what happened in a variety of ways.  Every time someone preached the gospel he could have simply said, “and Paul went there and preached the gospel,” and “then Peter preached the gospel.”  But he doesn’t.  There is a great diversity of ways that Luke paraphrases the gospel message or summarizes a time when it was preached.  As I’ve noted all of the ways that this happens throughout Acts (although I may be missing some), I’ve been surprised by what’s here.  I’ll list all of them here and then make a few observations at the end.

[Note: 1) I haven’t typically repeated places where an identical phrase reoccurs.  Where I have, they’re in parenthesis afterwards. 2) I’m not giving the context of any texts here, but my conclusions at the end hopefully reflect faithfulness to their contexts. 3) An obvious next step to this study would be to look at each time that Luke gives an extended summary of the gospel by quoting a gospel-proclamation of the early Christian preachers (see 2:14-41; 5:30-32; 10:36-43; 13:16-41. 14:15-17; 16:31; 17:2-3, 22-31)]

Gospel Summaries

  • Acts 4:2: proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead
  • 4:4: the word (also 11:19)
  • 4:31: speak the word of God with boldness
  • 4:20: we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard
  • 5:20: speak to the people all the words of this Life
  • 5:42: they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ
  • 6:2: it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God
  • 8:4: preaching the word
  • 8:12: he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ
  • 8:25: testified and spoken the word of the Lord
  • 8:25: preaching the gospel (also 8:40; 14:7, 21; 16:10)
  • 8:35: beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus
  • 9:20: and immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
  • 9:22: proving that Jesus was the Christ
  • 9:27-28: he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus… preaching boldly in the name of the Lord
  • 10:36: as for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all
  • 11:1: the word of God (also 18:11)
  • 11:14: a message by which you will be saved
  • 11:20: preaching the Lord Jesus
  • 13:5: proclaimed the word of God (also 13:7)
  • 13:26: to us has been sent the message of salvation
  • 13:38: 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
  • 13:44: the word of the Lord (also 13:49; 19:10)
  • 14:3: the word of his grace
  • 14:15: we bring you good news…
  • 14:35: teaching and preaching the word of the Lord (also 15:36)
  • 15:17: the word of the gospel
  • 16:17: who proclaim to you the way of salvation (note, this is a demon speaking)
  • 17:18: he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection
  • 18:5: Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus
  • 18:25: he had been instructed in the way of the Lord… explained to him the way of God more accurately
  • 18:28: showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus
  • 19:8: reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God
  • 20:21: testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ
  • 20:24: to testify of the gospel of the grace of God
  • 20:25: proclaiming the kingdom
  • 20:32: the word of his grace
  • 23:6: it is with respect to the hope of the resurrection that I am on trial [note: Paul’s trial here includes several statements that are slightly different, but still relevant. See 24:25; 25:19; 26:6-8]
  • 26:17-18 [note: Jesus to Paul]: the Gentiles – to whom 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
  • 26:23: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles
  • 28:23-24: he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.

Observations and Reflections

  1. Diversity: There is clearly a diversity of ways in which we see the gospel paraphrased and glossed. Luke apparently did not feel the need to lock onto one standard, uniform phrase with which to refer when summarizing the preaching of the gospel. Nor did Peter or Paul, whom he often quotes and writes about.  They preached “the word,” “the gospel,” “the word of his grace,” “good news,” “Jesus as the Christ,” “Jesus and the resurrection,” “the kingdom of God,” etc. It would be important to note that this doesn’t assume that the content of their message was diverse; only that the way in which the whole message could be summarized in a phrase can be different.
  2. Unity and Patterns: Amidst diversity, there is an overall unity with repeated themes. For example, it is a message about “Jesus,” about “grace,” and about “salvation.” It is also “preached,” “proclaimed,” and “taught.”  One implication: whatever diverse ways we may have of speaking about the gospel, it would be wise to strive for alignment with the overall emphases of Luke’s summaries.  We would want Luke to write a book about our lives and be able to summarize the gospel we preach in similar ways, wouldn’t we?
  3. The Gospel for Christians: The gospel is clearly preached to unbelievers throughout the book.  However, there are two passages that, when brought side-by-side, show that the gospel is not just a message to save unbelievers but also to sanctify believers.  In 20:32, Paul says to elders at Ephesus, “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”  Paul is speaking to mature Christians (pastors!) and he says that “the word of his grace” is able to “build [them] up”.  One of the most helpful things that this list in Acts has done for me is to show that “the word of his grace” here is the identical phrase found in 14:3 to summarize the message that Paul preached to unbelievers. The “word of his grace” that is preached to unbelievers for salvation (14:3) is preached to mature believers for sanctification (20:32).
  4. Response to the Gospel: We are right to make sure that the message of the gospel is about what God has done in Christ and not what we must do.  The gospel is not “repent” and “believe.”  Those are responses to news of what God has done. Yet they are, in fact, necessary responses. It is “a message by which you will be saved” (11:14; see 13:26; 16:17), a message about forgiveness and freedom from sin (13:38. 26:17-18), and a message that requires repentance and faith (20:21).  Throughout the book of Acts, people respond to the gospel with faith and are saved.
  5. Jesus: The gospel is about who Jesus is and what he’s done.  Interestingly, these summaries draw a lot of attention to the first of these: the identity of Jesus.  They preached that Jesus was the Christ (5:42; 18:5, 28) and sometimes they were simply “preaching the Lord Jesus” (11:20; see 8:12).
  6. The Scriptures: Especially when preaching to Jews, the gospel was expounded from the Old Testament.  The evangelists preached from “the Scriptures” (18:28): the Law of Moses and the Prophets (28:23-24; see 8:35). Jesus entered a story and brought it to a climax in his death and resurrection.
  7. Words: One of the first things that drew my attention in this list is that the gospel is a verbal message. It can be summarized as “the word,” “the word of God,” “the word of the Lord” (4:4, 31; 6:2; 8:4, 25; 11:1; 13:5, 44; 14:35). How would Luke respond to, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words”?  I imagine he would change one word: “Preach the gospel. Since necessary, use words.”
  8. The Kingdom of God: An important discussion about the gospel is its relationship with the kingdom of God and the coming new creational renovation of the world. The list above shows us that the “kingdom of God” is not something entirely distinct from the message of the gospel, which is “good news about the kingdom of God” (8:12; see 19:8; 20:25; 28:23-24).  It is not the primary note struck in this list, nor does it encompass the whole, but it is still obviously a key aspect of the gospel.  Jesus is a king who is setting all things right. The good news is about the King and the arrival of his kingdom.  This is good news for sinners because this king first died in their place so that they might enter the kingdom by faith. He is a king to submit to and he’s a merciful savior who gives us an ocean of grace to jump into.
  9. Gospel Compulsion: Finally, proclaiming the gospel was not a duty, but a delight: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20).  They had been brought into this new kingdom by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  They had been forgiven and set free from their sins.  They were resting and rejoicing in the words of grace. They were saved. Therefore they spread this life-giving news abroad boldly (4:31; 9:27-28), without ceasing (5:42), and in the midst great suffering. The gospel is not something to be merely studied. It is supposed to flip our life upside down and fill us with ever-renewing joy so that we cannot help ourselves from opening our mouths “to speak to the people all the words of this Life” (5:20).
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