Twenty-first century Christianity has at its disposal technology, specialized ministries, leadership experts—and Zoom. What it lacks is the preaching power of the early church. That’s why the early Christian church, as revealed in the book of Acts, presents a vastly different picture of preaching than what we present today. This article offers seven transformational lessons that we can learn from their preaching, lessons that could revitalize our preaching and, ideally, our churches as well.
1. Preaching had Jesus at the center
A common thread unites the sermons in the book of Acts, and that is the “strict uncompromising nature of the early evangelist’s message—Christ crucified.”1 Christ remained the focus of the preaching. By declaring, “ ‘And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself’ ” (John 12:32, NKJV), Jesus testified to His ability to draw all men unto Himself. The early Christian church followed His example, keeping Him the central theme. Following is a sample of how Christ remained the Center of their sermons:
“And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:42, ESV).
“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35, ESV).
“But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20, ESV).
One Christian writer talked about why Christ should be the center of every sermon: “The theme that attracts the heart of the sinner is Christ, and him crucified. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus stands revealed to the world in unparalleled love. Present him thus to the hungering multitudes, and the light of his love will win men from darkness to light, from transgression to obedience and true holiness. Beholding Jesus upon the cross of Calvary arouses the conscience to the heinous character of sin as nothing else can do.”2
2. Preaching targeted diverse audiences (men, women, kings, Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans)
Christian preaching today happens mostly within a religious setting in one place, at one time, to one group. The book of Acts tells a radically different story. Men and women, rich and poor, educated and not, received the gospel of Jesus Christ. Peter preached to Jews and Gentiles, military officers (Acts 10), and devoutly religious people (Acts 3). Philip spoke to religious outcasts in Samaria and to those unworthy of entering a synagogue (Acts 8). Paul spoke to Christians, Greeks, and Romans and before politicians and kings. No matter the titles a person holds, he or she needs Jesus’ salvation because only God can satisfy the longings of the heart.
3. Preaching was contextualized by the audience
The sermons in Acts are as different as were their audiences. Sermons preached to the Jews contain many Old Testament references, drawing on biblical prophecies and imagery. Those preached to the Greeks incorporate philosophy, logic, and quotes from popular authors. While the central aspect of preaching begins with Christ, the early church was not ignorant about their audiences or what their audiences knew or didn’t know. Although each sermon is theologically sound, it was communicated in a way that the people could understand.
Knowledge of an audience is necessary to communicate the gospel effectively. The book of Acts reveals that the church leaders skillfully used contextualization to reach and change their hearers. This is the genius of the apostle Paul, not only to use familiar terminology but also to use it to transform the audience’s worldview.3
Here are the types of sermons in the book of Acts:
12 evangelistic; 2 strictly apologetic; 2 apologetic and self-defense; 4 apologetic and evangelistic; 1 exhortation, 3 exhortation, evangelism, and worldview change; 1 apologetic, evangelistic, worldview change.
17 of the 25 sermons are evangelistic (68 percent)
4 of the 25 sermons are exhortation (16 percent)
4 of 25 are apologetic (16 percent)
About 68 percent of the preaching in the book of Acts was to people outside the church; 16 percent, to believers inside. Today, preachers spend most of their time ministering to those within the church. Maybe we need to focus more on outreach than inreach?
4. Preaching was varied in its approach (evangelistic, apologetic, exhortation)
There is a refreshing variety in the sermons preached in Acts. By far, the most common sermons are evangelistic (68 percent), aimed at persuading the Jewish and Gentile hearers to follow Jesus the Messiah. The early Christian apostles carried a burden to bring the gospel to those who had never heard it, which is why those sermons focus predominantly on nonbelievers.
At other times, the apostles presented the gospel apologetically, defending it from skeptical audiences. The term apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning “a speech in defense.”4 Steven’s speech before the Sanhedrin and Paul’s before the Roman authorities are examples of where each man was “focused on defending the growing community of Jesus the Messiah. In Stephen’s preaching one hears that there is continuity from the [patriarchs] to Jesus.”5
A third category is exhortation, or sermons preached specifically to believers. To exhort means to “warn,” “urge,” or “encourage,”6 and these types encompass 16 percent of the sermons in Acts.
5. Preaching had evangelism as the focus
Most sermons in Acts contain some missional evangelistic component, but today, Christian churches have reversed the focus: most preaching is aimed at Christians. As already stated, a minority of the sermons recorded in Acts focused on the Christian. Perhaps Christianity has faltered as a movement because the approach is no longer focused outward on mission.
Ellen White strongly believed that the goal of preachers was to spend their energy on “new fields” instead of focusing on people who are already Christian. Her statements are as needed today as they were 100 years ago. “They [pastors] should feel that it is not their duty to hover over the churches already raised up, but that they should be doing aggressive evangelistic work, preaching the Word and doing house-to-house work in places that have not yet heard the truth. . . . They will find that nothing is so encouraging as doing evangelistic work in new fields.”7
6. Preaching was grounded in the Holy Spirit and prayer
The Holy Spirit and prayer play pivotal roles in the book of Acts, a lesson that Christians today should remember. Both the Holy Spirit and prayer were not mere doctrines but transformational forces. Prayer was a necessity. It is referenced 32 times in the book of Acts. The book states that the early church was “devoted” to prayer (Acts 2:42, ESV; cf. 1:14; 6:4).
What about the church today? How much praying do we do? How much of the Holy Spirit do we experience?
The Christian movement started in a prayer meeting, and as it continued its progress, it always depended on the Holy Spirit. One preacher quipped that it took him 3,000 sermons to convert one person while Peter preached one sermon and converted 3,000 people. What made the difference, he learned, was that Peter’s sermon was 100 percent bathed in the Holy Spirit.
It was the Holy Spirit who made the preaching of Steven so powerful (Acts 6:3, 8). By the power of the Holy Spirit, Philip met the Ethiopian in the middle of the desert, which led to his conversion (Acts 8:26-40). Barnabas is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24, ESV). The Holy Spirit also took a direct role in sending the disciples to the places where there was a need for preaching (Acts 13:2–4; 16:7).
7. Preaching took place anywhere, anytime
In Acts, the preaching of the gospel was not confined to eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning. It took place any time of the day and any day of the week, including a midnight worship service (Acts 16:25). Nor was the preaching limited to within the four walls of a temple or synagogue. They preached in the marketplace, by the river, in the desert, on a boat in the middle of a storm, in homes, in jails, in front of royal courts, and many other places.
Peter, Paul, and the other great evangelists did not wait for people to wander into a building but, instead, went to where the people were. Christ was mainly preached outside the places where believers were gathered: synagogues, marketplaces, town halls, jails, and far-flung islands. Jesus set an example for going to where the people were, whether at a tax booth, a fishing vessel, or a seashore. Jesus also mingled with people at weddings and funerals, in crowds and synagogues, on hillsides and city streets, and at public wells.8
It can happen again
The first focus of effective preaching in the book of Acts was centered on Christ. They knew that if they lifted up Jesus, He would draw all men unto Himself. They took His message seriously by contextualizing the good news to a diverse audience. Wherever they were, this message was heavily focused on evangelism and powered by prayer and the Holy Spirit. These evangelists seized every opportunity to talk to a diverse audience in any place and under any circumstance.
Surely churches today would do well to follow such a template. What would happen if the concept of “church” was bigger than the four walls of a building and, instead, encompassed the common, everyday places where people live? The same Holy Spirit who “turned the world upside down” then would turn the world upside down now.
- Glenn Fluegge, “The Dual Nature of Evangelism in the Early Church,” Concordia Journal 42, no. 4 (Fall 2016): 308.
- Ellen G. White, “The Perils and Privileges of the Last Days,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 22, 1892, 3. See also Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2004), 158; Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 826, 827; Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 186, 187.
- Dean Flemming, “Contextualizing the Gospel in Athens: Paul’s Areopagus Address as a Paradigm for Missionary Communication,” Missiology 30, no. 2 (April 2002): 205, https://doi.org/10.1177/009182960203000206.
- Lexicon, Blue Letter Bible, s.v. Strong’s G627—apologia, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G627.
- Luke Gerarty, “The Types of Sermons in the Book of Acts,” Think Theology, March 6, 2014, https://thinktheology.org/2014/03/06/types-sermons-acts/.
- “Dictionaries,” Blue Letter Bible, s.v. “exhort, exhortation,” https://www.blueletterbible.org/search/dictionary/viewtopic.cfm?topic=VT0000959.
- White, Evangelism, 382.
- For more information on successful approaches that other churches are using, refer to Arthur B. Rutledge, “Evangelistic Methods in Acts,” Preaching Source, accessed March 1, 2022, https://preachingsource.com/journal/evangelistic-methods-in-acts/.