God is a loving God, full of mercy and slow to anger (Psalm 145:8) so my wish is not to present Him as somebody else. God is the same as the Bible depicts Him, and the same is true about the Gospel, the message we are called to preach.
If I choose to modify the message in order to make it more receptive, I have to be aware that it is God’s own message that I allow myself to change. Unfortunately today the message which is often presented as the Gospel is very different from the message the first Christians preached and from what the Bible says directly about the Gospel. What did Jesus ask the disciples to preach? At the end of the Gospels we see that Jesus is preparing His disciples for the fact that He will leave them and just before His ascension we can read in the Gospel of Luke that He explains to His disciples what they should preach.
He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
— Luke 24:46-47
Some people are concerned that the rendering in the different gospels is not the same, but I do not think they are supposed to be the same; I think their purpose is to complement one another. Matthew focuses on how they should reach the world – by making disciples. Mark concentrates on the supernatural power they should get to do the task; it is the power to heal the sick, cast out demons and walk in supernatural protection. Luke focuses on the message they should preach, namely forgiveness of sins.
When Peter brings the Gospel to the heathens for the first time, we can read his direct rendering of what Jesus asked them to preach.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
— Acts 10:42-43
Therefore, when Peter tells Cornelius’s family what Jesus had asked them to preach, he says they should preach that Jesus is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. We can say it is a little different from today’s message of grace. The fact that Peter says they had been asked to preach Jesus as judge of the living and the dead fits perfectly with what we read Jesus asks them to preach in Luke, chapter 24. The reason why we need to be forgiven of our sins is because there is coming a day when we will have to account for our life here on earth (Hebrews 9:27). If our sin is not forgiven before that day, we will perish. John 3:16 says that was why God sent Jesus to earth.
Later we can read Paul’s rendering of the message they were sent to preach. We can read that in Acts, chapter 17, where it says that some epicurean and stoic philosophers started a discussion with him because he was preaching Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:18). When they asked him to explain in more detail what he believed in, Paul explained the message like this:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.
— Acts 17:24-31
When the end of his life was near, in his farewell speech to the elders from Ephesus Paul summarises what his message has been.
I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
— Acts 20:21
There are also other cases in Acts where we see that the first Christians preached the Gospel to people who had not received Jesus yet. What shocks many people, when they go through them, is that in fact God’s love is not mentioned a single time. When you go through Acts and study the places where the Gospel is preached, you will find the following main points:
- Repentance from sin and turning to God
- Jesus’ resurrection
- Jesus’ power to forgive sins
- One day there will come judgment
When the Gospel is preached today, many of these points are actually not mentioned at all. Other points, for example sin, are only mentioned in a general sense so that the listeners should not feel condemned. Today we prefer to focus on the fact that Jesus loves you, God has a fantastic plan for your life and He will help you with all your problems. It is, however, worth noticing that none of these points is used in Acts.
If you preach today that people must repent, that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore He can forgive sin, and that there comes a day when God will judge the living and the dead, you will soon hear that your preaching has a negative focus. However, both Paul and the other apostles would surely hear it if they were alive today. In fact we can read that when Felix heard Paul’s preaching about truth, he became so scared that he asked Paul to stop.
… He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”
— Acts 24:24-25
Today it is not so often that you hear people get scared when they hear Christians talk about their faith, but it could be experienced in the old revival times.
I do not think that scaring people is a purpose in itself, but I want to point out that the message presented today is very different from the one we read about in the Bible; and this should worry us.
Today we are afraid to present God as someone scary, but we would rather present Him as a good daddy who never gets angry. Yes, God is a good Father, but He is also a fair judge who causes fear. We cannot shape Him the way we want Him to be. He is the one He reveals Himself to be in the Bible.
God is merciful and has given us time to repent, but there will come a day when both the living and the dead will receive their judgment; that is why it is important to get things in order with God now. He is good and loving, but He is also 100% holy; that is why the right attitude towards God is fear of Him.
We see, in fact, that when in the Book of Revelation God Himself sends and angel to preach the Gospel, the message is that people must fear God; this is definitely not what many people today associate with the Gospel.
And I saw another angel flying through the sky, carrying the eternal Good News to proclaim to the people who belong to this world—to every nation, tribe, language, and people. 7“Fear God,” he shouted. “Give glory to him. For the time has come when he will sit as judge. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all the springs of water.”
— Revelation 14:6-7
According to the Bible, the Gospel is a message which says that the people who are under God’s wrath (John 3:36) can now be reconciled with Him. In order to experience that, we have to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
Some only want to focus on the reconciliation without talking about hostility, but when you talk about reconciliation without explaining why we have to get reconciled, the message will not make sense. We need to preach the full and true Gospel, as we see it presented in the Bible, because it is this message that Paul says is God’s power for salvation.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
— Romans 1:16
An overview of the places where the Gospel is preached in Acts
- A prophecy from the OT is used to confirm the reliability
of what happened (16-20, 25-30)
- A proclamation of how one gets saved (21)
- A proclamation of who Jesus is (22,32)
- An accusation that they crucified Jesus (23)
- A proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection (24,31-32)
- A call to repentance and baptism (38-39)
- A miracle is used as a stepping stone (3:1-11)
- Jesus gets glory for the miracle (12-13)
- They are accused of having crucified Jesus (13-15)
- Jesus gets glory for the miracle (16)
- OT’s prophecies are used as a scriptural base (17-18)
- A call to repentance and turning away from sins (19-21)
- A call to obedience towards Jesus and the consequences
of not obeying Jesus (22-23)
- A miracle is used as a stepping stone (4:8-9)
- Jesus gets glory for the miracle (10)
- They are accused of having crucified Jesus (11)
- A proclamation of Jesus as the only saviour (12)
- They get blamed for the crucifixion and death of Jesus (28)
- Peter and the other apostles confirm that they do not
try to be politically correct (29)
- A proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus (30)
- They are accused of having crucified Jesus (30)
- A call to repentance and a proclamation of Jesus’ power
to forgive sins (31)
- A promise of the Holy Spirit (32)
- Proclaiming that God has received those who fear
Him and do what is right (34-35)
- A proclamation of Jesus as Lord (36)
- Peter gives a short background history (36-37)
- A proclamation of Jesus’ power (38)
- Proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus (39-40)
- A command to preach Jesus as the judge of the living
and the dead (42)
- A proclamation of Jesus’ power to forgive sins (43)
- Paul gives a short historical overview (16-22)
- Paul points to Jesus in OT (23)
- Jesus is proclaimed as bigger than John (24-25)
- Paul talks about the death and resurrection of Jesus (26-30)
- Preaching about the resurrection of Jesus (31)
- A proclamation of Jesus as Messiah (32-33)
- OT’s prophecies are used as written evidence (34-37)
- Forgiveness for sins and justification (38-39)
- A warning to take the message seriously (40-41)
- Paul refers to the people’s religiousness and uses
it as a stepping stone (22-23)
- Paul preaches God as the almighty creator who gives
life to everything (23-26, 28-29)
- The purpose of mankind is to seek God (27)
- A call to repentence (28)
- Preaching that one day Jesus will come and judge
the living and the dead (31)
- A proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection (31)
- Paul tells his testimony (2-23)
- Paul talks about his resurrection from the dead (8)
- Paul says that his call was to open the eyes of the heathens (18)
- Paul talks about repentance and forgiveness (18)
- Paul describes his message as the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection (23)