Acts is only a few sentences long when we encounter the final earthly words of the risen Lord. He reinforced what he had already said to his disciples in Jerusalem and in Galilee, and articulated their commission still more clearly. He commanded: “You shall be My witnesses, both in Jerusalem; in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (1:8).All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.
That little band must have wondered how they, with all of their limitations, could fill an order like that. Along with the commission, and preceding it, was the promise of power from on high. They must delay their witnessing activities until they had received this power. As they waited they prayed. The answer was not long in coming. After ten days, on one unforgettable day, three thousand persons committed themselves to Christ. This was the start, and the rest of the book of Acts tells the story of an exciting, expanding fellowship of men and women who witnessed to Jesus Christ with power and abandon.
Acts refers to the numerical growth of the young movement in the face of external and internal problems. Soon the followers of Christ reached five thousand (4:4). Other reports relate continuing growth: “And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (5:14); “the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1) ; “And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (6:7); “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (9:31); “the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (12:24); and “So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (19:20).
There was remarkable geographical expansion also. For a time the gospel was limited to tiny Palestine, particularly to Jerusalem with its overload of provincialism and prejudice. The vitality of the movement soon aroused severe opposition, exploding into persecution. The stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, triggered further persecution and the Chris tian flock in Jerusalem fled for safety. As they dispersed they did not forsake their faith. Instead “those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (8:4). Persecution thus provided the impulse for the extension of the gospel through out the province of Judea and into Samaria and Galilee. Further persecuting efforts sent a vigorous young Pharisee named Saul to Damascus to suppress any believers who might be found there. His conversion en route added to the consternation of Jewish opponents and provided the Christian fellowship with its most dynamic leader. Under the aggressive direction of Paul the apostle the gospel advanced to fresh successes in Asia Minor, then Europe, and finally imperial Rome itself.
Christianity so moved the Mediterranean world of that day that in Thessalonica it was reported that these people “that have turned the world upside down” (17:6, KJV) had reached their city. The gospel even infiltrated “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). The names of Peter and John, and of Paul and Barnabas and Silas are prominent in this saga, but the witness was shared by thousands of others whose names are “written in the Lamb’s book of life” and nowhere else.
An Evangelistic Lifestyle
The sharing of their faith became a way of life to these early believers. They witnessed by what they were, what they did, and what they said.
The church in Jerusalem is a shining example of a witness by quality of life. Members sold their property and shared with one another as any had need, “and day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people” (2:44-47; cf. 4:34-37). Their devotion to Christ and their love for one another made an impression upon non-believers: they earned “favor with all the people.” Against the background of the deception and deaths of Ananias and Sapphira onlookers must have been impressed with both the generosity and the ethical standards of this body of believers. There was such awe and fear at one point that unbelievers dared not associate with them, but the record adds: “however, the people held them in high esteem” (5:13).
Prayer occupied a dominant place in the life of the believers. The dynamic prelude to Pentecost was to be found in a little group of praying Christians (1:14). When Peter and John were released from prison, with further threats still ringing in their ears, the church prayed. They asked God to “grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence (or boldness) . . . . And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:2, 31). The courage and boldness of these believers was a testimony to their faith. When Peter was in prison again because of his continued preaching of the gospel, the church prayed fervently for him and were amazed when God miraculously answered their prayers (12:5, 16). The conduct and spirit of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail must have impressed the jailer and helped bring him to the question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (16:30).
Compassion for the needy was a hallmark of these early believers and was a testimony to the love of God at work in them. Not only did they take care of their needy (4:34); they reached out in love to cripples, to ill persons, and even to the bereaved. In many cases God provided miraculous power for the healing of the suffering. The lame beggar at the temple gate in Jerusalem (3:2-8), many paralyzed and lame people in Samaria (8:7), paralyzed Aeneas of Lydda (9:33, 34), and a cripple in Lystra ( 14:8-10) were enabled to walk. Christian compassion and divine power reached out even in the face of death. Dorcas of Joppa, a disciple renowned for her “deeds of kindness and charity,” became ill and died, and God restored her through Peter (9:36-41). Eutychus of Troas fell to his death from the third story while Paul preached until midnight, and God used Paul to bring the young man back to life ( 20:7-10) .
Though first-century believers were deeply dedicated to spiritual values through Jesus Christ, they were not unmindful of daily human needs. “Pie in the sky when you die” did not describe their understanding of the Christian way. As they reached out to people in need and honestly cared for them in their human situation as well as for their immortal souls, they bore witness to Jesus Christ.
Within the past decade many Southern Baptist churches, and others as well, have become aware of the place of social ministries in the name of Christ. As they have reached out in genuine compassion to the disadvantaged they have discovered new opportunities for Christian witnessing. The fact that churches care for the poor, the handicapped, the aged, the ill, and the institutionalized is itself a witness to the Lord who loves every person.
But deeds alone are not enough. Our witness must be verbalized as opportunity can be found. Acts is replete with accounts of persons who know Christ telling others about him. The inspired writer employs a wide variety of words to describe the many-sided witnessing activities of these first generation Christians. They refer to preaching (kerusso) and teaching (didasko), to speaking (laleo) and saying (lego). There are unusual words which occur but a few times: emphasizing the qualities of speaking boldly (parresiazomai); refuting completely, “to argue down to a finish” (diakateleg chomai); and expounding and propounding the scriptures (paratithemi).
The favorite word is euaggelizo, to bring or announce glad tidings.See 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:15, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18. It is the proclaiming of good news—the wonderful news of God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus. It is this word which has given to the English language the word evangelism and related words. It is joined by another word built on the verb stem, aggello, to announce, to report. This is kataggello, to declare, with added emphasis on firmness and conviction.4:2; 13:5, 38; 15:36; 16:17, 21; 17:3, 13, 23. See also anaggello (14:27; 15:4) and apaggello (20:20, 27). These two words occur more than twenty times in Acts with reference to the proclamation of the gospel.
Words related to martus, witness, occur almost as many times. Both the noun martus,1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31; 22:15; 26:16. See also marturion (4:33). from which our English word martyr comes; and the verb diamarturomai,2:40; 8:25; 10:42; 18:5; 20:21, 24; 23:11; 28:23. See also martureo (23:11; 26:22). to make solemn attestation or witness, are used frequently throughout Acts.
One of the most interesting words in this witnessing vocabulary is dialegomai,17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:12, 25.
Note that this word is used only from chapter 17 onward and evaggelizo and kataggello are used predominantly in chapters 1-17. Does this reflect a shift toward dialogue in Paul’s witness? from which we have derived the word dialogue. A. T. Robertson defined it as “to converse ( interchange of ideas), then to teach in the Soratic (‘dialectic’) method of questions and answers . . . the simple, to discourse, but always with the idea of intellectual stimulus.A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930-33), 3:267.
These prominent words magnify the fact that the disciples knew they had a message for the world—good news-and they shared it with conviction. They were more than heralds: they were witnesses to what God had done and what he wanted to do for the blessing of every person in the world. And they were willing to bear their witness even at the cost. of life if necessary. The word dialegomai is used only to describe activities of the apostle Paul, and those only in Europe. It speaks of his style of witness in many settings: he reasoned with Jews and Gentiles, and even with governor Felix, as he sought to persuade them that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and the world’s Lord and Savior.
The great need in contemporary Christianity is for those who wear the name of Christ to adopt a lifestyle which likewise bears witness to our Lord at every opportunity. Today, as in the first century, churches which are thoroughly committed to Christ and individuals marked by integrity and compassion bear witness to their Lord and make possible the effective verbalizing of their faith. Deeds alone are not enough. Our Lord uses godly lives and loving words to draw people to himself. These are marks of an evangelistic lifestyle.
Mass Evangelism and Personal Witnessing
Those New Testament Christians viewed witnessing as the responsibility of every Christian—not the apostles only but lay persons as well. They proclaimed the word to crowds and to individuals. They preached Christ to those who would listen and they reasoned with doubters. They related “salvation history” and they shared their personal experience with Christ. They responded to eager questioners and they offered the good news to reluctant hearers.
They practiced both mass evangelism and personal witnessing. On that great day of Pentecost God blessed the preaching of Peter and the apostles with three thousand converts and gave Christianity a mighty thrust forward (2:41) Paul began his ministry in Pisidian Antioch by preaching to the worshippers gathered on a Sabbath. Some followers were gained that day, and great interest was aroused. On “the next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of God,” and it could be written that “the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region” (13:14-49).
The deacon-evangelist Philip went to the city of Samaria, crossing the Jewish barriers of racial and religious exclusivism and proclaimed Christ with great effectiveness. Luke recorded that “they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ, (and) they were baptized, men and women alike (8:5-12). As Philip headed back to Jerusalem God directed him to the desert road between Jerusalem and Gaza. There God led him to join the man in an approaching chariot. He was a devout Ethiopian on his way home, reading from the prophet Isaiah, ready to accept the gospel. As Philip shared with him the truth that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah the man eagerly responded, was baptized, and went on his way rejoicing” (8:25-39). Here is “lay witnessing” at its best!
The book of Acts is full of accounts of Peter and John, Stephen and Philip, Paul and Barnabas, Silas and Apollos, and a host of unidentified disciples who preached Christ to crowds and to individuals. The Jerusalem church in the face of mounting persecution, “kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the…Christ” . . .”every day, in the temple and from house to house (5:42). The apostle Paul described his ministry in Ephesus as marked by teaching “publicly and from house to house,” calling both Jews and Greeks to “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (20:20, 21). They practiced both mass evangelism and personal witnessing.
These zealous Christians used every platform available to them’. They spoke in synagogues and market places, in courtrooms and council chambers, in homes and prisons, at a riverside and on a dusty highway.
As the gospel spread beyond Palestine the synagogue became the favorite starting place. It provided an audience of reverent people, worshippers of Jehovah. Jewish custom would provide an opportunity to speak. The worshippers might have been expected to respond readily to the affirmation of Christ as the long-awaited Messiah. These were the advantages, but a fam1har negative pattern prevailed: they preached the gospel, some people believed, many resisted, the disciples were expelled from the synagogue, and then they carried the gospel to the Gentiles. But this predictable process made the populace aware of the gospel and opened new doors for witnessing. Ephesus furnishes a dramatic example. There Paul taught in the synagogue for three months. Opposition mounted and the apostle gathered together the group of disciples, withdrew to the lecture hall of Tyrannus, and continued his teaching. His ministry in that city lasted two years, “so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (19:8-10).
Though they liked to begin in a synagogue, most of the apostolic witnessing was done away from church buildings and stated services. We read of gospel preaching in the homes of the Roman centurion in Caesarea (10:28-48), the jailer in Philippi (16:32, 33), and Titus Justus, located next to the synagogue in Corinth (18:7). Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Athens, a public place where Athenians gathered to examine new philosophies (17:22-31).
These early gospel heralds encountered Judaism almost everywhere they went. They encountered strongly entrenched pagan religions in Lystra where a temple of Zeus (Latin, Jupiter) was located (14: 12, 13), in Athens where idols filled the city (17:16), and Ephesus where the goddess Artemis (Latin, Diana) was worshipped (19:24-34). They were well acquainted with Judaism, and Paul, in particular, was well versed also in pagan religion and philosophy. Instead of fighting Judaism they exalted Jesus Christ, and called people to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Before predominantly Jewish hearers these early preachers recited “the mighty deeds of God” (2:11) and the glorious climax in the coming of Christ for mankind’s redemption.Note the sermons reported at 2:14-36; 7:2-53, 56; 13:16-41. Nowhere did Paul exhibit his skill in dealing with pagan worshippers as at Athens. Without attacking their idolatry he referred to the idol inscribed “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD,” declaring that the One whom they recognized by that idol was the Living God. Starting there he moved on to affirm the resurrection of Christ (17:22-31). Many scoffed at the thought of resurrection, but some believed and joined him.
Today as in New Testament days we must use every avenue open to us for witnessing to Jesus Christ. There is urgent need for an evangelistic pulpit today. There is a fresh resurgence of lay involvement in personal witnessing. Contemporary secular lifestyles, plus the many demands upon people’s time, make revival meetings more difficult in many places than a generation ago. Nevertheless this writer is convinced that thee continues to be a place for mass evangelism, while giving major attention to the equipping of lay persons for day-by-day witness.
But if today’s churches are to be effective in carrying the gospel across barriers of culture we must go beyond the church buildings with our witness. We must follow the example of the first Christians. We can rejoice in the large numbers of people who attend church services, but in practically any community on any Sunday there are more persons in no church service than the total church attendance in all the churches of the community. The evangelistic field indeed is outside the church doors. Television and radio help, and home visitation is important. But hundreds of churches have discovered that through innovative activities they can reach people who cannot be interested by traditional approaches. Home Bible study fellowships for adults, backyard Bible schools for children, varied weekday activities designed to reach specific target groups, and musical and worship services held outdoors or in a public hall are methods some churches are using effectively. Ministries such as these provide opportunities for personal witness which might not be found in any other way.
When we get beyond the church buildings we become more aware of the religious pluralism of this nation and of the need to share the gospel with followers of other faiths. An effective witness to members of non-Christian or quasi-Christian groups requires knowledge of those religions and wisdom in bearing witness to Christ.
Whether they proclaimed the gospel to a crowd or to an individual, these early Christians witnessed primarily to adults. There are accounts of families turning to Christ, but even in these cases the primary focus was upon adults (10:24; 16:13-15, 32-34).
Mass evangelism and personal witness describe the broad areas of witnessing which we find in Acts. Both areas are valid today.
Organizing Witnessing Churches
The church occupies a prominent place in Acts. We are familiar with the churches in Jerusalem, Antioch of Syria, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and Rome, but these are only a few of the churches formed during the exciting third of a century touched by Acts.
One important dimension of the evangelism of that era was the formation of believers into churches. It was not enough to win converts and baptize them. New believers needed the encouragement of other believers. New believers must become a part of a constant Christian witness to their communities. This is the way it was as the gospel vaulted out of Jerusalem into all of Judea and into Samaria and Galilee. As members of the Jerusalem church scattered in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom they preached Christ wherever they wen. Converts were won and Christian congregations were established. On a missionary tour through Asia Minor Paul and Barnabas formed churches of new disciples, revisited the churches on their return trip and appointed elders in every church, praying with them and commending them to the Lord (14:21-23). On his second missionary tour, with Silas as his co-worker, Paul traveled through Syria and Cilicia, “strengthening the churches” (15:41). From there they moved northward, visiting the churches of Asia Minor again. Luke reported succinctly that “so the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily” (16:5). His third missionary tour gave Paul an opportunity to meet with the elders of the Ephesian church at the coastal town of Miletus. There, in a moving conference, Paul charged them to “shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (20:28). Paul’s encouraging of these church leaders points up his unusual effectiveness in involving others in the care of the churches and the furtherance of the gospel. Besides these unnamed elders of the Ephesian church we read of the young men Mark (15:39), Silas (15:40; cf. 15:32), and Timothy (16:1-3). We learn of Caius and Aristarchus of Macedonia (19:29; Sopater of Berea, Secundus of Thessalonica, Caius of Derbe, Tychicus of the province of Asia (20:4; 27:2), and Trophimus from Ephesus (21:29). And Luke the physician was with him constantly from Troas onward, as reflected by the “we” passages. Paul was a tireless worker, and in his zeal to bring people to Jesus Christ he multiplied his capabilities by enlisting and training others to join him in the work.
It is obvious that Paul’s view of evangelism would not let him rest when a conversion was registered or a church was formed. He saw churches as nurturing fellowships for individual Christians, and as evangelizing agents for the spread of the gospel. It was the gathering of believers into continuing fellowships of worshipping, witnessing Christians that gave the Christian movement continuity.
In preaching the gospel and establishing churches the early Christian leaders gave attention to the influential population centers. Peter gave most of his ministry to building up the work in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas spent a full year with the missionary-minded church in Syrian Antioch. Paul and his co-workers labored a year and a half in Corinth and two years in Ephesus. And Paul preached two years in Rome while in the custody of the law. Churches were established in these key cities, and in tens of others. Acts refers to believers, and usually churches, in such cities and towns as Damascus, Lydda, Sharon, Joppa, Caesarea, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Tyre, and Ptolemais. Every one of these churches added strength to the Christian cause and helped extend the gospel to still other people.
It is true today as it was in New Testament days that it is a personal commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior, not church membership, which makes one a Christian. But for the sake of Christian growth and Christian expansion the church occupies a pivotal role. It is important that Christians of today recognize the need of additional churches in various fast-growing population areas and in presently unchurched or under-churched localities. Such congregations, properly begun, well located, and effectively led, are potential instruments of the Holy Spirit in bringing still other persons to the abundant and eternal life which comes through Christ our Lord.
To All Kinds of People
Regardless of the evangelistic methods or techniques they employed, the early Christians were trying to persuade all kinds of people to become followers of their Lord. On his first visit to Philippi the apostle Paul shared the love of Christ with such varied persons as a prosperous businesswoman, a slave girl, and a jailer (16:13-34). When the Jews of Corinth opposed him he took the gospel to Gentiles (18:6). Near the end of his pilgrimage he could testify before king Agrippa that he had spent his years as a Christian “witnessing both to small and great” (26:22).
The early church, particularly the Jerusalem church, had difficulty understanding that the gospel was for all people. Even the apostle Peter needed a supernatural vision and direct orders from God before he would take the gospel to Gentile Cornelius and his family (10:9-20). Upon his return to Jerusalem Peter then had to face Christian brothers who were disturbed by his crossing of the barrier between Jews and Gentiles (11:1-3). When the word circulated that Gentiles in Syrian Antioch had received Christ some members of the Jerusalem church took it upon themselves to travel to Antioch to insist that these Gentiles could not reach Christ except through Moses—they must be circumcised! (15:1). The “selective evangelism” which is common among us today—an evangelism which reaches out primarily to “our kind” of people—indicates that this lesson has not yet been fully learned.
In addition to the barrier of racism, those early Christians crossed also the barrier of religious error. Closed-minded Judaism and zealous paganism threw formidable roadblocks in the way of Christian advance. On the day of Pentecost the preaching in Jerusalem was addressed to Jews, though residents of many other lands, both Jews and proselytes, heard the good news (2:6-11, 14-40). Wherever Paul and his associates worked, they preached to Jews and to Gentiles, pointing them to Christ as the answer in their quest for God. These early Christians held firmly that religion is not enough, so they proclaimed without apology the message which the apostle Peter had expressed eloquently in a tense situation in Jerusalem: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (4:12).
The barriers of culture likewise did not deter the believers from propagating their faith. They went where people were, and shared their knowledge of Christ with all who would listen. They communicated the gospel with a crippled beggar (3: 1-10) and with a Roman king (26: 1-23). They led the proconsul of the island of Cyprus to Christ (13:4-12) and shared their faith with the natives and leaders of the island of Malta (28:1-11).
The apostle Paul was uniquely equipped to lead out in carrying the gospel across such barriers as race and religion, language and culture. Growing up in a Gentile city and thoroughly trained in Judaism, he was equally at home with Gentiles and Jews. He was a cosmopolitan man. Long before Paul accepted Christ as Lord, God was preparing him as “a chosen vessel” to carry the gospel to the Gentiles.
It is the account of the great day of Pentecost that underlines with impressive eloquence the fact that the Christian mission is to all people. On that day the followers of Christ were empowered by God to proclaim the gospel in languages which they had never used before (2:6). The hearers marveled and asked: “How is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (2:8). Was it necessary for God to perform this miracle for the hearers to understand? The answer is that they did not need to be addressed in their own language, for they understood Peter when he followed with a message in the dialect of that land. They understood him well enough for three thousand to be converted to Christ. Why then the multiplicity of tongues? This writer is convinced that one reason is that God was making clear that the gospel was not alone for Jews, but for Medes and Mesopotamians, for Arabs and Romans—for every person (2:9-11). God spoke to every man as he enabled his preachers to address the people, group by group, in what has been called “the language of their hearts.”
And the disciples took their Lord seriously. They sought to win to Christ every person they could reach. Their inclusive evangelism is a challenge to us to seek to communicate the gospel to all kinds of people. The evangelism we find in the book of Acts, at its mature level, ruled no one out. It drew the circle of compassion large enough to include every person and “every kind” of person. It furnishes a challenging example for Southern Baptists and for all contemporary Christians.
The methods of the first century are basic to effective evangelism today. We must use every contemporary communications medium available to us to proclaim the glad tidings of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. We must proclaim the gospel faithfully to the masses. We must place the person-to-person sharing of that faith at the top of the list. This was effective in the first century and it is still effective nineteen centuries later.
The best thing to be said about the evangelistic methods in Acts is that methodology emerged as the people sought and followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The best methods apart from the power of God will be fruitless; and imperfect methods, accompanied by the power of the Spirit, will be fruitful. Lives are transformed, the church is built up, and Christ is honored when his servants use the wisest available methodology, witness boldly, and depend upon the Holy Spirit for guidance and power.
|↑1||All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.|
|↑2||See 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:15, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18.|
|↑3||4:2; 13:5, 38; 15:36; 16:17, 21; 17:3, 13, 23. See also anaggello (14:27; 15:4) and apaggello (20:20, 27).|
|↑4||1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31; 22:15; 26:16. See also marturion (4:33).|
|↑5||2:40; 8:25; 10:42; 18:5; 20:21, 24; 23:11; 28:23. See also martureo (23:11; 26:22).|
|↑6||17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9; 20:7, 9; 24:12, 25.|
Note that this word is used only from chapter 17 onward and evaggelizo and kataggello are used predominantly in chapters 1-17. Does this reflect a shift toward dialogue in Paul’s witness?
|↑7||A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930-33), 3:267.|
|↑8||Note the sermons reported at 2:14-36; 7:2-53, 56; 13:16-41.|