In the beginning God spoke and all creation responded. Planets and stars, land and water, flowers and bugs all took their place on the canvas of creation. God’s artistry sparkled with beauty and brilliance.
Unfortunately, the human creature tends to color outside the lines. As a result, a creation that should display only the glory of God is vandalized by the obnoxious graffiti of man. Oh, why can’t we just respond to our Maker like the rest of creation!?
Perhaps we would listen to God if we just knew Him better. Okay. So, God came in the flesh. We saw the truth and grace of God in the way Jesus lived (John 1:14-18). We witnessed the holiness and love of God in the way Jesus died. Surely now we will gladly respond to our Creator’s voice!
Yet, when the good news of Jesus echoed out from the Spirit of God humanity received it with mixed reviews. Some bowed their knees in acceptance, others raised their fists in anger, and most just slept through the presentation. This is the story of Acts.
In the opening scenes you expect human hearts to be drawn to their Savior like metal to a magnet. But, the response to the gospel was a mixed bag.
The Gospel is Opposed
First, the gospel of peace aroused a hostile resistance. The followers of Jesus were “the sect spoken against everywhere” (Acts 28:22). “If they persecuted Me,” Jesus said, “they will also persecute you” (Matt. 5:10-12; John 15 :18-20). Those who enjoy the slumber of sin recoil in anger to the light of the gospel (John 3:19-21).
Surprisingly, the most violent resistance to the gospel came from the religious! Those who claimed to know God were disgusted by His voice and brutal to His family. They were “greatly disturbed” by the teaching and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:2). Motivated by jealousy and anger (Acts 5:7,33; 7:54; 13:45), they employed the fleshly tools of intimidation, slander, imprisonment, and violence to silence grace of God (Acts 4:13-22; 5:17-42; 7:54-8:3; 9:23-25; 17:5-9; 18:4-6). Yet, the beat of the gospel played on!
The sword of opposition was then picked up by a secular and pagan society. The holiness of the gospel restricted their immorality. The exclusiveness of the gospel threatened their idolatry. The carnal culture responded by organizing rallies against the gospel (Acts 19:21-41). They pressured local governments to regulate these “righteous renegades” who are “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). They used imprisonment and violence to stomp out the memory of Jesus (Acts 14:4; 16:16-24). Yet, the gospel lived on!
Finally, the government got involved. At first, the rulers often restrained the violent attacks against the disciples (Acts 16:38; 19:21-41; 21:31-32; 25:11). After all, Christianity is not interested in overthrowing the government, only sin. One of Luke’s purposes in Acts is to show that disciples of Jesus were not criminals. Their arrest and mistreatment were unjust. The conflict was stirred up, not by Christians, but by those who hated the gospel. Nevertheless, Paul’s “preacher’s study” was often a Roman prison cell. Acts ends with the government’s chain around the apostle Paul (Acts 28:20), and within a few years there was a government noose around the neck of the church (Rev. 13:7). Yet, the gospel marched on (Acts 28:31)!
So, Be Prepared…
How should disciples react to such opposition? First, we must not be discouraged. Hostility is expected, and our acceptance of it is proof of our fellowship with Jesus (Acts 5:41; 1 Pet. 4:12-16). We “rejoice to partake of Christ’s sufferings.”
Secondly, we must express grace to the oppressors. We “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Stephen prayed for the salvation of his executioners (Acts 7:60). Paul worked for the salvation of his jailer (Acts 16:30-34). The disciples faced hostile audiences with caring hearts and respectful words (Acts 21:37-ff; 24:10-ff; 26:1-ff). The tactics of the gospel differ greatly from the tactics of the world (2 Cor. 10:1-6).
Thirdly, we must have the courage to continue. When the heat was turned up, the disciples were just warming up to “speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31; 5:41-42; 8:4; 13:45-46; 14:19-20, etc.).
The Gospel is Accepted
The main story of Acts is not the pain of persecution, but the joy of salvation. The Spirit’s gospel breathed life into dead souls. It brought forgiveness to sinners (Acts 2, 9), unity between races (Acts 10:34; 14:27; 15:5-21; Jew/Gentile), and the realization of God’s promises to the faithful (Acts 8:26-39; 16:11-15; 18:24-28; 19:1-5). Truly, the gospel changed world history, but more importantly it changed souls eternally.
How did the gospel transform lives?
First, the wonder of God’s grace exposed the ugliness of human sin. Those who accepted the gospel grieved over their rebellion and feared their condemnation (Acts 2:37; 9:9; see John 16:7-10). The gospel is not seen as “good news” until we understand the sad news of our sin.
This led people to ask for help. It is wonderful how often people begged for application! “What must we do?” “How can I understand?” “What does this mean?” “Can I be baptized?” (Acts 2:37; 8:31,34,36; 9:5,6; 16:30; 17:11,19; cry for help preceded deliverance in Judges). The mind that is manipulated into response rarely endures. Change is the result of a seeking heart.
What they learned changed their thinking. The gospel led them out of synagogues and temples. It caused them to leave jobs and communities. They burned the bridges to the past (Acts 19:18-19), and adopted a new passion for life. Such repentance was necessary for “times of refreshing” to come from the Lord (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; “turned to the Lord” 9:35; 11:21; 15:19; 26:20; 28:27)).
When the gospel was received people were baptized. There are no, “prayers of faith” for salvation in Acts. It is Jesus who taught his disciples how to receive the gospel, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16; Matt. 28:20). Therefore, wherever the gospel went believers were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38,41; 8:12, 38; 10:48; 16:15,33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16).
The saved then began to serve. They were devoted to the fellowship of believers, and passionate about saving souls (Acts 2:42-47; 4:23-37; 6:1-7; 8:4; 13:1-3, etc.). The bulk of the work in Acts is not carried out by Twelve Apostles, but by thousands of ordinary believers. The gospel is about Jesus saving and serving sinners, and those who are transformed by the gospel act like Him.
The servants were characterized by joy! Yes, the opposition hurt, and repentance was hard, but those problems were submerged beneath the joy of their salvation (2:46; 8:8,39; 13:48; 15:31; 16:34; 21:17). The gospel sows a joy that circumstances cannot take away.
So, let’s share the Good News. The power to change lives does not reside in you, but in the work of Christ and the word of God (2 Cor. 4:7). The gospel is the power of God for salvation, so live it and share it.
The Gospel is Ignored
Beneath the wild waves of the gospel’s opposition and success, lies a deep sea of indifference. Acts pokes our head under the surface at times to see this “ho-hum” response to the gospel. Yes, a few thousand became Christians in Jerusalem, but they were still a small minority. The self-proclaimed geniuses in Athens laughed at the gospel and went on (Acts 17:32). Agrippa thought Paul was crazy (Acts 26:24), and Felix couldn’t find time for a Bible study (Acts 24:25).
The spread of the gospel wasn’t about just guts and glory. Like today, the gospel was a pleasant tune on a radio station no one wanted to listen to. So, don’t get discouraged when people are indifferent. Keep sharing the gospel until someone tunes in.
People respond to the gospel in many ways, but the most important question is, “How am I responding?”
“Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Cor. 16:14).
First Bit! Read Shane Scott’s articles about Understanding the Times. They are an excellent description of the opposition to the gospel in Acts and how it applies today! Really, they are worth the read!
Second Bit! A few years ago we had a special issue of Focus Magazine entitled, “Sharing the Gospel with a Friend.” In that issue I wrote an article, “How Should We Respond to the Gospel.” It was intended to be a practical way to show someone how to be saved.
How Should We Respond To The Gospel?
The Gospel Response: Future, Present and Past
The inspired preaching in the book of Acts highlights the foundational truth that the gospel is about Jesus Christ. It is about His perfect life, His atoning death, His victorious resurrection, and His glorious ascension into heaven where He reigns as Lord of all. When people were confronted with these truths about Jesus they became crushingly aware of their own sinfulness. It was at this point they were told how they should respond to the gospel.
Many of our friends and family are in this situation. They believe in the saving work of Jesus. They confess their own sinfulness. It is in the area of how they should respond to the gospel that Satan has distorted their thinking. He deceives some to believe no response is required because God will save the morally “good” people. He has others thinking they have done such awful things they could never be saved. But, perhaps the most prevalent way Satan works is by distorting the way people respond to the gospel. He substitutes a “prayer of faith,” an emotional experience, or a priest’s touch for God’s chosen response to the work of Jesus. As a result people think they have received the grace of the gospel when they haven’t properly responded to it.
This is why it is important we know how to clearly communicate the gospel message and how people are to respond to it. One way to do this is through an approach I’ll call, “The gospel response: future, present and past.” This approach recognizes the unique contribution each section of the New Testament makes to the story of salvation. Simply put, the gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John look forward (future) to how people will be saved. The book of Acts describes how people are saved (present). The letters look back (past) on how believers were saved.
Jesus Tells The Apostles How People Will Be Saved.
Looking To The Future
The Apostles Tell People How To Be Saved.
Looking At The Present
The Apostles Remind Saints How They Were Saved.
Looking At The Past
One advantage to this approach is all you need is your Bible. Sometimes people are turned off when you use a book in addition to the Bible. They feel like they are being indoctrinated into some system. Another advantage is that it is sequential. You just start at the beginning of the New Testament and work your way through to the end. This helps your friend trust that you’re not just jumping from one text to another to prove a point. A final advantage is this approach can be accomplished in one session. It usually takes about an hour.
Here is how it works.
The Setting: Select a quiet place where you can talk. Bring paper and pens for both you and your friend. You will help your friend write down their conclusions as you study through the text. This will be an invaluable resource for them in the future.
Their Story: If your friend believes they are saved begin by asking them to describe how they were saved. Make note of this on your paper. Don’t make any judgments. Just listen at this point. You may use this later to show how what they did differs with what the Bible teaches.
The Scriptures: The Gospels Look Forward To Salvation. Turn their attention to the Bible by asking, “Have you ever read what Jesus said about how we should respond to the gospel?” After summarizing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus show them how the gospel accounts end with Jesus giving His apostles a great commission. Then read Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-48. Make sure you and your friend write down each passage, and list the things Jesus told His disciples to do. You will develop a list that looks like this:
|What Jesus Taught The Apostles To Say About Salvation|
|Matthew 28:18-20||• Go make disciples
• teach them all things
|Mark 16:15-16||• Go preach to all
|Luke 24:26-49||• Repentance
• remission of sins
You may want to point out that the gospel of John doesn’t end the same way as Matthew, Mark and Luke, but you can go to John 3:1-21 and see what Jesus taught about being born again.
The Scriptures: The Book Of Acts Describes How People Are Saved. At this point you ask your friend, “I wonder if the disciples did what Jesus told them to?” Then say, “Let’s turn to the book of Acts which shows exactly what the disciples did with the gospel of Jesus.”
Open to Acts 1 and tell the story of Jesus’ ascension and how the apostles were charged to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). Then say, “The first time they preached Jesus is in Acts 2 and this is what happened…” Explain how Peter preached the gospel and how the people responded. Then record on your paper everything the apostles did and how the people responded. You should have a list that looks exactly like the list you developed from Great Commission statement of Jesus. Then tell your friend, “Isn’t it great? They did just what Jesus told them to do!”
Lead them to other conversion stories in Acts by saying, “Let’s see if people continued to respond to the gospel in the same way.” Remember to write each Scripture on your paper and list the things people did to respond to the gospel. Each story of conversion will allow you an opportunity to emphasize the proper response to the gospel. Here is a list of conversion stories you can use and some things you can emphasize.
- The Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25). The gospel is for all! Everyone can teach the gospel (8:4). You don’t need some special degree or ordination.
- The Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-39). Preaching Jesus means teaching about baptism. Baptism was done immediately. Baptism is immersion.
- Saul (Acts 9:1-18; 22:1-16; 26:12-18). At this point I usually say, “Surely, out of all the people in the New Testament Saul (“Paul”) must be saved. Don’t you want to be saved like him?” Note that prayer and fasting did not take away Paul’s sins (22:16).
- Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48; 11:1-18). The gospel is for all.
- Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). Salvation is followed by service to the saints.
- The Jailer (Acts 16:25-34). Baptism is immediate. Repentance is necessary.
- The Ephesians (Acts 19:1-20). They were receptive to the full teaching about Jesus. They sacrificially repented of their sins.
Many other conversion stories can be used, but these will suffice to show that people responded to the gospel in just the same way Jesus said they should.
The Scriptures: The Letters Look Back At Salvation. Now, you are ready for the final section of the New Testament, the letters. Explain how the letters were written to Christians who often forgot to live out their faith in Jesus. Remembering how they were saved in the first place would help them get back on track.
You can use the following verses.
- Romans 5:1-11. The role of faith and the gospel.
- Romans 6:1-14. The role of baptism and the gospel. The necessity of repentance and faithfulness.
- Galatians 3:26-28. In a letter that condemns salvation by works Paul emphasizes the role of faith and baptism in salvation.
- Colossians 2:11-14. Salvation is God’s work not ours.
- 1 Peter 3:21-22. Baptism saves one from the wrath of God.
I often draw simple pictures that represent the truths found in these passages for those who are more visually oriented. Many other Scriptures can be used, but again these emphasize that believers responded to the gospel in the same way Jesus told them they should.
The Summary: By this point your friend should have a clear understanding of how a person should respond to the gospel. You might tell them how you responded to Jesus and received forgiveness. You might ask them how their salvation story compares to what you’ve just studied. If they need to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, or repent of some sin, or start living more faithfully, encourage them to act on these things. When these things were taught the Bible says, “Believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14). May it be so today!
(Focus Magazine June-July, 2011)