Evangelism in the Book of Acts
Lessons from the Early Church
Acts 1:8 records Jesus Christ saying to a group of his followers, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (all Scripture quotations are from the ESV).
According to that account, those are the last words that Jesus spoke on this earth. Therefore, it must be extremely important to Jesus that his followers bear witness about him. That conviction about the importance of bearing witness to Jesus is embraced by many Christians and by many mission agencies. One such mission agency is DestiNATIONS International, whose purpose can be seen in their motto: “Christ’s last command our first priority” (http://www.biblicalmennonite.com/destinations_international.html).
It is not difficult to understand that as followers of Christ it is important that we witness about him. But what does that mean? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, some of the definitions of the word “witness” include “the attestation of a fact or event (testimony)”, “one who has a personal knowledge of something”, and “public affirmation by word or example of usually religious faith or conviction.” Did the earliest followers of Jesus attest to his life, death, and resurrection and affirm their personal knowledge about his redemptive work? The book of Acts provides a record of the disciples’ commitment to obeying those last words of Jesus.
According to John Polhill, Acts 1:8 is the theme verse for the entire book of Acts. The witness that the disciples bore about Jesus is the major theme of Acts. Polhill developed a helpful chart in the ESV Study Bible (p. 2076) that provides an overview of how that theme is developed in Acts. That chart looks at such issues as the scope of the witness, the power for the witness, the message of the witness, and the fruit of witnessing and forms the foundation for many of the thoughts in this paper. Evangelism is such a significant theme of the book of Acts that many of our points will be interrelated. Many lessons can be learned from the book of Acts as we see how the earliest followers of Christ gave public affirmation of their faith in him.
The Scope of the Witness
The scope of Jesus’ plan for witnessing can be found in Acts 1:8 (unless otherwise noted all further Scripture references are from the book of Acts). The range of operation for witnessing is to be the entire world – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The geographical scope of this verse provides a sort of outline for the entire book of Acts. The witness of the disciples begins in Jerusalem in chapters 1-7, moves to Judea and Samaria in chapter 8-12, and advances to the ends of the earth in chapters 13-28. Jerusalem came first in the list because it was a city central to Jesus’ ministry and was also where the disciples were to start their ministry. As Jesus’ ministry led him to Jerusalem, the ministry of his disciples led them from Jerusalem (NAC, 86).
Judea and Samaria can be understood together. Both would have been considered part of Israel, although Samaria would have had a significant non-Jewish population. The book of Acts ends in Rome, which can be understood as being the “ends of the earth.” That expression can also be understood in the sense of distant lands (as suggested by Isaiah 49:6). At the end of the book, Paul is preaching unhindered in Rome (28:31), suggesting that the message is on its way to the ends of the earth and that its journey is continuing (NAC, 86).
In addition to being designed for all parts of the world, the message about Jesus Christ is also designed to reach all kinds of people. The Gospel was first preached to Jews (chapter 2), but was also made available to Samaritans (8:4-40) and Gentiles (10:1-11:18). The witness extended to the physically handicapped and to pagan mountain people in 14:8-18, to a prominent merchant in 16:11-15, to a jailer and his family in 16:25-34, to Greek philosophers in 17:22-31, and to governors and kings in 24:24-27 and 26:1-29 (ESVSB, 2076). The book of Acts presents a Gospel that is inclusive of all people and transcends cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, political, and economic boundaries on its route to the ends of the earth.
The Providence of God in Witnessing
The providence of God can be seen in how he cared for and preserved his witnesses. In Acts the lives of the witnesses were constantly threatened by mobs, religious leaders, and storms. In 3:1-10 Peter and John were involved in the healing of a lame man, which led to their arrest in 4:1-22 (ESVSB, 2076). Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit (4:8) and gave a bold answer to the religious leaders. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition” (v. 13-14).
In this passage we can see God providing his witnesses with courage to speak, as well as with a sign that their opponents could not deny (the healed man). This passage also teaches us about the importance of spending time with Jesus, as the religious leaders recognized that the power of Peter and John came not from education, but rather from their connection with Jesus.
Another example of God’s providence in protecting his witnesses can be seen in Acts 19:23-41. A silversmith named Demetrius started a riot among the residents of Ephesus because Paul was turning many people away from their gods. The lives of Paul and his two companions were in danger until the town clerk intervened. In another incident, Paul’s nephew uncovered a threat on Paul’s life before it materialized, and Paul was again spared (23:12-22). In 24:1-23, Paul stood on trial before Felix. Felix treated Paul fairly, allowing his friends to look after his needs even though he was being kept in custody. 27:21-26 records how God spared Paul’s life during a severe storm on the open sea (ESVSB, 2076).
God’s providence is shown in how he protected his witnesses, although it is also important that faithful witnesses be prepared to suffer persecution and even death for the sake of the Gospel. In 5:17-42 the apostles were arrested, but were then miraculously released from prison. They were called to stand before the religious leaders and were beaten. Amazingly, the disciples left “…rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (5:41) and they continued to preach the Gospel. In 7:54-60 Stephen was stoned to death for his belief in Jesus Christ (ESVSB, 2076). James, the brother of John, also paid the ultimate price for his testimony as he was beheaded at the hands of King Herod (12:1-2).
The Power for Witnessing
The only logical explanation for the witnessing influence of the early church is that Jesus was serious when he promised that his disciples would receive power at the coming of the Holy Spirit (1:8). 2:1-3 records the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. On that occasion the Spirit gave the believers the ability to speak in many different languages. The believers used that ability to declare God’s mighty works to those present. In 2:17-21 Peter quoted Joel 2:28-32, which states, among other things, that God will pour out his Spirit on both his male and female servants. According to 2:38, the Holy Spirit will be given to those who repent and receive baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts the Holy Spirit is presented as providing power for witnessing and as a gift given to all believers (ESVSB, 2076).
The Holy Spirit is shown to be directly involved in the witnessing of the early Christians. In 4:8 Peter was filled with the Spirit as he gave an answer to the religious leaders. The Spirit gave him courage to declare the message about Jesus Christ. Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit as he delivered the message that led to his stoning (7:55). In 8:17 Peter and John laid their hands on a group of Samaritan believers who had not yet received the Spirit. There was a man named Simon who wanted to pay Peter and John so that he could also have the ability to give people the Holy Spirit. Peter and John refused to do so, but this passage does demonstrate that 1) the Holy Spirit is a free gift and 2) the Holy Spirit was recognized as having power (8:18-23) (ESVSB, 2076).
In 10:44-48 the Holy Spirit came upon a group of Gentile believers. The Spirit gave them the power to speak in tongues, a power which they used to praise God. These last two passages are significant because they demonstrate that the Spirit is available to believers of any background. 13:2 records the Spirit speaking to the church to set apart Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work to which he had called them. In that case the Spirit was involved in directing Barnabas and Saul toward their evangelistic journey. 19:6 is another instance of the Spirit giving to believers the ability to speak in tongues. 19:21 is also a significant reference to the Spirit, as the Spirit is shown to be at work in the life of Paul as he sought to spread the Gospel (ESVSB, 2076).
The power of the Spirit can also be seen in the signs and wonders that accompanied the ministry of the apostles. The miracles that the apostles performed served to validate the truth of the Gospel and open the door for them to witness. Chapter 3, which we discussed in the previous section, is a significant example of this fact (ESVSB, 2076).
Paul’s ministry was accompanied by a number of miracles. In 20:9-12 Paul raised Eutychus from the dead and in 28:3-6 he survived a snake bite. 19:11 provides a summary statement of Paul’s ministry by saying that God was doing many miracles through Paul. These miracles are expressions of the power that God was giving to the church.
The Church and the Witness
Through the book of Acts the church has a prominent role in the spread of the Gospel. 2:42-47 is a riveting description of the early church. That passage begins by stating that the believers were devoted to the teaching of the apostles. The dedication of those early converts can be seen in their desire to receive instruction about the Gospel. In that way the apostles were being obedient to Jesus’ last command. Jesus taught with authority during his earthly ministry, and in 1:8 he delegated that authority to his disciples, who taught in his name. The subject of their teaching was the good news about Jesus – what he said and what he accomplished as the Messiah. The Gospel about Jesus was emphasized during the public worship services of the church (Hendriksen and Kistemaker, 110).
2:42-47 also mentions the church’s commitment to prayer and presents the church as experiencing unity, which no doubt played a major role in the fact that “…the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47). The church is presented in a similar fashion in 4:32-37. The unity of the church can be seen in the fact that the believers “were of one heart and soul” (as stated in 4:32). 4:33 is also of interest, as it mentions that the apostles were testifying to Jesus’ resurrection. These verses serve to highlight the role of the church in spreading the Gospel. As Polhill asserts, “Effective witness demands the unity of the church” (ESVSB, 2076). There does seem to be a certain evangelistic power in a unified church. It is also important to remember that the church in Acts was a praying church (e.g., 1:24, 4:31, 12:12, and 13:3).
The Message and Ministry of the Witnesses
In reading the book of Acts it is soon discovered that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a central tenet of the Gospel. After Jesus’ ascension, his disciples realized they needed to find a replacement for Judas Iscariot. According to 1:22, they sought a replacement disciple who could be a witness with them of Jesus’ resurrection. In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost he testified about Jesus’ resurrection (2:32). Peter’s sermon is also significant because he articulated the response that is demanded by the Gospel – repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus, which leads to forgiveness of sins (2:38). That response is necessary in order to receive the Holy Spirit. The significance of the resurrection can also be seen in Paul’s address to the philosophers in Athens (17:31) (ESVSB, 2076).
There are two factors at work in process of hearers accepting the Gospel that is preached to them. Those factors are the sovereignty of God and the response of humans. The sovereignty of God can be seen in statements such as “the Lord added to their number” (from 2:47), “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance” (from 11:18), and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (from 13:48). There is also an element of human response in the salvation process, as can be seen in Peter’s statement to his hearers to repent and be baptized. In 26:29 Paul stated that he wished that King Agrippa and all the others who heard him would become as he was, which seems to imply that they had some say in whether or not they received salvation (ESVSB, 2076). Divine sovereignty and human response both play a role in salvation.
Through their work Jesus’ witnesses were continuing the ministry that he had begun during his time on earth. In Acts there are many parallels between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of his apostles, primarily Paul. Those parallels are mainly found near the end of the book and include such things as miracles, foreboding about a journey to Jerusalem, the shouting of an angry Jewish mob, and a trial before a governor and king. Acts 1:1 records Luke as saying that in his first book (the Gospel of Luke) he recorded what Jesus had begun to do. That sets the reader up to see how that ministry is continued through the apostles in Luke’s second book (ESVSB, 2076).
A number of the miracles in Acts have already been noted. The parallels to Jesus’ ministry in that regard are seen in the raising of the dead and the healing of the sick. In 20:36-21:16 there was sorrow among the believers as Paul prepared to travel to Jerusalem, where he would experience mistreatment. That episode parallels what we know about Jesus from Luke 9:22, 13:31-34, and 18:31-34. Paul encountered an angry mob in 21:36, as Jesus did in Luke 23:18. Finally, Paul stood on trial before a governor and a king in chapters 24-26, which Jesus had also done in Luke 23:1-25 (ESVSB, 2076).
The Fruit of Witnessing
The results of the faithful declaration of the Gospel can be seen in many places throughout Acts as the Gospel demonstrates its tremendous power among all types of people. After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost 3,000 people became followers of Christ (2:41). After Peter and John were arrested by the religious leaders the size of the church increased to 5,000 people (4:4). According to 11:20-21, a large number of Greek-speaking people came to faith through the preaching of unnamed Christians. In 13:48-49 Paul and Barnabas experienced similar results with a similar group. Paul and Silas later led many Greeks and a number of prominent women to faith (17:4) (ESVSB, 2076).
At another point Paul is “occupied with the word” (18:5). After encountering fierce opposition from the Jews, he directed his attention to the Gentiles, and led to faith many Corinthians, in addition to the entire household of Crispus, a synagogue ruler (18:6-11). 21:20 makes reference to thousands of Jews who had come to faith. It is fitting that this book, which records tremendous growth in the church, ends on a note of the successful advancement of the Gospel. In the final two verses of Acts, we find Paul under house arrest in Rome, where he “…welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30-31) (ESVSB, 2076). Despite the opposition, the Gospel continued to advance to the ends of the earth.
In light of all that we have examined, what specific lessons about evangelism can we take away from our look at Acts? The scope of our mission field is worldwide – all types of people from all places of the world. God extends his providence in order to protect and sustain his witnesses, although faithful witnesses must also be willing to bear reproach for the sake of their testimony. The Holy Spirit is a gift given to all believers and provides power for witnessing. In Acts the church was important in the spreading of the Gospel. The evangelistic power can be traced to both its unity and its commitment to prayer. The resurrection of Jesus was one of the primary pillars of the Gospel message as presented in Acts. As the disciples faithfully obeyed Jesus’ command to be his witness, Jesus was faithful to his promise to provide them with the power they need for the task. Will Jesus provide power for witnessing to people who do not witness? Are we willing to do our part in the task of world evangelism and subsequently give Jesus the opportunity to do his part by providing us with the Holy Spirit? Everything that was available to the church in Acts is also available to us today. Therefore, we have no excuse for not responding to Jesus’ command to go into all the world.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
DestiNATIONS International (DNI).” Accessed June 20, 2013. http://www.biblicalmennonite.com/destinations_international.html.
Hendriksen, William and Simon J. Kistemaker. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 17. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Eleventh ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.
Polhill, John. Acts. In The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
_______. Acts. The New American Commentary. Vol. 26. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.