“Someone asks, “What is the core of the gospel?” This person hears preaching from the pulpit, through television, on the radio, via the internet, by video, cassettes and CD’s. “None of it stirs my soul,” she says. “Nothing grabs my emotions, challenges my mind, motivates my will. What is the heart of the Christian message that once turned the world upside down?”
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They had little money and minimal education. There was no business plan, no human sponsorship, no institutional presence. Mass media was unheard of and mass transportation did not yet exist. Yet within one generation 13 plain men and their unremarkable helpers spread the Jesus message 1,400 miles westward from Jerusalem to imperial Rome, 3,300 miles southeast to India and throughout the Roman Empire in every direction people could go. In the book we call Acts of the Apostles, Luke encapsulates some of the details involving the common men through whom the Spirit of the risen and ascended Jesus of Nazareth accomplished these marvelous results. Most of these messengers lost their lives in the process–but gladly, because of the value they placed on the message they bore. Luke summarizes a few of the most significant messages by men who would choose execution rather than renounce the message they proclaimed.
It started in Jerusalem with Peter addressing a pilgrimage crowd of thousands ad lib, including many who recently had engineered Jesus’ crucifixion. You killed Jesus the Son of God, Peter declared, but God raised him from the dead and titled him “Lord” and “Christ.” Now Jesus has sent his Spirit to fulfill the ancient prophecies, so turn your hearts to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:22-38). Soon there came a public healing followed by a public hearing, mass arrests and another explanation to the Jewish high court (Acts 3-4). Again the message was simple. In your ignorance you murdered Jesus the prince of life. God raised him from the dead–we saw him alive ourselves–and he commands you to repent. Jesus’ name has power to heal lame bodies and sick souls. They spoke out everywhere, those apostles. Arrests follow, an angelic jail-break, confrontation by the rulers and a re-telling of the message (Acts 6). You killed Jesus on the cross, Peter charges, but the God of our ancestors raised him from the grave and exalted him beside himself in heaven. Now God gives repentance and remission of sins to all who do not refuse it.
An evangelist named Stephen tells the story, is mobbed and killed with rocks (Acts 7). While it happens he tells the larger story of God and his people Israel through the centuries. More often than not the people reject God’s messengers and they do it again with Stephen. Phillip encounters an Ethiopian on the run, tells him the Jesus story and baptizes him then and there (Acts 8). At the Spirit’s order, Peter shares the story with an Italian family–how Jesus did people good and was killed in response; how God raised him from the dead; how Jesus commissioned his eyewitnesses to tell everyone; whoever repents is forgiven (Acts 10). Saul the Jewish persecutor becomes Paul the story-teller to the nations, travels throughout the Mediterranean world and tells the Jesus story to all who will hear. In synagogues in Antioch and Iconium (Acts 13-14), in public squares at Lystra (Acts 14) and in Athens (Acts 17). To Jews, the story is the grand climax to their own ancient story; to Gentiles it is news of the Creator who reaches out to all humanity and commands repentance in response.
Interesting what we don’t find in Acts–no moralisms or religious duties, no joining a particular church, no talk of self-esteem or keys to worldly success. The story is Jesus, killed by men but raised by God, who gives authority to Jesus and repentance to humankind, a new start in a new world. With this story God turned the world upside-down (actually right-side-up) and history and civilization has never been the same. The same God is still in charge, the same Spirit still at work, the same story still true and–when the story goes out straight and unvarnished–the same results still follow. A world is waiting. Who will tell the story now?