What comes to mind when you think about a sermon? With different denominations, worship styles and agendas, sermons today sometimes can feel more like motivational speeches or platforms for social issues. Contrary to these styles of preaching, Belgic Confession article 29 says that one of the marks of a true church is “if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein.” Are there biblical examples for what “right doctrine preached” should look like? The book of Acts contains about ten sermons, so we will look at the first one recorded to see what a typical early church sermon looked like.
Context and Contents
The sermon is found in Acts 2:14-36 and was given by Peter at Pentecost to the Jewish people who were there observing the festival in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1, 5). The apostles were there when the Holy Spirit fell on them, and they began speaking in “other tongues” or languages (Acts 2:4). Those who gathered were from different parts of the world and spoke different languages, but they understood the apostles. This caused some of the people to accuse them of being drunk (Acts 2:8-12), but it was because of this accusation that Peter began his sermon.
In the sermon, Peter included scriptural truths as the basis of the sermon by describing how Jesus fulfilled prophesies from Joel and Psalms (Acts 2:17-21, 25-28, 34-35). He spoke of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 2:32), and of sin by telling those listening that they were the ones who crucified Jesus (Acts 2:36). He mentioned the theological concepts of God’s sovereignty and providence by confirming that the things that happened to Jesus were in accordance with the foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). He also provided a logical basis for having faith in Jesus by reminding the crowd that “we are all witnesses [of the resurrection] (Acts 2:32).” At the end of the sermon, he called the crowd to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38).
Even with all that was recorded in these verses, the Bible mentions that “with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them (Acts 2:40),” so this was not a short sermon. The results are almost impossible to believe: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).” This sermon was the building block of the entire church because as these believers continued in unity with each other, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).”
There are many things to observe about Peter’s sermon, but we will focus on three:
First, Peter was not afraid to discuss sin directly. The topic of sin is often avoided from the pulpit or mentioned in a generic way. Peter boldly reminded the crowd twice that they were the ones who killed Jesus and called them to repent. Acknowledgment of sin is necessary for those who do not yet believe because God uses that cut non-believers to the heart to bring them to repentance (Acts 2:37). Believers need to be reminded of sin so that we can repent and be cleansed as well (1 John 1:9).
Second, Peter’s message was a gospel message, showing how the death and resurrection of Jesus were necessary to bring salvation for those who believe (Acts 2:23). This truth is what separates a gospel message from an ordinary speech. Peter’s audience was almost certainly made up entirely of non-believers, so the gospel was necessary, but it is necessary for believers to hear as well. Paul mentions in Romans 1:15 that he was anxious to preach the gospel to the believers in Rome, showing we need to hear it often as well.
Thirdly, Peter spoke in strong theological terms. Pastors may shy away from speaking about theological concepts, but speaking theological is necessary for people to understand who God is and what He requires. While a sermon cannot be a graduate-level lecture of theology, many important concepts can be described in a basic way to help people grow in their knowledge of God.
If you are looking for a church to attend, let the sermons in Acts help guide what you should expect to hear in the preaching. As mentioned before, there are many other sermons recorded in the book of Acts, and the content of these other sermons is very similar to the first . This shows a consistency in the sermons of the early church even though they are given to different groups of people, so we should expect similar patterns today.
If you are already a member of a church, and if your pastor faithfully preaches in the spirit of the book of Acts, continue to pray for him to remain faithful in his preaching and be sure to encourage him while he labors in the work of the Lord.
See Acts 3:11–26, 10:34–43, 7:1–53, 13:16–47, 17:22–31, 20:18–35, 22:1–21, 24:10–21, 26:1–29 ↩︎