The Agora

What is Apostolic Preaching? Redemptive Historical, Gospel Centered and Christ Centered

One of the great regrets in my life is not to have visited All Souls’ Church in London while I was there on holiday. I wanted to meet the late great Christian leader John Stott and perhaps hear this ‘living legend’ preach a sermon. You know, I’ve this strange hobby to visit well-known churches, do the tourist thing and take photos with pastors that I admire like John Piper, Greg Boyd, Don Carson and others. But I missed that opportunity with “Uncle John”. He has passed away July last year. The next best thing that I can do now is to download his sermon podcast. 

What about you? Have you ever wished you had the chance to hear a sermon by John Sung, the great revivalist? Or John Wesley? Or Charles Spurgeon? Have you wondered what it is like to hear them preach? Or better still, what is it like to hear an apostle preach? It’s not every day that you get to listen to a sermon by an apostle, right? In those days, they didn’t have a video cam or Youtube. So you can’t download their sermons even if you want to. But this morning in CDPC we have the privilege to see what an apostle’s preaching is like. In case you are wondering, I’m referring to the Apostle Paul’s preaching. In the passage we read just now, we have the first recorded sermon that Paul preached during his first missionary journey. So it’s wonderful that I get the chance to preach somebody else’s sermon this morning.  

From this Bible passage, we learn 3 things about what the apostle’s preaching is like:

1) The apostle’s preaching is redemptive-historical in its presentation of Christ

2) The apostle’s preaching is grace-driven in its application of Christ

3) The apostle’s preaching is gospel-centered in its proclamation of Christ


In other words, apostolic preaching is centered on and grounded in the person of Christ. Over the years, you may have heard from the CDPC pulpit about our commitment to be Christ-centered, to be Word-centered and to be gospel-of-grace-centered. Well, all of these ingredients are found in the apostle Paul’s preaching here. From his sermon, we can learn a great deal about how we can share the good news in a Christ-centered way, how we read the Bible in a Christ-centered way (esp Old Testament) and how that can transform us to live in a more Christ-centered way.


Before diving into that, let us set the stage first. Two Sundays ago, we met a racially mixed, missional and sacrificial church in Syrian Antioch where the gospel first reached Gentiles in large numbers. Unlike Jerusalem which was predominantly Jewish, the Antioch church reflected the ethnic and social diversity around them. You can get a clue of that by just looking at their gifted team of preachers and teachers here in Acts 13. There was Barnabas (a Levite landowner from Cyprus), Simeon called Niger (probably a black man), Lucius (a Roman from Cyrene in North Africa), Manaen (an aristocrat who grew up with king Herod Antipas himself) and last but not least, you have Paul (a converted rightwing, fundamentalist Pharisee). Believe me; you don’t get any more diverse than that!  

Previously these people would never get together under the same roof, but now they were crossing over ethnic boundaries to worship, fast and pray together. And when they do that, the Spirit of God spoke to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Almost every spiritual revival in the church begins with this pattern of humble prayer and obedience to the voice of the Holy Spirit. In 1973, a group of high-school students in Bario Sarawak got together at night to pray for hours after class. God sovereignly moved among them. They were overwhelmed by deep repentance followed by weeping. Revival broke out with a group of 20 or 30 people including some teachers. During school holidays, these young people went back to their village, took the fire of the Spirit with them, urging their families to repent from sin and witchcraft. There were signs and wonders. The Spirit conviction caused people to fall on their knees and cry out for days. As a result of this revival, the Kelabit tribe turned to God… including Idris Jala who is now a minister at the Prime Minister’s Department.


Last week, as a church, we took first steps to start our monthly corporate prayer meetings. As we gather to pray and seek the Lord, we learn to discern what He has called us to do. Everyone here is most welcome to join this corporate prayer meeting. Let us come as a family to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit corporately. Let us come expecting to see great things from God and attempting great things for God as well.


After the Antioch church had discerned the call of the Spirit, they sent off their best leaders, Paul and Barnabas, to ministry OUTSIDE the walls of the church… to boldly plant churches in cities where no one had gone before. In the first missionary journey, Paul and his companions went down to Seleucia and sailed to the island of Cyprus. When they reached Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in Jewish synagogues. They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos where an important governor came to know the Lord.


The journey continues north to Perga, Pamphylia and Pisidia. When Paul reached a synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, the stage is set for the sermon that we have read a moment ago. This city called Antioch is not to be confused with the other Antioch in Syria which we saw earlier in Acts 11. The congregation was made up of both Jews who follow the Law of Moses as well as Gentiles god-fearers (that means they worship God and identified with biblical teachings in some ways but they did not fully convert to Second Temple Judaism). In those days, worship services would include Scripture readings followed by a message based on those texts from a respected teacher. Since Paul was a certified rabbi, it was not surprising that he was invited to stand up and speak. But what he said in his sermon was probably not what they had bargained for.



Which brings us to the first point about apostolic preaching: It is redemptive historical in its presentation of Christ.


Paul began his message by re-telling the story of Israel, the story of God’s redemption. It was God who chose their ancestors and made them grow in numbers. It was God who mightily brought them out of Egypt. It was God who put up patiently with their complaints in the desert. It was God who defeated the Canaanite nations and gave a land to His people. (400 years in Egypt plus 40 years in the wilderness plus about 10 years for the conquest of Canaan make up about 450 years.)


There is no surprise here. And his audience would look at him, nod their heads and go: “Yes, amen brother. Preach it. That’s who we are. That’s what our fathers did. That’s our story. See how gracious God has been to us.  ” 


So Paul went on: “After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. But the people asked for a king, so God gave them Saul and then king David: “a man after God’s own heart”. Again, it was God who sovereignly worked in history to do all these things. He’s in control. He chose them. He preserved them. He delivered them. He gave them the land. He gave them judges. He gave them kings. God is the source of every good thing that Israel has ever known.


You can see more nods and amens: “Yes, that’s who we are. That’s our story.”


And then, Paul drops the bombshell: “And from King David’s descendants, God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus just as he promised.” And their jaws dropped.


In other words, the entire history of Israel is a preparation for the coming of Jesus just as John the Baptist prepared the way for the promised Messiah. In fact, all the stories in the Old Testament (about Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Samson, David) are pointing to one big Story of Christ coming to rescue us. Every story whispers His name.


And John the Baptist represents all these heroes of the faith when he says: “Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. Look for Him who is to come after me. He must increase, and we must decrease.” In many ways, these heroes are our role models but if we reduce them to just role models and say “Be brave like David. Be faithful like Abraham. Be strong like Samson”, if we do that, we miss the point of the story. Because more often than not, they are not very faithful or strong or brave, are they? Neither are we. That’s why God’s progressive revelation in history reaches its climax, its goal, its destiny, its culmination in His gift of salvation in Jesus. We need a Savior. We need a Hero to fly to our rescue, crash through the walls and carry us home.


A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Sixth Sense for the second time. It was a bit sad, but it’s a wonderfully crafted story about a child psychologist Dr Crowe trying to help a six year old boy who claims that he could see spirits of dead people around him. The boy doesn’t understand his ‘sixth sense’ and he’s constantly afraid of what he sees. So the story is about how Dr Crowe tries to reach out and heal him. Was he sick or abused? Was he playing tricks? When I watched it the first time in 1999, I was totally blind-sided by the unexpected twist at the end of the movie. There were crucial clues, puzzles and hints all over the place but I didn’t see it until the truth is finally revealed at the end. It caught me by surprise and then everything takes on a new dimension. A lot of people experience that and say, “Man, I must go back and watch it again!” It’s like a good mystery novel that when you found out what the solution was at the end, you will have flash backs: “Oh ya hor! That explains everything. Why didn’t I see that before? The clues are so obvious. I should have seen that coming at the start.” So you had to watch the movie again… and this time, it’s a whole different movie because you knew the ending.  


In the same way, there are many stories in the Bible, but every story tells one Grand Story about God in Christ loving, redeeming and saving His people. Every page is about Jesus. He is like the final clue to a puzzle that lets you discover a fresh and unexpected way to read the Bible. With Jesus, everything takes on a whole new dimension.  


How does it work? How can we read the Old Testament in a Christ-centered way?


Well, Paul’s sermon gave us some clues: There is the theme of Old Testament promise that finds its fulfillment in New Testament. “The New Testament is concealed in the OT, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament”. So Paul quotes from Psalm 2, Psalm 16 and Isaiah 55 to show them that “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us by raising up Jesus”. His point is this: Because God raised Jesus from the dead, to an incorruptible life, and installed Him as the anointed king, the begotten ‘Son of God’; He can now fulfil all the promises of an everlasting Davidic kingdom and all the promises of salvation to the Gentiles. In fact, these promises are now being fulfilled in Paul’s own generation with his mission to the nations.


We can also trace how the theme of kingship develops along biblical history… How God is the king who established a covenant with Israel. But the people demanded a human king just like the pagan nations around them. So God gave them Saul who started out well, but he ended up in disobedience and defeat. Then God gave them King David, a man after God’s own heart, and established an everlasting dynasty with his descendants. But most of these human kings fail, abuse their power and turn to idols. And the kingdom fell into exile.


So where can we find an answer to this unresolved tension? Where can we find the perfect king? How will the kingdom be restored? The Old Testament storyline has loose ends, unsolved mysteries which cannot be resolved unless and until we reach its climax when the perfect King, Jesus, comes and sits on David’s throne forever.


We can also read the Old Testament Christocentric-ly by seeing King David himself as a type or symbol of Christ. He was a humble shepherd boy from Bethlehem anointed as king. That sets a pattern foreshadowing, prefiguring the greater Son of David who was also born in little Bethlehem and humbled Himself to the cross before claiming His crown. There are similarities, but there are also contrasts. Unlike David who fell into abuse of power, adultery and murder; the true Son of David was a man completely, perfectly and utterly after God’s own heart. David died and stayed in the grave but Jesus rose again.


That’s why the apostle’s sermon is redemptive-historical in its presentation of Christ. It sees the whole sweep of salvation history as a preparation for His coming.


The second point about apostolic preaching is: It is grace driven in its application of Christ.


The Buddhist society president in my college last time once told me that Buddhism teaches salvation by self-reliance. Even Buddha cannot save you. You can meditate on his moral example and seek to be like him. But you should not trust in anyone else to save you. You must develop wise actions, right thinking and skillful living for yourself. No one can do it for you. Self-reliance is the key. 


That’s very different from the Christian idea of grace. In many ways, Jesus is also our supreme example to follow. He cared for the sick and the poor, so should we. He welcomed the outcasts, so should we. He forgave His enemies, so should we. We really should. But if that is all we say about Jesus, then that is not the gospel. It’s good advice. It may even be good instruction. But it’s not good news.


Imagine the people of a kingdom seeking refuge and protection in their king’s fortress. Imagine the fortress looks like Helm’s Deep in LOTR. They are under siege from hordes of enemy trolls, goblins and orcs outside ready to storm the gates. And the king rides out with his army to meet them in battle. People are huddled up inside, waiting anxiously for the outcome. Then, a royal messenger comes in and says to them, “The walls have been breached, we need you guys to take up weapons and join the war”. That is not good news. Your response is to fight for your life. It’s good advice, but it’s not good news.


But if the king’s herald, the messenger rushes in, swings wide the door and says, “The king has won! He has defeated our enemies. You are all safe now”. That’s good news! What would be your response? Take up the sword? Run for your life? No, your only response is to rejoice and be thankful for the victory the king has won. Now you are saved. Now you can go home to your family. You may even help the king to clean up any surviving enemies who tried to get away. But the decisive battle has been won. It’s not about what you can do but about what the King has done. Your only response is to trust Him with your life.


That’s how Paul preached the “message of salvation”. It is not about you can contribute to your salvation, but about what the King has done. So he proclaimed the kerygma, the facts of the Jesus’ death and resurrection as fulfillment of God’s plan.


In verse 26 -32, he says: The people and rulers in Jerusalem conspired against Jesus and falsely condemned Him to death. So, how can a crucified Messiah be God’s chosen King? But God was not taken by surprise. In fact, it happened exactly as the prophets have said. What the bad guys did was horrible and sinful. But the evil actions of Herod, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate and all the people involved in the crucifixion of Jesus actually fulfilled the Scriptures that were read out in synagogues every Saturday. Men may do their worst but God is still in control. He’s sovereign. Unknowingly, they are carrying out all that was written about Jesus. And that’s not the end. God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day. It’s God’s seal of approval, His sign of vindication that Jesus is indeed the victorious, anointed King. This is good news: What God promised, he has fulfilled by raising Jesus from the grave.


Then verse 38 says: Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. 


Pastor Andy Wilson says it well: “The law cannot save us, but the gospel can. Of course, this is not to say that the law is a bad thing. On the contrary, as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12) The problem with the law is not the law itself. We are the problem. The reason why the law cannot save us is because we cannot meet its righteous requirements. The law tells us what God requires from us. The gospel tells us what God has accomplished for us.” Through faith in Christ, God freely forgives our violations against the law. And through trusting in the finished work of Christ, God freely declares us righteous (justify us) with the righteousness that he requires in the law. That’s grace.


There’s a story about a man who always feels guilty because he’s not sharing the gospel with others. He doesn’t share the gospel because he’s afraid of what others may think. And he’s afraid of what others think because he’s not sure that God accepts him. In fact, he thinks God hates him. Why? Because he is not sharing the gospel… So it’s like a vicious cycle that spirals down and down. Until the day a pastor tells him the good news that God loves you because of what Christ has done. It has nothing to do with your performance. You can’t make Him love you more. You can’t make Him love you any less.


For the first time, he gets it in his heart. Not just in his head. “God loves me so I don’t need to fear what others think. I’m so joyful. So I must tell others what God has done.”

A week later, someone asks the pastor: “What did you tell that guy? He’s going around happily telling everyone about the gospel.”  


The pastor said: “I told him he didn’t have to”.


So are we still expected to obey the law? Answer: Yes and no!


Yes, the law still has a crucial role for us as the revelation of God’s will. It tells us how God expects us to live because now, we have been set free from sin to become slaves of God and slaves of righteousness. We are liberated so that we may belong to Christ and bear fruit.


But no, our motive to obey is not to justify ourselves or earn acceptance from God. It’s not out of fear that if I don’t, I’d get bad karma. It’s not out of pride that I want to be more skillful at life than others. We do the right thing motivated by a living relationship with Christ. Not because we have to, out of mere obligation, but because we want to, out of joy. The gospel frees us to obey Christ out of love. And Love is a more powerful motivation than fear or pride.



It’s not a self-salvation project. The question is not “What would Jesus do? (WWJD)” but “What has Jesus done for you?” (WHJDFY)


The final point about apostolic preaching is: It is gospel centered in its proclamation of Christ.


This simply means that Paul offered the gospel to all sorts of people. He spoke to both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. He needs to bring the gospel to the Jews first because salvation is from the Jews. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. But the gospel is not confined to any ethnic group. It has to be proclaimed to the Gentiles too, to the outsiders, to all who will hear it.


From this point on, the book of Acts will focus on Paul fulfilling his mission as the apostle to the Gentiles. And Paul sees his calling as a fulfillment of biblical promise in Isaiah: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” The church today has the same mission to bring the light of Christ’s salvation to the ends of the earth.


But when the gospel is applied, it’s like a double edged sword that cuts both ways. There will be two kinds of responses: Faith and unbelief. Some would reject Christ because they were offended to hear that they could not be freed from sin and guilt by following the law of Moses. But others believed and rejoiced in the good news that hope is in what Christ has done for them. Verse 48 says: When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. Our human responsibility is to believe, to rejoice, to embrace and to trust in Christ. But having said that, there is divine sovereignty behind that choice: God is the one who appoints. It’s easier to understand if the Bible says “Those who believed were appointed for eternal life”. But it actually says: Those who were appointed for eternal life believed. They believed because they were appointed to eternal life.  


It’s a great mystery: How do we hold together the biblical balance of human responsibility and divine sovereignty? Christians have gone back and forth on this for ages so we probably can’t settle it in 5 minutes.


But I would like to share how God’s sovereignty in our salvation can be precious to us personally. 20 years ago, I heard the gospel and decided to trust in Christ. At that time, there were other classmates who heard the same message and yet they ignored or rejected Christ. I remember holding a small booklet “The Four Spiritual Laws”, thinking to myself, “This message makes all the difference in the world. But why did I believe while others don’t? What made that crucial difference?”


Is it because I see my need for Christ while they don’t? But, why?

Is it because I am more sensitive and receptive to the Holy Spirit while they are not?

Is it because I am more humble to recognize my sins while they are too proud to admit it? 

Is it because I was smarter to understand stuffs while they are so blur?


If I say yes, that means somehow, somewhere, there is something in me that is better than others. And that made all the difference. But that can’t be true. I’m no different from those who rejected the gospel.


If you look back on your own encounter with Christ, you’d find the same answer: No, we are not any better than anyone else. We were also insensitive to the Spirit and slow to understand. We too were once filled with pride and self-sufficiency. Our hearts were cold and hard like stone unless and until the Holy Spirit melts our hearts with His love. Our spiritual eyes were blind until He opens up our eyes so that we can see the beauty of Christ. Our wills are bound by chains until He set us free so we can run to Him. In other words, behind our choice and our decision is God’s sovereign grace. His grace triumphs over all our resistance.    


And that’s part of our SIMPLE DNA: E is for Embrace Reformed Theology. That means: Salvation belongs to the Lord. It’s not about me. I don’t deserve any credit. But it’s the unconditional, never-give-up, sovereign grace of God that made all the difference.


And that’s precious beyond words. It’s a powerful driving motivation for our mission, for our love for the city and families and our worship because it is only by God’s grace that our efforts can bear any fruit. Left to ourselves, no one would believe. But because all who have been appointed to eternal life will believe, there is hope when things are difficult. When people seem not to care and results are discouraging and opposition is intense, our encouragement to press on is in the sovereign grace of God.


There was great success as a result of Paul’s gospel centered-sermon. Many believed but others opposed his message. So Paul and Barnabas moved on to another city. But not before they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them. What does that mean? The Jews at that time would do that when they were leaving a Gentile city. They would shake the dust from their feet as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners. So it’s very ironic that Paul is doing it to them as a way of saying: The Jews who rejected Jesus had become spiritual outcasts while the Gentiles who respond in faith to Christ were now part of God’s people. The true Israel is reconstituted around the risen King Jesus. We are now part of this covenant community.


For Paul, even opposition against the Gentile mission is a fulfillment of Habakkuk 1:5 – Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’


Friends, God is something new in our day that nobody would have believed a hundred years ago. The gospel is reaching people groups which had previously never known Christ. Especially in regions that are considered poor and marginalized.    


How can we be partners in God’s global, inclusive mission? How can CDPC bring the gospel to those outside? Take care that we do not harden our hearts with unbelief. Take care that we do not become a stumbling block to the gospel through pride and indifference. Take care that we do not perish by scoffing at the grace found in Christ alone.


Let us pray. 

Picture is courtesy of Jesuswalk and Unbound Bible

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