Across 2000 years, the Christian church has told the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s done so in a wide variety of contexts and ways. Here we have a very early example in Luke’s brief summary of the apostle Paul’s synagogue sermon in the city of Pisidian Antioch, sometime around 48AD. And though it’s a very different time and place, Paul’s words have lessons for us.
In v17-26, Paul leads a team to Galatia (Turkey), to win folk to Christ and establish churches. In doing so, the apostle speaks firstly to Jews (Ro 1:16), since Jesus came as Israel’s king (though with a huge expansion plan – Ac 1:6-8). So Paul begins with his fellow Jews, showing them how, despite a long history with God, they still need to be saved (v26). It’s a humbling message, as Paul well knew (Ac 9:3). Indeed, that’s true of the gospel to all who hear it, not just Jews.
Then Paul moves on to a problem as a challenge to his hearers. They may be asking whether this ‘saviour’ Jesus received the backing of Israel’s authorities. Well, the answer is, of course, a clear ‘no’ since they had him executed! But before anyone asks that question, Paul raises it himself (v27). Possibly a ripple of shock goes round the room at this point: Messiah killed in Jerusalem!? However, Paul defends Jesus by pointing to the prophets as predicting this, including his death at the orders of a Gentile (v28,29). But the shocks continue when Paul describes Jesus’ crucifixion in the language of an Old Testament curse (De 21:23) before then noting that Jesus was placed in a tomb (not a criminal’s grave), which must have left his hearers even more intrigued (v42).
We can learn from Paul’s approach. He spoke so as to capture attention and disturb his audience, and could do so because he knew how they thought. Through his ministry Jesus showed the same ability to know his hearers. Christian evangelism can benefit from this way of speaking. But to do so often means first taking the time to listen to others and know their minds, before addressing them. Then our words can have the power to draw in and challenge our hearers.
But back in Paul’s sermon, having presented the problem of ‘Can we trust Jesus?’ he then answers it with a this response: you can because God resurrected him (v30)! And it wasn’t done in secret: many can testify to it including Paul himself (v31; 1Co 15:3-8). More than that, God has been talking about this for centuries (v32). Think of Psalm 2 (v33) where God’s king faces Gentile hostility (Ps 2:1-3) but God steps in to show full approval & support of his ‘son’ (Ps 2:7,8) – Jesus embodies that Psalm in his resurrection. Or think of Isaiah 55 where God freely offers abundant new life on the basis of his promises to King David (Is 55:1-3). How could that come true? Many probably looked to a future day of resurrection (Jo 11:24) but Paul can say that resurrection has broken into history now – Jesus embodies those promises today (Jo 11:25). Or, thirdly, think of Psalm 16. David spoke of God’s Holy One not seeing decay (v35, Ps 16:10) yet he himself is now dust in a tomb (v36). But Jesus isn’t! He fulfils that verse and, indeed, embodies the Psalm in a bigger way in that he never compromised with those who would corrupt the worship of God (Lk 19:46, 47) but entrusted himself to his God, just like the Psalm writer (Ps 16:4,5).
So we learn a second lesson from Paul. Having unnerved his hearers, his answer to them was to present the resurrected Christ. Christians must remember that. The gospel is not simply a set of ideas, a philosophy or a system to follow. It is the powerful, true story of Jesus Christ who died and rose again, and it is a call to trust him personally for salvation. That’s what we tell others.
Jesus, then, is the saviour (v38). God overturned the judgement of Jerusalem and declared Jesus unworthy of death. In 1500 years of Moses’ laws no Jew could ever stand sinless before God, even the finest; Jesus did and can offer forgiveness to others. Through him, therefore, Paul found freedom from the condemnation of God and he offers the same to others (v39). Such faith and confidence in the Lord is the final lesson here. There are lots of good advice schemes for living in this world, but only one supernatural salvation. We must hold firmly onto the wonder of that.