The book of Acts is a transitional record, and in those transitions, we can learn something The birth of the Church comes about at the day of Pentecost, and from that moment, until chapter 28, there are profound developments in the life of the Christian community. The question I address is, what can we learn from how the gospel is presented, particularly in the earlier chapters? Are there patterns we should emulate, or are there cultural or epochal details that we need to understand, that would, in fact, change our presentation of the gospel?
Peter preaches Christ to several audiences. In the first encounter, he tells them:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
Peter proclaims the central facts of the gospel – the suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection. Indeed, there is no occasion of gospel preaching in Acts where the resurrection is not part of it. A gospel of “Jesus died for your sins” that does not go on to say he is risen from the dead is no gospel at all.
After quoting more Scripture in support of his gospel proclamation, his hearers reply “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Why is there no mention of faith in Peter’s message? I submit that it is because he is speaking to Jews. They address Peter and the eleven as “brothers,” a reference to their ethnic identity as sons of Jacob. In his final crescendo, Peter says “Let all the house of Israel, therefore, know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) As Jews, the house of Israel, they already believed in God, they already knew him as the creator of the heavens and the earth, and they already had an expectation of the Anointed One, the Christ.
This pattern is repeated when Peter speaks in Solomon’s portico, after healing the lame man.
Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-15)
Peter speaks of the “God of our fathers,” and tells them “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21)
The Jewish audience had the necessary background to understand all that Peter was saying, and an appeal to “believe in God” while not superfluous, nevertheless didn’t get at the true issue for these Jewish hearers. They needed to repent, to turn from their stubbornness and to embrace the promises in the Scriptures that they knew were from God. It wasn’t so much unbelief, but disobedience that Peter calls them to renounce.
Faith or belief, trust—whatever words we want to use—is inherent in this message Peter proclaimed to his fellow Israelites. To repent was to believe. In our presentation of the gospel to various audiences, we cannot assume our hearers have any sort of background such as Peter’s audience had. It is likely otherwise, especially in a culture where biblical illiteracy prevails and other assumptions about the nature and person of God are far from given.
Compare Peter’s methods with Paul’s when he preaches to the Athenians and the difference is striking. Rather than quote Scripture, Paul actually quotes Greek poets to them.
What can we learn from these early gospel proclamations? The salient elements of the gospel must be present: The suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection. These things are the substance of the Law and the Prophets, the Torah. He is the fulfillment of these prophecies. But, not finding certain words, such as faith or believe, does not indicate these concepts are not there. On the contrary, for these early Jewish audiences of apostolic preaching, repentance includes belief.