The Gospel's Conquest: Four sermon and song outlines from the book of Acts

This series of sermon and song outlines from Acts focuses on the victory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The perils that the early church faced are similar to those we face today. Racism, legalism, and all kinds of "exclusivism" threatened to split the church. People were too easily convinced by worldly "wisdom" and were tempted to rely on magic and witchcraft.

The gospel, said Paul, is more powerful than all the forces and philosophies that threaten it. It's time that we recognize the importance of prayers and angels for our life in the present combat.

Week 1: All Is Kosher, Says the Lord (Acts 10)

Chorale Prelude: "Christian Hearts in Love United" (O DU LIEBE)

[Peeters: Hymn Preludes for the Liturgical Year, Vol. 15 (Peters #6415)]

Acts 10:15 and 43 are thematic: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean," and "everyone who believes in him [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

In this chapter the church ceases to be a Jewish sect and becomes universal. But it takes extraordinary interventions from heaven to make a reluctant Simon Peter, steeped in Jewish traditions, accept and practice the truth of the New Covenant.

God puts his left hand on Peter, so to speak, and his right hand on Cornelius, and he compels them to meet each other. He brings the seeker to the light and the light to the seeker.

Sing: "Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies"
[PH 462/463, PsH 481, RL 463, TH 398]

The Vision that Brings the Seeker to the Light (vv. 1 -8)

All of the Roman officers mentioned in the New Testament are "good guys." This one, Cornelius, has all the virtues of a righteous man: devout, God-fearing, disciplined in prayers and charity. He is also quick in obeying the angel's command. He sends messengers from Caesarea to Joppa, thirty miles along the shore of the Great Sea.

The Vision that Brings the Lightbearer to the Seeker (vv. 9-23)

Simon Peter seeks God in prayer on the flat roof of the house in Joppa. The form of the vision appears to be influenced by his thoughts and feelings about dinnertime; but the vision is from God. Three times the voice tells Peter to eat; every time Peter answers that he eats only kosher foods. But the heavenly voice says, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." Simon Peter's people had kept the rules about clean and unclean food (and people) for two thousand years. Still today, unenlightened Jews eat only kosher foods (see Lev. 11).

Sing: "In Christ There Is No East or West"
[PH 439/440, PsH 540, RL 410]

And Here the Twain Shall Meet

Peter's hesitation is almost comical. Three times God gave him an object lesson (v. 16). Yet, when the messengers of Cornelius came to the door, the Spirit still had to make sure that Peter would really go with them (v. 20). And when he set foot inside Cornelius's house, Peter said that—actually—a Jew does not belong in the house of a Gentile (v. 28). "I am being overruled by God," he explains. And Cornelius tells Peter that God has also been at work in him.

Then Peter speaks as witness. He tells God's "good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all" (v. 36). All the essentials of the Christian gospel are in this and in other, similar summaries of the apostolic preaching that are recorded in the book of Acts. This particular summary closes with the ringing words, "everyone who believes in him [JesusJ receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (v. 43).

God himself shows the new unity forged by the gospel in dramatic fashion: To the astonishment of the Jewish Christians in the room (v. 45), the Holy Spirit enters into the lives of Roman believers. Even Peter must admit that one cannot withhold Christian baptism from people who have already received everything Christian baptism stands for (v. 47).

Sing: "We Know that Christ Is Raised"
[PH 495, PsH 271, RL 528]

Everything Is Kosher, Says the Lord

The lesson of Acts 10 is difficult—and not only for Simon Peter. We also learn our prejudices before we are consciously aware of them. Color of skin, pride of money or nobility, snob-bism of class, smugness of a clan, myths of races and nations— most people live by these distorted values. Masses of people are conditioned to hate, and demonstrate that conditioning when the right buttons are pushed.

Most of these divisions are based on sin and error. But the deepest division in humanity, the division between Jews and Gentiles, was based not on pride and false imagination but on God's election. And now even that division must be erased. All is kosher. And everyone who believes in Jesus belongs to God's own people.

Sing: Psalm 133

[PH 241, PsH 133/514, TH 356; or sing Psalm 133 as an anthem from one of the several settings in Psalms for Today (Jubi-late/Hodder & Stoughton, 1990).]

God made the division between Jews and Gentiles when he called Abraham. He removed it in this patient and powerful teaching of Acts 10. It is imperative that we as Christians express our newfound unity in Christ. And we must reject all sinful divisions.

But we must also honor the new division that now separates Jews from Jews and Irish from Irish and Dutch from Dutch and even divides members of one family. That is the difference between believers and unbelievers. We are now either for or against Jesus Christ.

Our approach to all people is twofold: (1) We have solidarity with all people because none of us is cleaner or better than anyone else. (2) The only difference worth talking about exists between sinners and forgiven sinners. Because that difference is Jesus.

Sing: "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"

[PH 466, PsH 501; RL 362/363; or sing this as a hymn concertato, in the arrangement by Walter Pelz (Augsburg #11-2556), for SATB, congregation, and cello.]

Week 2: Persistent in Persecution (Acts 12)

Hymn Prelude: "For All the Saints" (SINE NOMINE)

[Sinzheimer: 32 Hymn Preludes and Improvisations (Concordia #97-4769)]

If we are not being insulted, penalized, or persecuted for our loyalty to Jesus, we are either not living our Christian faith, or we are living in exceptional times. According to the Bible, opposition and persecution are normal; appreciation and support for the Christian church are abnormal—though desirable (cf. John 10:33, Acts 14:22).

Acts 12 gives a classic story of persecution, prayer, and perseverance, concluded with God's punishment of the enemy.

Sing: "Jesus Shall Reign"

[PH 423, PsH 412, RL 233, TH 441; or sing this as a hymn concertato, in the arrangement by Hal Hopson (GIA #G-2135) for SATB, congregation, and organ.]

The Obituary of James

James and John were sons of Zebedee ("sons of thunder," Jesus called them). On one occasion these men asked Jesus if they could have second and third place in Jesus' government (Mark 10:37). '"You don't know what you are asking,' Jesus said. 'Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?' 'We can/ they answered."

Yes, said Jesus, you will drink the cup I drink. Every true disciple must follow the Master: "O Jesus, I have promised to serve you to the end…" James was a good disciple. He drank the cup of his Master. And he got a one-line obituary in the sacred record (Acts 12:2).

Sing: "O Jesus, I Have Promised"
[PH 388/389, PsH 285, RL 471, TH 654]

Peter In and Out of Jail

The persecutor was Herod Agrippa I, nephew of the Herod who murdered the babies at Bethlehem. When he saw that the Jews liked what he did to James, Herod planned the same scenario for Peter right after Passover. "So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him" (v. 5). Notice that little word "but." Things looked very somber, but the church was praying. This is the however that points to the church's resources. The opposition is strong, but… The illness seems incurable, but…

Sing (or read): Psalm 107:10-16
[PsH 107:3]

Make the most of verses 6-17, that priceless description of God's rescue of Peter. The story is full of majesty and humor, of faith and doubt, of divine certainty and people's bungling.

Peter is asleep on the night before the trial! The angel pokes him in the ribs. He acts as God's servant and Peter's butler. He sees to it that Peter gets properly dressed: belt, shoes, topcoat (v. 8). There is a sort of majestic leisure in the angel's behavior. Chains fall off, doors swing open without effort—even that heavy iron door. After walking with the angel for one block (v. 10), Peter has to pinch himself (v. 11) and realizes that God has saved him from certain death.

At the Prayer Meeting

Rhoda comes to the door. "Who is there?" "It's me, Peter." She recognizes his voice. That's him! She runs back. "Peter is here!"

"Peter? you're crazy," the Christian people say while getting up from their knees. And they start arguing while Peter keeps knocking.

It's a true-to-life story. We know that prayer is the mighty weapon. We are convinced that God can restore the sick, open the prisons, convert our neighbors, and bring a wayward daughter home and a son to his knees. And yet we are utterly amazed when God does it. Maybe there's a dash of unbelief in all our prayers. But with Peter we may join in an Old Testament thanksgiving for answered prayer.

Sing (or read): Psalm 116

[PH 228, PsH 116, RL 125, TH 637; or sing this psalm as an anthem from one of the settings in Psalms for Today (Jubilate/Hodder & Stoughton, 1990).]

God Punishes Herod

Herod kills the guards. Roman jailers always pay with their lives when their prisoners escape (cf. 16:27, 27:42 and Matt. 28:14). And then God kills Herod, a ruler who exalts himself as did Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:28-33).

Josephus tells a remarkably similar story about Herod's demise. (If you have Josephus, the Essential Writings, translated and edited by Paul Maier [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988], read the few lines on page 272 to the congregation.) The real victory is in verse 24: "The word of God continued to increase and spread."

Acts 12 lends itself to dramatic presentations: the angel with Peter, or the scene at the prayer meeting. And it never fails to buoy the Christian church to renewed dedication and prayerful perseverance:

May we holy triumphs win,
overthrow the host of sin,
gather all the nations in,
Lord our Savior, hear us.

Sing: "The Church's One Foundation"

[PH 442, PsH 502, RL 394, TH 347; or sing as a hymn concertato in the arrangement by Paul Manz (Concordia #97-5346/47, 98-2282; more recently published by Morning Star) for SATB, congregation, oboe, brass quartet, and organ.]

Week 3: Showing the Folly of Wordly Wisdom

(Acts 17:16-33)

Hymn Prelude: "I Will Sing of My Redeemer" (HYFRYDOL)
[Harris: 10 Hymn Preludes in Trio Style, Set 2 (Gray #GB 643)]

Paul traveled a lot, but he wasn't much of a tourist. Instead of enjoying the sights of Athens, the capital of Greece, "he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols" (v. 16). We are more tolerant and broad-minded. Therefore we make better tourists than Paul, but poorer preachers of the gospel.

"So he reasoned in the synagogues" (v. 17), where the darkness was not so overwhelming. But he also walked the agora, or marketplace, where Socrates used to conduct his clever search for truth. Here Paul engaged the philosophers. He talked to Epicureans, who considered pleasure the chief end of life and a life free from pain and passion most worth enjoying. And he spoke to the Stoics, who strove to be "masters of their fate" and "captains of their souls."

Paul aroused enough interest to earn an appearance before the Areopagus, a venerable court that met on the hill of Ares (Mars). This council exercised authority in matters of religion and philosophy, attracting the best to Athens and keeping out what was considered subversive.

Sing (or read): Psalm 2
[PH 159, PsH 2, TH 314]

Dramatize this first meeting between Athens and Jerusalem, Greek culture and Christian religion. It marked the beginning of a stormy affair between these two that has lasted for centuries.

The sermon should deal with Paul's message on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). Paul bluntly tells the Athenians that it is time to turn to God (v. 30)! He declares with authority that there is one God, one human race, one (way of) salvation and one judgment.

One God

The inscription on the altar characterizes all of Athens' religion: They worship a god they do not know. With absolute confidence, Paul states that the god whom the Greeks are seeking is known to the children of Abraham. The search for God beyond the pale of God's special revelation invariably leads to idolatry. And idolatry makes fools of human beings and a mockery of religion and of reason.

What Paul says in this connection presents the best of Israel's insight (Ps. 135, Isa. 44). The ignorance that frustrates the Greeks' search for the God of the universe gets no further description in this speech (in Paul's letters he qualifies the ignorance as sin: Eph. 4:17-19, etc.).

On the Areopagus, the missionary seeks points of contact with the people whose system he comes to overthrow. He explains that the God we seek is not far from us: "For in him we live and move and have our being" (v. 28). We are plunged into the ocean of God. We are his (alienated) children (v. 28). To help his listeners understand, Paul uses Greek poetry that his hearers might have known.

His speech is a model for our approach: The speaker is completely confident that he has the God-revealed truth. But he is also so interested in his hearers—his "mission objects"—that he can quote their poets and find remnants of truth in their philosophy.

Sing: "O Christians [Zion] Haste"
[PsH 525, RL 421, TH 444]

One Human Race

Not only do all people have one God, but all people also belong to one race! "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth" (v. 26).

That's quite a thing to tell the Athenians. We received our word "barbarian" from the Greeks. It originally referred to a non-Greek, an uncivilized person, one who spoke unintelligently. Say "barbarian" and try to put all your contempt for an inferior species into that one word. It works! And then hear Paul say that God made all from one, and that all nations who inhabit this world are the objects of his care (v. 26). All of us have one origin and one goal: to seek ... reach out for . .. find .. . the only true God (v. 27)!

Sing: "God Is Working His Purpose Out"
[PsH 594; RL 425, TH 74]

One Way of Salvation

"The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (v. 30, RSV). The history of the Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Egyptian cultures were "times of (religious) ignorance." These races and individuals sinned against the God of heaven by ignoring him who gave them their breath. But God "overlooked" their sin—not in the sense that he shrugged his shoulders and let it go, but rather in the sense that he refrained from imposing the penalty they deserved.

Now things have changed. The penalty for all sin has been paid on Golgotha. Now, (in this redemptive historical "NOW") the God of heaven and earth makes a new beginning with the world. God no longer forsakes those who forsook him. He "commands all people everywhere to repent" (v. 31).

The world of the first century was under one master. The Roman emperor had the power to "issue a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world" (Luke 2:1). But Paul speaks on behalf of the King of all emperors and chieftains: God "commands all people everywhere to repent"—to change their thinking, to turn to the living God. God is not begging. He is telling people that they must believe and acknowledge him.

Sing: "Hope of the World"

[PH 360, PsH 524, RL 414, TH 594; or sing as a hymn concertato in the arrangement by Carl Schalk (Hope #HSA 101) for SATB, congregation, brass quartet, timpani, and organ.]

One Judgment

The God who made the world, who appointed the seasons and the places where people should live, also set a day for judgment, a day of accountability for all human beings. And he appointed the Judge: Jesus Christ.

For us, the choice of judge couldn't be better. We know him as a Savior before we meet him as a Judge!

Sing: "Rejoice, the Lord is King"

[PH 155, PsH 408, RL 596/597, TH 309/310; or sing as a hymn concertato in the arrangement by S. Drummond Wolff (Concordia #98-2552) for SATB, congregation, 2 trumpets, and organ.]

Week 4: The Conquest Over Magic Powers

(Acts 19:11-20)

Chorale Prelude: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (EIN FESTE BURG)
[Reger: 30 Short Chorale Preludes, Op. 135a (Peters #3980)]

The march of the gospel in the book of Acts is a conquest over tribalism, legalism, worldly philosophy, and magic powers. That's a battle that is never finished. Every generation has to make clear that Christianity is not to be confused with the nation, that it is not a new law, not a new philosophy, and not a new and powerful magic.

Today magic is popular. Canada boasts five thousand witches, and U.S. and Canadian citizens can find their horoscope in nearly every newspaper. When the U.S. invaded Panama, they found Noriega's "witch's hut" with entrails, nails, parts of animals—all very weird, lurid, and much publicized. But the revelation that at least some of the decisions of a U.S. president were influenced by his wife's relationship to an astrologer hardly caused a ripple.

Hence this sermon should give some pastoral information on the topic of magic, without degenerating into a lecture. Magic is the art of conquering the adversities of life, attracting prosperity, and warding off evil. We used to say that technology took over the job magic tried to do with its hocus-pocus of names and spells and incantations. But today we seem to be in reverse again. My newspaper tells of a man in Toronto who paid $3,000 to have a curse lifted.

Ephesus, where Paul carried on his most extensive ministry (two years and three months, see 19:8-10), was widely known for its love of and knowledge of magic. The Ephesians knew some powerful names and incantations. So here God did "extraordinary miracles" through Paul (11-12) to convince these people, with their particular orientation, of the greatness of the name of Jesus.

As to the whole realm of spirits, powers, and demons, we must remember three things: (1) The Bible acknowledges the reality of this shady world. Even the possibility of necromancy (1 Sam. 28) and the real power of magicians (Ex. 7:11, 22) are not denied. (2) This realm is forbidden territory to Christians—absolutely forbidden. (3) We never have to fear the demons or dark powers because of the power of the Name of Jesus. If you are in him, you are forever safe, forever blessed.

Sing (or read): Psalm 16
[PH 165, PsH 16; RL 84-85, TH 692]

Exorcism used to be a common practice in older churches (where they still bless pets and new houses for reasons they've forgotten). Now it has been taken up by a wing of the charismatic movement (when you have a headache or gallbladder infection, they come to cast out the demon!). Exorcism is also a topic of entertainment in the film industry and a source of income for certain TV evangelists.

The desire for power is not at all Christian. Everyone wants power. Money gives it; so does magic; and so do certain professions. But using the Name of Jesus to expand personal power is a heinous sin (cf. Simon the Sorcerer, 8:18-19). The seven sons of Sceva (19:14-16) lost the fight and their shirts in their encounter with demons. They illustrate that Jesus is not there to be used by us; we are here to be used by him.

Sing: "If You But Trust in God to Guide You"
[PH 282, PsH 446, RL 151, TH 670]

The story has a God-glorifying ending (17-20). The world will end with a bonfire like this. (Note how church growth is registered in verse 20.)

Although one has to understand something about magic if one is to understand Christianity, Christianity is not magic. Indeed, the name of Jesus is above every name (which is an expression from the realm of magic). Our whole lives are baptized into his name. So are our marriages and our families. That name can keep our sons and daughters pure in times of alleycat amorality His power can keep our business men and women upright in a time of cutthroat competition and mafia-like behavior. In his name we educate, we marry, and we bury.

But nothing goes automatically, magically. Growth takes place in the way he has decreed and by the means he has given us: prayer, knowing and doing his will, throwing out the idols, seeking the guidance of his Word and Spirit. "In this way [by the practice and the proclamation] the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power" (v. 20).

Sing: "At the Name of Jesus"

[PH 148, PsH 467, RL 336, TH 163; or sing this as a hymn concertato (with some small adjustments) in the arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford #40P100) for SATB, congregation, and organ.]

Andrew Kuyvenhoven is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church, Waterdown, Ontario, Canada. He prepared these sermon materials for use at Bethel during the Fall of1991. Music suggestions were added by Bert Polman, professor of music at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario, and director of music at Bethel CRC.

The congregational songs may be interspersed (as indicated in the outlines) or used before and after the sermon (in what may be the more customary manner). Some suggestions for choral and organ music are also provided.

The hymns in these service outlines were selected from the most recent editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), and the Trinity Hymnal (TH).

Andrew Kuyvenhoven is a former editor of The Banner and is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.