READ : Acts 10:34-43
The gospel means “Good News.” By listening to the content of the apostle’s preaching as reported in the book of Acts, we can understand why the early Christians chose this word to describe their message. The story of how the gospel reached a Roman soldier named Cornelius is a good example.
There is an interesting character named Cornelius whom we meet in the pages of the New Testament book of Acts. Cornelius was a good example of the type of person who was more common than you might expect in the world of the first century. He’s what is known as a God-fearer. He was a gentile, that is, a non-Jew, a pagan. And also in Cornelius’s case, an officer in the Roman army, but he was also a deeply spiritual man. He was searching for God. He wasn’t one of those who live only for this world, seeking only to satisfy his physical or emotional needs. Cornelius had a hunger for God, for something deeper, for spiritual reality. He was trying to satisfy that need for truth, to find out: Is there a God, and who is he? And so he went on a search, and not surprisingly, given that he was stationed in Palestine, his search led him to the God of Israel.
So Cornelius began to pray devoutly to the Lord, the God of Israel, the only real and living God. And he tried to serve him as best he could, though without becoming a Jew. But nevertheless he gave to the synagogue; he gave alms to the poor. And there were many like Cornelius throughout the ancient world, people who were dissatisfied with the immorality of their culture, who were turned off by the kind of gross worship of idols, and who thought there must be one true God above and beyond all of this, and who were attracted to the message of the Bible, a message that said that God is not only holy and high and lifted up, but he is also just and righteous and good, a message that linked religion with morality. And that was not at all common in the ancient world.
So every place that had a Jewish synagogue tended to have God fearers like Cornelius, people who were no longer pagans but not yet able to become Jews, and when the Christian gospel came to these people and explained to them how they could come to know God in Jesus Christ, to be reconciled to him by faith through Jesus’ death, without giving up their race or their nationality, well, you can imagine the impact. Many were converted on the spot.
Now Cornelius’s story is especially significant because he’s the first. It shows us the very first encounter of a gentile whom we know by name, a personal story with the Christian gospel. For its first few years, of course, the Christian church was entirely Jewish. Every Christian was simply a Jew who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. And the apostle Peter was the universally acknowledged leader of the church. He, of course, was a Jewish follower of Jesus himself and also a bold preacher of faith in Christ. But he kept the Old Testament rituals. Still he observed the Sabbath day. He followed the dietary requirements of the law. And like every other devout Jew, Peter the Christian apostle had no social dealings whatsoever with any gentile. But then came a fateful day when God intervened directly to bring the gentile Cornelius and the Jewish Christian Peter together in a saving encounter that broke the old taboos and leveled the racial and ethnic barriers that were keeping them apart.
Listen to the story from Acts 10. I’ll summarize the first part. Peter saw a vision sent by God that convinced him that he shouldn’t think of people as unclean. Messengers came from Cornelius and asked him to come. Cornelius himself had been told by an angel to send for Peter, so in this wonderful, supernatural way God brings these two together, and then Peter begins to speak.
“I now realize,” he says, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. This is the message God sent to the people of Israel telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.”
That is the heart of the gospel. Listen again, “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.” This is the good news that Christians have to share with the world. It’s not moral exhortation. It’s not advice about how to live a better life. It’s the story of what God in Jesus Christ has done to solve the problem of human sin and human estrangement, not only to reconcile us to himself but to reconcile us to one another, to bring Jew and gentile, black and white, slave and free, male and female, into one new body through faith in Christ.
Notice what Peter does when he comes to speak to Cornelius and his household. It’s not a bunch of arguments to try to persuade Cornelius or change his beliefs. Peter’s message is pure testimony. “We are witnesses of everything Jesus did,” he declares. He simply relates the facts of Jesus’ life, recounting the history of what he said and did. And then he zeroes in on the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s the heart of the message. Christian preaching is witness, and Christian witness in particular is to the story of Good Friday and Easter. It’s testimony to the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that the man Jesus was also the Son of God who died and rose on the third day for the salvation of the world.
You know, if you read further in the book of Acts, especially these early chapters that talk about Peter’s preaching, you’ll discover that he really had only one sermon that he repeated over and over and over. There’s really only one basic message, and it’s the message about Jesus. And that’s not just Peter’s theme. The resurrection was the theme of all early Christian preaching. In fact, it still is, of all authentic Christian preaching. It’s the message of the cross and the empty tomb.
There’s a wonderful story later in Acts about Paul’s witness in the city of Athens. We read that Paul went to the public place in Athens, the Agora, or marketplace, and he began to speak there about this Christian message, and then Luke says that the people who heard him were confused because, Luke writes, “he was preaching about Jesus and the resurrection,” and they thought that he was talking about foreign gods, new gods, one of them called Jesus and the other called Anastasis, which is Greek for resurrection. That was Paul’s message over and over.
So this is a very important point. The apostolic preaching which is the basic Christian message, at its heart is testimony to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, the Jesus of history, who was hanged on a tree and crucified by a lawless act, was also raised to triumphant new life by God. It’s an Easter witness. Now you may choose not to believe it. You may think it’s all a hoax or a conspiracy, despite the fact that every apostle laid down his life rather than deny the truth to which he bore witness. You may think they were all mistaken or deluded, but you can’t deny the fact that this is the first message.
I for one, and million of others like me, from the first century to the twenty-first, believe that these witnesses were telling the truth. Let’s assume for a moment that they were, that the basic message of the gospel is true, that Jesus did die on the cross and he was raised from the dead on Easter. What then?
Let me suggest two things, quite simply. The first is this: if Jesus died and rose again, then he is alive today. I remember a story that I heard years ago. I’ve told it more than once but I still love to think about it. It’s from the old days of communism in the Soviet Union. Apparently a Russian atheist was delivering a lecture to a large audience and he was really destroying the idea, the mythology of the New Testament, especially the idea of the resurrection, how absurd that was. He gave this long detailed speech in which he showed conclusively why such an event could never have occurred. And then when the lecture was finished, an old priest got up from the audience and asked for the opportunity to reply. “Well, I don’t know,” the lecturer said, “I’ll give you five minutes.” “I only need five seconds,” answered the priest. And turning to the packed hall, he greeted them with the joyful words of the Easter liturgy, “Cristos aneste,” he cried, “Christ is risen.” And back from the crowd came the thundering reply, “Alethos aneste. He is risen indeed.” The point, you see, is not just that Christ died and rose. The point is that he’s risen. If he’s risen, it means he’s alive. The story of the cross and the resurrection is not just a historical curiosity. It’s a present reality. It means that Jesus is still in the world today, building his church and transforming people, like you and me, overcoming evil with good. As Christians, our faith is based on past events that happened, truly happened, but we live in the present, and because Jesus Christ is here with us, that present for us means peace and joy and hope and love.
Here’s a second conclusion: If Jesus died and is risen, then the most important thing in your life, ultimately, the only thing that really matters, is that you come to know him. That’s what living Christianity is really all about. It’s more than a set of doctrines or beliefs, even beliefs about Jesus. It’s more than a set of behaviors or practices, even the practice of good works, even works of love and mercy. At the heart of living Christianity is a relationship with the living Christ. If he’s just a historical figure to you, if he’s only a part of a holiday tradition or a dimly remembered ritual from your childhood, then you don’t really know him. He doesn’t just live in stories from the past or on the pages of an ancient book. He’s alive. He’s present now. Have you met him? Do you know him? It’s so important that you do.