A Preaching Leap: The Mission of God in Acts 13-19
Acts is placed at a crucial pivot point in the historical narrative of the Bible. Chronologically, it follows the life, ministry, and work of Jesus. Thematically, it is the lynch-pin between the Old Testament with its narrower Jewish focus and the New Testament’s larger community of God’s people, the both Jewish and Gentile church. Theologically, it is the Apostles’ interpretations and application of the Old Testament and Jesus. Indeed, Acts is always rich ore for further mining because it yields much gold. Missions is, of course, a key—perhaps the single key—theme of the book. Early in the book, Jesus tells the Apostles to take the gospel to the world. How is the church to expand? Why expand? What does that look like in the time-and-place contingencies of ever-evolving cultures? Luke uses speeches as a literary form to describe these mission efforts. Within that, Acts 13-19 is a stylized look at a “quantum leap” in God’s mission. Such a new leap would require new evangelistic methods. The church was expanding in every way, beyond Palestine, beyond the Jewish nation, and beyond the rabbinical Jewish method. Implicitly assumed, if the gospel is to take a quantum leap in ethnicity and geography, it will need a quantum leap in communication style, along with guiding rails. Luke’s inclusion of two sermons in Acts 13-19 shows both this leap and the rails, and examining these sermons guides contemporary preaching as the mission of God goes on “unhindered.”
One of Luke’s great projects throughout Acts is to capture the theology and methods behind the acts of the Apostles. Before we can examine how Acts 13-19 presents an encultured gospel presentation, we must briefly touch on Paul’s own understanding of the mission of God and his place in it. Paul places himself squarely in the whole biblical narrative of salvation. Graham Goldsworthy describes that narrative: “That the nations of the world will find blessing through the descendants of Abraham is the central missionary motif of the Bible.” Paul embraces this. He understands that since Genesis 12, when God chose Abraham to be the father of the Israelites, all of redemptive history drives toward worldwide missions. Israel was not saved from the world but for the world. Richard Bauckham describes a “particular to universal” hermeneutic across the Bible where God uses particular means for a universal purpose. He also outlines three “ever-new” dimensions or movements for this: a new future, new horizons, and new people. These all run throughout Paul’s mission theology.
If this guided Paul’s mission, his practical theology took two general thrusts. First, Paul confronted the idolatry of his audience, regardless of their ethnicity or culture. In this, he guards the Old Testament monotheism as “he is building all he has to say on very solid scriptural foundations…[and all his points] can be related to the Old Testament rhetoric against idolatry.” Precisely how Paul preached this message was contingent on the environment, but the core always confronts idolatry. The God preached was always the Old Testament’s God in contrast (and in conflict) with his audience’s gods. “Were there no other motivation, belief in one God, who is thereby the God of all men, lays the church an inescapable obligation to mission,” and the Christian message must always emphatically be to communicate that YHWH is the only true deity of worship. Michael Green concurs, noting a “unity of approach” in an attack on idolatry, proclamation of the one true God, and the moral implications of this. Concurring with this is a call to repentance away from idolatry and towards the one true God of the Bible.
Second, the resurrection drove Paul’s preaching. In 1 Cor 15, one of his earliest letters, Paul places Christianity’s entire viability on the resurrection. With it, Christians have the message of hope for the world; without it, they are fools. “The central point in Paul’s message was that the resurrection was sufficient warrant for trust in all that Jesus had said and was the key to understanding His person.” Working within these parameters, Paul, a master rhetorician, used whatever resources were available, from Old Testament theology to Greek philosophy to local practices, as introductions to the gospel of biblical monotheism, repentance, and Jesus’ resurrection.
As mentioned, Acts 13-19 is a new quantum leap in God’s mission. The physics metaphor is apt. In atomic chemistry, when an electron receives a new burst of energy, it will “leap” to a new symmetry probability. These leaps are incredibly fast, drastic, and change all the properties of the atom. This is what happens in Acts 13-19. The church revolutionized from a local Palestinian spin-off of Judaism to a religion that attracted attention from the whole Roman world. Alan Culpepper writes that Luke’s primary focus is showing how gospel proclamation applies to the Gentiles, how salvation comes to non-Jews. Chapter 13 seems to inaugurate this with a special boost of Spirit guidance. Luke writes, “While they were worshipping…the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Immediately after this, Saul and Barnabas start their first missionary journey. The sending church in Antioch is full of non-Jews, suggested by both their foreign names and non-Levant origins, hinting a new non-Jewish direction. This journey, described in 13:4, is the “opening of the door of faith to Gentiles” as Saul tests his rhetorical skills and theological transformation in Lystra and Iconium. Saul changes his name to Paul, signaling a Gentile transition (13:9). Most significantly, Luke includes only two explicitly evangelistic Pauline sermons: Chapter 13 and Chapter 17. Lynn Losie interprets this as Luke’s intent to use these sermons as “paradigms of how the evangelistic enterprise is to be carried out in different situations.”
Given that Acts 13-19 is a new quantum leap in the mission of God, Luke is highly stylistic in how he describes that leap. As mentioned, he includes only two full evangelistic sermons. These chapters contain Paul’s first and second missionary journeys, so he surely preached dozens, even hundreds, of sermons as he sought to plant churches and minister to Christian communities. So why does Luke include these? Surely because Luke is writing not just a history of the church’s expansion, but also implicitly giving “rails” or guidelines on how the church grew ethnically and geographically. The speeches in Acts 13 and 17 are these rails. Gert Steyn persuasively suggests that the Pauline speeches are a “creative and compilatory word of Luke himself.” If true, as much as Paul is contextualizing the gospel, Luke is also creating a thematic spectrum of what presenting the gospel in various contexts might be. This was good history at the time. Thucydides was considered the gold standard of chronicling history. The goal was not word-for-word accuracy, but, in Thucydides’ own words, “sentiment proper to the occasion…to give the general purport of what was actually said.” F.F. Bruce explains that “Luke seems to have been able to give us an extraordinarily accurate picture of the undeveloped theology of the earliest Christians, and to enable us to determine the character of the most primitive presentation of the gospel.” Luke does not just show us what Paul preached, but how he preached the gospel message to the diverse Roman world. So as Luke is telling the history of God’s mission’s quantum leap, he is also giving representative sermons that embody the major themes and methods Paul used to further that mission. What are the distinctives of these sermons, one to Antioch Pisidia, one to Athens?
Pisidia is “a classic expression of the biblical-theological overview of salvation history.” Schnabel writes, “Luke uses the mission to Antiocheia to give for the first time an extensive report of Paul’s missionary preaching before a Jewish audience in synagogues,” further signifying the leap that is taking place. What is initially and most noteworthy of the Pisidian speech is that Paul speaks to a Jewish and God-fearing Gentile audience. Like any skilled rhetorician, Paul seeks to persuade this unique audience. He uses the evidence that will be most persuasive. Knowing his Jewish/God-fearer listeners, this means first, extensive reference to the Old Testament and second, reference to eyewitnesses. Because Paul’s audience is well-aware of the Old Testament narrative—indeed, the Jews include themselves exclusively within that narrative—Paul may cite it as authoritative. Scholars seem able to find Old Testament allusions and quotes in almost every line of the sermon. Specifically, Paul reinterprets the Old Testament events through the lens of Jesus as the fulfillment of them. For example, Paul quotes Psalm 2, which was a key description of David’s kingship and Israel’s special identity among the nations. But Paul turns this around by reorienting the Psalm around Jesus by saying Jesus is David’s son, the eternal king. “Paul’s point was that that day [of fulfillment] had finally arrived with Jesus, as demonstrated by his resurrection.” Paul does similar pesher-like exegetical work with Isa 53, Ps 16, and others. This work is significant, but for the purposes of the present topic, it demonstrates Paul’s understanding of the gospel. “God has one plan of salvation for all humanity and he has described…it throughout the Scriptures.” God began his plan with Abraham and climaxed it in Jesus and in his death and resurrection. The only legitimate response to this, Paul preaches, is repentance and faith. True-to-form, Christ’s resurrection is a crucial point of contention (13:30).
Rhetorically, Paul’s preaching is clear. His style is a traditional exposition of the Old Testament like most parochial rabbis. He affirms and agrees with his Jewish audience that they are God’s chosen people with a special history. But he deviates with a transition to Jesus.
Significantly, the Jews reject this message. A week after his speech, they “revile” Paul and Barnabas soundly. But Luke is careful to include both that Paul (who seemed to expect rejection) counters with a quote from Isaiah that the gospel is now going out to the Gentiles and that the Gentiles rejoiced greatly (13:47-48). Luke carefully records the Jews’ hostility in contrast to the Gentiles’ joy (13:44-50). Thus this both builds the Acts 13-19 theme of gospel-to-nations and is “a clear demand to Paul and Barnabas to turn to the Gentiles with this message of salvation.” Acts 13 represents both a stylistic gospel presentation to people who “know the story,” or are versed in the Jewish tradition and a significant transition from Jews to Gentiles.
Acts 17 is the other speech “rail” in God’s missional leap. This speech seems to have received as much scholarly attention as all other Acts speeches combined, and for good reason; the Areopagus speech is the outlier in normal gospel sermons, in many ways, it is unlike all other speeches in Acts. The speech is unique for both its thoroughly Greek nature and its unusual restraint. It lacks any explicit reference to the Jewish Old Testament, the patriarchs, or biblical narrative. Rather, Paul quotes Greek poetry and is highly philosophical, rather than narrative-driven. Finally, Luke’s portrayal does not even use the name “Jesus Christ”.
Most important to understanding the sermon is the extent Paul contextualizes to his Stoic and Epicurean audience. It seems that each sentence both affirms and undermines their specific beliefs. Clayton Croy analyzes the specific details of both Stoic and Epicurean philosophical theology and the afterlife. They disagreed with each other on major points, yet Paul was familiar with both, and masterfully alternates between each. For example, Epicureans were the deists of the day, while the Stoics were the pantheists. So when Paul says “In him, we live, and move, and have our being,” the Stoic would have approved. Yet when he says, “For we indeed are his offspring,” the Epicureans would have nodded. Not only is Paul quoting the poets of the day (a significant point in itself), but he is also using these poets to make a Christian point! Even further, he challenges each, suggesting that God is both transcendent (contra Stoicism) and immanent (contra Epicureanism).
Yet Paul retains his core theological commitments. He admonishes their rampant idolatry with the exclusive monotheism of Judeo-Christianity. This point of itself offended the Athenians, who prided themselves in cosmopolitan tolerance and religious acceptance. Vs 21 (“the most Attic thing in the NT”) describes their open minds. The claims that 1) there is one God; and, 2) he is knowable would have been shocking. Wright notes that among non-Christians on Mars Hill, Paul is conciliatory and irenic, more interested in finding points of agreement than controversy. But among Christians (like Romans 1), he is nuanced, technical, and didactic, and even polemical.
Paul drives toward a response to monotheism: “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (vs 30). This would have been highly offensive to the Athenians. “With this one sentence, Paul moved the discussion into areas that directly challenged the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies: the significance and eschatological goal of history, the accountability of individuals appointed by God through resurrection to administer divine justice,” and would have been a radical break from the vocabulary of his audience. Paul’s focus is the resurrection and coming judgment, not prophecy fulfillment, propitiation, or the Kingdom of God; it is a bare-bones but a complete gospel.
Of course, the climax is the resurrection. Luke cuts the sermon off abruptly and narrates that some in the audience mocked Paul. Material resurrection was too far for dualists; the Epicureans, who were annihilationists, denied even a soul’s continuation after death. Yet Paul boldly sticks to the gospel core, and it is not entirely ineffective. Some desired to hear more and some believed (vs 34). Thus Paul hits all the points of his missional theology: monotheism against idolatry, a call to repentance, and the resurrection. Acts 17 may represent the high point of evangelism to the Gentiles. Athens’ Greeks are the complete “Other” from the “Us” of Jerusalem Christianity. Effective preaching to them was a major accomplishment for the mission of God. Paul preaches this fully contextualized sermon, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments which force they can feel, even if they reject them.” Paul models his own theology of proclamation that he teaches the Corinthians: to be “all things to all people.”
What may we learn about the mission of God, especially preaching, from Paul’s models in Acts 13 and 17? There are at least 3 major lessons. First, the core of the gospel is essential. “Paul does not understand himself to be proclaiming a new story to his hearers but rather a new chapter in a story they already know and participate in, the story of God’s activity in Israel’s history.” For Paul, that was confronting the audience’s idols with the monotheism of the Bible, along with a call to repentance, or return to biblical monotheism, and the resurrection of Jesus, the son of God. Second, contextualization is key. Preaching the gospel with a firm grasp of the receiving culture and how the gospel will encounter it is essential to any reception. And finally, the speeches in all of Acts, but especially 13 and 17, are too diverse to create a single sermon template. But they animate our imagination. “In the Book of Acts, to preach is (1) to tell the story of God’s interaction with creation, with Israel and with Jesus (2) so that hearers may experience in themselves their world in terms of that story and (3) respond in ways that bear witness to the promises God has fulfilled for them in Jesus.” Luke presents paradigms which show that there is great leeway in gospel preaching. Michael Green agrees: “That there was a basic homogeneity in what was preached we may agree, but there was wide variation in the way it was presented… Evangelism is never proclamation in a vacuum, but always to people, and the message must be given in terms that make sense to them.”
What are we to make of the mission of God in the Pauline sermons of Acts 13-19? As argued, they surely represent a spectrum, pointing to the larger milieu of Paul’s preaching in his first and second missionary journeys. We learn that his sermons were varied, suited to the occasion and needs of the audience, but always driving toward the same point. Another way to consider the speeches is a “rails” guiding the mission of God. Acts 13 represents preaching to the “conservative” contingency, the context which “knows the story,” or agrees with large swaths of Judeo-Christian worldview. Here, Paul challenges their complacency, their incorrect perception of God, and their rejection of Christ. Acts 17 is the other rail, to the “liberal” contingency, wholly unfamiliar with the Christian story, categories, presuppositions, and values. Thus, Paul shows that gospel preaching has a sizeable degree of leeway. Gospel preaching may continue to mimic its two millennia tradition, but it may adjust, even drastically, for various cultures and times. Richard Bauckham summarizes appropriately: God is the particular God of Israel and the universal God of the world. But that is only known through particularization of God in redemptive history. The mission of the God is universal, people are particular. Preaching, one of the greatest means God uses to expand his kingdom, need not be different. God is working to redeem all of humanity, but he always works through particular means. Acts captures this dynamic, and the Acts 13-19 preaching illustrates how this plays out in real life ministry.
 Significantly, Acts ends triumphally with the gospel “unhindered” despite great opposition. I owe Hans Bayer for this insight. Hans Bayer, “The Mission of God in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts,” (Lecture, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, MO, January 29, 2015).
 Graham Goldsworthy, “Biblical Theology and the Shape of Paul’s Mission” in Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission. ed. by Peter Bolt & Mark Thompson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 10.
 Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 12.
 Bauckham, 13-14.
 Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 182.
 Dean S. Gilliland, Pauline Theology & Mission Practice. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1983), 51.
 Michael Green Evangelism in the Early Church. (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003), 189.
 Raymond Bailey, Paul the preacher. (Nashville, Tenn: Broadman Press, 1991) 64.
 Bailey, 25.
 Alan R Culpepper, “Paul’s Mission to the Gentile World: Acts 13-19.” Review & Expositor 71, no 4 (Fall 1974): 487.
 13:2 (All references are from the ESV.)
 Eckhard J. Schnabel. Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church Vol 2. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 2.1074.
 I am indebted to Scott Hickox for this point
 Luke does include a speech in Lystra (14:8-18), but it lacks both the formal content and literary forms to merit being a full evangelistic sermon.
 Lynn Allan Losie. “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism” in Mission in Acts : ancient narratives in contemporary context, ed. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2004), 233.
 Schabel, 1137.
 Gert J, Steyn, Septuagint Quotations in the Context of the Petrine and Pauline Speeches of the Acta Apostolorum. (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1995), 159.
 F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles. (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1990), 34.
 FF Bruce, 39.
 Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), 143.
 More time will be spent on Athens because it is the outlier of the Acts speeches and more germane to missions in the Western world today.
 Goldworthy, 13. The emphasis is that it is classic. Paul “sticks to the script” closely in this sermon, even as in new places and to new people.
 Schnabel, 1103.
 FF Bruce writes that Luke includes this sermon as “a sample of gospel preaching to a synagogue congregation.” 303.
 Marion Soards lists allusions or quotes of Genesis, Exodus 6, Deuteronomy 1 and 7, Joshua 14-17, I Samuel 7-10, 15-16, and 2 Sam 7 and 22. (Marion L. Soards, The Speeches in Acts: their content, context, and concerns. (Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 82.
 Roger D. Cotton, “The Gospel in the Old Testament According to Paul in Acts 13” in Trajectories in the Book of Acts. edited Alexander, Paul, Jordan Daniel May and Robert G. Reid. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 282.
 Cotton, 287.
 Cotton describes in great detail how Paul’s Acts 13 speech fits within Paul’s conception of the mission of God.
 Bailey, 93.
 Steyn, 202.
 Robert E. Dunham, “Acts 17:16-34.” Interpretation 60, no. 2 (April 2006): 202.
 Still, the scholars find allusions to Isaiah 42:5, 55:6, Psalms 50:12 145:18, Jeremiah 23:23, Deuteronomy 32:8. (Green, 183)
 G.A. Lotter and G.G. Thompson,“Acts 17:16-34 as paradigm in responding to postmodernity,” In die Skriflig 39, no. 4 (D 2005): 702.
 Probably Epimenides of Crete (6th cen B.C.) and Aratus (3rd cen B.C. Stoic poet). Ibid, 706.
 Johnson, 200.
 Michael Green, 184. Chris Wright agrees, saying, “It is particularly noteworthy that although Paul nowhere quotes Old Testament texts in his evangelistic preaching among Gentiles…the content of his message is thoroughly grounded in and plainly proclaims the monotheistic creation faith of Israel.” (Wright, 182)
 Dunham, 202.
 Clayton N. Croy, “Hellenistic Philosophies and the Preaching of the Resurrection (Acts 17:18, 32).” Novum Testamentum 39, no. 1 (Jan 1997): 25. Athenian curiosity was known throughout the Roman world.
 Wright, 180.
 Wright, 180.
 Paul uses the most inclusive language: παντας πανταχου μετανοειν, “all people, everywhere to repent.” The gospel is not limited to the Jews. The Greeks are not excluded from this message.
 Johnson, 198.
 Mary E. Hinkle, “Preaching for Mission: Ancient Speeches and Postmodern Sermons: Acts 7:2-53; 13:16-41; 14:15-17” in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context. Edited by Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2004), 323.
 Johnson, 200.
 Croy, 31.
 Some scholars insist that Paul deviated too much and that the Areopagus speech was failure. Two responses to the contrary: first, Paul was sowing in clearly hard soil where the gospel was sure to take time to germinate, and second, Luke lists that “some men joined him and believed” (vs 34). Admittedly, there are plenty of unknowns. Richard Gibson captures some of these, along with the diversity of opinions on about the speech in his article. Richard J. Gibson, “Paul and the Evangelism of the Stoics” in Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission. Edited by Peter Bolt & Mark Thompson. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
 Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 89. (Emphasis original)
 Hinkle, 97.
 Green, 165.
Bailey, Raymond. Paul the preacher. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman Press, 1991.
Bauckham, Richard. Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Bayer, Hans. “The Mission of God in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts.” Lecture, Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, MO, January 29, 2015.
Bruce, F.F., The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1990.
Cotton, Roger D. “The Gospel in the Old Testament According to Paul in Acts 13” in Trajectories in the Book of Acts. ed. Alexander, Paul, Jordan Daniel May and Robert G. Reid, 277-289. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock), 2010.
Croy, Clayton N. “Hellenistic Philosophies and the Preaching of the Resurrection (Acts 17:18, 32).” Novum Testamentum 39, no. 1 (Jan 1997): 21-39.
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Paul’s Mission to the Gentile World: Acts 13-19.” Review & Expositor 71, no 4 (Fall 1974): 487-497.
Dunham, Robert E. “Acts 17:16-34.” Interpretation 60, no. 2 (April 2006): 202-204.
Gibson, Richard J. “Paul and the Evangelism of the Stoics” in Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission. Edited by Peter Bolt & Mark Thompson, pp 309-326. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Gilliland, Dean S. Pauline Theology & Mission Practice. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House), 1983.
Goldsworthy, Graham. “Biblical Theology and the Shape of Paul’s Mission” in Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission. Edited by Peter Bolt & Mark Thompson, 7-18. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003.
Hinkle, Mary E. “Preaching for Mission: Ancient Speeches and Postmodern Sermons: Acts 7:2-53; 13:16-41; 14:15-17” in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context. Ed. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig, 87-102. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2004.
Johnson, Dennis. The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997.
Keller, Timothy J. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Liefeld, Walter L. Interpreting the Book of Acts. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books), 1995.
Losie, Lynn Allan. “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism” in Mission in Acts : ancient narratives in contemporary context, ed. Gallagher, Robert L., and Paul Hertig, 221-233. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2004.
Lotter, George A. and G.G. Thompson. “Acts 17:16-34 as paradigm in responding to postmodernity,” In die Skriflig 39, no. 4 (D 2005): 695-714.
Schnabel, Eckhard J. Early Christian Mission: Paul and the Early Church Vol 2. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Soards, Marion L. The Speeches in Acts: their content, context, and concerns. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Steyn, Gert J. Septuagint quotations in the context of the Petrine and Pauline speeches of the Acta Apostolorum. (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos), 1995.
Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God. Downe