Preaching of the Pentecostal Gospel

Saint Peter’s sermon at the Jewish festival of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, marked the initiation of the Christian faith persisting beyond the teachings and charisma of Jesus himself.

Summary of Event

Pentecost is a Jewish festival that takes place fifty days after the second day of the Passover. To Christians, Easter is the festival of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that turned the disappointment of the Apostles into faith, while Pentecost recalls the moment in the early Church when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles so that the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah could begin. Peter, Saint
John the Apostle
Paul, Saint

According to Acts 2:17-21, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost included the citation of Joel 2:28-32, a reference that showed clearly that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was regarded as marking the arrival of the “last things.” The Church consisted of the “end-time” people of God, the final true inheritors of all that God had promised to his people. This inheritance was given to those who faithfully believed that the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus took place according to God’s plan as announced by his prophets in the Old Testament. Admittedly Jesus’ death at the hands of the very people who were listening to Peter’s sermon was a shocking evil, but God had set it right by raising Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection showed that God had appointed Jesus as Lord and Messiah, the same one who was now ruling as the Lord at the right hand of God. In the name of Jesus, people were called to repentance and salvation.

Such was the substance of the Pentecostal Gospel, according to the words of Peter as recorded in Acts 2:14-40. Throughout Acts, especially in 2:9-11, Luke makes it clear that this message of good tidings was intended for all people when he recounts, according to a zodiacal list, the different peoples of the world who were present to hear the first inspired utterances of the Apostles.

The history of the primitive Church is dark. Uncertainties are caused by the character of the sources: the epistles of Saint Paul and the book of Acts. Paul’s letters are the oldest books of the New Testament, the earliest dating from about 51 c.e., but his interests are not historical. Written to meet specific situations in various early Christian congregations, his letters present few details about the early history of these assemblies. Acts is a source of value, though it is also fragmentary. The apostle Luke is chiefly concerned with tracing the geographic expansion of the Church from Jerusalem throughout Palestine and with following the career of Paul as he proselytized in the eastern Mediterranean area. Luke is interested in presenting the primitive Church as a model for later church living, and he supplies surprisingly little information about Paul’s teaching. Instead, he portrays a common life, a common doctrine, and a common worship unencumbered with details, so that the readers of his own day could imitate the early ideal period. The spirit of the Apostolic age is the standard that Luke would like to see adopted in the life of the Church in the last quarter of the first century c.e.

Saint Paul, an early Church leader, preaches to an assembly in Athens.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Considering the paucity and limitations of early source material, it is not surprising that little is known of the original foundation even of so important a church as that of Antioch in Syria. It can be determined from Acts 11:19-20, 28 and the probable date of Paul’s conversion that Christians were in the city within three years after the first Christian Pentecost. This city was the place where regular and organized evangelization of non-Jews first took place, and it came to be the center of missionary activity throughout the Greco-Roman world. Paul was its outstanding missionary, although the see was later regarded as Petrine. Apparently the Alexandrian church was also founded before 50 c.e., though again details are missing. Some scholars profess to see evidence for the existence of Christians at Alexandria in the description of the Jewish community contained in the letter to the Alexandrians written by the emperor Claudius in 41 c.e. The capital city of Rome certainly had a Christian community by 49 c.e., even though the names of its founders have been lost.

Other data of historical interest are also lacking. The organizational structure of the earliest Christian assemblies is unknown; however, Galatians 2:1-10 describes the structure of the Church at Jerusalem. Three men were at its head: Peter, James, and John the Apostle, who were called “the pillars.” Apparently the Church was thought of as God’s eschatalogical temple, but little can be ascertained about the liturgical practices there or in any of the earliest churches. Some information about early worship can be learned from Paul in the tradition about the Lord’s Supper as given in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, fragments of creeds in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Romans 3:24-26a, and traces of early Christian hymns in Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16. Fragments of early liturgical forms appear embedded in later documents, but valuable though such data may be, little of import can be learned. The early Church seems to have been more concerned with the spiritual impact of the Pentecostal Gospel than with the transmission of details of early institutional organization.


Basically there are two approaches to reconstructing the content of the early missionary proclamation of Christianity. One view looks for fragments of earlier materials in Paul and Acts and argues their diversity. The other approach seeks to emphasize the common pattern of proclamation in what are held to be primitive New Testament materials. In the latter approach, the study of the New Testament must always remain conscious of the distinction between kerygma and teaching. Kerygma, a transliterated loan word from Greek properly meaning proclamation or public notice, has become among biblical scholars a technical term to describe a uniform missionary proclamation that can be found in the epistles of Paul, Acts, the Gospels, and elsewhere in the New Testament. As such it should be distinguished from didache, or the instructional function.

Certain motifs can be recovered in Paul, and Paul himself points to an earlier Christian tradition. Putting together this tradition, the kerygma emerges as proclaiming that the coming of Christ has fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and inaugurated the new age, that this Christ was born of the seed of David, died according to the Old Testament to deliver people from this evil age, was buried, then raised up on the third day according to the Scriptures, and was exalted to the right hand of God. Now as Lord of all humankind, God’s Son, he rules and will return as judge and savior. An almost similar pattern of proclamation can be found in the great speeches or sermons in Acts, especially at 2:14-36; 2:38-39; 3:12-26; and 4:8-10. The pre-Pauline tradition and Acts agree in asserting that the decisive thing has already happened, that Jesus’ return is in fact an impending advent that will corroborate the preaching of the Apostles. Acts adds the note that people are called to repent in the fact of this proclamation.

A study of surviving literature of a slightly later age supports this reconstruction of the primitive proclamation or kerygma. Naturally, when the immediate advent did not take place, a readjustment was needed. Some provided the necessary restructuring by placing a greater emphasis on the idea of the future return rather than its imminence, and consequently described it in strongly apocalyptic language as in 2 Thessalonians, Mark 13, and Revelation. Another kind of adjustment in the proclamation tended to put greater emphasis on the historical facts of the ministry of Jesus. Paul himself fits into this category of response as he rewords the primitive kerygma. Hebrews and 1 Peter represent similar, if schematically different, solutions.

The greatest rewriting is in the synoptic Gospels, especially in Mark. Mark is merely an expanded form of the historical section of the kerygma, as a comparison of its outline to Acts 10 and 13 reveals. Its stress is on fulfillment in the historical events of Jesus’ life; such an emphasis naturally supports their essential historicity. Both Paul and the Fourth Gospel develop this insight still further in their emphasis on the Spirit of God as creating an abiding unity between the Messiah and the Messianic community. In both writers, the crude elements of primitive eschatology are absorbed into a doctrine of present fellowship with the Christ. The Fourth Gospel stresses a steady progression in the manifestation of the Logos or Divine Light in the darkness. Eternal fulfillment begins already on Earth through a mystical union with Christ. One looks forward not to a future great event, as the Second Coming, but rather to a resurrection and judgment that are already under way. Here the present is already part of the future and the future part of the present.

The approach that emphasizes disconnected and fragmentary materials can discover no recognizable unified message in the early Church. Some scholars regard the account in Acts as based on ancient reports but consider that the account reflects a stage into which legend, myth, or reflection have already entered. Moreover, Luke has shaped his material somewhat freely to serve his literary end. Indeed, there may never have been twelve apostles; Luke, in an anachronistic way, has merely joined a later idea of the apostolate to the “twelve,” a group of men whose historical position is at best unclear. Some genuinely early features in the primitive Church can be recognized, such as disputes over the role of the Mosaic Law, but the general picture of Acts cannot be regarded, as it stands, as a primary source for early Church history. The major source will thus have to be the pre-Pauline material such as credal formulations, hymns, and other such literary forms found in the apostles’ epistles and in other later letters.

The early Christian Church developed a self-understanding image of itself. Names such as “the holy,” “the elect,” and “the assembly” all emphasize the awareness of the primitive Church of its role as the community in which the hope for the gathering of Israel has been fulfilled. The subsequent organization, worship, and sacramental theology of the Church all witness its self-understanding.

The early Church’s message has to do with the central affirmation of faith, with the public declaration of the one who is the community’s Lord. At times the point of the confession can be gleaned from the title used for Jesus. As the “Christ,” he is the expected anointed king of the Jews. In early Christian creeds, this title is often used in connection with statements saying that he died and rose again, credal assertions reflected in Romans 5:8 and 8:4, and 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. In these assertions, the death of Jesus is the central focus rather than the Resurrection. The use of other titles suggests different meanings and emphases. “Son of God” is at times a designation used to demarcate that stage in the career of Jesus when he enters after, or through, the Resurrection. The Resurrection is seen as the exaltation of that position as stated in Romans 1:3-4 and 2 Timothy 2:8. This exaltation, in turn, is expanded into a full preexistence, humiliation, and exaltation structure in the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. “Son of God” thus designates a position that Jesus fulfills by virtue of exaltation. The title “Lord” is similar. In 1 Corinthians 16:22, where the term occurs in Aramaic, the title refers to the coming apocalyptic judge. Elsewhere, it seems to stress the completed character of salvation and the present ruling force of Jesus. He is the one elevated to rule as stated in 1 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Peter 3:18ff. That is the sense of the miniature creed, “Jesus is Lord,” found in 1 Corinthians 12:3 and elsewhere.

There is, in fact, variety in such creeds and hymns embedded in the New Testament. Out of them and other materials it is not possible to reconstruct a single pattern of proclamation or confession as it was announced by the primitive Church. Such unity as there is arises from the unity of the one to whom the creeds and hymns refer, a person known under many titles. The picture presented is of a Christianity more varied, and perhaps richer, than that given in the more conservatively reconstructed Pentecostal Gospel.

Further Reading

  • Bonz, Marianne Palmer. The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2000. Illuminates the influence of literary and traditional material on Luke’s Gospel.
  • Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1997. An extensive and detailed explication of Pauline theology.
  • Neill, Stephen Charles. Jesus Through Many Eyes: An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament. Cambridge, England: Clarke and Co., 2002. Analyzes the differing theologies that may be discerned in the New Testament.

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