The Elements of a Great Sermon (Acts 13:13-41)

What is it that makes for a great sermon … you know, beyond the fact that it was preached by the great staff at Tri-State Fellowship? The science of homiletics – preaching – is one that that has been studied over the years with a wide variety of opinions and applications. Surely there is variety, even within the Scriptural models, but also some timeless truths to be learned and applied.

Luke records a number of Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts, today’s passage being the first rather complete model.

This sermon is preached in the synagogue on the next stop of Paul’s first missionary journey. Having made two major stops on the island of Cyprus, he and Barnabas head now to the north and to the mainland of what is today the country of Turkey – landing at Perga on the coast and travelling north to the major city of Antioch of Pisidia.

Are you getting your Antiochs confused?  The departure point for the journey was from Antioch of Syria, these cities being named after a dynasty of kings by the name of Antiochus. Actually, the first Antioch (called Antakya today) is also in modern Turkey but is very close to the border of Syria, not far from the city of Aleppo which is sadly much in the news in recent years.

Acts 13:13 – From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. 14 From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch.

John Mark leaves then to return to Jerusalem. He was the cousin of Barnabas. Why he did this is unknown. Speculations include that he was displeased with Paul becoming the more prominent leader, or that he did not like the growing Gentile emphasis. Maybe the hardships and controversies were more than he could endure; but in any event, Paul saw it clearly as a defection and personal defect (15:38).

Acts 13:14 – On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”

We see here a pattern of Paul’s missionary strategy – to begin in the synagogue to the Jews and proselytes and then to move on to the Gentile population, often because of large-scale rejection of the message in Jewish circles. As with the account of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth, after the pair of regular readings from two sections of the Old Testament (as we call it), a capable person would be asked to give a homily or explanation to expand upon the passage – essentially a sermon. And if there happened to be a credentialed teacher travelling through the area and attending, he might be asked to do the speaking.

Acts 13:16 – Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17 The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; 18 for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; 19 and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years.

“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 25 As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’

26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.

32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’ [Psalm 2:7]

34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’ [Isaiah 55:3]

35 So it is also stated elsewhere: “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’ [Psalm 16:10]

36 “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. 37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

38 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: 41 “‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’ [Habakkuk 1:5]”

So what are some of the elements of this sermon that make it a quality teaching?

  1. It begins by referring to a common experience, identifying the speaker with the listeners. Together they shared a common Jewish background of two thousand years of God’s work and preservation of their heritage.
  2. The teaching is based upon Scripture and exposition. The message begins with assumptions of a common understanding of many passages that detailed Israel’s history. It moves on to quote four specific passages to ground his grand idea and argument in authority.
  3. The content focuses not only on current truths and events, but it demonstrates how those events relate to the overall plan of God that He is executing through all of time and human history. It culminates in the cross and resurrection, drawing the attention to these pinnacle events and to Jesus as the heart of God’s big story.
  4. It ends by calling the listener to action and to faith. There is glorious hope and provision, while also stating the warning for unbelief.

Effective sermons share these elements to a large degree. We identify a common problem or life challenge. We point to God’s work in addressing this through the use of the timeless truths of Scripture. And we present the opportunity and encouragement for all who hear to be renewed by again trusting in the grand work of God.

Does this work all the time for all the people? Nope … and tomorrow we’ll see an example (that will be repeated in Acts and is repeated to today) of what happens when the truth of Scripture is presented to a wide group of people.

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed 3-4 hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and am the editor of a Baltimore/Maryland sports blog called "The Baltimore Wire." My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with a Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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