Depending on your church background and experience many of you may think of the gospel (and almost exclusively) as a written message. The first Christians did not think of it this way at all. Let me explain.
While reading the Book of Acts recently I noted this again and again. Take the beginning of this book:
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:1-5).
Luke says “I wrote” in the NIV. But the NLT says, “In my first book I told you.” (That is a lot closer to what Luke means here.) J. B. Phillips nails it when he says, “In my first book I gave you some account.” Yes, it was a written account for sure. There is no doubt about that. “The first word” that is referenced here is Luke’s (written) Gospel. But this is called a “word” (see Luke 1:2 and Acts 10:36) precisely because what is behind this written account is an oral tradition. The oral gospel, simply put, preceded the written one.
This is why New Testament scholar Robert H. Gundry says in his Commentary on the New Testament (Hendrickson, 2010, 464), “In fact, the expression Luke uses could legitimately be translated, ‘I spoke formerly’.”
Verse one says that Luke gave an account of what Jesus “began to do and to teach.” The point here seems to be that this is about deeds backed up by teaching, not the other way around. I believe the sense is clear and important to notice. What Jesus “began” to do is what he will continue to do and the Acts of the Apostles clearly demonstrates that this is how we should understand the written account given by Luke. The disciples were specially chosen “witnesses” to the doing and teaching of Jesus. And most of their witness was in deed and speaking, not in written form. Only two of the four Gospels were actually written by the twelve apostles of Jesus. (Mark might have had Peter in the background in writing his account!) And most of the New Testament letters were written by one “untimely born” who did not walk with the Twelve. This fact is quite clear—the early church did not have the first of the four Gospel accounts for decades. And the last one might have come nearer to the end of the century than the beginning. This means the church grew in the grace and power of God without a New Testament text as we know it.
Think about this for a moment? Before there was a written Gospel record the message of the good news was declared orally and with great power in the Holy Spirit. The church “did” what Jesus commanded and “spoke” what he had spoken. This was all passed down from person to person, or from group to group. This was an oral culture folks, not a written one.
What is my point here? We are rather quickly moving away from a Western print-based written culture. This does not mean that we will not read in the future but reading will have less and less importance, at least in terms of careful, analytical, precise reading. (The fact is such reading has little to do with 99% of the world’s people.) What is coming is a culture built on action and story. The dynamic person and that person’s dynamic speech acts will shape and form the new situation in a way that looks more like the ancient world than anything we’ve ever known in our lifetime.
Remember, the gospel is first and foremost an oral message that we pass along by what we do and say. Do you have a story of God’s grace working in your life? Are you a witness to the power and love of Jesus? If so you have been given the gospel message and you can speak this message, probably with more power and authority than you’ve ever realized, to others. Preaching from a Bible text in a sermon is a powerful and liberating force. But preaching the gospel story is primary for the witness of the church to those who are still outside. I believe even formal preaching inside the church would be far better, and more life-changing, if we regained the practice of orality and stopped reading sermon manuscripts! But I’ll save that for another blog.