Cut to the heart - Acts 2:14-41
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the story of the Vicar who stood at the church door shaking hands as people were leaving the service when one old lady said to him, ‘That was a very good sermon tonight Vicar.’ And in order to convey a modicum of modesty, he replied, ‘Thank you, but it wasn’t really me you know, it was the Holy Spirit’. To which she immediately responded, ‘Well, it wasn’t that good!’
We have to admit that preaching in the eyes of many has fallen upon hard times. In fact it would be true to say that oratory in general is very much in the doldrums compared to former years. Who can imagine someone today producing anything like Lincoln’s Gettysburg address- George Bush? or Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech- Gordon Brown? Soundbites and well worn clichés have replaced passion and carefully crafted arguments. Creating an impression emotionally is considered to be more important than changing minds intellectually. That is the cultural climate in which we live. It is therefore not surprising that some church leaders are claiming that the day of expository preaching- that is explaining and applying the Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit- is considered to be over.
It will come as no surprise to hear that I firmly dissent from that view. Preaching- a reasoned, passionate unfolding of God’s message- has always been God’s primary means of changing the world and shaping his people. The Book of Deuteronomy is one long sermon by Moses as God’s people prepare to enter the Promised Land. When the Jewish people came back from Exile and started rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple a very long sermon by Ezra was preached and was crucial in equipping them for the task ahead. Jesus began his wider public ministry with an incredible sermon delivered from a mountainside. And, as we shall see, the explosion of the Gospel into the world after Jesus had returned to heaven began with a sermon-that was the great Pentecostal gift. So wherever you look in church history- the great Reformation, the 18th century Revival- preaching is central. And I believe that if God is going to singularly bless us again as a nation and as a church, it will be through the same God honoured means-preaching. Indeed, the Christian writer Jim Packer has described the whole Bible as ‘God preaching’ – he addresses us in order to encounter us and change us.
Now of course not everything that claims to be preaching is preaching. Talks or lectures are different forms of speaking from preaching. So what is preaching? The best way to answer that question is to turn to the examples we have in the Bible which is what we are going to be doing over the next few weeks as we expose our minds and hearts to the preaching of the first Christians in the Book of Acts in order to hear God speaking afresh to us today. And tonight we begin with the sermon which started it all off- Peter’s Pentecost preaching in Acts 2:14ff.
Now, it is important to realise that what we have recorded for us by Luke in Acts are summaries of sermons rather than whole sermons. They are more like the sermon notes we give out than the actual sermons themselves, but nonetheless they do capture the main content of what was preached as well as the style in which they were preached. So we are given reliable insights into the way these people proclaimed God’s truth. So what does preaching involve?
First of all, preaching involves revelation. We are talking about something which is God-given not man-made, it is the result of God’s Word in Scripture and a presentation of that Word from Scripture. You see that so clearly here don’t you? Throughout the sermon you have the Old Testament quoted and explained. You also have the person and works of Jesus unpacked and explained- what is now for us the New Testament. The Old Testament prepares the way for the New and the New is the fulfilment of the Old and so the two always belong together and are to be preached as a unity. Of course what caused the folk to sit up in the first place and ask what was going on was this strange phenomenon of the 120 followers of Jesus telling the crowd of Jewish pilgrims what God had done in Christ in languages which were not natural to them-v11. And Peter provides an explanation of this by going back to the prophet Joel - verse 17 " `In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ A new era has arrived, not totally out of the blue, but one promised by God hundreds of years before. You know, for Israel the great sign of God’s blessing was his presence. His presence was there in Eden and was lost when Adam and Eve rebelled. His presence was with Israel in the wilderness in the pillar of fire. His presence was signified by the descending cloud of the Shekinah glory in Solomon’s Temple-pulsating with a holy beauty. But now, says Peter, as Joel prophesied, God’s presence will be with all of his people all of the time by His Spirit. The generosity of this amazing gift is illustrated by the fact that in v17 God speaks of ‘pouring out my Spirit’- this is not drizzle but a downpour! There is also the finality of the gift since what has been poured out can’t be gathered back in again- the gift is here to stay. And we can’t miss the universality of God’s gift of himself- it is for ‘all people’ (lit all flesh)-v 17. Notice, there are no social conditions attached, whether sex (sons and daughters) or age (young men and old) or status (even on my ‘servants’). And this gift of God’s presence amongst his people is for a purpose-v18, ‘they will prophesy’. What is that all about? Well, given that Peter is referring to what the Jewish people are seeing amongst the 120 disciples it would suggest that this prophesying is to be taken in its widest sense of proclamation-v 11, ‘declaring the wonders of God’, rather than a foretelling of future events, which certainly does take place in Acts. In fact what Peter himself is doing here is evidence of this kind of prophesying. Just think about it. This is a man who has had no formal education and yet is able to bring together a wide range of Scriptures with such powerful reasoning that it is nothing short of miraculous. It is highly unlikely that Peter has not been doing any thinking about Jesus and his fulfilment of the Old Testament, especially since the risen Jesus had been teaching them for 40 days according to chapter 1 and verse 3. So, some sort of ordering of a message would have been going on in his mind. Nonetheless, the way in which Peter stands up full of confidence and conviction and is able to put together such a sermon on the spot points to a power and personality beyond him- God’s Spirit.
He then moves on from what the Scriptures say about them as God’s followers, to speaking about the one to whom all Scriptures point- Jesus Christ- vv 22-36. Now, if someone were to ask you: ‘What the Christian Message?’ what would you say? Well, we have the answer right here in verse 22- 24." Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ Sure, it is a summary and you can bet Peter elaborated it with detail, but the Gospel is the Gospel- an account of the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As we sing in one of our choruses ‘Its all about you.’ The Gospel is not about how I have been saved. It is not even John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his own and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ although that comes close to it. It is about someone incredible who walked this earth 2,000 years ago. It is about history- things that happened- not ideas- things we would like to believe. It is about a flesh and blood Galilean, a man unlike any other men. He said and did things no other human being ever did or could ever do- healing the sick on a scale unheard of, raising the dead, things described in v22 as ‘miracles’- supernatural happenings; ‘wonders’ –creating a response of amazement; signs-pointers to God’s saving rule in him – and therefore affirming that this was God’s man doing God’s work- and everyone was aware of these. But his great work was the cross, something God had planned but which wicked men put into effect and so making them responsible-v23. And God raised Jesus from death’s grip or ‘agony’ for death could not keep him? Why? Because death is the judgement upon sin. Jesus committed no sin and so he had no right to die. He did die, but as a substitute and representative of those who deserve it, people like you and me. But because he as an individual was free from sin, the grave had to give him up; it had no right to keep him.
And you don’t have to just take Peter’s word for it; again it is the only thing which make sense of the Bible- psalm 16-v24ff. This too was a prophecy. Also Psalm 132:11 which probably lies behind v30, ‘The LORD swore an oath to David, a sure oath that he will not revoke: "One of your own descendants I will place on your throne.’ and then Psalm 110-quoted in v34. And this Scriptural onslaught, with passage after passage being cited would have left his hearers reeling. Especially when the implication hit home just who Jesus really was. Yes, he was a man accredited by God, but much more than a man- he was the Son of God himself. This is implied on more than one occasion in the sermon. In the Joel’s prophecy we read that God will pour out his Spirit. But in verse 33, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit, and only God can give the Spirit of God. At the end of the prophesy of Joel in verse 21 we are told ‘All who call on the name of the Lord’-that is God- will be saved. In verse 38 it is upon the name of Jesus that they are to call and so receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit as shown by repentance and baptism.
You see, Peter’s task, and ours, is to lead people to the place where they will hear God’s voice speaking to them; where they will hear of the wonderful things he has done to put wrong things right, where they will hear words of forgiveness and power for a fresh start- the gift of the Spirit. And that place is the Bible. No matter how great the oratory, no matter how amusing the illustrations, or even how spiritual the content, if it is not the Scriptures which are being opened or to which people are being drawn at some point, then it is not preaching that is taking place. Of course you have to have the confidence that this book is from God, as did Peter, otherwise you are not going to bother to preach from it or listen to it, why should you? But if you believe it is the very words of the Triune God, then you can’t do anything else. You want God to speak- read this book, get to the homegroups; listen to the sermons-he will not disappoint you.
Secondly, preaching involves reason, which means an appeal to the heart via the mind. God has made us thinking creatures. At our best we are rational beings, at our worst-irrational. Therefore, we don’t do God or anyone else any favours if we present the Christian faith as some subjective mindless trip, an experience instead of a message, a matter of taste rather than truth. Just look at how Peter reasons point after point. He starts off by refuting the put down of verse 13- ‘these people are drunk’ that’s the explanation so we don’t have to take this seriously. No, says Peter in v 15, that is not a sufficient explanation at all. It is only nine in the morning- you don’t get drunk people around at that time- not in this culture at any rate! So he demolishes that argument before going on to present an alternative explanation- that this is ‘tongue speaking’ is the fulfilment of Scripture. Drunkenness results in incoherence, slurred speech, but what the crowd can hear is fully comprehensible-v11. You can’t explain what is happening away so easily.
Neither can you explain the resurrection away either. That is the thrust of Peter’s reasoning in v 29-32. Who is the ‘Holy One whose body will not see decay’ that David was speaking about in Psalm 16 and being quoted in verse 27? The Jewish crowd would have answered- ‘David himself’. ‘Can’t be’ replies Peter and ‘I can prove it. You can come down to the cemetery if you like and we can see David’s grave for ourselves and his body lying in it. But I can take you to another grave down the road- the grave of Jesus- and you will find it is empty. And grave robbers will not do as an explanation because we saw the risen Jesus’-v32- it is a fact! In other words, Jesus resurrection is a literal, physical, bodily resurrection. And this is the final explanation of the strange things you have been seeing today says Peter-v33 ‘Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.’
It is true that you cannot argue someone into the kingdom of God, but arguments play their part in bringing people into the kingdom of God. Preaching is not a matter of playing the emotions; it is appealing to the mind. There is a negative apologetic, showing up false arguments for what they are, whether it is alternative explanations for the resurrection- swoon theories, grave robbing theories and the like, as well as showing that the best explanation is the Christian one. When someone says they are an atheist or an agnostic, that is not the end of the conversation, it is the beginning, for those terms just tell you what they don’t believe, not what they do believe. You have to find out what those things are and lovingly but firmly expose their weakness before presenting the Christian alternative. True preaching engages the mind.
But it does not leave things there; for it also engages the heart and will. A ‘talk’ may engage the mind in that it can be very interesting and informative, but that doesn’t make it preaching. That is why I am not too keen on the title given to some recent evangelistic efforts or churches called ‘Bible talks’- that is all they can be-talks. A sermon is more than a talk; it is an encounter, an engagement with the living God. It is not just concerned with presenting information but bringing about a transformation effected by the Spirit of God. Preaching involves calling for a response. Look at the response and what Peter called for and how he went about getting it it-v36-41 -Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." 37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call." 40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Those who accepted this message (note) were baptized, and about 3,000 were added to their number that day."
There is no ‘take it or leave it’ attitude when presenting the claims of Christ. For those claims reveal what a monstrous thing we have done with our Maker- he comes into the world and we murder him. It is no good pointing to the people at the time and saying, ‘They did it’ and so leading to the terrible persecution of the Jewish people which has so shamed the West, for if we had been there we would have done it too, for we do it on daily basis whenever we suppress our consciences which God has given us. And when you truly understand the Christian message, that judgement hangs over our heads as we stand before this God whom we have bitterly offended, you can’t help but cry out ‘What are we to do?’ For we have had it! Well, is there anything which can be done? Yes there is- you get converted. You change your thinking about who Jesus is and what he has done for you, you change your direction and stop walking away from God and start walking towards him in his Son and you make that change known publicly- here by baptism which was a real humble pie eating time for these people as only non-Jews not Jews were expected to be humiliated in that way.
The result? You receive God’s promise of his presence- the Holy Spirit. And God keeps his promise. He calls people through this message and those who call on him he takes as his own. And that may be what God is doing with you tonight. And this is so important that Peter keeps hammering away-not bullying but pleading and warning not to refuse this wonderful offer. There is passion in preaching, heat as well as light. Peter is no detached lecturer, he is a dedicated persuader. That is preaching.
Preachers need to be prayed for. Preaching needs to be prized-thanked God for and responded to; for through what is preached God saves our souls, builds his church and extends his kingdom.
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