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Acts

First Sermon

Acts  2:14-41

The sermons recorded in the New Testament bear little resemblance to those given in modern congregations. This may be a case of Luke, as editor, picking out the high points. It is worth the reading, however, to see how it was done by the Apostles:

(Acts 2:14-41 NIV) Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. {15} These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! {16} No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: {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. {18} Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. {19} I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. {20} The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. {21} And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' {22} "Men of Israel, listen to this: 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. {23} This 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. {24} But 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. {25} David said about him: "'I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. {26} Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, {27} because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. {28} You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.' {29} "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. {30} But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. {31} Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. {32} God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. {33} 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. {34} For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, "'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand {35} until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."' {36} "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." {37} When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" {38} Peter 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. {39} The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call." {40} With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." {41} Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

The early sermons of the church seem to have three consistent themes: prophecy, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. We need to examine each of these in turn.

Prophecy

Perhaps to us today we view prophecy as something that Peter's Jewish audience would have an interest in - but we certainly don't. (Except, of course, for Revelation). But even prophecy fulfilled has its uses, for it teaches us about the character of God:

God's patience

Peter, in passing, tells us that we are living "in the last days." Therefore, the prophecies he uses are from former days - and indeed they go back almost two thousand years. The earliest comes from the days of the Garden of Eden.[1] The prophecy from Joel referenced here is one of the last. From that time until the time of Christ over 400 years had passed - years of silence from the prophets, waiting the coming of the Messiah.

The point is simple: God is patient. As the Scripture often points out, he is "slow to anger." What, after all, is time to the creator of time? He is patient - but we must not confuse patience with inaction. God is not mocked.

God's eternal purpose

In verse 23 Peter assures us that all that Christ did was according to God's "set purpose and foreknowledge." The Resurrection is not an accident, or a cover up by God of a prophet's life gone wrong. He planned it that way from the beginning. As Isaiah tells us,

(Isaiah 46:8-10 NIV) "Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. {9} Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. {10} I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.

This is completely opposite our current idea that - since God has not yet had Christ return - God will never act. The volcano never erupts until it erupts - but it is a volcano still.

The unity of God

Note that in this passage all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned - but Peter speaks confidently to the Jews about Jesus, knowing that they (and he) know that God is one. We see here a passing reference to the doctrine of the trinity: Jesus is described as "Lord" (equal to God) and "Christ" (the chosen Messiah, a man). But also the three separate persons are distinguished. We see here how comfortable Peter was in using all three persons of the one God.

The Crucifixion

It is a startling fact to many people that the symbol of Christianity is a cross - the cross of the Crucifixion. Crucifixion is a painful and humiliating way to die, yet millions of Christians proudly display it as the sign of their innermost belief. Why this symbol? It is for the death of Christ that we wear it. That death means everything to us. Why is the cross so important?

Atonement

Under the influence of the "gentle Jesus" metaphor, many have concluded that there is something extraneous about the cross. It is not so; the cross is necessary. God is righteous and just; it is one of his attributes and he cannot be untrue to himself. Righteousness demands atonement for sin, a lesson planted firmly in the Jews. But if all righteousness - pure righteousness - is to be fulfilled, then the sacrifice of atonement must be pure also. Only the sinless man could be the atonement we need for righteousness.

Think of it this way: suppose you are deeply in debt, several millions of dollars. We could take up a collection - but at ten bucks apiece, you're still in debt. You need a friendly billionaire. The debt is for all of us, so only the perfect one of us could pay it.

Reconciliation

God is righteous, but God is also love. His objective is not just to atone for us (and then let us be) but rather reconcile us to himself. He is not interested in burying the hatchet - he wants to eliminate the hatchet entirely. So atonement is necessary - but not sufficient. Reconciliation is required. Atonement requires that the price be paid; reconciliation that it be paid willingly.

There is no greater love than this: that a man die for his friends. Note please that in this case the dying was not spontaneous, an impulse of the moment. It was planned. Christ had all of eternity to think about it. Crucifixion is not only a painful death (so much so that breaking the victims legs to hasten death was considered a merciful thing to do) but a shameful one. It marked you (and those with you) as outside the law. Worse yet, this crucifixion is accompanied by abandonment and betrayal. That is the measure of God's love for us - a love which stretches beyond atonement to reconciliation.

Example

Christ frequently tells us to "take up your cross and follow me." If nothing else, the cross is our great example. If he was willing to do that; if we claim to be his disciples; then what is there that we should not be willing to do?

Resurrection

The third element of the sermon is the Resurrection. It is another constant of the sermons of the Bible. I once heard a radio talk show discussing the musical, Jesus Christ, Superstar. The panelists were a Unitarian, a Quaker and a Baptist minister. For some 15 minutes the Baptist minister's microphone was turned off while the other two pontificated. When they finally let the Baptist talk, he came right to the point: "There is no resurrection. They missed the entire point of Christ's life." The host immediately turned the Baptist's microphone back off; the world does not want to hear about the Resurrection.

"Most miserable"

If there is no resurrection, then we are idiots for going to church and acting like there is. But see the confidence of the men on the spot! These men had seen him die (and acted like it); they had to be convinced of such a great miracle. But once they were, they turned the world upside down. The resurrection is the central event of human history. That resurrection shook the world.

First Fruits

The innocent Christ cannot stay buried long. The same justice that required the atonement cannot let the innocent one stay in the grave. It is entirely in keeping with the righteousness of God that Christ is risen.

But if Christ is risen, we are faced with the physical proof of resurrection. And if he tells us that we, like him, will rise from the grave, what could possibly cause us to think otherwise? There is no other expert on the subject!

Why shall we rise? Consider that we are being clothed in Christ's righteousness - as we do his will we become his body - and therefore the just God who raised him from the dead will do likewise for us. In his good time - do recall that he is patient, and his purposes are eternal.

The power of God

The power of God is greatly displayed in the Resurrection. But we must not imagine that the power of God is beyond our reach. Indeed, it is not; for Peter here tells us that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit - God dwelling in us; our bodies the temple of the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit is the power of God in our lives. Now then: does the power of God diminish with time? Can time dim the eternal flame? Then why do you look so glum? Do you not know who you are, oh ambassador of reconciliation?

Reaction

The message hit home - and the crowd asks, "what shall we do?" Peter gives them two steps:

Repent

It means simply to turn around - to go the other way. It is the inward change that counts.

Be baptized

This is the outward symbol of inward change. It is a fitting one: it is cleansing (as befits repentance); it is symbolic of death, burial and resurrection (we often say "you are buried with Christ") and it is public.

If you do these things, then, you become a part of the church, heirs of salvation. This recapitulates Peter's sermon here: You fulfill the prophecies which said that the Gospel would spread over all the earth; you are crucified with Christ (and thus reconciled to God); and you will rise at the last day, just as Jesus did in God's own good time.

That is not the end; it is the beginning of a new life. What kind of life that is, we shall see next lesson.


[1] Genesis 3:15

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