This Pentecost I thought I’d take a look at Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon.
Acts Chapter 2 is quite a long chapter, and Peter’s sermon takes up a considerable portion of the number of verses. Indeed, while the actual coming of the Holy Spirit takes place in only four verses, Peter’s speech takes up well over half of the chapter.
Luke obviously thought it was important, though sometimes we’re more apt to focus on the action, the event of the Spirit’s Coming.
Certainly the event itself is vital. It’s been described, with justification, as the birth of the Church, and without it, there probably wouldn’t be a Church as we know it. And yet, over half of the crucial chapter is Peter making a speech.
In some ways I almost wonder why it’s in there. What’s so important about this speech that it’s recorded in at least gist form for posterity?
It’s not like it’s a major section of moral instruction like the Sermon on the Mount, or a major Christological teaching like Colossians 1. Why did Luke consider it so important to record, and why did God consider it so important to preserve?
It’s one of several major speeches or sermons in the Book of Acts: there’s this one, there’s Stephen’s defence speech to the Sanhedrin, there’s Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, and there are several of Paul’s defence speeches before Roman magistrates. And in a sense, my question is the same for all of them: why is this here?
Peter’s “sermon” here is the first time there’s ever been an evangelistic talk given by someone who’s only human. In that sense it has the same overall purpose as Paul’s speech to the Areopagus: evangelism. Perhaps Luke intends these as “sample evangelistic messages” for us to draw on, emulate and learn from.
As such, the two speeches couldn’t be more different. Peter’s speech starts from a remarkable miraculous sign, takes in Biblical testimony, the life of King David, and several prophetic Scriptural statements and comes to Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah from the perspective of the fulfillment of Scripture. Paul’s speech starts from the city of Athens’ rampant idolatry and the altar “to the unknown god”, takes in logic, pagan Greek poetry originally written about Zeus, and cutting-edge contemporary thought about the nature of reality and comes to Jesus’ identity as the Creator’s representative on Earth from the perspective of someone to whom Jewish Scripture was an unknown source.
The two speeches reflect their different audiences’ needs, and illustrate the dichotomy Paul mentions in I Corinthians 1: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom”.
If I’m right in my hypothesis that Luke (and the Holy Spirit) intend these sermons as illustrative messages for “how to do evangelism”, then Peter’s speech should be seen as “how to do evangelism with Jews” – people having the Scriptures and recognising their authority, who know that there is one God and know much of what He is like from His Scriptures. Paul’s speech, conversely, is “how to do evangelism with Greeks” – pagans, people not knowing the Scriptures or recognising their authority. It’s an important difference, and one we should bear in mind, because it’s no good quoting Scripture to back up a point if your audience doesn’t recognise Scriptural authority.
Nevertheless, Peter’s sermon is for Jews. Jews from all over the world, but Jews. Many of whom would have been in Jerusalem for Passover and seen the events of Holy Week, heard the reports of the resurrection, even, and not known what to make of it all.
Peter’s speech is occasional, made in response to the crowd’s desire for an explanation of the fact that 120 Galilean hicks were loudly declaring the praises of God in languages from all over the known world.
This is as remarkable as a busload of East Texan rednecks suddenly speaking fluent Khalkh Mongolian, Dari, Quechua and Swahili. For all that America is a “melting-pot” of diverse nations and cultures, Americans are even worse than the English when it comes to learning foreign languages, and Galileans were just as uncosmopolitan. Something, evidently, was going on, and whatever it was was very remarkable.
Into this knowledge vacuum Peter steps, with an explanation of what is going on that ties together the present events, Scriptural prophecy, the Messianic expectations of that Scriptural prophecy and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s very clever, actually.
Peter’s first order of business is to counter the mockery of those who blamed all the noise and commotion on the disciples’ drunkenness. No, it cannot be; it’s too early in the morning for those who start drinking at dawn to be fully gone, and too late for the all-night carousers. No, he explains, this is a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words, about the coming of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.
This is fairly straightforward, but to our Western, non-Jewish ears, the next part looks like a non-sequitur. “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God…”
What we’re missing is the fact that the implications of Joel’s prophecy were that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign of the age of the Messiah’s Kingdom. The natural question for a Jewish person in that day and age would probably have been “well if this is that, where’s the Kingdom of Messiah?”
It’s in answer to that unspoken question that Peter brings in the life and witness of Jesus. He has Messiah’s imprint in terms of being accredited by God in deeds of power and holiness. Though betrayed and handed over to death by fallen, sin-stained human beings, he bears Messiah’s imprint in that God raised Him from the dead – and we’re not making this up; we’re eyewitnesses. We saw it.
I can almost hear the baffled crowd now. “But even if He were raised from the dead, how can He truly be Messiah if He died? He’s the Son of David who will reign on his throne, not die on a cross!”
And so Peter turns once again to Scripture. Beginning at that Messianic title, “Son of David”, he takes David’s own prophetic psalms and brings out of them the full depth of their meaning: that though David died and was buried, he was looking forward when he wrote that to One who would not be abandoned in the grave. This is Jesus, he finishes. You crucified Him – and he makes no bones about laying the blame at the crowd’s feet – but God has made Him both “Lord”, as David said, and Christ, David’s Son and the heir of the Kingdom.
Perhaps one of the important things for us today, especially those of us who are Gentiles, is to recognise that the huge numbers of people added to the Church after this sermon were not added purely by the magical-seeming means of the Holy Spirit overruling their minds by a touch on their hearts. It matters what we say when we speak about who Jesus is. There’s an appeal not just to the emotions but also to reason. Starting from what his Jewish audience already knew about God and Messiah from the Scriptures, Peter reasons with the crowd that Jesus is, in fact, the One that was promised.
Interestingly enough for our own evangelistic efforts, there’s absolutely no appeal here to Jesus meeting felt needs. Peter’s message is uncompromising; it’s “Jesus is the promised Messiah and you crucified Him”. There’s no evidence here of the Jesus who can help us deal with our anger issues or set us free from our poor self-image. He can, but that’s not where Peter focuses his message. This crowd know what Messiah’s supposed to be: He’s the One who will establish God’s Kingdom on earth and really make us into a holy nation and a people of God’s own possession. Peter’s insistence that “you crucified him” isn’t very PC. It’s not even tactful. But it comes to the heart of the issue.
The Jewish nation of the time thought they were pretty special. They had the patriarchs, the Law, the Commandments, the Scriptures. They were God’s own people, whom He loved more than anyone else on the face of the earth.
The fact that God’s own people could so devastatingly miss it as to crucify His Own Son wasn’t in their thinking.
No wonder, when it registered, that they were “cut to the heart”. God must be so angry with us! We’re no better – and quite a bit worse, because we had no excuse – than pagans! What can we possibly do to make it right?
So at the end, it comes down to the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of the sins of a crowd that counted themselves “righteous” and “Godly”, and didn’t even know that they had them.
“Repent (turn around, change your mind and your ways) and be baptised (just like a pagan who wanted to join themselves to the Jewish nation and become a worshipper of the true God) for the forgiveness of sins…”