Text: Acts 2:36-41
This chapter is one of the most celebrated passages in the whole Bible.
Some 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, just 10 days after his ascension, 120 disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, waiting, and praying.
- On the Day of Pentecost, there was a noise like a rushing wind, and something that looked like tongues of fire, and these disciples started praising God in foreign languages.
- There were many Jews in Jerusalem at that time, from many different parts of the Roman Empire. Each of them heard the disciples praising God in his or her own native language.
- They ask the disciples, ‘What does this mean?’
- Peter stands up and calmly, courteously and confidently explains:-
- Jesus was a man approved by God and by you. He was put to death. But God raised him to life, in fulfilment of Scripture. We also are witnesses to his resurrection from the dead. Now he has been exalted to God’s right hand in glory. From there he has poured out the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of the Scriptures.
Then, in v36 Peter summaries his argument: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” We read that when the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
There is clearly in the response of Peter’s audience the stabbing pain of guilt: “What have we done! We had been longing for God to send his Messiah, and now that he has come we have killed him.”
That is the sting in the tail. I’m sure you would agree that this is a major problem for most of us modern readers of the Bible. Playing on negative emotions like this can surely have no place in our presentation of the gospel. We are too sensitive and sophisticated to engage in Peter’s kind of ‘guilty-sinner’ evangelism.
This ‘sting in the tail’ is so clearly the pivot of this whole episode, and so obviously a problem for us today, that I want to spend the remainder of my time focusing exclusively on it.
Let us bring out our big guns on Peter, and see how he defends himself.
We can hit him on theological grounds – The Bible says that ‘God is love,’ and that ‘perfect love casts out fear’. Surely, love would never cause a person to feel guilty or ashamed.
Peter’s answer: the same Bible that reveals that God is love also reveals that he is a consuming fire. The Saviour himself, in the same breath that he spoke of the Holy Spirit as a Comforter, also said, (John 16:8) ‘When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.’
We can challenge Peter on psychological grounds – If you play on people’s fears like this, you will damage them emotionally. And there’s enough emotional damage in this world without you adding to it. People come to church (if they come to church at all) to be uplifted, not to be depressed. You should be aiming to increase people’s self-esteem, helping them to accept themselves, not condemning them.
Peter’s answer: you’re quite right: and the best way of helping people to become fully human is to treat the causes of their inner conflicts, not just to provide pain-relief for the symptoms. As one of your own psychologists has said, ‘Just so long as a person lives under the shadow of real, unacknowledged, and unresolved guilt, he cannot (if he has any character at all) “accept himself”; and all our efforts to reassure and accept him will avail nothing. He will continue to hate himself and so suffer the inevitable consequences of self-hatred. But the moment he…begins to accept his guilt and sinfulness, the possibility of radical reformation opens up; and with this, the individual may legitimately, though not without pain and effort, pass from deep, pervasive self-rejection and self-torture to a new freedom, of self-respect and peace.’
We can confront Peter on practical grounds – ‘Your method simply doesn’t work; people won’t accept being spoken to like this. Many of our churches are standing empty, and we’ll empty the rest of them if we talk to people like you talked to your audience.’
Peter: ‘You seem to have forgotten why so many of your churches are empty. “People are driven from the church not by stern truth that makes them uneasy, but by weak nothings that make them contemptuous.” I would like to remind you that on the occasion we are speaking about, 3,000 were converted. How successful are your methods? However, I will grant you that my preaching was not always so successful. Not long afterwards, I preached precisely the same message and, instead of accepting salvation, my audience tried to kill me.’ (You can read about this in Acts 5). Herein lies a vital lesson for all Christians in all ages: ‘God never holds us responsible for the results of our witnessing, only for our faithfulness to the message.’
But we have a further problem in our passage: Who was Peter addressing? He was speaking to exclusively to Jews. On the one hand, this would seem to be encouraging hatred against the Jews. On the other hand, it gives the rest of us an excuse for distancing ourselves from the crucifixion of the Son of God.
Listen to John Stott: ‘This blaming of the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus is extremely unfashionable today. Indeed, if it is used as a justification for slandering and persecuting the Jews (as it has been in the past), or for anti-semitism, it is absolutely indefensible. The way to avoid anti-semitic prejudice, however, is not to pretend that the Jews were innocent, but, having admitted their guilt, to add that others shared in it. This was how the apostles saw it. Herod and Pilate, Gentiles and Jews, they said, had together ‘conspired’ against Jesus (Acts 4:27). More importantly still, we ourselves are also guilty. If we were in their place, we would have done what they did. Indeed, we have done it. For whenever we turn away from Christ, we “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb 6:6). We too sacrifice Jesus to our greed like Judas, to our envy like the priests, to our ambition like Pilate. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the old negro spiritual asks. And we must answer, “Yes, we were there.” Not as spectators only but as participants, guilty participants, plotting, scheming, betraying, bargaining, and handing him over to be crucified. We may try to wash our hands of responsibility like Pilate. But our attempt will be as futile as his. For there is blood on our hands. Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance). Indeed, “only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross”, wrote Canon Peter Green, “may claim his share in its grace”.’
Have you ever sung, perhaps on Good Friday:-Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?
It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you;
And I, O Jesus, it was I denied you,
I crucified you.
Our rebellion put Jesus to death just as surely as that of first-century people. The Son of God died not only for our sins, but because of them. With Peter’s first audience, we must return to the scene of the crime, the cross. We must face up to our guilt before almighty God, the Judge. We must throw ourselves on his mercy, asking, What shall we do?
And the answer to that plea is as simple and as powerful today as it was on that glorious day of Pentecost.
(Acts 2:38-39) 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.”
May God grant each of us power to know this for ourselves, and then to make it known to a needy and guilty world.