by Fernando Vangioni
Bible Reading: Acts 2:14-36; 1 Peter 1:12
Whenever Christians have sought to return to the first century they have hoped to search out once again the source and origin of Christianity, its purity of doctrine and simplicity of practice. Here they hope to discover the secret that enabled the early Christians, in less than a hundred years, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world powers of that age - the Roman Empire with its materialistic paganism, illustrious Greece with its philosophy, and Jerusalem with its religion.
Bursting upon every milieu like an avalanche that carries everything before it, that new and simple message revealed the moral rottenness of the times, and laid bare the powerlessness of inconsistent religions and philosophies to apply moral and ethical principles to daily life.
Coming into a corrupt and decadent society overrun with religious and philosophical doctrines based on pompous language, ancient moral codes, human traditions, and gross practices and superstitions, the Gospel message arrived at a point in history when humanity was completely impotent. Only a few choice souls, sickened by the corruption around them and disquieted by spiritual thirst and hunger to find the truth, gathered together, often secretly to protect their families and preserve their homes and customs. Others looked to religion and philosophy for comfort, light and guidance. The great multitude, however, insensitive to spiritual problems, drifted along in the wide stream of humanity, indulging in vices and pleasures. Only a few, having a premonition of great things to come, devoted themselves to meditation, all the while alert to signs that pointed to some providential person, significant event, or transcendental solution.
The Gospel message contained but these three elements: first, the doctrine of a. Person, the Son of God, manifest in the flesh, who should come into the world to seek lost man in order to save, dignify and transform him; second, the unprecedented event of His death on a Roman cross between two malefactors at the end of a sinless life of incomparable ministry in word and deed; and finally, the effective, immediate solution wrought by the saving and keeping power of the crucified and risen Lord. His Gospel was the divine dynamite that destroyed the power of enslaving sin and brought the freedom, honor and happiness of abundant spiritual life and of a glorious and radiant hope. This is the secret of early primitive Christianity whose purity and authentic glory can inspire us in this day whose social, moral and spiritual conditions are so like that of the first century. Actually, with the passing of time, evils have increased, the night has become darker, resources are more limited and the end is nearer.
Let us return then to the beginnings of Christianity, to the day of Pentecost.
Let us listen to the first Gospel sermon and analyze it briefly. Let us notice its effect on the motley crowd who heard it that first time. Let us see what spiritual reactions it produced; let us gain inspiration, be strengthened in heart and apply its message to our own age with the same urgency, authority and passion as was done in the first century. On that day the Apostle Peter preached Christ. Because Christ was a contemporary of those who were listening, the events were current and. the conclusions were logical: prophecy and history met and coincided perfectly at the foot of the cross. This, in my opinion, is the relevant character of the Gospel that we preach after so many centuries - we “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
The Person of Jesus Christ does not belong to a remote past, is not a product of traditions or carefully preserved legends, is not something surrounded by a halo of mysticism. Christ the Son of God is as much a contemporary of today’s men and women as He was of those on the first day of Pentecost. His life, His teachings, His death on the cross, His shed blood are now as then the only basis of redemption, the unshakeable rock on which the soul rests for salvation.
God’s message has not changed. His method of salvation has not varied nor has He altered the way of access for the repentant sinner to God and the Saviour. The Lord is as contemporary as the solution He presents to mankind. Only Christ has the answer to man’s tremendous problems; today, as then, He is the only hope, the true light, the way, the truth and the life. No one - whatever his religious or irreligious state, whatever his academic prowess, his economic or social status - can find God apart from Jesus Christ. It was this Gospel, preached by men some of whom were considered ignorant, that produced one of the greatest commotions in history. In fact, it made Greek mythology look ridiculous, reduced to impotence the ancestral Hebrew religion and gave a death blow to the paganism whose center was Rome.
The Bible passage previously read speaks of the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. The question arises immediately: What kind of Gospel was this? What is the content of the message? What power attends it? How could the glorious Spirit of God, an invisible Person, be the preacher of the Gospel? To answer these questions, we have only to turn to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and analyze the apostles sermons. They have something distinctive: They preached Christ - Christ in His Person and in His work was pre—eminent, was central in all respects. The apostles did not waste time on human reasoning nor lower the high level of their preaching to dialectics. They knew that their audience represented the three great cultures of that age, Roman, Greek and Hebrew; yet evident behind the outline of their message was the perfect harmony between history and prophecy. His tory was so recent that many had known Jesus personally. Prophecy was centuries old and therefore when quoted was given special emphasis.
If we take as an example Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, we see that of twenty-two verses, twelve refer exclusively to the Old Testament. Other verses refer to the application of these prophecies. The remainder of the great Pentecost message is but two verses: one of these is a Bible quotation from the Old Testament and the other’ is an exhortation. That is to say, this great sermon, the first apostolic sermon recorded in the New Testament, and which constitutes the first great spiritual “fishing” in the dawn of the primitive church, is fifty per cent Bible quotations and fifty per cent personal exhortation. Across the years homiletics, hermeneutics and rules of pulpit procedure have gradually replaced the Bible saying: “Thus saith the Lord,” and offer merely man’s words which as a rule have very little reference to or connection with the Bible passage that is read. Thus the Word of God which alone can create faith in the heart has been replaced by human words that please the intellect, tickle our sentiments, can even produce a superficial emotion, but certainly can never create faith. Only the Word of God, quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, can pierce the soul and disarm man’s rational intentions and create faith.
We do not mean to say that Peter’s sermon eliminates the rules of construction or riches of content demanded by modern homiletics. Note the introduction, for example (verses 14 to 21), the body (verses 22 to 24), the application (verses 25 to 28), the illustration (verses 29 to 35), the appeal (verses 36to 39), the exhortation and call (verse 40). To these principles of structure in the sermon we must add its elevated tone. It refers to the saddest day in human history, to a juridical error and an injustice without parallel, to a most ignominious death, to what from the human point of view was defeat, tragedy, the end. Nevertheless, Peter presents all this in such a way that his words could aptly be called a sermon of victory. First, he presents Christ’s victory in life (v. 22). From the humble manger of Bethlehem to the hour of Calvary, His life was transparent to both friend and foe. He spent His first thirty years in a village where He became known as “the carpenter’s son.” From Nazareth where He had spent those years after His baptism by John the Baptist and the temptation in the wilderness, He starts a public ministry which reveals divine approval and attracts great multitudes. His wonders, miracles and signs bring Him popularity and an audience, and while giving him fame, arouse the worst sentiments of jealousy and hate among the religious classes.
He lives a natural life - so human, so simple, so humble, yet so victorious. His triumph is more than a mere victory of truth over error, of God, over the works of Satan, of health over disease. It is a triumph over temptation, over sin and its chains, over false prejudices, over inconsistent human traditions, over a tacit admission of sin, corruption, bribery, vested interests, injustice, outrage, hypocrisy, avarice. This triumph of Christ established a pattern for presenting a clear interpretation of the law, bringing heaven closer to the sinner, revealing God the Father in His infinite heavenly love in order to show the way of salvation, the opportunity of regeneration, and the reality of individual renewal and transformation through the power of the Gospel.
Moreover, Christ lived what He preached, and preached what He lived. Nobody could point a finger of accusation against Him; even His worst enemies recognized that “never man spake like this man,” that His works were unequalled. Most important of all, Christ’s victory in life was shown by the victory of holiness, purity and truth, compassion, grace, love, tolerance, kindness, understanding, faith, meekness.
The apostle refers secondly to Christ’s victory in death (v. 23). Once again, from the human perspective, the cross does not appear to be a symbol of victory. The multitudes who followed our Lord have abandoned Him and have returned to their towns and villages. The crowd that on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem sang hosannas and fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah now on the day of His crucifixion join His enemies in demanding His death. Not even the sight of “the Man of Sorrows, despised and rejected of men,” crowned with thorns, dressed in a scarlet robe with His hands tied and showing His wounds and shedding His blood in silence like a meek lamb, excites sympathy. In payment for such love He receives the worst of all tortures; in exchange for the riches and glory He left behind, He accepts the opprobrious poverty of Calvary; insults and taunts are the only echo of His wonderful teaching. Finally nailed to the cross, He is denied water for His thirst, and comfort for His affliction. At the cross, all of man’s hate and all of God’s wrath seem to converge. Only a few followers at the foot of the cross stand out against the overwhelming rejection and despisal. Christ is heard to cry “It is finished.” Does He mean merely that He has finished His teaching, His miracles, His works of love, and that He is now leaving the earth as He found it - plunged in darkness and in the power of the Evil One? Has He failed in the work His Father entrusted to Him? Has the glory of the night of Bethlehem ended in another night of misery and pain? Has He who walked on the sea and with His voice calmed the wind and the waves now Himself plunged into the cold waters of death? Is He who freed the captives from the power of Satan, from the pain of their wounds and the inertia of paralysis, now to die, now to bleed from His own wounds, now to be powerless to descend from the cross and to save Himself? Is He who could have worn a king’s crown and crushed the power of human empires to wear a crown of thorns and die without honor?
Seen in this light, in the way that men distort the dimension of things, persons and events, Christ’s death on the cross was indeed a tragedy and a defeat. But from God’s point of view, from the perspective of the Holy Scriptures, from the experience of millions throughout the centuries, seen from all facets of history, Christ’s death on the cross crowned Him with a distinctive, unique transcendental glory. This is the glory that He communicates and shares with those who believe on Him and have received Him.
His victory on the cross is the victory over death, sin and hell. In dying, He gives life, pardon and liberty. In shedding his blood, He has opened a way which reconciles the sinner to God. It draws to God’s throne the sinner who, disinherited by sin and weakened by his experience, can now call himself a son of God, an heir of God and joint heir with Christ. In the cross, the eye of faith perceives a death, a sacrifice, so necessary that if Christ had not died, man would never have found the road to God, reconciliation with the Father, forgiveness of sins and peace of soul.
In the third place, Peter’s sermon is a sermon of victory because its climax is the victory of Christ in His resurrection and ascension (v.24). He who lived a victorious life ended His earthly ministry by a victorious death. Risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, He is exalted and seated at the right hand of God and has poured out upon men and women the gifts of His Spirit, thereby sharing the trophies of His victory and the power that He Himself possessed. Because He lives, our lives are more than a mere existence. By His Spirit He gives us a new and abundant life, and enables us to live as He lived, for when we receive Him as Saviour and Lord He goes on living and manifesting Himself through us. While the Almighty Victor is glorified in the supreme place of authority and power, He lives in His own and through them transmits His life and manifests His presence everywhere. His ascension into heaven not only confirms the supernatural even of His resurrection from the dead and destroys the power of the tomb forever and takes away the fear of death; it also demonstrates that when His Son rose from the dead, God accepted His sacrifice for sin. His offering for our sins, His payment of our debt, His perfect righteousness, His infinite merit, are sufficient to atone for our iniquity. We are reconciled by His death and saved through His life. He who died to save us, lives to keep us, makes intercession always for us, and occupies the undisputed place of High Priest of His people. He who “was tempted in all points” is powerful to succour those who are tempted. His throne is a throne of grace to which we can draw near in every circumstance of life to obtain mercy and find “grace to help in time of need.
Finally, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is a sermon of victory because Christ’s victory was a complete victory with eternal consequences. While not all people on this planet of His vast universe, have experienced Christ’s victory, yet God “has made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself... whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.”
One of the Gospel’s main characteristics is its personal nature. “What shall we do?” ask the multitudes. The apostle’s answer is likewise personal: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
“Every one of you,” says the text. As we analyze the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, we discover the emphasis is on man’s lost condition. This is shown in Jesus’ teachings concerning the man who fell among robbers on the road to Jericho; the woman who was a sinner in the house of Simon; Zacchaeus who climbed into the sycamore tree. It is seen in the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son; in that of the publican in the temple, the man with the withered hand in the synagogue, the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, the blind man by the wayside, the dead man whose soul had crossed the boundaries of life, the thief who died on a cross. Each case reveals man’s lost condition, his spiritual ruin, and separation from God. Jesus, the Christ, this greatest preacher, not only spoke as no man had ever spoken, but He did so with such power and so winningly that multitudes followed Him for days, forgetting even to eat. It is He, this Son of God, who is willing to spend hours with Nicodemus, the woman of Samaria, the blind man of Jerusalem, with Lazarus and Martha and Mary. It is He who after His resurrection personally looks for Peter and Thomas ad Mary Magdalene. Not one was overlooked or lost; for each: one Christ died on the cross and shed His blood. He would have gone to the cross for even just one soul.
Thus, after pointing out man’s ruined state, the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven indicates that God’s day of judgment will come to pass in which the Supreme Judge and inflexible arbiter will be none other than He who was once judged unjustly, betrayed, slandered by false witnesses, beaten without compassion. He who appeared before the mob and was condemned to die on a cross will be Judge. At the Great White Throne He will judge the dead for their words, their deeds, their failure to use their privileges and opportunities. Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life, says God’s Word, will be cast into the lake of fire; this is the second death.
Moreover, the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven looks to Christ as Saviour. So complete is this message that it contains not only the solution for all present ills and sins through God’s gracious salvation bestowed by faith to everyone who believes, but also looks to the future. This same Jesus who died to save us, who lives to keep us and is interested in every one of His own, is coming again. He will not come to Bethlehem in poverty, nor return to be scorned, wounded and crucified by the world. His second and glorious coming will be in the clouds to take His Church from this world to the Father’s house where He is now preparing a place for each of those who believe on Him. The Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven looks toward a future day when all human problems will be forever ended, sin will have been removed from the earth and death will be no more.
The Gospel, in other words, announces the definite triumph of good over evil. Heaven and earth as they now exist will give place to God’s world of tomorrow, a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will reign. This glorious order of things, this sublime ending to the story of man’s miserable and sad history, will not come through the efforts of men or nations but by the will of God who said concerning that day: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Let me emphasize that :when the Gospel is preached, however eloquent and complete its presentation may be from the doctrinal point of view, and however simple its appeal, it will not accomplish the desired effect unless it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Genuine preaching always produces effective results when it is accompanied by the power of heaven. Without the heavenly power of the glorious Spirit of God, preaching will be like sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, something merely formal and enclosed in a liturgical mould; a brilliant display of oratory may please the ear but will not reach the heart, nor speak to the conscience, nor meet an individual’s spiritual needs.
The apostle Peter speaks of “the Gospel preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.” This statement he made toward the end of his fruitful ministry, a statement illustrated by what happened on the day of Pentecost. God’s seal to Peter’s preaching was the Holy Spirit which came down from heaven and. fell on all those who were listening to his sermon. It was not intended to create a psychological or emotional state; the power of the Holy Spirit was first displayed in deep conviction of sin by repentant hearts that suddenly, in the divine light of the Gospel, saw the magnitude of their errors, the wickedness of their conduct toward Jesus, the seriousness of their sins, and the punishment they deserved. This same power of the Holy. Spirit created the faith which when placed in Jesus for salvation brought pardon and peace as fruits of Calvary. Thus empty and sad hearts were filled with joy. Baptism followed as a sign of obedience and identification with Him who died, was buried and rose again.
Once the new Christians were incorporated into the new Church they were not satisfied with mere membership and participation in all the activities, privileges and, blessings of their new spiritual state. Faith had to manifest itself in a changed life full of good works, the fruits of righteousness. The eyes Of the world that for thirty—three years had observed the most admirable and perfect life, that of the Lord Jesus, were now fixed on them. They had to live Christ, or rather, Christ lived in them and made Himself manifest to the world through them.
Among the many dangers which at present threaten the Christian pulpit are two that are particularly common. One danger is that of presenting a Gospel without a biblical basis, without the cross of Christ. Such a message pretends to be modern by adapting itself to the spirit of the times, to a menta1ity that has departed from the divine purpose both in language and in spirit; although pretending to fill a present need, it has lost authority and spiritual power, influence and impact on lives and hearts. It is an empty, hollow message, the product of a sophisticated age; while professing to be relevant, it cannot be because the deep prob1ms, the acute crisis, the incurable ills and desperate spiritual state of humanity cry out for and require the true Word of the Gospel.
Another serious danger today is a Gospel which, though rich in Bible quotations, presents the way of salvation as something very easy and asks that one only believe. It is true, of course, that the Scriptures say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt, be saved.” “Only believe” is not merely a slogan, but a blessed reality. The grace of God has made it possible for a sinner to receive eternal life, the gift of God, by means of personal faith. But we must not forget that the sane Scriptures underline the fact so often illustrated in the gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles that genuine faith is followed by a life of works, but a profound change, an undeniable transformation. The sinner becomes a saint, the miser a generous man, the cruel become gentle, the proud humble. This is what happened to those who heard and heeded the first Pentecost sermon. They believed in Jesus Christ.
The closing part of Acts 2 tells of those blessed days of heaven on earth. While divine power accompanied the apostles, those who believed had something more than a creed. They had brotherly love; they showed a spirit of self sacrifice and generosity. Their hearts abounded with works of mercy, with faithfulness to doctrine, perseverance in worship fullness of joy. They were simple and sincere. Their lives were lives of continuous praise to the God they called their Heavenly Father. Furthermore, they were very well thought of by the public. Meanwhile, God gave an astounding but normal growth to the mystical body of Christ, His Church.
While this pattern is many centuries old, it is not an impossible utopia. What God did then He can do now. God has not changed. His Gospel has not lost its efficacy nor its power. The Holy Spirit of God is still in the world convicting of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. Human need has grown immensely. There have never been so many destroyed homes, so many broken hearts, so many young people drifting as slaves to vice and sin, so much corruption, crime and hate, so much international unrest, so many social problems. There is no peace and even less hope. Only the Gospel has the solution for so much evil, the answer to so many questions, for only the Lord Jesus Christ, the Desire of all nations, can put an end to this tragic state of affairs. While, generally speaking, the Gospel is still being preached, and there is still popular interest in hearing it, in most churches of the world nothing extraordinary is happening and we must, admit that the message lacks the spiritual power to reach hearts. There should be deep heart-searching in all of us who preach the Gospel. Of what worth is the best sermon if the Holy Spirit does not confirm it in the heart? Is it necessary to insist that every preacher aspire to be filled with the Holy Ghost? That every message be received from God and delivered with fresh unction?
Nothing effective can come of a message that has lost spiritual sensitivity, that lacks the life of rivers of living water. We preachers need continually to come to the Fountain which is Christ, to feel His compassion and agony of soul toward those that perish, to know a love which consumes us to the point where, we would give our lives for them; we must reach the point of preferring to die rather than to have a ministry without fruit and without power.
It is time to make a sincere and profound self-analysis before God. Many preachers continue to occupy the pulpit without realizing the tragedy of their own souls, without realizing that God has departed with His blessing, that they are living on past glories. Our ministry is supernatural, to fulfill it we need supernatural power every day, at every opportunity. May God grant that in this critical hour of great decisions we may make our own personal decision, namely, not to be satisfied with ourselves or with our audiences or with our results. May the Holy Spirit of God awaken in us a living spiritual perception, a deep thirst for God Himself that will lead us brokenhearted to His feet where, emptied of ourselves, He may cleanse us, fill us and use us for His glory.
Let us preach the Gospel and nothing else, and may our lives, totally surrendered to the Holy Spirit, demonstrate what we preach. Then the Spirit will accompany the Word of God with His power. And only then will the world hear what it needs: “The voice of God and not of man.”