Topical Scripture: Acts 2
In late 1966, Herb Kelleher, John Parker, and Rollin King met at San Antonio’s St. Anthony Club to talk about the need for an air carrier in Texas. Their idea was simple: to connect Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The result is the most profitable airline in aviation history. But their cause was their real genius: to make air travel affordable for people who could not otherwise fly. That cause is the reason Southwest Airlines is still the leading low fare airline, and that cause is their passion and purpose for being. From the chief executive to baggage handlers, their cause is their corporation. They do nothing which does not fulfill this objective and purpose.
God’s people should be even more passionate about fulfilling his purpose for our lives and our church. But we are distracted by every other priority the world can manufacture. The members of your class are tempted by every definition of success imaginable. It is the typical pattern of fallen human beings to seek God’s help with our agendas, our dreams and goals. But he will honor and empower only that which accomplishes his will. No loving father could encourage his children to do that which is to their harm.
Our Father wants his will for our lives, because that will is for our best and his glory.
The first Christians learned at Pentecost that God’s power is intended to fulfill God’s purpose and no other. Let’s learn how to experience that same power as we fulfill that same purpose.
Seize the opportunity at hand (vs. 5-12)
Immediately upon experiencing the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians found themselves in one of the most exciting ministry opportunities described anywhere in Scripture. Jews from all over the Empire gathered each year in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost; the universal Roman roads and peace made such travel especially plausible in the first century of the Christian movement.
And so the disciples found themselves face to face with people groups from fifteen different countries or locales. The peoples listed in vs. 8-11 spanned the known world, from Rome to the west to the Parthian Empire and Arabia to the east. The first Christians would have spent years in travel to speak to the same people who were now gathered at their doorstep (v. 5).
Making things even easier, the crowd “came together” because they heard the sound of the Spirit’s movement upon the disciples (v. 6a), and “each one heard them speaking in his own language” (v. 6b). The work of the Spirit created an event through which the Spirit could work. Charles Finney, the 19th century revivalist, was right: “When the church is on fire, people will come from miles around to watch it burn.”
The gathering crowds were shocked. They knew the disciples to be Galileans (v. 7), people with their own distinct language and dialect. But now these “country folk,” never known for educational interest, had somehow learned the native dialects of each of the people gathered from across the world. The crowds’ astonishment knew no bounds: “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (v. 11). And so they wondered to each other, “What does this mean?” (v. 12).
The language miracle of Pentecost was perhaps not primarily one which enabled the crowds to understand the speech of the disciples. Each of the groups listed would know the Aramaic which was native to Palestine; Greek was a common language understood across the world as well. Nowhere else do we find Paul or other missionaries unable to communicate God’s word because of language barriers, for the Aramaic and Greek they spoke was universally useful.
Rather, this was a work of the Spirit which made clear the miraculous nature of the Christian faith. The disciples could suddenly speak in the native dialects of the people, endearing themselves instantly to their audiences. They could build immediate emotional bridges and connections to the hearts of those they sought to win. And they could demonstrate an ability beyond the human, showing the divine nature of their message. Imagine that a bilingual American whose native language was Russian were to attend your class, and suddenly you could speak to her in her first language. This miracle would not be necessary to communicate the truth of Scripture so much as to demonstrate its divine nature through you.
The Spirit-filled disciples began to fulfill Acts 1:8 in the part of Jerusalem where they found themselves. You and I will always know someone who needs to know Jesus. There is a neighbor, colleague, or family member who represents our first mission field. Baptists have historically defined missions as crossing a cultural, language, or geographic barrier to share the gospel. But we are learning better: missions begins with the next lost person you meet.
Charles Spurgeon, the greatest of all Baptist preachers, was once speaking on personal evangelism. A fireman afterwards told Spurgeon that he didn’t know where to begin such ministry. Spurgeon asked the man if his captain was a believer; the fireman thought he probably was not. So Spurgeon concluded, “Begin today, with him.” Seize the opportunity at hand. Where will you begin this day? This week?
Anticipate reactions (vs. 12-41)
Human nature does not change, making the word of God perennially relevant. This fact also enables us to predict typical responses to that word. The first crowds to hear the gospel from Christian disciples demonstrated exactly the same reactions you and I can expect from those with whom we share the good news today.
Some will be confused (v. 12). The gospel will not be “good news” but “new news.” Only 2% of Americans are afraid they might go to hell; the vast majority thinks a Christian is a good person who believes in God. I do not know a single individual who has understood fully the Christian gospel and chosen to reject it. Typically our friends and neighbors refuse a pseudo-gospel, a message which convinces them that Christianity is about joining a church and practicing a religion. When we share the actual definition of a Christian, many will be confused and need help with understanding.
Others will be critical: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine'” (v. 13). The festival of Pentecost often involved feasting and wine (though Jews would not break their religious fast until 10:00 that morning). And so some critics assumed that the strange speech they heard from these Galileans was the result of intoxication of spirits rather than the Spirit. People will always be down on whatever they’re not up on. You and I can expect some to criticize our faith and message.
Some will be convicted: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” (v. 37). The Spirit alone can bring conviction of sin and transformation of heart. When we speak as he directs us, he will always use our words in the hearts which are open to his truth. You may or may not see such a response immediately, but it is always real in someone’s soul.
And some will be converted: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (v. 41). Of those who are convicted of their sins, many will take the next step to accept the truth we share. And then the Holy Spirit who uses us will bring them into our faith family, and they will join us in the work of the Kingdom.
Many of us approach ministry and evangelism as though we are on trial; the person to whom we speak is the prosecutor, and we are trying to defend ourselves against his criticism and antagonism. In fact, the Lord Jesus is on trial. The Holy Spirit is the defense attorney; Satan is the prosecutor; the person to whom you speak is the jury. A witness is a person called to the stand to share what he or she has experienced personally.
The verdict is not up to you. You may be the last witness in the courtroom, and learn how the jury decided. You may be the first witness called, and never hear how the trial ended. You may be somewhere in between. But no matter—your job is simply to tell what you know. The healed blind man is my favorite witness in Scripture: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).
Build a bridge to Christ (vs. 16-36)
In the power of the Spirit, it is your job and mine simple to share what we know of Christ with those we meet and know. Where do we begin? With what they already know. Jesus met the woman at the well, so he asked for water. He found a man born blind, so he healed his eyes. He fed the crowds because they were hungry.
Paul quoted the Greek philosophers when he spoke to Greek philosophers (Acts 17); he quoted the Old Testament when he spoke to Jewish synagogues. Start with common ground. Find a place where you share a belief or experience, and begin there.
In this case, Peter knew that his crowd was composed of observant Jews, passionate enough about their faith to travel great distances to take part in Pentecost. And so he began with the Scriptures they would all know and accept. He got their attention, and rebutted the charge of drunkenness (vs. 14-15). Then he quoted Joel’s great promise that when the Messiah came and the “last days” began, the Spirit would fall on “all people” (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21).
The Jews divided time into the “former days” before the Messiah’s advent, and the “latter days” after his coming. And so this Pentecost coming of the Spirit was proof that Jesus of Nazareth really was the Messiah of God. Joel’s prediction legitimized the personal ministry of Jesus’ disciples, and made clear its divine origin.
Now Peter turned from the promise to its fulfillment, explaining clearly what Jesus had accomplished with his life, death, and resurrection (vs. 22-23). He staked everything on the resurrection, for it alone proved Jesus’ divinity (v. 24). And he used David’s psalms with their predictions of such a resurrection as proof that Easter fulfilled the word of the Lord (vs. 25-35). With this conclusion: “let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and God” (v. 36).
Peter’s method can be reproduced by any of us who are willing:
Find a spiritual truth you share in common with the person you are seeking to win to Christ. Perhaps it is a mutual appreciation for the beauty of nature and grandeur of the cosmos, or shared frustration with the sinful nature of our culture and society. Perhaps you have felt the same kind of hurt this person is now facing. Find a place where you and this person share similar beliefs or experiences.
Explain how Jesus has touched this need or experience in your life. If you’re speaking with a person in grief, share how Jesus helped you through a time of loss. If you’re hiking in the woods with a friend, show how the order of creation demonstrates an ordered Creator, and share a way Jesus has brought order to your life. People may disagree with your beliefs, but they will be interested in your story.
Present the essential facts of Jesus’ life and work. Most Americans do not understand what he did, or why he did it.
Use the resurrection to demonstrate his uniqueness and divinity. New Testament writers and ancient Roman and Jewish historians are agreed: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried in a tomb. On the third day, that tomb was empty; the first Christians believed Jesus to be raised from the dead. We know these facts without opening a New Testament. And there is no explanation for the empty tomb except Easter.
Invite the person to meet this risen Lord personally.
Encourage to personal faith (vs. 37-41)
Some will always respond to God’s word as it is made clear by God’s Spirit at work through us. When they do, we must call them to repentance and faith (v. 38).
Peter’s words have confused many and led some to the conviction that baptism is essential to salvation: “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.” But the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” is better translated in this context, “because your sins have been forgiven.” We are not baptized to become Christians, but because we already are.
Nowhere does the Bible teach that baptism (or any other work) is essential to salvation. Rather, our salvation comes only by God’s grace through our faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). A typical American response to the gospel is to trade faith for works. If we are good people and believe in God, such works must be enough. Or, if we have been baptized and attend church, we must be Christians.
I often explain that going to church doesn’t make us Christians any more than going to weddings makes us married or going to funerals makes us deceased. A person becomes married by entering into a personal commitment with another person. So it is with our personal faith in the living and true God.
Peter made clear that God’s grace is for us all, unconditionally (v. 39). Some believe we are good enough for God; others of us believe we can never be. We must encourage both types of people to come to the same grace offered by the same Father.
The apostle’s commitment to this ministry was personal and passionate, as he pled with the crowds to come to Christ (v. 40). John Claypool is right: only that which happens to us can happen through us. When others see what Jesus means to us, they will consider our faith as their own. We must share our love for Christ and others with personal commitment and passionate devotion. Such passion connects heart to heart, and moves the soul to faith.
The results of Peter’s ministry and the disciples’ personal evangelism were stunning and historic: some 3,000 came into the faith that day. And the most powerful spiritual movement in human history had begun.
Invite others to join the family (vs. 42-47)
The gospel is not only for the person—it is for all of humanity. Every image of the Christian faith found in Scripture is a collective picture: a body with many members, a vine with many branches. We can no more live the Christian life alone than we can play football by ourselves. The Spirit’s work made lost souls into children of God, then led them to live as family.
Their priorities should be ours: Bible study, fellowship, worship (“the breaking of bread,” an image for the Lord’s Supper and the worship it inspires), and prayer (v. 42). Out of these priorities came a community of faith which would stand every persecution across twenty centuries. Christians then and now experience God’s miraculous power through our prayerful ministries (v. 43); we share life and needs together (vs. 44-45); we worship together with “glad and sincere hearts” (v. 46); and God continues to add to our number those who are being saved (v. 47).
You and I live in a world of increasing fragmentation. “Cocooning” is a word used by sociologists to describe the way we pull into our own isolated lives. The vast majority of Americans cannot name the people who live on either side of their homes or apartments. The advent of cable and satellite television, movie subscription services, and the Internet has made isolation even more common.
But God made our hearts to need each other. We cannot be happy alone. The church provides the one value our Internet culture cannot: a genuine family. Not just words on the screen, but a caring heart and hand. When we invite others to join our family, they will want to know our Father.
Phillips Brooks, the great Episcopal pastor and preacher, was once asked what he would do if he were sent to a declining church. His answer was simple: “I’d gather together as many people as I could, preach the finest sermon on missions I could, then take the largest offering for missions I could. When we have a mission, we have a church.”
God’s mission for his people is clear. He will empower us to the degree that we will fulfill his mission. How fully do you sense the Spirit at work in your life today?