Allen Jackson - Acts 2 and The 21st Century - Part 1
The point of reading our Bibles and studying Scripture is not to accumulate information about the past. Our goal is not to be experts on the culture of the 1st century or 10th century BCE. Our objective is to understand what it means to be the people of God today. And what we can glean from Scripture is, hopefully, it enables us to do that. And I wanna use Acts chapter 2. I'm gonna take a big slice of it, a larger slice than we normally would, and walk through it with you. And I wanna pay attention to both the circumstances, what's unfolding in the narrative, and then I wanna pay some special attention to the language that Peter uses when he addresses the crowd that gathers.
Some of you know Acts chapter 2 is the story of the Day of Pentecost. It's not the launching of the Pentecostals. Pentecost is a Jewish holiday that takes place 50 days after Passover. And it was on that holiday that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon Jesus's closest friends and followers in Jerusalem. And it caused quite a stir. It's Peter's first public presentation after Jesus ascends to heaven. And thousands of people respond, acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and are willing to be baptized in public in Jerusalem. It's a bizarre circumstance. The same city where just a few days earlier, the streets were filled with people shouting, "Crucify him. Don't release him, crucify him".
There was enough public sentiment in favor of Jesus's crucifixion that the Jewish religious leaders could put enough political pressure on the Romans, who were the ones who did the crucifixion, to see that Jesus was crucified. And within a matter of days, there's thousands of people standing in those same streets of Jerusalem, acknowledging Jesus as Lord. So when you look at our culture, there is biblical precedent for tremendous change, but it also takes some courage on behalf of God's people because it meant Peter and James and John and the Marys and the rest of the crew had to be willing to stand in public and lend their affirmation to a man who had been crucified and, as far as the larger community knew, he had died on a Roman cross, he had been buried, and that was the end of the story.
Jesus appeared only to his followers. There was no attempt on his part or on God's part to undo the presentation of a crucified Jesus. And so, Acts chapter 2 is really a high drama point, amazing courage, and I abbreviated it a bit just for the sake of time. We'll start at verse 4. This is after the Holy Spirit is poured out. This is the comment: "All of them," all those in that Upper Room, "were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them". That verse shuts down a lot of Christians. Please don't let it do that to you tonight. We get a bit more explanation in verse 5: "Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven".
Why were there people from all over the Roman Empire in Jerusalem? Why were the Jews gathered in Jerusalem? It's a holiday. What was the holiday? Pentecost, it's not a trick question, okay? "When they heard the sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Aren't all these men who are speaking Galileans?'" Galilee is the rural part of Israel. It's really a slanderous statement. They said they're uneducated, they're ignorant. How could they know all of these languages? "'Then how is it that each one of us hears them in his own native language?'" Then they go on to list the languages. And there's enough of a stir, there's enough of a gathering of people, that Peter sees it as an opportunity and he's going to address the people.
Remember, this is the same Peter that hid, that denied the Lord. This is our first public presentation on behalf of Jesus. It's fascinating. "Peter stood up with the Eleven, he raised his voice and he 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. These men are not drunk, as you suppose.'" So clearly there are people that are mocking them, making fun of them. There are some that are curious, there are many who will be receptive, but there's a significant number enough of them mocking that Peter addresses the mockers. He says, "We're not drunk. It's only 9 o'clock in the morning". And he says, "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel," and at this point Peter quotes from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, he quotes from the book of Joel, the 2nd chapter: "In the last days, God says, I'll pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams".
I have a question for you at this point. Peter's quoting Joel. Do you think he fully understands what it means? I assure you he doesn't because in just a few chapters God is going to send Peter to Caesarea, to Cornelius's home, a Roman centurion's home, and the events of Acts chapter 2 are gonna be duplicated. And in order for Peter to get there, it took a vision that he saw three times. It took an angelic visit to Cornelius's home to send his servants to go get Peter in Japha, and when they got there, God sovereignly intervened. It wasn't something people led the people into. Peter didn't teach them how to receive. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon them in the same way, without any human invitation, in the same way he was poured out in Acts chapter 2.
So when Peter's reading Joel chapter 2 and says, "In the last days, God says, I'll pour out my Spirit on all people". In Peter's little brain, he thinks that means all Jewish people. He has no frame of reference for what's about to happen. I don't mean just this day, but he doesn't have his mind or his heart wrapped around what God has begun. I point that out because we need a God response that is bigger than our imaginations. You know, we think in terms of the Spirit of God moving and we'll baptize a dozen people, or I don't know, whatever your definition is. Folks, what if we just said to the Lord, "We will follow you. We'll take the courage and stand up and tell the truth that we know, as we know it, and then we're gonna look to you for an outcome that is beyond us"?
There's a biblical precedence for that. Peter doesn't understand fully what the prophet said, "I'll 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. Even on my servants, both men and women, I'll pour out my Spirit in those days, and they'll prophesy". Some of you are stuck in this place that you won't believe God until you fully understand it. You will never grow up. Get over yourself. I love you. That I like to learn and I like to understand, and I'm an advocate for study, I'm all for using the intellect God has given you. But God is bigger than my intellect. I'll give you, for instance, if you're sick and I pray for you, if you have a tumor and I pray for you and ask God to heal you, where's the tumor gonna go? I don't care. I just want you to be well.
We get stuck sometimes in these places where "I won't participate until I fully under", stop, and start saying to the Lord, "I'll follow you anywhere. I'll follow you anywhere". How did that Moses staff thing turn into a snake? Was there a change in the molecular structure, I don't know! And if it helps you to write out the equations on how a piece of wood can turn into something that was organic and alive, you go for it. I'm not offended by that, but it isn't necessary for me. "I'll show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. And the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood and before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved".
So, there's a little bit of a timing sense in here. It gets confused 'cause Peter says, "In the last days," but the last days aren't concluded until the Lord returns, you know, that great and glorious day of the Lord's arrival. So between Acts 2 and the Lord's return, God's going to continue to pour out his Spirit upon all people. We can tell you from an observation of church history, that's been done somewhat episodically. It isn't consistent. And now Peter, beginning in verse 22, changes, he stops quoting Joel and he's going to give them an update on current events in Jerusalem. Remember, this is Peter preaching a sermon. "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth," Jesus was a relatively common name, the one that came from Nazareth. "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".
This was no mystery. Large crowds. We had a triumphal entry in this city. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people turned out. Many of you have heard of his crucifixion. God did these wonderful things. You know this. Verse 23, "The 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". Easy, Pete. "And 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". And now he's gonna quote from Psalm 16: "I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I'll not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body will also live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your holy one see decay. You've made known to me the paths of life; and you will fill me with joy in your presence".
Peter attaches prophetic significance to Psalm 16. Peter understands Psalm 16 to be descriptive of Jesus's experience. Some of us are pretty stubborn about imagining the Scripture applying to the day in which we live. The Psalms were put together hundreds of years before Peter lived. They're already in a written form by the time Peter is alive and printing presses were hard to find. But I wanna go back to that little passage, verse 22 to 25, when Peter gives to the people an update on current events and he assigns them a role in what happened. I assure you everybody in his audience wasn't standing in the street that day, shouting "Crucify him". He applies the guilt for that, broadly, across the whole city.
"This man was handed over to you," verse 23, "by God's set purposes; and with the help of wicked men, you put him to death by nailing him to the cross". Much of the church today doesn't have the stomach, the courage, the chutzpah, to be willing to talk about what's happening in our world. We wanna do quiet little Bible studies that reflect on the culture of the 1st century and avoid the culture of the 21st century. Peter didn't do that. He didn't shy away from the moving of the Holy Spirit. They're making fun of them, they're mocking him, they're saying, "You're ignorant, you're uneducated, you're unsophisticated, and you're speaking multiple languages". And Peter says, "No, this is the Spirit of God. Laugh away". Are you willing to be laughed at by your friends? In church, yeah, but I mean when we get out there amongst them.
Well, in verse 29 he doesn't stop: "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and he knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on the throne. 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. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we're witnesses of the fact". We will give testimony, we are eye-witnesses to this resurrection, that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of what King David wrote about hundreds of years ago. We'll testify to that any place you'll give us a chance.
"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. For David didn't ascend to heaven, and yet he said, 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet".'" Jesus's enemies have not yet fully been made a footstool; thus, we see the conflict raging in the world. But he's not done there. Peter gets his hammer out again. Verse 36: "'Let all Israel be assured of this: God made this Jesus, whom you crucified,'" geez, "'both Lord and Messiah.' When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'What shall we do?'"
A lot of voices these days that say we should, everything we have to say should be kind and cuddly, like a big group hug. We should be pacifists, we shouldn't dare have an opinion about the behavior of others. We shouldn't dare use the Word of God as an evaluation of what's moral or immoral or godly or ungodly. We have to understand our faith in the light of the evolved thinking of the 21st century. Well, the 2nd chapter of Acts would seem to take a different position. Peter's understanding his faith in the light of things that were written hundreds of years before, long before the Romans occupied Jerusalem, long before crucifixion was a part of the fabric of life in Jerusalem. And he's saying what we're watching is a fulfillment of what they talked about. And then he looks at the crowd. If you use your imagination you can see it and he said, "And you did it. You did it".
Now, when Luke recorded this, he said, "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'What shall we do?'" I promise you not everybody said that. I promise you. Some walked away. I'm sure some had some gestures. I'm sure some went and reported it to the high priests, some no doubt reported it to the Romans. There's a tremendous risk in what Peter and the other that have stood up with him are taking. "'What shall we do?' Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus,'" every one of you. Stop telling me your credentials. Stop telling me how many years you've made it to every feast. Stop showing me the receipts for the sacrifices you've purchased. I don't wanna inspect your kosher kitchen. "'Every one of you, repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.'"
Do you understand what a dramatic change that is for them, to have the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in their calendar? That's when their sins are atoned for. Peter's dumping upside down their traditions. He's challenging 'em to a different thought. "'You'll receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you, for your children, for all who are far off... for all whom the Lord our God will call.' With many other words he warned them; he pleaded with them, 'Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'" Now, verse 41 is a bit more, it's insightful. Says, "Those who accepted his message were baptized". If there were those who accepted his message, it's only logical to understand what is being implied: there were those who did not accept his message. "Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day". Three thousand people, his first sermon. I am so far behind the curve.
Now, I wanna take that presentation as a template and see if we can pull it forward a little bit. I don't believe the assignment is honestly any different. And while we haven't had the privilege of being personally with Jesus, we do have the great privilege of having the Holy Spirit within us. And so, I'll start with the obvious, the assignment continues. I borrowed a passage from Acts chapter 1. This was the assignment the disciples have heard. I believe it's what caused them to respond in Acts chapter 2: "When they met together, they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?'" This is after a 40-day seminar on the kingdom of God and they're still asking bad questions. "And he said to them: 'It's none of your business.'" It's what he said. I mean, he said it more politely, but if you ask me to paraphrase it, he said, "That's just really none of your business".
"'It's not for you to know the times or the dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you'll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'" That's the assignment. We're 2000 years later. I'm amused at this because it's much easier to gather a crowd to talk about the times and the seasons in relation to the return of the Lord than it is to gather a crowd and talking about sharing our faith in all the world. We're fascinated with one, and the other we just hope somebody else will tend to. And we really haven't changed much since that original group. But Jesus said that we would be empowered to be witnesses for him.
I've shared it before, but I had a class at Hebrew University, the professor was an Orthodox Jewish man. He was brilliant, perhaps the most brilliant professor I've studied with ever, anywhere. And the class was on the Jewish background of Christianity. He did two lectures on Jesus. In one of them he read this passage, and I remember him looking at the class and saying, "I assure you that the audience listening on that day thought Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, was the uttermost parts of the earth". He said, "They had no interest in anything beyond Samaria. That was the outer edge of their concern". And from where I stand today, I smile. I don't doubt that's wrong, because I'm certain when Peter quoted Joel chapter 2, he didn't imagine he was going to Caesarea, to the Roman centurion's home, and see the events of that day duplicating.
Gratefully, God does more than our finite minds can imagine. If you need evidence of that just look around. The church in which we worship on a regular basis exceeds any imagination those of us that were here a decade or two decades or three decades ago held. And we haven't seen the... I don't even think we've begun to see what God intends. His heart for the world is far greater than ours. The assignment continues. In Acts chapter 5, Peter and the crowd are a little further into the story. They celebrated a victory. Don't you know they had a party when they got done baptizing those people? I mean, they're exhausted, that's a lot of folks. But don't you know they got together and said, "Can you believe it? Can you believe it? In Jerusalem, thousands of people standing in the streets, saying, 'We accept Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and King.' Can you believe it"?
So I'm not surprised in Acts 3 when they're on the way to the temple at the time of prayer, and they meet a beggar they'd passed a dozen times and this day he gets their attention. They said, "No, it's time to walk". I mean, there's a momentum. There's something happening, but by the time we get to Acts chapter 5, they've been arrested now. It's come to the attention of the Sanhedrin. They managed Jesus's execution, and they said, "Never again. Never, don't ever, not that name ever again. You know what we did to him, we'll do it to you". It's a credible threat. It's a credible threat. We're gonna have to have the courage to take our faith forward in the face of threats. We are.
Hey, the last question the disciples asked Jesus before his ascension was, "Are you gonna restore the kingdom to Israel now"? And Jesus says, "It's not really any of your business. You have an assignment". Over 2000 years later, we're still more interested in times and dates and the Lord's return than our assignment. We need God's help to understand. He has put his here for a purpose. He's coming back when we've finished our job. The best way to assure his return is to get busy with that. I wanna pray:
Father, I pray you'll awaken us to the assignment you've given us, to be ambassadors for yourself and your kingdom in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, where we work. May "Jesus is Lord" be a part of our lives and our words, in his name, amen.