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.
Humanity Completely Impotent
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 unshakable rock on which the soul rests for salvation.
Greatest Commotion in History
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 deathblow to the paganism whose center was Rome.
Christ the Central Theme
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. History 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 50 percent Bible quotations and 50 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.
Sermon of Victory
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 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 (verse 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 that 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 unequaled. 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.
Man's Hate and God's Love Conveyed at the Cross
The apostle refers secondly to Christ's victory in death (verse 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 that 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 (verse 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 mighty 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 event 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 succor 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."
(To be continued)