Is the Gospel something to be learnt or something to be lived? Are we ready or willing to answer people’s questions about it? And are we willing to seek out what God is doing unexpectedly in the lives of others, and affirm it in his name?
Acts 2.22-24: A Gospel to be Lived Afresh
22 ‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.
In the first section of his sermon, Peter began to prepare the people of Jerusalem for the Gospel. But now he tells them the story of the Gospel. And he does it in a particular way.
“You that are Israelites”, he begins, “listen to what I have to say” (v.22). He knows that he is talking to a particular audience, Israelites, and he addresses them according to that identity. If he were to address Pagans (“Quirites! You that are Romans” perhaps) he would have to go about his telling of the Gospel in a very different way. But these are Jews, and so he will use the Jewish scriptures to help the story of Jesus to land in their hearts: he grows the Gospel on the fertile soil they already possess.
Peter’s first emphasis is that God has been at work through the Jewish people and continues to be at work in them through “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know” (v.22). He summarises the essential facts of the death and resurrection of Christ in a way that allows space for the role of the Jewish people, of human beings, in the narrative whilst affirming that God is acting out his good purposes throughout: “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (vv.23-24, cf. vv.34-36). How would you tell someone the bare facts of the Gospel in a way that inserted them into the story whilst affirming God’s action in this Gospel and in their lives? I try to remember John 3.16 when I find myself in this situation: I try to remember, and communicate, that the cross and resurrection only make sense because God did these things for love of me and the person standing in front of me.
The Gospel is not just an objective story to be delivered. It is an objective truth which invites each and every one of us to live it daily and for eternity. Our task as Christians is to invite others to live that story afresh in their own lives.
A Gospel Which Provokes Questions (vv.25-31)
25For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28 You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”
29 ‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”
In vv.25-31 Peter anticipates some of the questions his audience might have. Perhaps they would have shouted them out? And he uses their scriptures, the language, concepts and terminology which they already know, to explain in greater clarity what the resurrection is. I often see a man walking around Durham with a placard which has a verse of scripture on it, usually including the word ‘Repent!’ But I wonder how effective, and indeed how biblical, this approach actually is. Jesus does not refuse to answer people’s questions, though he often gives confusing answers. Think of Nicodemus in John 3 (picture below), who comes by night and asks Jesus repeated questions about being born again, or of the Samaritan woman who engages Jesus in theological conversation at the well in John 4.
And the Apostles are no different: we shall see in Acts 8 how Philip answers he Ethiopian eunuch’s questions. Likewise, Peter does not hit people with the truth or scripture unexplained, like lobbing grenades at them and seeing whether any of them learn to duck. Peter takes time to meet them where they are, to respond to their concerns and to frame the truth in a way that they need to hear it.
Are you ready to answer people’s questions? Do you let people ask genuine questions when you talk about Jesus? Could you answer them, or are you too defensive or upset because of the way people ask those questions? I know I often am too defensive or overenthusiastic to listen carefully to the questions people are really asking. Peter has listened, and understands their culture, their perspective, well enough to answer their questions.
A Gospel Which Has Been Witnessed To (vv.32-36)
32This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
35 until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
36Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’
And then Peter affirms that “of that all of us are witnesses” (v.32). In an age which tends to value empirical truth above all else, do not be afraid to tell people what you have seen of God’s working in your life and the lives of others, even in the life of the Church! For most people have seen something of the goodness of God: those of us who come to faith as adults very often know on one level that God is acting in the world, but we still just need to realise that “he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (v.33). What goodness, beauty and wonder have people seen in their lives already? What profound change have they experiences which may be God working in them? Now this is a hard one for anyone to hear, but perhaps particularly for those of us who are queer it can be difficult to affirm God working in others. I may find it hard to empathise with someone who is crippled by homophobia, and I may find it hard to empathise with someone who goes to chemsex parties. But God is undoubtedly working in their lives somewhere, and probably a lot more than any of us can realise.
Are you ready to affirm what God is already doing in someone’s life? Or are you only ready to preach to those whose life is like yours?
Preaching the Gospel is a relational activity. So often we think of preaching and evangelism as being like delivering a package. That isn’t true. The Church must always get better at living the Gospel if it is to call others to live it. The Church must be prepared to answer the questions people ask about the Gospel, and honour those who dare to ask questions which seem strange or upsetting to us. And the Church must be prepared to confess the works which God does in the world now, which we see around us; and also to seek out and affirm the less expected wonders he is doing in the strangest of places and with the least likely people.