No sermon has been more powerful than Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. On that day three thousand people were converted, and the Christian church was born. With yet another celebration of Pentecost just three days away, there is good reason to look at the model that Peter presents to preachers today. So in the light of Acts 2 I wish to enumerate the following principles.
In the first place, Peter began where people were. His sermon linked into a question which was on the lips of many: “What does this mean?” (2.12). “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel” (2.16). Peter related his sermon to the issue which was on people’s minds. He also related his sermon to the cynics: through a disarming use of humour – ‘It’s nine o’clock in the morning, and so too early to be drunk’ – he met his critics on their own turf too. Peter’s sermon was effective, precisely because it ‘scratched’ where people ‘itched’.
Yet at the same time Peter’s preaching was Biblical preaching. When Peter addressed the question of the day, he rooted his response in Scripture. Peter’s sermon is an example of expository preaching. True, we may expound Scripture differently today, but the principle remains: effective preaching is biblically-centred preaching. Hence its authority; hence its power. Peter foreshadowed the great theologian Karl Barth, who when asked, ‘How do you prepare your Sunday sermon?’, he replied: “I take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other”. Peter’s sermon was rooted in Scripture, and yet related to the concerns of the day.
We are not told what kind of a ‘pulpit’ Peter may have used. Addressing a crowd of that size he must have had at least the equivalent of a soap-box. Yet, Peter did not preach from a pedestal. He identified with his hearers. Initially he addressed his hearers as “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem” (2.14), and as “Israelites” (2.22: literally ‘men Israelites’); but then by the time he is half-way through his sermon they have become “fellow Israelites” (2.29), literally ‘men brothers’ (andres adelphoi). In other words, Peter related not just to his hearers’ concerns, but to them as people. It is perhaps not surprising that by the end of the sermon his hearers similarly addressed Peter and his fellow disciples as “brothers” (2.37). Effective preaching involves establishing a relationship between the preacher and the congregation.
Am I perhaps reading too much into the sermon to say that Peter preached from his own experience of the grace of God? Although Peter somewhat mercilessly exposed the sin of his hearers – “you crucified” God’s man (2.22,23); “you crucified God’s Messiah (2.36) – Peter surely was conscious that he too had let his Lord down: rather than standing with his Lord, he had denied his Lord three times (see Luke 22.54-62). Yet just as there was forgiveness for him, so too there was forgiveness for them. There must have been a personal note to his preaching. Effective preaching involves the sharing of the good news by one sinner to another.
Along with the personal note, there was also a more objective aspect to his preaching. For Peter and the eleven standing with him are eyewitnesses not just to the life and death of Jesus, but also to his resurrection. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (2.32). Peter and his fellow disciples witnessed to the truth as it is in Jesus. Effective preaching is more than sharing an experience or another perspective on life: it involves the sharing the good news that God intervened in the life of our world and has acted decisively on our behalf.
Peter preached Jesus. Peter did not spend time engaging in theological speculation about tongues and the Spirit, but moved fairly smartly to preach about the one whom God had made “both Lord and Messiah” (2.36). He preached in such a way that people had to respond – either positively or negatively – to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. He wanted to see people’s lives changed – indeed, he wanted to see people change their lives – so he preached for a verdict. Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame once wrote: “I’ve heard a lot of sermons in the past ten years or so that make me want to get up and walk out. They’re secular, psychological, self-help sermons. Friendly, but of no use. They didn’t make you want to straighten up. They didn’t give you anything hard. At some point and in some way, a sermon has to direct people to the death of Christ and to the campaign God has waged over the centuries to get our attention”. Effective preaching demands a response to Jesus.
Effective preaching also enables people to respond to Jesus. When people began to realise their need for a Saviour, they need to know how to the salvation God offers us. Peter spelt out three very practical steps in terms of a response: “Repent – believe – receive’ (2.38). Preaching that makes a difference does not simply inspire, it helps people to move on with God. Peter’s preaching was more than a ‘rhetorical masterpiece’, as it has sometimes been described. Along with the rhetoric, it gave clear directions for living.