Amazed and perplexed, they asked ‘What does this mean?’
You see, in Jerusalem that day there were Jews representing many nations and languages, and yet each one heard the proclamation of the Holy Spirit in their own language. They were bewildered because the disciples of Jesus could speak in their own vernacular, and they made perfect sense! How strange to hear something so clearly and yet not understand.
This event—Pentecost—recorded for us in Acts 2 prompts the question ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:12), and taking the opportunity, the Apostle Peter steps up and delivers his first Christian sermon:
People, listen to this: 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 know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you with the help of wicked people, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But 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.
Your question, Peter says, is answered by Jesus. In this sermon, we see Peter explain the gospel.
Peter tries to make sense of Jesus so that those present would understand, so that they might connect the dots and realise that there was a very clear explanation for what they were witnessing.
Allow me to make some observations. Peter describes the historical Jesus. He was a man and he came from Nazareth (Acts 2:22). In other words, those present knew where he lived—they may have even played touch footy with him in the back blocks of Galilee!
But this historical Jesus was also the supernatural Jesus. He was accredited by God by amazing things—miracles, wonders and signs—all things that he did among those present (Acts 2:22b). Peter brings together what they knew to be true with what they struggled to understand. This Jesus could and did do what no other could.
In the least, that should have given pause for thought.
There is more—this historical and supernatural Jesus was put to death! That happened, Peter explains, for two reasons. The first was because it was God’s set purpose and in full knowledge he gave Jesus over to the cross (Acts 2:23). The second is just as outrageous! Jesus was nailed to the cross with the help of wicked people (Acts 2:23b).
Joined together here are the sovereign purposes of God colliding with the fallen intentions of man. At no point did the plan of God go astray—it was necessary that his son went to the cross in order to deal with the very human problem of sin and its consequence, death. Yet, equally culpable in this event is the wickedness of people. It was they who nailed him to the cross. Jesus hung there because wickedness put him there!
Before we lose confidence in the callousness of a heavenly Father who would join forces with wicked people and allow his son to experience the ‘agony of death’, it is worth noting that it was that same Father who raised Jesus from death, freeing him from its temporary hold (Acts 2:24).
I have been reflecting on this gospel reality lately, not just because Easter is almost upon us—and with Easter the historical, supernatural death and resurrection of Jesus is most clearly on display—I have been reflecting because our experience of life is not always as positive as we would like. Loved ones die, people suffer and many around us are ill. And further, Christians have been attacked in secular, political and academic forums as conversations have been shut down, abuse has been hurled, and disrespect demonstrated.
It is outrageous!
Yet, for all the outrage I might feel, for all the doubts that it raises, for all the despair it engenders, I have been asking myself if I am as unsettled by the fact that Jesus was disrespected, abused and shut down. Am I as dismayed that he was attacked by the secular and political forces of his day? Am I remembering that he had to suffer and die at the hands of wicked people, and according to God’s set purpose, in order to save?
What Jesus went through, he went through for me and you, so that when we go through it or when those around us go through it, we might look to him with hope. Even bad stuff can happen according to God’s set purpose, but through it comes exactly what God wants for us.
Now that is amazing and perplexing! When a Christian asks the question ‘What does this mean?’, the answer is that God has done through Jesus what he must so that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Acts 2:21).