RPM, Volume 16, Number 5, January 26 to February 1, 2014

Studies in Acts

Peter's Pentecost Sermon and its 'Hard Saying.' Acts 2:14-41

By Robert Rayburn

I do not intend to spend 12 years in the Book of Acts as Martin Lloyd-Jones did in Romans. Consequently, some points will receive attention and others will not. If I pass by something you wonder about, please do ask me about it afterwards. But, fact is, this book, this history is so rich that I could spend a year in the rest of chapter two by itself. I see 15 subjects deserving of attention and full treatment in this sermon of Peter's.

I hope that one effect of the comments I make on the text as we read it is to whet your appetite for further thought and investigation concerning points that do not receive primary attention in the study. I hope you have that view of the study of God's Word: that you cannot know enough, cannot know it well enough, and that more study and more reflection can only lead to deeper joy, stronger affections, sturdier faith, and a more godly life. That translates into wanting to know what a biblical statement means, what a passage is teaching, and to a willingness to find that out if it is not clear to you.

Read 2:14-41

v.22 The great purpose of miracles (which explains their concentration in three epochs of revelation and around a few great figures in the history of salvation and revelation). Take away Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and his apostles, there are few miracles left in the Bible and all of them have to do with prophetic revelation and the Holy War of the OT church.

The problem with the modern miracles is that they do not have the character of such wonders as accredit men as revealers of God! Such miracles must be undeniably authentic, as were the miracles of the Bible. Even the later Jewish polemic against Jesus did not deny that he had performed miracles. It claimed that he was a sorcerer. But today the unconvinced go and look and come away unconvinced and the persuaded can only go on talking about things that happened to someone else someplace else. This was never the case with God's power unleashed in the world.

v.23 "wicked men" or "lawless men" = the Romans.

v.24 The sentence of men was reversed by a higher court! It was impossible for death to hold him because he was the Messiah, the Son of God, had successfully completed his work as Redeemer, because God's Word had prophesied the resurrection, etc. The last point is confirmed by a citation of Psalm 16:8-11.

v.29 Peter and his hearers shared the belief that this Psalm was written by David and, as the Word of God, was true, and Peter's point is simply that it cannot have referred to David because David had died and his tomb was a landmark.

v.31 If he wasn't speaking of himself, he was speaking prophetically -- the Jews thought of David as a prophet -- and was speaking of the promised descendant of David's who would be the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ). This is Jesus. Now, Psalm 16 seems, on its face, to be a statement of David's hope of his own resurrection. But, David was a type; and, in fact, Peter's own contemporaries would probably not have doubted that prophesies of the Messiah lay within statements David made about himself and about his descendants in general.

v.32 We are witnesses... (cf. 1:8 "You shall be my witnesses...") A witness is someone who can attest to what he himself has seen and knows!

v.33 The point here is that Christ's resurrection -- he being the Messiah -- was no mere revivification, but an exaltation, an enthronement, that he has authority from God to act in the world and the outpouring of the Spirit is his act. He then quotes Psalm 110:1 to confirm the point from Scripture, again a prophetic text of David's. [The Lord makes use of this as well with the Jews.]

v.34 But now the culminating point: Jesus is not just Messiah, but Lord! with all that would mean to his hearers. The Scripture calls him "Lord." In the Hebrew of Psalm 16:1, the first word translated "Lord" is "Yahweh" and the second "Adonai" which can refer both to God or to men. So here Peter is not yet making a point about the deity of Christ.

v.36 No wonder the response of the people described in the next verse! Here were Jews discovering that they had been the enemies of the Messiah!

These verses certainly suggest a certain subordination of the Son to the Father: the Father gives him the Spirit, makes him Lord and Christ, etc. There is clearly a subordination taught in the Bible, but most all of these texts clearly refer to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, the God-Man, and not to God the Son apart from his human nature. "The Head of Christ is God." (1 Cor. 11:3). But, it must be said as well that there are texts that use "Son" as a name or title for Christ that do refer to him in his divine nature (e.g. Matt. 28:19, Matt. 21.37-38, John 10.30, Romans 3.1-4, Col. 1.15-20 ). There is an order among the persons of the Godhead, however fully God each is, so that one is called the Father and the other the Son. We don't claim to know what this means, but simply to confess that it is what we are told of the first and second persons of the Godhead. The relationship between them may, in some sense, be described as that of a father to a son.

v.41 We will return to vv. 37ff. next Lord's Day evening, Lord willing.

Now, the point I want to draw attention to is that which, while the implication of Peter's entire sermon, is made specifically in v. 23.

Everything in this history Peter recounts was planned by God and happened according to that plan. (These verses could be regarded as a commentary on Ephesians 1:11: "...the plan of him who works out everything in conformity the purpose of his will..."): Pentecost itself, as the citation from Joel demonstrates; Christ's resurrection, as the citation from Psalm 16 demonstrates; his exaltation, as the citation from Psalm 110 demonstrates. Even his crucifixion, which at the time had seemed such a crushing blow, such a triumph of evil over good, had, in fact, been God's eternal will as the only means to the triumph of his grace on behalf of his chosen people. (Revelation 13:8: "Christ is the lamb slain from the creation of the world.")

What happened to Jesus Christ was precisely what was supposed to happen, what had to happen, what God had planned would happen and brought to pass by his power.

Isaiah 46:8-10: "Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please."

Now, there are deep problems here. The sovereignty of God is, Calvin says, "a profound abyss." But, it is clear that to Peter and to the other writers of Holy Scripture, the issue is so crucial, the doctrine so important, that it must be stated clearly and unconditionally, whatever may be the possibility, even the likelihood of misunderstanding.

Hence, we have not only the general confession in Peter's sermon that Christ's history unfolded according to the divine plan, but the specific acknowledgement that God's universal sovereignty extended even to the wicked acts by which Christ was put to death.

And there will be more statements of this type, even more blunt, e.g. 4:28, where Peter, speaking again of Christ's crucifixion at the hands of conspiring Jews and Roman accessories, says in prayer to God, "They -- that is, those who murdered Jesus -- did what your power and will decided beforehand should happen."

Now, this, of course, is not the only place in the Bible in which it is asserted that even the wicked acts of men are in some sense the will of God and that even when men sin they are fulfilling God's plan.

1. Luke 22:22: re Judas: "The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him."

2. Genesis 50:20: re the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers: "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." And Joseph says several times that God brought him to Egypt.

3. Proverbs 16:4: "the Lord works out everything for his own ends -- even the wicked for a day of disaster."

Actually, I could multiply texts to a considerable number that state that God hardens hearts so that they will not do what is right, that he sends a lying spirit or an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:4; 18:10) to deceive or torment a man, that he sends upon some men a powerful delusion so that they would believe a lie (2 Thessalonians 2:11), that he puts it into the hearts of men to give themselves over to the beast (Revelation 17:17), or that he makes a man stubborn so that he will not heed just and good advice in order that he might be destroyed (Deuteronomy 2:30).

But, of course, we already know because the Bible says it so often and so categorically that God rules over everything and that must include human sin or else the one fatal danger that threatens God's plan and our lives is left outside his control.

Now, let us face this fact. The Bible does not hesitate to say this, that God is in control even of the sinful acts of men and that those acts are part of his plan for each life and for the life of the world.

Peter is even sufficiently audacious to put this point in an evangelistic sermon where we might well expect that care would be taken not unduly to complicate matters or to put obstacles in the way of belief.

Even the staunchest Calvinists in history did not insist on making a point of divine sovereignty all the time or require folk to believe it before they had believed in Christ.

"Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance before he goes to the university of election and predestination," wrote John Bradford. And even Charles Hodge acknowledged, "The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is to all other doctrines what the granite formation is to the other strata of the earth. It underlies and sustains them, but it crops out only here and there. So this doctrine should underlie all our preaching, but should be definitely asserted only now and then." [Princeton Sermons, p. 6] Spurgeon, who had no fear of preaching absolute predestination, nevertheless did not hesitate to say, "It ought not to be the business of the evangelist to teach God's decrees to the unconverted." [Spurgeon and Hyper-calvinism, p. 116]

Yet here is Peter saying the strongest thing of all -- that God planned the sins of those who murdered the Messiah -- in an evangelistic sermon.

Now, we are aware of the dialectic here! We know that if we are certainly to believe and confess this divine sovereignty, we are as surely to confess the divine holiness, that God is not the author of sin, that God is not tainted by human sin or in any respect chargeable for it (1 John 1:5: "God is light, in him there is no darkness at all" James 1:13: "God tempts no one to sin..."), and that every man sins of his own free will. All of this is also stated absolutely and without qualification and is stated often and emphatically.

My testimony of losing grip on these last truths when captivated by the first. But that was wrong, untrue to the Bible. What is more, I am more and more convinced that we cannot figure this out. Many have tried to show how God could decree sins and still be free of the taint of them, but the Bible does not offer a theory, much less an explanation, and we ought not to try to formulate one. First, they all utterly fail to impress -- remove the scandal (no one who is scandalized by the thought that God has decreed human sin is going to be impressed by the assertion that some have made that he only decreed the outer circumstances that made that sin what any person, such as God in his omniscience knew that person to be, would certainly do; or even the distinction between a permissive and efficacious decree once it is understood that the sin is still planned). Second, these efforts serve only to minimize one pole of the truth or the other. Confess both as true -- God's sovereignty over human sin and his own sinlessness -- for the Bible guilelessly professes both to be true!

But, now, it is for us to ask what this doctrine, this teaching, this "hard saying" should mean to us and for us. What is God teaching us here and why?

In the first place, the Scripture says this because, without it, the doctrine of divine sovereignty cannot stand. If God is only in control of some things, he is not absolutely in control. (It is why reprobation is essential to election -- if God does not also have the damned in his plan for the world, then a truly gracious election and redemption cannot long stand. One cannot "choose" without making a selection. As Augustine put it in his Retractions, "In trying to solve this question I made strenuous efforts on behalf of the preservation of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God defeated me.") So, one cannot plan, cannot decree, cannot order without determining in advance what will occur. This is Paul's way of arguing in Romans 9. He accepts that people will object to his teaching of a completely unqualified divine sovereignty because it seems to make the human will null and void. ("One of you will say to me: 'Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'" [v. 19] First, here is the proof that if your doctrine of sovereignty is not exposed to that objection, it isn't Paul's doctrine! And his response, ("But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have a right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?") is the proof that he regarded this knowledge and conviction as essential, because he otherwise would surely have either softened his point by qualifying it, or omitted it altogether. God must be absolutely sovereign. Otherwise the Christian faith falls!

It is essential for our faith to believe that God is the Sovereign Ruler of all, that he is in control of this world and its history, because he cannot otherwise be in control of our lives and their history and cannot guarantee that the promises he made to us will be fulfilled.

In the second place, this doctrine is designed to create in us a greater, higher view of the Almighty, not so tame, not so predictable, but the God whose ways are far above our ways and past finding out, who does what pleases him in heaven and on earth and does not and needs not to explain himself to his creatures. Every Christian should have the experience of feeling God is very grand, far beyond us!

Third, to teach us to fear him. We cannot escape him. Our lives are entirely, even at their worst, under his complete control and rule.

Fourth, to teach us not to fear the wicked, for even their wickedness is only our heavenly Father's plan for the world and that too will be brought into the service of the glory of God.

Fifth, and finally, surely the great consolation here for Christians is that their sins cannot separate them from God -- not in the sense that they place us outside of his control or our lives outside of his plan. This is a very dangerous doctrine -- just like Paul's "it was not I but the sin living within me", but we need it or our sins will overwhelm our faith and we could no longer believe that "all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose."

I want to believe everything the Bible teaches, this too, in the sure and certain hope that I need everything the Bible teaches. I need to hate my sin and strive with might and main against it, but I need to know that even those sins, which I so guiltily commit and which I am so thoroughly to repent of and turn away from, even those sins that damage my relationship with God and with others, even those sins that offend the Lord and dishonor him, even those sins that imperil my spiritual life and my walk with God are part of that plan God has for me and for my life, appointed along with everything else to ensure that his grace will have its perfect work in my life. We say, of course, Judas' sin was a terrible evil, but look what came from it for the world! So, we say, our sins are a terrible evil, but God has them in his plan for us in which all things work together for good.

Now, if that leads you to think that your sins are therefore not so big a deal, just an instrument God uses, then you have profoundly misunderstood what is taught in God's Word. People who think little of their sins do not go to heaven! It is not yours to search God's secrets, but to heed his summons to believe and obey. But, it is necessary for you to know, that even your sins do not defeat Him or his cause or his plan!

And, I am sure, there are some of you in this sanctuary tonight who are desperate to be sure of that! And, if there are others, who are more concerned about how to reconcile this fact of God's absolute sovereignty over human sin with his holiness and human freedom, I tell you, the day is coming -- if you are a Christian at all -- when those questions will recede, will fade to nothing, and all that will matter to you is the knowledge that even in your wickedness, even in your rebellion, even in the utterly inexcusable disobedience and ingratitude of your Christian life, your sins are not more powerful than the grace and the rule of God, and even there, in your unaccountable badness as his son or daughter, he still has you firmly in the palm of his hand.

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