How much can we trust a census from 2000 years ago? The Roman census of Jesus’ day had a population estimate for Jerusalem hitting over 600,000. Josephus would later record over one million killed in Jerusalem nearly 40 years after the Lord’s ascension. I live in a town with a population of a little over 600,000.
I think I know what living in a city with 600,000 people feels like. I’m familiar with the traffic and buildings that 600,000 people squeeze into.
I’ve been to Jerusalem. Jerusalem then and the old city now occupy a space of land less than 1/4 the size of Portland.
Even after 2000 years and several layers of inhabitants, you can still imagine what this place would have looked like when chapter 2 of Acts took place.
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.
Most commentaries will tell you that this took place in the same upper room that the disciples were meeting in when chapter 1 ended. It would be the same place that Luke records Jesus sending his disciples to when he said “go into the city and tell a certain man that I will have my passover at his house.” Now, 50 days later, in the same room where Jesus changed history with his last passover… our first communion example… the Holy Spirit comes on the apostles and in that little crowded city, on some street that couldn’t have been more than a 10 minute walk from the temple; even though it was indoors and upstairs, the ruckus of that holy happening did not go unnoticed…
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
They’re just drunk! While some are amazed at what they’re hearing, you’ve got those guys who are going to remain clueless to the miracle happening before their very eyes. Their very ears.
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’[c]
Notice that Peter quotes Joel saying “in the last days” . Peter said, “This is what Joel said would happen.” Peter establishes that “the last days” began that day, the Joel prophesy was being fulfilled. So, we’ve been living the “last days” for 2000 years. This is one of those scriptures that comforts me when someone makes the news claiming the world is going to end. It’s been going to end for a long time and for all we know it’s going to be a long time yet. We don’t know. Jesus said only God the Father knows. So, I never got to worried about the Mayans or Nostradamus or chicken little.
And notice that Joel is talking about a time when barriers of all kinds come down; barriers between sons and daughters and men and women; old and young.
But then, having explained the miracle of all of those languages coming out of Galilean mouths, Peter changes directions and preaches this sermon:
22 “Fellow Israelites, 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 yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 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. 25 David said about him:
“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.’[e]
29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’[f]
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
That this sermon had a blow away impact on that crowd is hard for me to fathom. Forgive me, Peter sticks his final point great: you crucified Jesus and God has made him Lord and Christ. Strong stuff. But how he got there, sorry; doesn’t do it for me. But it turns a huge number of people around that day. It connected. And I find that no less startling even when I consider that the crowd was probably seeded with a lot of people who had already been primed, by Jesus and his three years of teaching. I still am baffled at the amazing results of that day even when I imagine that amongst the crowd there may have been:
A woman caught in adultery.
A short tax collector from Jericho.
A man formerly known as Legion and a 20/20 vision Bartimaeus , and not a few men and women who’d seen 5 loaves and 2 fishes feed them and thousands more one day on a hill near Capernaum .
But I get so stuck in the 21st century. I think that if a preacher stood up and read those words today, the words Peter stood and preached; about David and his grave and footstools and all that; you’d hardly hear an ‘amen’ out of the pews. Crickets chirping probably. Stifled yawns for sure. These days even to a group of fairly astute church goers using a Davidic prophecy to move a crowd emotionally probably isn’t going to happen.
But in its day it had the impact of a ton a bricks because it was the same thing as telling them that a dead person, someone they had killed, had to come back to life. Peter was explaining that David wasn’t talking about himself when he said, “The Lord said to my Lord…” because they all knew that David had not been resurrected. They knew where he was still buried.
If you heard that a dead person had truly come to life you’d pay attention even if you didn’t feel personally guilty. If you were guilty of killing that person and were to then be convinced that they were back among us, you’d probably be scared to death.
The power of Peter’s sermon is that for people who believed in prophecy, the message was clear to them that Peter was claiming their hero and king had prophesied about something that now had happened: Jesus was raised from the dead. They were being convinced that Jesus was the fulfillment of David’s words. And that meant he was the Messiah. And so they now understood, with a passion that equalled their academic and religious training, that their sins had crucified the son of God.
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Do it, do it, do it, do the big splash!
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
(I wonder if Suncrest got permission for that? Must have, surely.)
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day
People have debated baptism for centuries. But as we read the book of Acts I think we’ll see that you can’t edit out baptism without changing a lot of the story Luke is telling us.
When I first wrote lyrics for the theme song “Upside Down” the idea I’d been visualizing for years was that the battle between dark and light; between God and his fallen angels; was played out over and over through history:
When David faced Goliath, if Goliath killed David, then God’s plan would be thwarted, for God promised a savior through David’s lineage.
When Peter rebuked Jesus, saying that the Lord would not die, the famous moment when Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan!” well, it seemed to me that Satan was trying to use even a friend to tempt Jesus to detour from his purposeful journey.
When Jesus died and was buried and we have that obscure and mystifying passage that Peter would write in his letter, about Jesus going to the Hadean realm and preaching to souls lost in the days of Noah… what kind of epic drama was unfolding with that? Was there a moment in the universe that the devil thought he had Jesus in chains…forever…?
But Jesus would not be abandoned to the grave; he resurrected! That must have been a very bad day for the devil.
And then, Jesus left the earth.
Maybe the devil’s head is spinning now. Maybe he thinks things will go back to normal, in a devil’s way of thinking; back to the good ole bad ole days before Jesus tipped the tables and turned demons into deviled ham. Old joke.
But then 3000 people decide to follow Jesus, get baptized and …
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
… so now there’s not just one Jesus to deal with; there’s a whole new church of people attempting to follow in his steps. 3000 wannabe Jesus-es.
So, now offered for today’s consideration:
1). Barriers break down with Believers. Years will pass before the implications are totally understood even by Peter, who is the very preacher preaching that first great gospel lesson. He’s laid the ground work for barriers between men and women, Jew and gentile, slave and free to be demolished and doesn’t even know it yet.
I believe there’s still work for us to do; to understand just how much the Lord despises separations among his children. Maybe there’s as much for us to realize about barriers that need to be broken down as there was for Peter. We look back on those bible days and marvel that it would take Peter 10 years to preach to gentiles and accept them into God’s kingdom. What might we look back on 10 years from now with a different understanding? I say be sure to do no harm and keep an open heart.
I always wanted to be the kind of guy who believed the same thing when I got old as when I was young. But you know what, I’ve been wrong about a lot. And the people I learned things from were wrong a lot. Not learning, not changing, not keeping our minds and hearts open is kinda like saying we’re always right about everything all the time. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever; but I’m not Jesus. I have to not be the same in all my ways all the time if I’m to have any hope to be like Jesus. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some steadfast convictions about some things. But one word of advice from an old dude who’s taught a monkey to talk and a bird to fly: make sure you can distinguish your convictions from your opinions. My convictions can’t waiver without damaging my character; but my opinions can’t stay rigid without potentially damaging others.
2). Messages can have a time and a place where they are more effective. Peter’s sermon knocked ’em dead on Pentecost, but the same message probably wouldn’t stop a Portlander in their tracks. But in the right form, the gospel of Jesus can knock the socks off of anybody who will give it some attention. That’s why I’m betting on a group of passionate thespians to turn the world upside down.
3). The big splash is the result of big convictions and leads to big devotion. Baptism isn’t a ritual or a tradition. When done like they did it 2000 years ago it’s a vital part of the answer to “what must I do to be saved?” Both figuratively and literally, baptism, which means “to immerse or be immersed”, is an immersion into Jesus and participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This is the kind of big devotion that binds believers to their faith, their family, their fellowship and their food… okay I was looking for a fourth ‘f’ and it fits: like Jesus said his food was to do the will of the one who sent him, believers, too, feed on the desire to follow in his steps.
And to attempt to follow in Jesus steps is the greatest attempt we’ll ever make.
slj june 2, 2016