It was the Feast of Pentecost, one of the three most important feast days of the Jewish year. Jewish men and women gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world (from at least fifteen different countries or regions) to observe this holy time. But suddenly something strange happened! There was a sound like a great windstorm and tongues as of fire rested on the disciples of Christ who were assembled in the upper room. People came from all over the city to see what was going on. These things were astonishing by themselves, but then something even more amazing happened. All of these men and women heard the mighty works of God being proclaimed in their own language! (Acts 2:1-6)
The people were confused because they heard Galileans speaking to them in their own native tongue (Acts 2:7-11). A Galilean was a citizen of Galilee, a country located north of Jerusalem. The Galileans (the word means men of the soil) were peasants, farmers, and fishermen. The people were amazed because these men had no formal education and had not traveled widely. And yet they were speaking to them in the language of their birth. The people began to talk among themselves and said to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).
Some historians have estimated the number of people who came to Jerusalem at two million and that Peter preached to a crowd of at least 100,000 people. These were the closing words of Peter’s sermon that day:
Men of Israel, 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. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, 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. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 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. Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. Acts 2:22-24, 32-33, 36
While we may never have the chance to share the gospel before so large a crowd, there are three principles we can glean from Peter’s Pentecost sermon to help us be effective witnesses today:
1) Peter took an opportunity
When the people heard the disciples speaking in their native languages, they asked, “What does this mean?” This question provided Peter a great opportunity to be a witness in Jerusalem—exactly what Jesus had told the disciples they would be (Acts 1:8).
Peter acted as spokesman for the disciples and preached the first sermon of the Christian era. Only seven weeks earlier, Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. No doubt, Peter was preaching to some of the very people who had cried out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” only a few weeks earlier (Matthew 27:22, 23). Peter was also preaching in the shadow of the temple, the business address of the religious leaders of Israel who had plotted and succeeded in crucifying Jesus. Also just seven weeks earlier, Peter denied the Lord three times, cursed, and fled for his life (Matthew 26:69-75). And now, Peter was standing up in front of people who were enemies of the gospel and knew of his failing. Yes, the opportunity was obvious, but it took some real courage and spiritual power to seize it.
It scares me to think of all the obvious opportunities to share the gospel that I have missed. Several years ago, I was on my way to speak in a small town twenty minutes east of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and I was hungry because I had not eaten anything all day. I stopped at a restaurant to eat and I carried in with me a book on heaven. When the waiter approached my table, I had my head buried in the menu. He asked me, “Is that book any good?” to which I replied, “Yes, it’s okay. I’ll have a cheeseburger, fries, and a glass of water.”
After the waiter left, the Holy Spirit said to me, “Jeff, you just blew it!” I thought to myself, “Oh no! I forgot to tell the waiter NOT to put mayonnaise on my cheeseburger!” The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart again, “No Jeff, that’s not what I’m talking about!” It took me several minutes to figure out what I’d done wrong. And then it came to me. I was given a golden opportunity to share Christ and I blew it! The waiter asked me a question about heaven and I was so concerned with myself that I did not take the opportunity to share Jesus Christ with him.
When the waiter returned to the table, I asked him, “Are you interested in heaven?” to which he replied, “Yes.” I then asked him a second question, “Do you know how to get to heaven?” “I’m not sure,” he replied. I then asked, “Would you like to know for certain that you are going to heaven when you die?” “Yes, I would,” he answered. Then, I began to share with him God’s plan of salvation.
Sometimes the opportunity is there but we have to be alert to it and take hold of it. Peter, who rejected an obvious opportunity to witness seven weeks earlier, seized this one with both hands. A Spirit-filled person will grab every opportunity to share the gospel.
Many years later Peter would pen these words:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15
2) Peter preached Christ
When Peter was asked the question, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12), he gave them an answer from the book of Joel (Acts 2:14-21). Notice that Peter answered the immediate question at hand and then made a beeline to explain the gospel message—the message the people really needed (Acts 2:22-36). If we are to be an effective witness, we must be able to meet people where they are and take them to where they really need to be.
This was the practice of Jesus. When He spoke to Nicodemus, He spoke about the new birth because that was the question on Nicodemus’ mind (John 3:1-21). When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, He did not speak of the new birth but of water because they were standing beside a well (John 4:1-26).
Every witnessing encounter will have different circumstances surrounding it but the same main message. We need to be able to adapt our approach and not our message so we can effectively tell people about Jesus Christ. And that’s exactly what Peter did.
Peter didn’t avoid pitfalls in the conversation; he addressed the issues that concerned the people but then he always steered the message back to the central point—the gospel. He knew that his hearers would demand compelling evidence before accepting the fact that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. With the dramatic miracles of Pentecost as his introduction, Peter established Jesus’ credentials and demonstrated that the Old Testament prophets prophesied all of this. Then he immediately adapted his sermon to tell the people who the Lord was. Peter knew that above all else these people needed to know who Jesus was in order to be saved.
The Apostle Paul agreed:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? Romans 10:14
We may have the opportunity to share the good news of Christ with someone, but if we do not use the words of the gospel, our opportunity will be wasted. The resurrection is the most unique message the world has ever known. It is the capstone and the cornerstone of the gospel presentation.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the deity of Jesus Christ. The greatest proof that Jesus is the Messiah is not His birth, His teaching, His miracles, or even His death on the cross. The greatest proof that Jesus is the Messiah is His resurrection from the dead (John 2:18-22). His resurrection is the absolute proof that God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world (Romans 4:25). Christ’s resurrection also guarantees our own resurrection (John 14:19; Romans 6:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:16-23).
Peter knew that the ultimate answer to the people’s question, “What is the meaning of this?” was found in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—or the gospel. Jesus ascended back to the Father in heaven just as He said He would, and He had now sent His Holy Spirit as Joel prophesied (Joel 2:28, 29) and Jesus promised (Acts 2:33). The ministry of Jesus was necessary before the promised Holy Spirit could be poured out which is what was now being seen and heard on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). And so Peter uncompromisingly told the nation of Israel exactly what they needed to hear, that Jesus was both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).
3) Peter trusted God
After Peter preached the gospel to the crowd, Luke writes that the people were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). The Greek word literally means to prick or to pierce through. The word refers to an emotion of sorrow that leads to a change of mind and direction and evidences itself in a change of action.
Some of the people who heard Peter’s sermon that day realized that they were unable to escape the personal responsibility for the sin of crucifying the Messiah. They were convicted of their sins and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter issued the gospel call to “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” (Acts 2:38).
Luke tells us that Peter also warned them with many other words. He exhorted and earnestly pleaded with the people to turn from their crooked ways. He knew that the only cure for their corruption was genuine repentance.
Peter promised that if they would repent they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. But Peter also knew that the Spirit is only given by God, as the prophet Ezekiel foretold in a message from God:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. Ezekiel 36:25-27
Peter did not rely on his persuasiveness to change the hearts of the people. Although he had laid out some impressive apologetics to the crowd, he knew that it would take more than a winsome argument and powerful preaching to get results. It would take the power of God.
Peter knew that God uses the weak and not the mighty, the simple and not the profound for His work so that He will receive the glory or credit for what is being done and not man (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Peter saw an opportunity, was faithful to preach the message of Christ crucified and resurrected, but then he left the results up to God. The toll of over 3,000 people being saved from their sins that day (Acts 2:41) was not a demonstration of man’s power but a result of the Spirit’s power so that the faith of the people “might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5). On the day of Pentecost, God demonstrated that it was His Spirit working through the disciples and therefore, God Himself received all the glory.
Peter used the opportunity of the questions the people were asking to share the good news of Jesus Christ. He didn’t ignore their questions or slough them off, but neither did he get lost down a rabbit hole. When the people asked, “What is the meaning of this?” (Acts 2:12), Peter brought the conversation back to the gospel and he did so by using the Scriptures. But in order to do that, he first had to be filled with the Spirit himself.
Isn’t that what a witness really is? Someone who is filled with the Spirit of Christ, aware of opportunities to share Him with others through His testimony about Himself, and humbly dependent on God for the results. Peter was a Spirit-filled man who was alert to the questions asked, ready to give a biblical answer that would point his hearers to their need for Christ, and who trusted in God to do His work of changing hearts. And we can be witnesses too if we follow his example.