The Death of Death in the Death of Christ
Surely it must seem strange to some of you that I would set out to preach on the Book of Acts, and then pass over one of the more significant parts of the book: “the day of Pentecost”.
Last Sunday, we heard the promise of Jesus, “you shall receive dynamis, you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”(1:8). This power from the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost and a great miracle takes place. Appearing to, and resting upon, the disciples were “tongues of fire”(2:3); as a result, they began to speak in other languages in the presence of the multitude (2:4). And Luke explains to us how this myriad of foreigners heard the disciples in their own language (2:6). What we have then, on the day of Pentecost, is a miracle of, both, speaking and hearing.
So, why is it that I want to jump past this miraculous event to the middle of the chapter? One reason is purely pragmatic---in Acts there is so much ground to cover, and if I do not hasten ahead, Advent will be upon us before we are even half way through the book.
The other reason why I am eager to move past this miracle is because the miracle is not the point. The multitude understood at least that. Luke writes that they were asking one another, “What does this mean?”(2:12).
Surely, there is more to Pentecost than an impressive miracle. Surely, there is more to Pentecost than the disciples receiving the power of God.
We must remember that when Jesus promised the dynamis of the Holy Spirit, He followed that promise with a job description for the disciples, “you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth”(1:8).
The purpose of the Holy Spirit then, the purpose of Pentecost, was to enable the disciples to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ.
The question of the multitude, “What does this mean?”, does not go unanswered. Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, proceeds to explain to the multitude why this miracle has taken place.
We pick up Peter’s explanation in verse 22, “Men of Israel, listen to these words”.
As a preacher, I am struck by the way Peter addresses the multitudes. I know, for myself, that when I address a congregation for the first time I find the whole experience to be quite humbling. I find that when I am visiting another congregation, I tend to begin by saying something like, ‘Good morning. What a pleasure and privilege it is to be with you. I’d like to invite you to follow along, if you will, in your Bibles as we examine this text together.’
But that is not Peter’s approach. Peter’s two-part sermon begins the same way, “Men of Israel, listen to these words”.
Now you can imagine how this approach might be received by the multitude. ‘Who is this Peter, that we should listen to his words?’ Someone else in the crowd says, ‘Isn’t this man, Peter, the uneducated fisherman, from Galilee? Why should we bother with what he has to say?’
Perhaps you are sitting there saying the same thing, ‘What does all of this have to do with me? I hear a lot of talk about ‘tongues of fire’ and God’s dynamis, but how is this going to help me? I’m trying my best to live with integrity in the 21st Century—what can I possibly gain from the words of a fisherman from the 1st Century?’
How can Peter be so bold in commanding us to listen to him? Let me offer 2 reasons for Peter’s boldness. The first reason for Peter’s boldness is because Peter understands where his authority comes from.
Peter understands that his authority comes from the Word of God---his authority comes from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the personal witness of Jesus Christ.
Have a look at his sermon in chapter 2---more than half of what he says comes from the Old Testament. Peter gives us here a model of what preaching should look like. He quotes Scripture, then he explains what the Scriptures mean. And isn’t it interesting that Peter’s exposition of the Old Testament always leads him to speak about Christ.
This pattern is repeated every time Peter preaches. Peter’s sermons are always Scripture-based and Christ-centred. I suspect that even if Peter lived in our day, he would not need to read the daily newspaper, Time magazine, or watch CNN in order to get sermon material. Peter’s boldness comes from the fact that he understands that his authority comes from the Word of God.
The second reason for Peter’s boldness in his preaching is because Peter understands the life-changing power of the content of his message.
Let’s revisit Peter’s message, beginning at verse 23, “this Man (Jesus), delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power”(2:22-24).
There is much to unpack from these two verses. Notice how the death of Jesus is attributed simultaneously to both the ordination of God and the wickedness of humanity.
God, who is sovereign over all things, is not caught off guard by the crucifixion of Jesus. The death of Jesus has been planned from all eternity (Ephesians 1). At the same time, working concurrently with God’s eternal plan, is the wickedness of humanity. And Peter does not simply charge those who executed Jesus with evil, but he charges the entire multitude, “you nailed (Jesus) to a cross . . . and put Him to death”, Peter tells them.
How can this be? Peter is speaking to thousands of people here. Most of these people had no direct influence on the execution of Jesus. It is even likely that many in this multitude were not even present when Jesus was executed. How can Peter be justified then, by saying, “YOU nailed (Jesus) to a cross”?
Peter can say that because he is not referencing those individuals who literally brought Jesus to trial and who literally carried out His execution. Peter insists that the entire multitude is guilty, and I insist that we are guilty, because our sins made the death of Christ necessary.
The prophet Isaiah prophesied this when he wrote, “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed”(Isa. 53:5).
This is the sobering aspect of the Gospel of Christ. It is sobering to face the reality that humanity is sinful. It is sobering to learn that our sin made the death of Christ necessary.
Now, how shall we frame the good news of the Gospel? For the Gospel is not a message of despair, but a message of certain hope.
I want you to imagine with me for a minute. I want you to imagine that, in our lifetime, medical researchers find a cure for cancer. I know that there are many types of cancers and many more types of treatments, but let’s imagine a day when a single cure for cancer is found.
Surely this would be cause for great celebration! How relieved we would be to learn that our afflicted loved ones will soon be healed!
With a cure for cancer, we are left with just one challenge: Our challenge is to transport the medicine to those places where it cannot be produced.
Now I’d like to bring you back to Peter’s sermon. The bad news is that our sin caused the death of Jesus, but here is the good news: God raised Him up again putting an end to the agony of death (2:24).
A cure for cancer would be tremendous news, but a cure for one disease does not make us immune to other diseases. The best possible news is not a cure for cancer, but a cure for the thing cancer causes: death.
Are you beginning to get a sense for why Peter demanded that the multitude listen to his words? Peter is announcing the best news possible; he is telling the multitude about the death of death in the death of Christ.
When Christ died for our sin, and when our Heavenly Father raised Him from the dead, death lost its power over us. Jesus predicted this day when He said, “I am the Resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die”(John 11:25, 26).
The apostle Paul confirms the death of death in the death of Christ when he writes in 1Corinthians 15, “in Christ all shall be made alive (v.22) . . . Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”(v.54, 55).
Remember our analogy? Christ’s perfect life, His atoning death, His life-giving Resurrection is the perfect medicinal compound for the soul. Those who take of this medicine shall be healed and shall obtain victory over death.
Once we have taken this medicine, we are left with one challenge: Our challenge is to bring this medicine to those in need of it.
What good is a cure if the medicine is not made available? What good is a cure if the medicine is not administered?
Friends, death is an ugly reality, but in the death of Christ, death is swallowed up in victory. Let us take this medicine for ourselves, and may God empower our efforts to administer this medicine to others, for Christ’s sake. Amen