Reflections on Acts 2-4 —
Pastors often appeal to their congregations to be bold. Some people just resist boldness, are not willing to go there. Others want to be bold, but it just doesn’t seem to happen. We are hesitant because we don’t have all the answers. We are uncertain about God’s dealings, His character, why He would cause suffering, etc. I suggest that there are two primary reasons Christians lack boldness today: 1) we don’t know God’s word, at least not in a way that influences our thinking and affects our agenda and attitude, and 2) we are not convinced that God is absolutely sovereign over every aspect of life.
The night of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter desperately lacked boldness. In the heat of the moment, he had denied that he even knew Jesus three times(1). The grief and despair that followed is something we can all relate with. The first thing Peter needed was affirmation, which the Lord promptly gave him.
That little spark started a growth spurt in Peter. Not a physical growth spurt, but a spiritual one. In chapters 2-4 of Acts, we see a new Peter, boldly preaching to the crowds. He’s a goofball in the gospel accounts, but in these chapters, Peter speaks like a man of great education, with authority.He used words like “confidently” and “…know for certain…” in his sermon. He was a fisherman teaching like a theologian. The change was so alarming that the priests who observed this “uneducated and untrained” man noticed his confidence(12).
From Peter’s confident preaching, and his frequent use of prophetic scripture in his sermons, we ought to see the importance of two things: knowing the Bible, and believing in predestination–the belief that God is sovereign over all things and causes all things to happen according to His plan.
Boldness from Knowing the Word
Familiarity with the Bible is essential in order for us to speak with conviction and authority. Notice how many references to Old Testament scripture Peter uses to build his arguments. Not only in Acts 2-4 but also in his letters. That should strike you. Peter was untrained, yet he knew the Bible like the back of his hand. Even the hard stuff. We should have it as a goal to grow familiar with God’s word like Peter did. Modern Christianity downplays this, almost discourages believers from getting too much “head” knowledge and not enough action. I think this is harmful. We should take Peter’s advice and “long for the pure milk of the Word”…”like newborn babies”(2). Don’t just hear it preached on Sunday. Study it, memorize it, internalize it, believe it, and then apply it. Words in the Bible are not ordinary words–they are “living”, “active”(3), and faith-giving(4). God watches over His words carefully(5), so you can be guaranteed that every word in the Bible is there for a very good reason, if we only care to pay attention to them. God likens His words to fire and a hammer(6), a mirror into your soul(7), and a sword(8). They give you success(9) and make you fruitful(10). Like being well-prepared for a test, knowing scripture well gives you confidence in life.
Boldness from Recognizing God’s Sovereignty
Secondly, notice that in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-4, we see multiple references to prophesies of God’s predestination as well as direct statements that all this was happening according to God’s predetermined plan–from the Spirit being poured out, to miracles being performed, to Jesus’ death and resurrection(11).
God uses prophecy to set Himself apart from all the futile things we trust in, to discredit those who believe life is chaotic and random, and to prove to us that He’s in charge. He’s planned things out from long ago, and He’s carrying out those plans to a “T”(25):
“Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’”
When Jesus died, Peter was fearful and confused. There wasn’t much passage of time from that day until he stood up at Pentecost, so the only thing I can point to as the cause of his sudden burst of confidence is his knowledge of the scriptures foreshadowing Jesus’ death. Suddenly, Peter realized that everything that had happened, even his mistakes, were part of God’s plan. God had stepped into his reality, had intervened in time and showed His glory. Revealed prophecy is one way God does this. When we catch even a glimpse of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, it is convicting, it calls us to account, and it evokes worship(24). When God steps into time, the facade of doubt and chaos separates and truth is exposed like a beam…and we have no response but to fall on our knees. Just ask the crowd that gathered that night in the Garden of Gethsemane(13).
Peter wasn’t the only one touched by this revelation that God is in control of all things. The people who heard Peter’s sermon, all the references to Old Testament prophecies coming true, that Jesus had been delivered over “according to plan”(14), were pierced in their heart(15)–they were deeply humbled and awed. Why? They had voted to put Jesus Christ to death, but even more, God knew they would do it all along! They had acted out of ignorance, had killed the One who loved them and was willing to sacrifice His own life for them. Even so, none of their cruel, vicious actions surprised God. He not only knew they would do it, He planned that they would do it. Everything that happened that fateful evening, from Judas’ betrayal, to Pilate’s decision, to a rooster crowing three times, happened according to God’s plan.
This was stunning news. They had sought to have Jesus put to death; the same Jesus that was now highly exalted and made Lord and Savior by God Almighty, all according to God’s plan. Even more stunning was the news that this same God, who should have been furious, was offering salvation to anyone who “called on the name of the Lord”(16).
Notice the people’s response to this amazing revelation. It is common for people to walk away from conviction, to ignore it, bury it. But these people did the right thing. They accepted the truth that they had sinned the vilest of sins (can’t get much worse than killing Jesus!), and they asked for help. They sensed a proper and healthy humiliation. Five thousand people became believers by the time Peter preached his second sermon(17).
There is something freeing and inspiring about knowing God is moving in everything around you. We all love the story of David and Goliath(18). But that story is not as much about David’s prowess with a sling as it is the confidence he had when he faced Goliath. He had confidence because he knew God well enough to know Goliath’s challenge was not some random event. He knew God had planned it, had set the stage for a big show. When face-to-face with Goliath, David said, “this battle is the Lord’s!” Unlike his peers, he was not afraid and timid, he was optimistic, excited for the opportunity to participate in something really big God was doing.
Intentionality and Purpose
The idea that God is sovereignly directing everything according to a great plan may be difficult to swallow. You may think, “if God is sovereign over everything, what does it matter what I do? I should not be held accountable!” Paul answers this argument with his perfect analogy to a clay pot having no right to complain to the potter(19).God is beyond time and space. I, on the other hand, am constrained to live moment by moment. He is sovereign over all things, but my limited little brain cannot conceive that. All I know is I am called to live and trust that my actions, though planned out in advance, are meaningful and important. I actually take great comfort in this. When I screw up, I haven’t surprised God, and can never do anything that can’t be resolved by crying out for His mercy. When things don’t go the way I think they should, I have no cause for fear, because I know that God’s “got this”. That is my confidence.
Paul says that God is demonstrating His wisdom through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places(20). If you stop and think about that for a second, you can see that life is like a big theater. The audience is the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”–spirits, angels, and demons by the thousands. The church is the actors, and God is the Director. He is demonstrating His glory to His audience through us. Seeing life in this light gives some people cause to simmer in anger. It gives me a sense of purpose, that everything I do matters.
Many have a difficult time accepting their role in the play, or that it really is a play at all. Have you ever been to a play where the leading actor completely forgot his lines? It’s awkward, not what the Director had in mind. What if you showed up to a play and all the actors just did whatever they wanted, came in whenever they wanted, and said whatever they wanted. It wouldn’t make for much of a play, would it? Plays work when all the actors say their lines at the right time. The best actors really “get into” their part. If you see life like a play and God as your Director, suddenly every day becomes important, the words you speak become important and meaningful, and seeking to do things the way the Director has scripted becomes vital for making the play tell the story.
In the case of these early Christians, even their repentance was “granted of God”(26), and every one of the 5000 that were saved had been called by God(27). This was an unexpected, emotional, and dramatic scene in God’s play–imagine the reaction of the audience of spiritual beings!
Self-Confidence, or Arrogance?
If you still insist that you get to call the shots and God is not in control, here’s another thing to consider. James gives us perhaps the best reason we should not give ourselves too much credit, nor downplay the sovereignty of God. In the fourth chapter of his letter to the early church, he says this(21):
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
If we see life as something random, something neutral that we can mold and influence by our own effort, that life can be manipulated and managed by those savvy enough to do so, then we are arrogant. We don’t like to think of ourselves as arrogant. We’d prefer to be called “self-confident”. But “arrogant” is what James calls people who think they have more influence over their lives than they do. Let’s not get in that boat.
Too easily, we throw up our hands and give up trying to reconcile predestination and free will. We say, “scholars haven’t solved this issue in 1000 years, so why should I try?” Look, scholars have been wrong before. Free will is a relatively young concept, but we’re somehow convinced it’s a more advanced way of thinking. For me, I’m not sure how it is possible to interpret scripture any other way, especially Paul’s salutation to the Ephesians (23):
”Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.”
I wonder sometimes if we lack the “awe” the early Christians felt because we diminish God’s role and elevate man’s.
In any case, I encourage you to let the knowledge that God is in control and the power of His living and active word fuel your boldness.
- John 18:17-27
- I Peter 2:2
- Hebrews 4:12
- Romans 10:17
- Jeremiah 1:12
- Jeremiah 23:29
- James 1:22-25
- Hebrews 4:12
- Joshua 1:8
- Psalm 1:1-3
- Acts 2:14-36
- Acts 4:13
- John 18:6
- Acts 2:23
- Acts 2:37
- Acts 2:21
- Acts 4:4
- I Samuel 17
- Romans 9:19-21
- Ephesians 3:10
- James 4:13-16
- I Thessalonians 1:5
- Ephesians 1:3-5
- I Corinthians 14:24-25
- Isaiah 46:9-10
- Acts 11:18
- Acts 2:39