A Master Preacher
There is no greater need today than for powerful preachers of the gospel. Unless men and women call on Jesus Christ for salvation, they will be condemned to hell. But ‘how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?’ (Rom. 10:14). Able preachers are pitifully few. In cities of millions there may be no more than one or two such men. Whole regions have no opportunity to hear the message of salvation. We are experiencing a fulfilment of the Old Testament warning: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD’ (Amos 8:11).
Many speak from pulpits – but they do not preach the gospel. They suggest that their hearers try to be good. They recommend self-fulfilment and getting rid of inhibitions. They may offer whimsical comments on current events or new-age spirituality with a Christian veneer. Some choose to ridicule the supernatural or attack the absolutes of God’s law. But there is no declaration of what God has done in Christ for the salvation of the lost. There is not a word of grace or of real hope. Their poor people listen in ignorance and die in their sins.
Some do preach the gospel – but not powerfully. These are good men, eager to be faithful. They have trusted Christ for themselves and know that they are commissioned to proclaim him as Saviour to others. But most of their regular listeners are professing Christians and there seems little point in telling them again what they already know. So the gospel tends to be tacked on to sermons which are designed primarily for believers. It becomes the predictable formula with which every message closes. The idea is that, if a casual visitor attends the service, enough information will be provided about salvation to enable him or her to come to faith. But no-one really expects this to happen. Many ministers will admit that they feel more comfortable in teaching Christians than when they are preaching evangelistically. This awkwardness is reflected in their sermons and they communicate the gospel in a hesitant and ineffective way.
Few of us, indeed, are skilled at evangelistic preaching. But instead of lamenting our weakness we should set about correcting it. Nothing is more helpful in this regard than the bracing influence of a good example and no better model can be found than Peter the preacher.
Seven of his public addresses are recorded for us in Acts, as well as the brief address given by ‘Peter and the other apostles’ on their second appearance before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:29-32). This is a considerable amount of material – and it is infallibly recorded. The apostle has not been misunderstood or misquoted. No careless reporting has distorted his message. Instead, the Holy Spirit has inspired Luke to present us with the very words – and the most crucial of these which came from Peter’s lips as he preached in Jerusalem and Caesarea.
Some great preachers have left little permanent record of their work. We can read of the notable effects of their ministries and of the high esteem in which they were held by their contemporaries. But we can make no assessment for ourselves, for their sermons were not written down and so died with them. In Peter’s case, however, a substantial transcript has survived and we know exactly how he preached the gospel.
His is the earliest – and thus definitive – preaching. The risen Christ has just told Peter and the others that ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me’ (1:8). It is under the control and in the energy of this divine Spirit that Peter preaches. The realities he speaks about are freshly impressed on his consciousness. He is not delivering a message which philosophers have adulterated or heretics have distorted. His preaching is not stale, an attempt to rekindle the embers of an enthusiasm which long years have all but extinguished. This is new-minted and white-hot gospel preaching; preaching as it is meant to be. This is the prototype, the real thing.
What is more, it was astoundingly effective. After Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. ‘those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them’ (2:41). His preaching in Solomon’s porch made such an impact that ‘many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand’ (4:4). The Jewish religious leaders, arrogant and hostile though they were, ‘marveled’ at his forcefulness (4:13). As he brought to a conclusion his message in the house of Cornelius, ‘the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word’ (10:44).
Such responses are phenomenal. A man stands up and speaks and hearts are broken, lives changed and repenting sinners flood into the kingdom of heaven. Words from his mouth are the instrument by which thousands are delivered from death to everlasting life. As the Spirit’s spokesman, Peter achieved more in an hour than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime. Here is gospel ministry in all its majesty and power. How many of us have experienced anything like it? If only we could learn from him, catch some sparks of the fire with which he preached! We cannot afford to neglect such an example.
He does not, of course, provide us with a complete blueprint for evangelistic ministry. He was speaking to Jews and God-fearers after all, audiences familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures. If we wished to make a comprehensive assessment of apostolic evangelism, we would have to include Paul’s ministry to pagans in such places as Lystra and Athens (14:15-17; 17:22-31). We would also need to cover other aspects of Peter’s preaching. Was there, for example, a basic framework around which every message was constructed? If so, what was it? That is a complex issue which would take us far beyond the scope of this book.
But focusing upon his four main evangelistic sermons – at Pentecost (2:14-39) in Solomon’s porch (3:12-26), before the Sanhedrin (4:8-12), and in the house of Cornelius (10:34-35) – we can identify five characteristics of Peter’s preaching which are often lacking today. They are: relevance, Christ-centredness, boldness, a readiness to preach the demands of grace and a dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit. If we want to improve as gospel preachers, we need to take lessons from this master-craftsman.