Preaching Like Pentecost

Seven Lessons for Pastors Today

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Pastor, Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley

If you could learn to preach from one man in particular, whom would you choose? Some may want to mention big names of today. Others may be entranced by great preachers of the past, the names that echo through history. Perhaps, closer to home, a dear mentor left a particular imprint upon us.

But what about the apostles, men full of the Holy Spirit, and their inspired sermons recorded in Scripture? Should we not learn from them first? In a delightful book called Peter: Eyewitness of His Majesty, my friend Ted Donnelly speaks of Peter as a disciple, as a preacher, and as a pastor. The book is a magnificent treatment of this servant of Christ. Some years before my friend himself passed into Christ’s presence, he preached on Acts 2 and identified some of the features of Peter’s preaching. I gladly acknowledge my debt in what follows.

What, then, can the record of apostolic preaching teach us? What lessons might we learn to help us declare the whole counsel of God? Turning to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–40), let me suggest seven features of apostolic preaching that we can and should pursue.

1. Gripping and Immediate

Peter manifestly preaches in the here and now, beginning with the striking assertion about the disciples’ sobriety (Acts 2:15). Peter preaches an immediately relevant sermon as a man who knows where and when he speaks, and with whom. His sermon proceeds from a real person and is to, about, and for real people — those in Jerusalem who crucified the Lord of glory. He focuses on the most important matters — salvation from sin through faith in the Christ who died and rose. The sermon is earthy, preached by a dying man to dying men, yes, but also by a living man to living men, about the man who lived, died, and lives again forever.

Do we preach with the same sense of immediacy, with the same sense of reality? Do our messages seem like history lectures, or are people made to feel that this sermon pours from a present me to a present you?

2. Scriptural and Reasonable

Peter moves from explanation to exposition to application to persuasion. He takes account of his hearers’ experience, but he uses Scripture to interpret, explain, and confirm it (as in 2 Peter 1:19). Dealing with what his congregation knows, sees, and hears, he turns to Joel 2 to explain the work of the Spirit, to Psalm 16 to emphasize the reality of the resurrection, to Psalm 110 to connect the ascension of Christ with the grant of the Spirit.

Again and again, Peter makes the point, “This is that! That is what it says, and this is what it means.” He is preaching like Christ, employing what I call an apostolic hermeneutic, which Christ patterned for his disciples in Luke 24:27 and 44–48. Does our preaching rest in and rely upon the word of God? Are we manifestly proclaimers and explainers of divine truth, and chiefly of Christ as he is set forth in all the Scriptures?

3. Doctrinal and Instructive

I doubt anyone has ever been asked to preach a distinctly Trinitarian sermon, blending the richest insights of biblical and systematic theology, and covering such topics as theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, prolegomena, anthropology, soteriology, sacramentology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. You might consider such a request ridiculous or even impossible. Yet I suggest that Peter manages it here!

All these notes resonate and combine at Pentecost. Peter introduces all of them naturally, accessibly, substantially, and forcefully — sermonically! Peter is a true theologian, and his sermon is the fruit of Christ’s instruction and the Spirit’s illumination. But he is also a true preacher: though well taught, he doesn’t feel the need to parade his learning. He is neither entertaining the goats nor straining the giraffes. He is calling and feeding the sheep, and therefore he both knows and shows his theology appropriately. His scholarship is not lofty and academic, but consecrated to save and sustain souls through the plainest of declarations.

Are we preaching meaty or milky sermons, according to the needs of our hearers? Good preaching sets forth doctrine sometimes centrally, sometimes incidentally, so that the truth comes across as deep, clear, and sweet to the congregation.

4. Christian and Adoring

Peter’s sermon is theologically rich, but it zeroes in on the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter’s sermons, like Paul’s and others recorded in the New Testament, are full of the Lord Jesus, overflowing with precious truth concerning him. The Pentecost sermon is ardently and urgently Christ-centered, Christ-focused, Christ-exalting. The prophets spoke of him; God sent him; we trust him. He who is God the Son is also identified as true man, the promised man, the sent man, the crucified man, the risen man, the ascended man, the exalted man, the gracious man, the saving man.

“Have we preached, will we preach, a gospel that is whole and holy, free and full, sweet and saving?”

Remember, Peter is preaching to people who knew the Old Testament and among whom Jesus of Nazareth had physically walked. If they needed such instruction, how much more do hearers today? People do not know, or even know about, Jesus of Nazareth. They need men who are urgent and ardent to tell them of the Savior. Are we as preachers going out to tell people about Jesus Christ? Are we eager for people to hear of him, or do we not believe that the preaching of Christ will prove God’s means of bringing sinners to faith?

5. Applied and Direct

“Men and brothers,” said Peter, “Let me speak freely . . .” (Acts 2:29 NKJV). And he meant it! Read through the sermon again. Peter is plain, open, bold, and courageous. He looks his congregation in the eye and speaks to them. He speaks with startling bluntness: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. . . . Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:23, 36).

This is not hectoring speech; nor is it unrighteously aggressive. We should expect the word of God to dig, to press, to probe, to trouble the soul, to cut to the heart. When the Spirit brings it home, hearers cry out, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The seraphic Samuel Pearce pleaded,

Give me the preacher who opens the folds of my heart; who accuses me, convicts me, and condemns me before God; who loves my soul too well to suffer me to go on in sin, unreproved, through fear of giving me offence; who draws the line with accuracy, between the delusions of fancy, and the impressions of grace; who pursues me from one hiding place to another, until I am driven from every refuge of lies; who gives me no rest until he sees me, with unfeigned penitence, trembling at the feet of Jesus; and then, and not till then, soothes my anguish, wipes away my tears, and comforts me with the cordials of grace.

Do we expect such preaching? If necessary, will we seek it out? Do we as preachers express truth directly, or do we fudge and shave, blunting the edge of the Jerusalem blade? Do we expect and desire our preaching to provoke the question, “What shall we do?” or have we become experts in turning aside the thrust of divine truth?

6. Affectionate and Gracious

Peter’s most direct speech does not lack love. He speaks to them and toward them, for them (Acts 2:14, 21–22, 29, 38–39). He holds back neither the horror of sin nor the hope of salvation. These last days are gospel days! The good news is being proclaimed to all: repent and believe in Christ, and you shall be saved. (Matthew Henry delightfully calls this offer “a plank after shipwreck.”) Then be baptized, identifying yourself with the Jesus of Scripture, the Christ from Nazareth. Forgiveness will be granted, and the Holy Spirit, who is God himself, will dwell in you to purify you, to bless you, to keep you.

Do we know how to combine the straight and the sweet? Have we learned, under God, to wound and to bind up? Do we know and love the people before us and around us, and so speak? Have we preached, will we preach, a gospel that is whole and holy, free and full, sweet and saving? Have we received the Jesus who brings salvation, and do we delight to tell others of him?

7. Blessed and Fruitful

Peter’s sermon strikes home hard and deep. Those cut to the heart cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And soon after, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:37, 41). Solemnity and scorn gave way to serious concern, and the Lord granted salvation to thousands. This sermon, preached by a man full of the Holy Spirit, instructed by the Savior and illuminated by the Helper, is a carrying out of the Great Commission. As Peter obeys the command of Christ, three thousand receive the word, are baptized, and so are added to the number of the believers (perhaps more than Christ saw in all the days of humiliation, if we so read John 14:12).

Do we not have the same gospel? Do we not have the same Savior? Do we not have the same Spirit? Can we not preach similar sermons? Can we not pray for and expect similar results? I mean not so much the great numbers (though neither do I dismiss them), but rather the same spiritual reality and heavenly force?

Here is a model for truly apostolic preaching, an example for those who follow in the faith and labor of the apostles. We are not apostles, but we can desire more of the apostolic spirit. In that sense, we can and should seek to preach apostolic sermons, not as cold constructs according to some dry standard, but as the products of burning hearts taken up with Christ and desiring, above all things, the glory of God in him, and the eternal good of all those who hear.

serves as a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, and is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children. He has authored several books, and is grateful to preach, to teach, and to write as opportunity provides.