Last week we heard about the stupendously exciting time at the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the believers for the first time. In the Old Testament, the Spirit was sent to equip certain individuals for specific tasks – for example Gideon in the Book of Judges. But here in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all people, that is on all the believers who were gathered – not all people in the world of course, but on all those who become followers of Jesus. This had been foretold by the Old Testament prophet Joel. God says: In the last days… that’s between the first and second coming of Jesus, so we’re in the last days. ‘In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.’ (Acts 2:17)
That first time was very dramatic – sound like wind, sight like tongues of fire. And it had a great impact; the disciples, at that time just 150 although today we see how that increased to no less than 3,000, who’d been cowering away in fear became bold at speaking! And they even spoke in other languages, praising God in languages they hadn’t had to sit down and learn, so that people gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival from all over the Roman world could hear them praising God in their own languages!
What did it all mean? Had these 150 followers of Jesus had too much wine, as some were saying? Peter was quite clear that was not the case. It was only 9 o’clock in the morning! It’s what the prophet Joel prophesied, hundreds of years before and Peter quotes the passage, ending with this from the prophet: ‘And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Acts 2:21) Saved from what? Saved from the disastrous and terrifying fate of meeting a Holy God at the end of our days without having repented or believed in the Saviour.
The plan of God
The recent death of Jesus had really made an impact in Jerusalem, really caused a stir. It had all seemed so promising at first. As Peter says to the crowd: ‘Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs – as you yourselves know.’ (Acts 2:22)
Everybody loved the miracles Jesus did. But how many were keen on him being the kind of Messiah who would be killed on a cross? Not too many. Even Peter doubted that when he first heard it! If you remember back to the Gospel accounts of Easter week, you’ll remember how people thought Jesus the Messiah was going to be a national hero and liberate the country from the hated Romans – they could get their independence again, just like the far-off days of King David and King Solomon, hundreds of years beforehand.
Then it all seemed to go wrong. Jesus had died a humiliating death at the hands of the Roman army, and with the approval and the collusion of the Jewish religious leaders! So Jesus was viewed as a failure. As Cleopas and his friend had said on the road to Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday: ‘We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.’ (Luke 24:21) All the disciples had been dejected and fearful after Jesus was executed. But Peter now saw that this was all part of God’s plan all along, as he tells the gathered crowd with great boldness: ‘This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.’ (Acts 2:23)
The demise of Jesus the Son hadn’t caught God the Father by surprise. He wasn’t having to respond to unforeseen events and adjust his plan accordingly. No, the death of Jesus was always in the plan! It was foretold hundreds of years beforehand by the prophet Isaiah. We can read what looks very much like an eye witness account of the death of Jesus on the cross in Isaiah chapter 53 some 700 years before it happened. The disciples, including Peter, hadn’t seen that at first but now he sees it very clearly.
It always was God’s plan that the Messiah Jesus would die for our sins. Jesus himself knew this, when he said about himself, ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and teachers of the Old Testament Law. ‘They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him, and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’ (Matthew 20:18) This teaches an important lesson not just about Jesus, but one for us. It helps us deal with our own lesser troubles and get them into perspective.
On one level, Jesus’ death was the result of the wicked actions of humans. But at a deeper level, God brought something infinitely good out of those evil actions. God is not the author of evil actions; all humans are accountable for what they do. But God is so great that he is able to turn things around.
Think of the case of Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers, hundreds of years before Jesus. After languishing in a dungeon Jospeh rose to the very top, becoming Prime Minister of Egypt. When his brothers came begging for food during a famine, they were horrified when they realised they were asking the brother they’d betrayed. But he put their minds at rest with these timeless words: ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ (Genesis 50:20)
And this is so helpful when we’re on the receiving end of rough stuff from other people. God knows what you’re going through. God knows when you’ve been hurt and when others are truly in the wrong. But God is so great that he’s able to turn round even the bad stuff so that good may come from it in due course. As Paul says:‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28)
The Plan of God saw to it that the death of Jesus had a purpose. And God has a plan for your life also, where he can turn even the bad stuff in your past for your benefit if you can truly say that you love God and have been called according to his purpose.
The problem we have
It is of course the problem of sin. But our passage comes at it from a slightly different angle. Peter proclaims that after Jesus was nailed to the cross, ‘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.’ (Acts 2:24)
Why was it impossible? Because King David had foreseen hundreds of years beforehand that Jesus would not be abandoned to the grave, nor would his body see decay. Peter goes on to draw a contrast between King David and King Jesus. David lived roughly 1,000 years before Jesus, and was the greatest king in Israel’s history. But even he died and Peter could point out David’s tomb to the crowd as he spoke! You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. ‘But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 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…’ (Acts 2:30-3)
And Peter quotes another Psalm, Psalm 110, before reaching the climax of his sermon; ‘God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Messiah.’ (Acts 2:36) Peter was speaking to the very crowd who had been baying for the blood of Jesus just a few weeks beforehand: Crucify him! Imagine how gutted they must have felt! No wonder we read that they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’
And you may be thinking: well, that’s all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with me? I wasn’t there that day when the crowd were baying for the blood of Jesus! I didn’t send Jesus to the cross! Well actually, you did and I did. That’s the whole point of the cross, that’s exactly what makes sense of what seems like a tragic event. That’s why we sing ‘It was my sin that held him there – Until it was accomplished / His dying breath has brought me life’ And Jesus could say in triumph in his dying breath: ‘It is finished!’
Our sin estranges us from God and renders us guilty in his sight. We see the fruits of sin all around us; wars, greed, anger, racism. the demeaning of women. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know it’s not just a problem ‘out there’ where ‘other people’ do ‘really bad’ things. There’s the whole offence of not acknowledging God as being first in our lives – bar none! We therefore all deserve the just judgment of God on our lives at the end of our days. So what shall we do? Peter answers the question for us, with a promise: ‘Repent and be baptised… in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the Holy Spirit.’
The promise of God
If we truly see our situation as God sees it, then the only really important questions in life are this:
Where do I stand in relation to a holy God, the Creator of is all? And how am I going to answer the question – what should I do? How do you answer that question?
God knows that we are all, by nature, estranged from him. But he loves the human race so much that he sent a Saviour. He so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
Is that true of you? Are you among the ‘whoever’? If you can’t quite say a hearty ‘yes’ to that, today would be a good time to finally answer it. Peter is quite emphatic: Repent and be baptised every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins. And then the promise: And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to help you become more like Jesus!
But what if you think Jesus won’t accept you, that faith in him is not for the likes of you? Remember those words of Jesus we shared with the kids? ‘All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.’ (John 6:37) And that, too, is a promise!
The final words I’d like to draw your attention to in Peter’s Pentecost speech are easily overlooked, but they are important: ‘The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord will call.’ (Acts 2:39)
What promise is that, and how is it applied to children? It’s the promise we’ve just been discussing. It’s the promise that when we repent and are baptised in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that promise is for us and our children. This is the reason why we in the Free Church of Scotland baptise adults when they first believe, but why we also baptise the children and infants of believers.
Now Infant Baptism has sometimes had a rather bad name over the years, as if it’s some kind of superstition – a lucky charm that everyone gives their new baby. It is something that’s often abused: just a cultural rite of passage to mark the arrival of a baby, often with very little connection to Christian faith as preached by the apostles. But the abuse of a practice doesn’t mean that a practice is wrong – only that it’s abused.
I know that many people come to faith in Baptist churches, where only believers are baptised. How can a newborn baby believe? Well, it’s great that Gospel churches are found in all Christian traditions, including those of our Baptist friends. But if you have that background yourself then it may seem a bit strange to see a baby being baptised. Why would we do that if we follow the Bible?
The full answer would take a whole sermon in itself but here, very briefly, is the Biblical case, both in the Old and New Testaments. Nearly all New Testament teaching has its roots in the Old Testament.
Peter says in our passage ‘the promise is for you and your children.’ Hundreds of years before that, God had made a promise to Abraham. And ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The promise then was that he and his descendants would be in a right relationship with God through faith, and God gave him a sign to mark this covenant – the sign of circumcision, a sign that Jewish baby boys receive to this day.
In the New Testament, the sign of the covenant is a different one. It’s the sign of Baptism – to symbolise being washed clean on the inside, when we believe in Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins. When Baptism is mentioned later on in the Book of Acts, it’s not just individuals who are baptised, but also whole households, whole families. Acts chapter 16 records that in Philippi, the businesswoman Lydia and the jailer are baptised with their households. When Paul remembers baptising certain individuals in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1), he relates that he himself baptised ‘the household of Stephanas.’
Are we to suppose that no infants were referred to in all these households? Surely not. Baptising babies in our church is not a sign of superstition. It’s not a guarantee that they will grow up to be Christians: as parents we have a responsibility to bring them up in the ways of the Lord. But it is a sign that our growing children are included in the People of God, right from their birth onwards. Think about this: if the blessings of the New Covenant are greater than those of the Old Covenant, and they are, wouldn’t it be very odd if children received the Old covenant sign of circumcision, but that children didn’t receive the New covenant sign of Baptism?
Perhaps not everyone here today will agree, and it’s not a condition of membership in the Free Church. But if you’ve not really thought about it before, I hope you will see that it is something that the Bible teaches. This thing pleases God. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off. Scotland is far off from Jerusalem. But now the Gospel is here. Maybe you too were once far off from God, as we all were but now you’re not. I hope we all are now near.