This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
The record of the first sermon in Acts (see Acts 2:22–41) is an example of how to preach Christ and how to receive the preaching of Christ.
Not every sermon should sound just like this one. All sermons have a context. Here, an apostle preached to a crowd of Jews and those who had converted to Judaism about recent, local events. They had literally pressured their leaders into crucifying Jesus. The sermons we hear have their own contexts. And if we truly preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) every sermon will be different. But they will all have at least three things in common with this one.
1. Preaching Is Drawn from Scripture
Peter didn’t preach his own message. The power in preaching doesn’t come from the minister’s skill, wit, or creativity but from the living and active word (Heb. 4:12). True preaching makes plain the point that the Spirit has embedded in his word. Peter didn’t preach only one text. He recites Joel 2:28–32, Psalm 16:8–11, and Psalm 110:1. He alludes to Psalm 68:18 (Acts 2:34), Psalm 132:11 (Acts 2:30), and passages from Isaiah. Faithful preaching exposits Scripture either narrowly—using a particular text, or broadly—using all of Scripture as the text.
But Peter didn’t simply preach the Bible; he preached the gospel. He declared the death and resurrection of Jesus as the basis for repentance and faith. Peter learned from Jesus to preach Christ from any part of Scripture (Luke 24:27, cf. Mark 12:36). Here’s the message: Though Jesus did works only God could do, according to God’s plan, he was crucified by sinners. But as Scripture promised, he didn’t stay dead. He returned to his heavenly Father to subdue all his enemies.
This message is only good news to sinners. So, Peter also preached about sin. “You crucified and killed” Christ “by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23), so repent and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38). His audience was cut to the heart by their guilt and needed divine healing. Sin creates a crisis that only the gospel can resolve.
2. Preaching Depends on the Spirit
Why did 3,000 people get saved by this sermon? It wasn’t merely because Peter preached with courage, skill, and conviction. Every effective sermon has two ministers. The human minister must rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) as a faithful witness to God’s will. But only the Holy Spirit can make his words fruitful in the hearts of the listeners.
This is good news; God can speak even through the weaknesses of human preachers! Critics claimed that Paul was a better writer than orator. “His speech is of no account,” they said (2 Cor. 10:10). That’s probably an exaggeration, but despite Paul’s “weak” bodily presence, people got saved through his preaching. Paul knew of other preachers even less competent than him (Phil. 1:15–17). But whenever “Christ is proclaimed” in truth (Acts 2:18) and the Spirit is pleased to move, people will get saved. Joel had promised that the Spirit would help ordinary people witness (Acts 2:17–18). Peter must have needed that, wondering, How can I who have denied Christ preach Christ? But Peter knew that he was speaking through the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33). By his new-found boldness, Peter confirmed Christ’s promise that the Spirit would help disciples preach in the face of great opposition (Mark 13:11).
God still uses his Spirit to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). We should pray for the Spirit’s help in preaching and in receiving the preached word.
3. Preaching Demands a Response
Peter wasn’t just feeding people information. He both explained and applied biblical truth. He doesn’t say, “Here are three points of application.” but he preached in such a way that his hearers knew they had to respond. They literally asked what they should do. What if we all asked that question as we listened to sermons? It’s a good question because objective, unchanging truth hits us all as unique individuals. One hearer’s response of repentance and faith will differ in specifics from that of another person.
Knowing what we must do in response to biblical preaching requires holistic listener engagement. Peter’s preaching made contact with his audience through their minds. The audience “heard” (Acts 2:37) logical, biblical argumentation. They couldn’t have applied truth without faithfully hearing it. But the truth went beyond the mind. The hearers “were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). The Holy Spirit pierced their consciences, allowing what the people heard to live and breathe in their souls. With God’s help, they felt Peter’s message. Finally, Peter’s preaching found expression in action: “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Sometimes the sermon explicitly answers the question. Sometimes we will have to draw personal conclusions from what we have heard. But inaction is no option.
On that special day, 3,000 people responded by personally and publicly committing to die to sin and live to God. And while every sermon will be different, that should be our basic response every time God speaks. My sin has crucified Jesus. I need to repent and be baptized or repent and live out the meaning of my baptism. As we respond in this way, we trust that God has made the crucified and resurrected Jesus “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). As Lord, he will subdue every enemy. As Christ, he will rescue every believer.