Christ’s Gospel revealed the moral rottenness of the times and laid bare the powerlessness of the pagan religions and philosophies

Whenever Christians have sought to return to the first century, they have hoped to search out once again the source of Christianity, its purity of doctrine and simplicity of practice. Here they have hoped to discover the secret that enabled the early Christians, in less than a hundred years, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world powers of that age—the Roman Empire with its materialistic paganism, illustrious Greece with its philosophy, and Jerusalem with its religion.

Bursting upon every situation like an avalanche that carries everything before it, that new and simple message revealed the moral rottenness of the times. It also laid bare the powerlessness of inconsistent religions and philosophies to apply ethical principles to daily life.

Into a corrupt and decadent society overrun with religious and philosophical doctrines based on pompous language, ancient moral codes, human traditions, and gross practices and superstitions, came the gospel message. It arrived at a point in history when humanity was completely impotent. Only a few choice souls, sickened by the corruption around them and disquieted by a spiritual hunger for the truth, gathered together, often secretly to protect their families and preserve their homes and customs. Others looked to religion and philosophy for comfort, light, and guidance. The great multitude, however, insensitive to spiritual problems, drifted along, indulging in vices and pleasures. Only a few, having a premonition of great things to come, devoted themselves to meditation, all the while alert to signs that pointed to some providential person, significant event, or transcendental solution.

The gospel message contained all three of these elements: (1) the doctrine of a Person, the Son of God, manifest in the flesh, who should come into the world to seek lost man in order to save, dignify, and transform him; (2) the unprecedented event of his death on a Roman cross between two malefactors at the end of a sinless life of incomparable ministry in word and deed; and (3) the effective, immediate solution wrought by the power of the crucified and risen Lord. Christ’s Gospel was the divine dynamite that destroyed the power of sin and brought abundant spiritual life and a glorious and radiant hope. This is the secret of early Christianity. Its purity and authentic glory can inspire us in this day when social, moral and spiritual conditions are so like that of the first century. Actually, with the passing of time, evils have increased, the night has become darker, resources are more limited, and the end is nearer.

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Let us return, then, to the beginnings of Christianity, to the day of Pentecost. On that day the Apostle Peter preached Christ. Because Christ was a contemporary of those who were listening, the events were current and the conclusions logical: prophecy and history met and coincided perfectly at the foot of the cross. This, in my opinion, is the relevance of the Gospel we preach after so many centuries—we “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

The Person of Jesus Christ does not belong to a remote past, is not a product of traditions or carefully preserved legends, is not something surrounded by a halo of mysticism. Christ the Son of God is as much a contemporary of today’s men and women as he was of those on the first Day of Pentecost. His life, his teachings, his death on the cross, his shed blood, are now as then the only basis of redemption, the unshakable rock on which the soul rests for salvation.

God’s message has not changed. His method of salvation has not varied. He has not altered the way of access for the repentant sinner to God and the Saviour. The Lord is as contemporary as the solution he presents to mankind. Only Christ has the answer to man’s tremendous problems. Today, as then, he is the only hope, the true light, the way, the truth, the life. No one—whatever his religious or irreligious state, whatever his academic prowess, his economic or social status—can find God apart from Jesus Christ. It was this Gospel, preached by men, some of whom were considered ignorant, that produced one of the greatest commotions in history. In fact, it made Greek mythology look ridiculous, reduced to impotence the ancestral Hebrew religion, and gave a death blow to the paganism whose center was Rome.

A verse in First Peter (1:12) speaks of “them that have preached unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.” The question arises immediately: What kind of Gospel was this? What is the content of the message? What power attends it? How could the glorious Spirit of God, an invisible Person, be the preacher of the Gospel?

To answer these questions we have only to turn to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and analyze the apostles’ sermons. There is something distinctive about them—the apostles preached Christ. Christ in his Person and in his work was pre-eminent, central in all respects. The apostles did not waste time on human reasoning nor lower the high level of their preaching to dialectics. They knew that their audience represented the three great cultures of that age, Roman, Greek, and Hebrew; yet evident behind the outline of their message was the perfect harmony between history and prophecy. History was so recent that many had known Jesus personally. Prophecy was centuries old and therefore when quoted was given special emphasis.

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If we take as an example Peter’s sermon at Pentecost recorded in the second chapter of Acts, we see that of twenty-two verses, twelve refer exclusively to the Old Testament. Other verses refer to the application of these prophecies. The remainder of the great Pentecost message is but two verses: one of these is a quotation from the Old Testament and the other is an exhortation. That is to say, this great sermon, the first apostolic sermon recorded in the New Testament and the first great spiritual “fishing” in the dawn of the Church, is 50 per cent Bible quotations and 50 per cent personal exhortation.

Peter was speaking of the saddest day in human history, of a juridical error and an injustice without parallel, of a most ignominious death, of what from the human point of view was defeat, tragedy, the end. Nevertheless, his sermon could aptly be called a sermon of victory. There are several reasons why this is so.

First, Peter presents Christ’s victory in life (v. 22). From the humble manger of Bethlehem to Calvary, Christ’s life was transparent to both friend and foe. He spent his first thirty years in a village where he became known as “the carpenter’s son.” From Nazareth, where he spent those years after his baptism by John the Baptist and the temptation in the wilderness, he started a public ministry that revealed divine approval and attracted great multitudes. His wonders, miracles, and signs brought him popularity and an audience but also aroused the worst sentiments of jealousy and hate among the religious classes.

He lived a natural life—so human, so simple, so humble, yet so victorious. His triumph was more than a mere victory of truth over error, of God over the works of Satan, of health over disease. It was a triumph over temptation, over sin and its chains, over false prejudices, over inconsistent human traditions, over a tacit admission of sin, corruption, bribery, vested interests, injustice, outrage, hypocrisy, avarice. This triumph of Christ established a pattern for presenting a clear interpretation of the law, bringing heaven closer to the sinner, revealing God the Father in his infinite heavenly love in order to show the way of salvation, the opportunity of regeneration, and the reality of individual transformation through the power of the Gospel.

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Moreover, Christ lived what he preached, and preached what he lived. Nobody could point a finger of accusation against him; even his worst enemies recognized that “never man spake like this man” and that his works were unequalled. Most important of all, Christ’s victory in life was shown by the victory of holiness, purity and truth, compassion, grace, love, tolerance, kindness, understanding, faith, meekness.

The apostle refers secondly to Christ’s victory in death (v. 23). Once again, from the human perspective, the cross does not appear to be a symbol of victory. The multitudes who followed our Lord abandoned him and returned to their towns and villages. The crowd that on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem sang hosannas and fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah now on the day of his crucifixion joined his enemies in demanding his death. Not even the sight of “the Man of Sorrows, despised and rejected of men,” crowned with thorns, dressed in a scarlet robe with his hands tied, showing his wounds and shedding his blood in silence like a meek lamb, excited sympathy. In payment for his love he received the worst of all tortures; in exchange for the riches and glory he left behind, he accepted the opprobrious poverty of Calvary; insults and taunts were the only echo of his wonderful teaching.

Finally, nailed to the cross, he is denied water for his thirst, and comfort for his affliction. At the cross, all man’s hate and all God’s wrath seemed to converge. Only a few followers at the foot of the cross stood out against that overwhelming rejection and despisal. Christ was heard to cry, “It is finished.” Did he mean merely that he had finished his teaching, his miracles, his works of love, and was now leaving the earth as he found it—plunged in darkness and in the power of the Evil One? Had he failed in the work his Father entrusted to him? Had the glory of the night of Bethlehem ended in another night of misery and pain? Had he who walked on the sea and with his voice calmed the wind and the waves now himself plunged into the cold waters of death? Was he who freed the captives from the power of Satan, from the pain of their wounds and the inertia of paralysis, now to die, now to bleed from his own wounds, now to be powerless to descend from the cross and to save himself? Was he who could have worn a king’s crown and crushed the power of human empires to wear a crown of thorns and die without honor?

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Christ’s victory on the cross is the victory over death, sin, and hell. In dying, he gave life. In shedding his blood, He opened a way for the sinner to be reconciled to God. The sinner, disinherited by sin and weakened by his experience, can now call himself a son of God, an heir of God and joint heir with Christ. In the cross, the eye of faith perceives a death so necessary that if it had not occurred, man would never have found the road to God, reconciliation with the Father, forgiveness of sins and peace of soul.

In the third place, Peter’s sermon is a sermon of victory because its climax is the victory of Christ in his resurrection and ascension (v. 24). He who lived a victorious life ended his earthly ministry by a victorious death. Risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, he is exalted and seated at the right hand of God. He has poured out upon men and women the gifts of his spirit, thereby sharing the trophies of his victory and the power that he himself possessed.

Christ’s ascension into heaven not only confirmed the supernatural event of his resurrection from the dead, destroyed the power of the tomb forever, removed the fear of death; it also demonstrated that when the Son rose from the dead. God the Father accepted his sacrifice for sin. Christ’s offering for our sins, his payment of our debt, his perfect righteousness, his infinite merit, are sufficient to atone for our iniquity. We are reconciled by his death and saved through his life. He who died to save us now lives to keep us, makes intercession always for us, and occupies the undisputed place of High Priest of his people. He who “was tempted in all points” now succors those who are tempted. His throne is a throne of grace to which we can draw near in every circumstance of life to obtain mercy and find “grace to help in time of need.”

Finally, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is a sermon of victory because Christ’s victory was a complete one with eternal consequences. Although not all people on this planet of his vast universe have experienced Christ’s victory, yet God has “made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself … whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20).

One of the Gospel’s main characteristics is its personal nature. “What shall we do?” ask the multitudes. The apostle’s answer is likewise personal: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).

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“Every one of you,” says the text. As we analyze the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, we discover the emphasis is on man’s lost condition. This is shown in Jesus’ teachings about the man who fell among robbers on the road to Jericho; the woman who was a sinner in the house of Simon; Zacchaeus, who climbed into the sycamore tree. It is seen in the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son; in that of the publican in the temple, the man with the withered hand in the synagogue, the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, the blind man by the wayside, the dead man whose soul has crossed the boundaries of life, the thief who dies on a cross. Each case reveals man’s lost condition, his spiritual ruin, and his separation from God. Jesus the Christ, this greatest Preacher, not only spoke as no man had ever spoken but did so with such power and so winningly that multitudes followed him for days, forgetting even to eat.

After pointing out man’s ruined state, the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven indicates that God’s day of judgment will come, and the Supreme Judge and inflexible arbiter will be none other than he who was once judged unjustly, betrayed, slandered by false witnesses, beaten without compassion. He who appeared before the mob and was condemned to die on a cross will be Judge. At the Great White Throne he will judge the dead for their words, their deeds, their failure to use their privileges and opportunities. Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life, says God’s Word, will be cast into the lake of fire; this is the second death.

Moreover, the Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven looks to Christ as Saviour. This message is complete. Not only does it contain the solution for all present ills and sins through God’s gracious salvation bestowed by faith to everyone who believes, but it also looks to the future. This same Jesus who died to save us, who lives to keep us and is interested in every one of his own, is coming again. He will not come to Bethlehem in poverty, nor return to be scorned, wounded, and crucified by the world. His second and glorious coming will be in the clouds to take his Church from this world to the Father’s House, where he is now preparing a place for each of those who believe on Him. The Gospel preached by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven looks toward a future day when all human problems will be forever ended, sin will have been removed from the earth, and death will be no more.

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The Gospel, in other words, announces the definite triumph of good over evil. Heaven and earth as they now exist will give place to God’s world of tomorrow. In the new heaven and the new earth, righteousness will reign. This glorious order of things, this sublime ending to the story of man’s miserable and sad history, will not come through the efforts of men or nations. It will come by the will of God, who said concerning that day, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Let me emphasize that when the Gospel is preached, however eloquent and complete its presentation may be by doctrinal standards, and however simple its appeal, it will not accomplish the desired effect unless it is accompanied by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

The Apostle Peter speaks of “the Gospel preached … with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.” This he said toward the end of his fruitful ministry, and his words are illustrated by what happened on the Day of Pentecost. God’s seal to Peter’s preaching was the Holy Spirit, which came down from heaven and fell on all those who were listening to his sermon. This was not intended to create a psychological or emotional state; the power of the Holy Spirit was first displayed in deep conviction of sin by repentant hearts that suddenly, in the divine light of the Gospel, saw the magnitude of their errors, the wickedness of their conduct toward Jesus, the seriousness of their sins, and the punishment they deserved. This same power of the Holy Spirit created the faith that when placed in Jesus for salvation brought pardon and peace as fruits of Calvary. Thus empty and sad hearts were filled with joy. Baptism followed as a sign of obedience to and identification with him who died, was buried, and rose from the dead.

Once the new Christians became part of the new Church they were not satisfied with merely being members and participating in all the activities and privileges of their new spiritual state. Faith had to manifest itself in a changed life full of good works, the fruits of righteousness. The eyes of the world that for thirty-three years had observed the most admirable and perfect life, that of the Lord Jesus, were now fixed on them. They had to live Christ; or rather, Christ lived in them and made himself manifest to the world through them.

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Among the many dangers that now threaten the Christian pulpit, two are particularly common. One danger is that of presenting a Gospel without a biblical basis, without the cross of Christ. Such a message pretends to be modern by adapting itself to the spirit of the times, to a mentality that has departed from the divine purpose both in language and in spirit. Although it pretends to fill a present need, this message has lost authority and spiritual power, influence on lives and hearts. It is empty and hollow, the product of a sophisticated age. Though it professes to be relevant, it cannot be, because the desperate spiritual state of humanity cries out for the true Word of the Gospel.

Another serious danger today is a Gospel that, though rich in Bible quotations, presents the way of salvation as something very easy and asks that one only believe. It is true, of course, that the Scriptures say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” “Only believe” is not merely a slogan but a blessed reality. The grace of God has made it possible for a sinner to receive eternal life, the gift of God, through personal faith. But we must not forget that the same Scriptures underline the fact—so often illustrated in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles—that genuine faith is followed by a life of works, by an undeniable transformation. The sinner becomes a saint, the miser a generous man; the cruel becomes gentle, the proud humble. This is what happened to those who heard and heeded the first Pentecost sermon. They believed in Jesus Christ.

The closing part of Acts 2 tells of those blessed days of heaven on earth. While divine power accompanied the apostles, those who believed had something more than a creed. They had brotherly love. They showed a spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity. Their hearts abounded with works of mercy, faithfulness to doctrine, perseverance in worship, fullness of joy. They were simple and sincere. Their lives were lives of continuous praise to the God they called their Heavenly Father. They were very well thought of by the public. And God gave an astounding but normal growth to the mystical body of Christ, his Church.

While this pattern is many centuries old, it is not an impossible utopian scheme. What God did then he can do now. God has not changed. His Gospel has not lost its power. The Holy Spirit of God is still in the world, convicting men of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Human need has grown immensely. There have never been so many destroyed homes, so many broken hearts, so many young people drifting as slaves to vice and sin, so much crime and hate, so much international unrest, so many social problems. There is no peace and even less hope. Only the Gospel has the solution for so much evil, the answer to so many questions, for only the Lord Jesus Christ, the Desire of all nations, can put an end to this tragic state of affairs.

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Let us preach the Gospel and nothing else; and may our lives, totally surrendered to the Holy Spirit, demonstrate what we preach. Then the Spirit will accompany the Word of God with his power. And only then will the world hear what it needs: “The voice of God and not of man.”

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