by Samantha Shrauner
Looking at our streets and reading news from around the world, it can be tempting to think that there are some places and some people who are too far away to respond to the gospel. What do we do when it feels like our prayers for our city go unanswered? Where can we go when we have been faithful to share the gospel without any kind of response?
When the reality of mission feels like God is no longer at work, how can we recommit our trust that God is powerful and active?
Jesus has given the apostles the work of sharing the gospel to the ends of the earth, starting from Jerusalem. This is the city that only weeks before crucified Jesus. The same apostles who are meant to witness were locked in their houses for fear of the people they will now share with. The barriers they face are huge. In Acts 2, we see how God breaks down every barrier so that people can come to him in faith. Luke records how God overcomes ability, language, understanding, and hardness of heart to draw three thousand people to faith in Jesus. Through this passage, we can learn what it means to trust in a barrier-breaking God.
The Barrier of Ability
1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:1-4
God does not fulfil his promise in subtle fashion. When the Holy Spirit comes on the apostles, there is no question about what has taken place. Jesus had promised that the apostles would receive power in Acts 1:8, and that power has now come and will be put into immediate effect. The apostles are not sent to wield power over others but to witness about what they have seen. Paul Mumo Kisau says, “The purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming was to enable the twelve apostles… to become witnesses to Jesus both to Israel and to the world.” (1)
Because of the Holy Spirit, the apostles are able to do what they were previously unable to do.
In this account, God gives them the ability to speak in foreign languages so that they will be able to capture the attention of a diverse crowd in Jerusalem. As you read Acts 2:5-13, pay attention to the reason the crowd is amazed by what is happening.
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:5-13
Jewish people who have scattered across the world have returned to live in Jerusalem. Now they hear someone speak not in the common languages of Greek or Aramaic, but in “the languages spoken where they had been born and brought up.” (2) This feat is not being performed by world-travellers or high-ranking diplomats, but by humble Galileans. This discrepancy highlights the fact that God is at work rather than any natural explanation. It is clear that there is something awesome at work, and in verse 12 the amazed crowd asks one another, “What does this mean?” Their attention has been captured by something they do not understand and cannot explain.
In Acts 2:14-21, Peter stands up to address the crowd. He explains that God is at work just as promised in Joel 2. The crowd has witnessed God’s promise “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17b). In the verses that follow Peter highlights that God would use all kinds of people in his service: men and women, young and old, poor as well as wealthy.
God is not limited by the ability of the people that he calls into his service.
Darrell Bock explains that “the miracle underscores the divine initiative in making possible the mission that God has commissioned.” (3) Apart from God and his power, the apostles would not have been able to speak in the native languages of this crowd of diverse people. It is God’s ability, not the apostles’, that enables the work that God has called them to do. In the same way, every person who trusts in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins can complete the work that God has given to them through the strength and power that he provides. We must not avoid the work that God has set before the church because we perceive a lack of ability. When problems of ability seem insurmountable, trust that God is able work through the lowliest of means. This does not mean that we should avoid training and education expecting that God will always provide a miraculous solution. Develop the skills and talents that God has graciously given to you, and offer them with humility to God’s service. When it seems like your calling is greater than your ability, entrust your service to our barrier-breaking God.
Serve God, work hard, and trust that he will accomplish the work that he has set before you.
The Barrier of Understanding
22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. Acts 2:22-24
This crowd in Jerusalem knew Jesus. They saw him perform miracles. The purpose of these miracles was to prove that Jesus came from God the Father and that his testimony about himself was true. Jesus presented himself to the people, but they rejected him. The people in this crowd shouted that Jesus should be crucified. The Messiah came to them, and they did not understand.
God is not surprised or thwarted by a lack of understanding. Even Jesus’ death was part of the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Neither will God’s mission be hindered because people are not able to understand who Jesus is or what he has done. God is able to bring understanding where there was previously confusion or ignorance. We see God at work when Peter stand up to tell the people what God has done in Jesus and how Jesus fulfils the words of David in the Old Testament. Peter’s sermon ends with a declaration about Jesus in Acts 2:36— “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The response is immediate: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Previously the people did not understand, but now God has opened their eyes to who Jesus is and what he has done. Along with the Apostle John, they can say, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). These people, whose eyes we so blind that they had killed the man who came to save them, can now see that Jesus is the Messiah they have waited for. God used Peter’s preaching to bring the people from confusion to understanding.
There will be many times that we share the gospel with people who just do not understand. We speak with passion and urgency and the response is completely indifferent. We explain the need over and over again but there is no awareness of sin. We start to lose patience when a person raises the same question that indicates they have not understood a word we’ve said. How do we keep going when it feels like understanding will never come? We do not have the promise that God will give understanding in dramatic fashion every time we speak with someone. The apostles themselves are often rejected by those who do not understand throughout the book of Acts. But we can trust that God delights to give understanding, and that by the Holy Spirit he continues to open the eyes of the blind. We must not despair when we have been faithful to share the gospel and people still cannot recognise who Jesus is.
God is the one who brings understanding, and he who was at work on Pentecost is still at work today.
Turn to God in prayer and ask that he would give understanding to those who have rejected Jesus. When a lack of understanding seems like an insurmountable hurdle, entrust your service to our barrier-breaking God.
The Barrier of a Hard Heart
“36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:36-41
It seems unlikely that there would be any mission field more difficult than Jerusalem only weeks after Jesus was crucified. At the end of John’s gospel, the same apostles who are now triumphantly proclaiming the risen Jesus were cowering behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). At the beginning and the end of his sermon Peter identifies this crowd as the people who have crucified Jesus. We might expect that the crowd would be stirred to anger or even violence. But instead they are heartbroken about their sin and beg Peter to tell them what to do. Our God can humble the proud and draw the hardest hearts to repentance.
Kisau points out the remarkable nature of the crowd’s repentance and humility: “Peter instructs them to repent of their actions and to demonstrate their submission to the lordship of Jesus by being baptised in his name (2:38). What a humiliation for a crowd that less than two months earlier had cried out for Jesus’ crucifixion!” (4) They had called him a criminal worthy of death and now three thousand of them submit their lives to him as their Messiah.
I once had a teacher who remarked that one of God’s greatest miracles is to bring humility to the proud. It is a supremely difficult thing for a proud person to admit wrongdoing and submit to someone else. Daniel 4 in the Old Testament tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, a great and mighty king, submitting to God as the supreme ruler of heaven and earth. In Daniel 4:37 he says, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
For those whom God calls, not even pride and hardness of heart will get in the way.
In Christian ministry we will come across many people with rock-hard hearts, who refuse to acknowledge their need to be rescued from their sin. Take heart, God is able to soften the hardest of hearts. Pray with courage and perseverance that God would give them humility instead of pride. We cannot say or do anything to make dead hearts alive, but God is not thwarted by this barrier. When hearts are cold and your words of life fall on dead ears, entrust your service to our barrier-breaking God.
In Acts 2, God is at work to start his church with power despite seemingly insurmountable barriers. Through the Holy Spirit, inability becomes a magnificent display of God’s heart for people from “every nation under heaven.” A lack of understanding that led people to kill Jesus becomes an awareness of the Messiah who was proclaimed in the Old Testament and confirmed with signs and wonders in front of many. Proud and violent hearts are replaced with humble and repentant hearts who receive baptism in Jesus’ name. The story of Acts 2 demonstrates God’s mighty power and calls Christians to trust in the God who can overcome any obstacle. When ministry is difficult and it feels like our efforts to preach the gospel are in vain, let us once again entrust our service to our barrier-breaking God.
(1) Paul Mumo Kisau, “Acts” in Africa Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1328.
(2) Kisau, 1328
(3) Darrell Bock, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 98
(4) Kisau, 1329