Acts 2 – The Art of Preaching to the Choir

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Today’s PassageActs 2

Acts 2 is the chapter where the early church blows up. Boatloads of Jews from all over  have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, known in Greek as Pentecost. The Holy Spirit miraculously grants the disciples the ability to speak and comprehend various languages, in a kind of reverse Babel, and Peter preaches a gospel message to the crowds that results in thousands repenting and getting baptized. In the previous chapter, the disciples had been biding their time, waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them. But here God starts making waves, and he won’t let up until it gets the disciples kicked out of Jerusalem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I read Peter’s message, I’m struck by how extensively he quotes from the Psalms and the prophets. Of the twenty-three verses that comprise his speech, thirteen consist of Old-Testament quotations. That’s over half! Look at the physical pages, and you can see the big blocks of text in small caps where he’s quoting from the Hebrew scriptures. Just as the Great Wall of China is visible from space, Peter’s ancient reblogs shape the geography of the page.

Peter knew his Old Testament, and somewhere along the line he finally got what Jesus had been saying about his own centrality to the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Luke 24:27). I was going to take a moment to soapbox here about how modern Christians don’t know and don’t read their Old Testament, sometimes even willfully and proudly. We do need to read the whole Bible, not just John 3:16 and Romans 6:23, and I’ll stand by that, but I think there’s a bigger point to note here.

Peter didn’t just know his Old Testament. He knew his audience. They may have come from all over the inhabited world, but they had one thing in common: their religion. They describe themselves as “both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10), i.e. some Jews by birth and other Jews by conversion. The texts Peter spoke from, the concepts he was addressing, the way of God working in the world that he described and elucidated: his audience was steeped in these things. In more than one sense he was speaking their language.

Know your Bible, but don’t just know your Bible. Know who you’re talking with, and talk in such a way that they’ll actually get what you’re saying. When he speaks to a Greek audience, Paul quotes from an entirely different corpus–but again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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