For many Peter is only remembered for his impetuous personality, his stark denial of Christ, and his ostentatious remarks. His negative attributes often overshadow his homiletical skills.
Following the ascension of Jesus, however, Peter was first and foremost a preacher. Jesus had commissioned Peter to be a “fisher of men.” That he was. The most effective means of accomplishing this mandate, according to the early chapters of Acts, was through reporting the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Acts of the Apostles contain twenty-four speeches — an extensive element and striking feature of the book. The speeches and sermons commonly attributed to Peter comprise one-third of that material.
His sermon on the day of Pentecost was the first, full Christian sermon. Edgar Blake maintained, “Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, measured by its results, immediate and remote, is undoubtedly the most effective Christian discourse ever delivered by a messenger of the cross.”1 Students of Peter’s preaching have at their disposal the most powerful and most effective reporting of the gospel message in history.
In our advanced age, why should one undertake the study of the sermons of antiquity? Peter’s sermons may have been among the first Christian sermons, but do they merit twentieth-century scholarship? Do they have anything to teach us today? I think they do.
The Principle of Departure
The early chapters of Acts presented Peter as a man with a message — a message so compelling that he seized every opportunity to proclaim it.
Peter was not slow to make what was of immediate interest to his audience the starting point of his sermons. The sermons at Pentecost and at Solomon’s porch began with a reference to some remarkable event which the onlookers had not grasped. The explanation of the true meaning of the event became the beginning of the discourse. Each sermon revealed a unique ability to tailor the message to the audience.
This ability offers help to the modern preacher. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famed pulpiteer at Riverside Church in New York City, may have been history’s best-known “life-situation” preacher, but Peter was among the first. Peter knew that in order to win people to Christ, a preacher must not only interpret the biblical text, but must explain contemporary life and experience as well. Effective biblical exegesis requires such an explanation to show its relevance.
Clyde Fant said, “Our sermons cannot reflect profound knowledge of the first century and abysmal ignorance of the twentieth century.”2 Peter Marshall said we preachers often answer questions that no one is asking. Preaching, therefore, must commit itself to both a listening to the text and the congregation, “realizing that when the living Word touches the living situation, the preaching event occurs.”3
When this happens a bridge is built between the text and the situation. It is imperative that the preacher know as much about both poles as possible. We need to know our society, our culture, our world. The newspaper and the Bible do go hand in hand.
Peter was effective because he bridged the gap between the scripture and the people. He knew scripture and he knew the people he addressed. Preachers of today can learn from this simple and direct style of interpretation.
Principle of Simplicity
Profound messages don’t have to be confusing. Peter’s sermons were easily understood. In each speech Peter followed a set kerygma. Even though there was variation in content and structure, a deliberate outline was visible as he presented the facts of Jesus. There was variety yet unity.
Adolf Harnack emphasized, “On the one hand, it was so simple that it could be summed up in a few brief sentences and understood in a single crisis of the inner life; on the other hand, it was so versatile and rich that it vivified all thought and stimulated evey emotion.”4
Also, he saw and interpreted scripture as it pointed to and focused on the person of Christ. Peter’s hermeneutic was distinctly Christocentric. His interpretation revealed a deep awareness of the various means of interpretation employed by the first-century Jewish community. Evidence is found for several types of interpretation — literal, midrashic, and pesher.
Whatever exegetical practice he employed, his message always pointed to Christ. He expounded from the scriptures the way in which Christ had fulfilled its prophecies and had established a new way of life. In proving the resurrection, he appealed not to the empty tomb, which undoubtedly he could have done, but, instead, to the scriptures. The scriptures provided for him both an offensive and defensive weapon in his message.
Peter’s message was more than mere words; it was the proclamation of an event and a person. Peter was transformed by the person of Christ and it was evidenced by his message. He was a changed man with a transforming message.
Principle of Purpose
Preaching in the Jewish tradition was for the instruction of the people and not missionary activity. Yet Peter and the early apostles saw the value of utilizing the homily for proselytizing and evangelistic purposes. The three major sermons of Peter (Acts 2:14-40; 3:12-26; 10:26-43) had the same ultimate purpose — evangelism. Harnack considered preaching as what determined the universal spread of Christianity in the early period of church history.5
The preaching of Peter could best be described as responsive. It was delivered as a response to a situation and it demanded a response from the audience. The message was such that it could not be ignored. The matter was never left in the air.
The sermons penetrated the heart. Luke described audience response as “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). The verb, katanusso, was a strong term that meant “to prick, to smite, or to sting.” The preaching was straight forward, clear, explicit, and penetrating. There was always a response.
The preaching of today must penetrate the heart. A response that evokes words and actions from the listeners is essential. In order to achieve this purpose our sermons must have direction. The wise homiletical traveler determines the destination before embarking on the journey.
A sermon is more than elucidating on a subject; it is achieving an objective. A sermon has the explicit purpose of eliciting change in an individual — change in direction, change in faith, change in emotions, and change in behavior. The modern homiletician would do well to learn from Peter’s sermons.
Principle of Empowerment
The power of the sermons was found in the gift of the Spirit. This once timid and denying disciple was now an effective communicator of the gospel. Peter was not merely given the words to speak but the ability to speak them with converting power. This power engulfed Peter, baptizing him in a new-found courage. With utter fearlessness Peter addressed the crowds and boldly proclaimed the message of the gospel.
All preaching needs the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Every textbook on preaching states or implies that preaching without the Holy Spirit is dead. William Barclay agrees, “The preacher may be a scholar, a pastor, an administrator, an ecclesiastical statesman, a scintillating orator, a social reformer. He is nothing unless he is a man of the Spirit.”6
The Spirit is the “light” and “fire” of preaching. The Spirit illuminates scripture — gives “light.” The Spirit provides the insight that leads preachers into the truth of the Scripture.
The Spirit gives preaching its intensity; such “fire” was manifested on the day of Pentecost. This power must be transmitted into our preaching today. The fire of the Spirit is a must. May our preaching be set on fire.
The Peter Principle of Preaching can be summarized as follows: addressing people where they are in the power of the Holy Spirit as we report the claims of Christ to persuade men and women to enter into a relationship with the risen Christ.
Peter’s principles offer interpretive and communicative skills that are the fountainhead of all Christian preaching. For the first time a preacher took the resources available and produced a distinctive Christian medium.
Obviously, we cannot imitate the preaching of Peter or any other apostle verbatim. Twenty centuries have changed lives, society, and communication, but the lessons Peter’s sermons offer are immutable. The principles employed by Peter need to be manifested today.
1. Edgar Blake, “Effective Preaching,” Contemporary Preaching, ed. G. Bromley Oxnam (New York: Abingdon Press, 1931), p. 218.
2. Clyde E. Fant, Preaching Today (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 105.
3. Ibid., p. 107.
4. Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 1, trans. and ed. James Moffatt (London: Williams and Norgate, 1980), p. 84.
5. Ibid., p. 24.
6. William Barclay, The Promise of the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 55.

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