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The King Was Dead; Long Live the King!

“St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost”
by Benjamin West

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

If you read the bulletin carefully, you may have noted the title of this sermon: The King Was Dead; Long Live the King! It is a slight variation on the traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch to the throne: “The king is dead; long live the king!” This seemingly contradictory phrase is used to simultaneously announce the death of the previous monarch and assure the public of continuity and governmental stability by saluting the new monarch who has immediately assumed the throne at the moment of the predecessor’s death.

In this case, I’m using the past tense on the first phrase to emphasize an important point that Peter makes in his Pentecost sermon: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23-24).

The King was dead. God raised Him up. Long live the risen King!

The sermon itself is both short and extraordinary. It proclaims Jesus Christ to people who do not know Him. Oh, they know about Him, but they don’t really know Him. They don’t know Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Peter, standing with the eleven, lifts up his voice and addresses the crowd: “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— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Peter reminds his fellow Jews of something they already know: God had acted through Jesus and His miraculous signs. Those works, says Peter, were God’s certification that Jesus came from God and did God’s work. Those works bore witness that Jesus’ message was God’s message. They attested to the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Israel’s hope, the King of the Jews.

“But you put Jesus to death,” Peter charges. “You handed Him over to the Romans to be crucified, a horrible, cursed death, reserved only for the worst of criminals.” Yet none of this could have happened if it had not been “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” The men who crucified Jesus were responsible for what they did. But their sinful actions served God’s purpose to offer His Son for the sins of the world, an essential part of His plan of salvation.

Peter’s words are a hard saying. God’s people had rejected and killed God’s Anointed One. But “God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for He is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; You will make me full of gladness with Your presence.’” Filled with joy and hope, David is confident that as one of God’s “holy ones,” the Lord will raise him up on the Last Day and he will enjoy eternal life with His Lord.

But this prophecy will not have its final fulfillment in David. “David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David” (1 Kings 2:10). If his tomb had been opened, it would have shown that his body had decayed. But before he died, God had promised David: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish His kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12–13). Every Jew knew that that “offspring” is the promised Messiah, and Peter invites them to conclude that the “Holy One” whose body would not see decay is also the Messiah.

To make sure they do not miss the point, Peter goes on more specifically: “[David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:31-32).

David had prophetic knowledge that His holy descendant would rise from death. Peter and his fellow apostles had firsthand knowledge, historical knowledge. They had seen the risen Christ, spoken with Him, eaten with Him. More than five hundred people had seen the resurrected Lord at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6). “God has raised this Jesus to life.” The King was dead; long live the King!

“God has raised this Jesus to life” was the heart of the message the apostles preached in all of the world and the one they recorded in the New Testament. It is the foundation of our faith. Jesus’ death was the sacrifice for our sins, and God raised Him to life to declare that the sacrifice was accepted. He died to destroy the devil, and God raised Him to life to declare that hell has been defeated.

The King was dead; long live the King!

Jesus’ ministry and reign continues and will go on forever. What the crowd is seeing at that moment is a manifestation of this. “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”

The people put Jesus to death, but God exalted Him to His right hand. That is, Christ exercises the power of God and enjoys the honor of God. What He had from eternity according to His divine nature He now has and uses according to His human nature as well. As such, Christ has the authority to send the Spirit to testify about Him and to equip His apostles to testify about Him (John 15:26-27), to guide them into all truth (John 16:13).

Notice that all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned here, separately and distinctly, a wonderful text for this Sunday of the Holy Trinity.    

Again Peter quotes David, this time from Psalm 110:1. “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’

David did not ascend to heaven, so his words must have their ultimate fulfillment in Him who did ascend. Just as Psalm 16:8-11 was a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection, so this verse is a prophecy of His exaltation. The Lord promises to give His Son victory over His enemies. That is the meaning of the picture of the footstool, for it was the custom of victorious kings to place their feet on the necks of those whom they conquered. God has given Jesus power and authority to subdue our greatest enemies—sin and death and Satan. The Son of God hid His power when He came as a servant. Now the work of redemption is completed and God has exalted him to His right hand.” The sending of the Spirit is a sign that this is so. The final manifestation of this victory will occur on the day of judgment.

Peter closes strong: “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 King was dead; long live the King!

The Holy Spirit does His work through Peter’s sermon. He brings the people to realize that they have earned God’s judgment. They don’t say, “We didn’t crucify Him.” They don’t say, “He is not the Christ.” They don’t not say again, “You have had too much wine.” They are cut to the heart and ask: “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Can you imagine what would happen if they asked if they asked that question of anybody else on earth? You could pick any time in history, any place on earth. What would people say if they were asked, “What shall we do?”

What if we asked that question of the great religions of the world? Those to the west of Jerusalem would mostly say one must live the most pure and devoted life possible, so in the final judgment the good deeds might outweigh the bad ones.

Those religions to the east of him might warn that the repercussions of their guilt would take many generations, many lives to purge. But little by little one can strive to redress the evil with acts of love or meditation or simple suffering, and finally there could be escape from it.

We could turn from religion to philosophy. Pose the question to the existentialists of the last century and perhaps they would tell you how killing the Christ is an inevitable part of the human condition, and finally nothing can be done, except in the choices one makes and the person one is becoming.

Ask, if you like, the man in the street, what can be done to compensate for our wrongdoing. Mostly you will hear how one should do one’s best, live the best one can, and try to get over the destructive sense of guilt.

Ask a Muslim and, of course, he’ll say Jesus was never actually crucified.

If the men of Jerusalem had asked their question of anyone else, the answers would all have this in common: they would tell you to look within yourself and to make your very best effort to be the best you can. They would probably never say, “You can do nothing, but something can be done to you.”

This is exactly what Peter says: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Confronted with the truth of God, already the hearers were cut to the heart. They did not reach the conclusion of themselves. The Law of God worked within them, accusing them and condemning them, and bringing them to repentance. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, to illuminate the Law in human hearts and minds and, “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

This, however, is no cure. To know the problem is not to solve it. So, Peter goes on, “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” This is where the answer Peter gives stands apart from what anyone else would be able to offer—the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter’s advice is not to go and do something, but that something must be done to us. Namely, to be baptized. The action here is entirely from the Triune God towards us, and this is what sets it apart from every religion and philosophy as Gospel, good news, as opposed to religious obligation.

St. Peter’s words also apply to us. Not, of course, that we have crucified Christ, save for our sin and our treasonous heart, for which He died. So, crucifying Christ is the crime of humanity, not just of history. I daresay most, if not all, of the people in attendance that Pentecost had no direct part in Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet Peter told them, “You did it.” They were spiritually implicated, and so are we.

But just as the condemnation embraces us even now, so too does the remedy and the promise. There are two aspects of the promise, in particular. The one is forgiveness of sins. The second aspect is tethered to it, as Martin Luther says: “Where there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation” (Luther’s Small Catechism). This is what Peter says: “Repent and be baptized 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.” So not only is sin removed, something is also given. In your Baptism you received the gift of the Holy Spirit, that is to say, the gift that is the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has made you His own and knows you by name. He will return in glory for judgment—to declare you righteous for His own sake and to deliver you to eternal life. In the meantime, by the work of the Holy Spirit, your King returns in His Word and Sacraments to forgive your sins and keep you His.

The King was dead; long live the King! Because of His cross, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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