The living and abiding word of God that I would consider with you today is found in Acts 2:37: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
What a powerful and amazing change took place. They were pricked in their heart.
Peter had been preaching to men and women, boys and girls, who had the hardest of hearts, those who had been so hard as to take God’s Son and, with wicked hands, crucify Him. Peter’s audience is described in verse 14 of Acts 2 where Peter says, “Ye men of Judea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem.” His audience had been brought up in the religion of self-righteousness. Inbred in them was the notion of their own sufficiency to save themselves. These were the men and women who had passed by the cross of Christ and had reviled Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.” These were the ones who had called Christ a deceiver, who had called for His death, who said, “He hath a devil, why hear ye Him?”
And Peter has just finished by saying to them: “Know assuredly, that God hath made this same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” He has just told them that they were the ones who had crucified God’s Son in human flesh. Instead of stopping their ears and in exasperation and hatred crying out for Peter to shut his mouth, we read, “When they heard this, they were pricked in their heart.”
What accounts for this, this change from stone to sponge, this change from rock to softness? The answer: the Word of God preached as applied by the Holy Spirit. That produced the change. God’s grace, worked through the gospel preached, and pressed to the heart by the Holy Spirit. Jeremiah 23:29: “Is not my word like … a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” The change was not produced by a clever, psychological ploy; not by persuasive appeal; not by skillful crowd manipulation; but by the Word of God preached from faithful lips and brought by irresistible grace through the Holy Spirit. Is this the effect of God’s Word preached upon you? Not indifference, not polite neutrality, not complacency. But pricked in the heart?
The Word of God never leaves us the same. That is impossible. Isaiah 55:11, “It shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it,” says God.
Today, many want to approach the gospel of Christ to look it over. Much of the church, aware of this, engages in marketing, in image, because it wants to make the gospel appealing to men. So the gospel is put on trial. What will it do for me? Why should I buy into it? What does it have to offer? I will inspect it; I will pass judgment as to whether or not it should have a place in my life.
No! Never does the gospel submit itself to that type of inspection. It is not man who takes up the gospel in his hand to look it over. It is the gospel that takes you up into its hands and searches you clean through, because it is God’s Word that confronts you.
Today there are many who ask for miracles. Show us some mighty proof of God’s power, the God you talk so much about. Give us a dramatic evidence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps a miracle, some healing, some holy twitching, or some holy laughter – something that 20-20 would want to do a feature on. What about it? Let’s see something from you Christians.
No! Never! The greatest miracle is the work of God accomplished through the preaching of the Word as applied by the Holy Spirit. The greatest power of God is not a room trembling. The greatest power of God is not even the removal of a mountain. The greatest power of God is in the pricking of a heart. There is more power of God in His pricking of the heart than in His holding of the world in its place. This is the miracle of grace. Is it true for you?
We read, “They were pricked in the heart.” What is the heart? What does that mean? Is that the same as saying, “It broke my heart; it touched me; it moved me emotionally”? Maybe you say, “Everyone knows what the heart means. Why spend time on it. It is so obvious.” That is exactly the problem. Many think they understand the term “heart,” but few do.
What does the term “heart” mean in Scripture? Can you give a precise definition? Can you explain from experience and from the Word of God the difference between a heart-touching story and this work of God when He pricks the heart?
Let me put a test to your knowledge. What do you think of the often-quoted saying, “What we need is more heart knowledge, not head knowledge”? Does that express the truth of Scripture concerning the heart? That saying means this: It is not enough merely to know truth. That truth must grip you, it has to affect your emotions as well.
The fact is, that saying that we need more heart knowledge and less head knowledge expresses an unbiblical idea of the heart. If by heart we mean simply feelings or emotions as over against intellect and mind, then that definition of the heart is not in harmony with Scripture. Never in the Bible is the heart set over against the head or the intellect or the understanding. That is not the idea that we draw from the Bible. That is a human idea. That is the idea of Valentines Day, of the cupid shooting arrows through a little red or pink heart so that we are smitten and we are heart-sick. That identifies the heart simply with emotional feelings. The Scriptures do not contrast the intellect and the emotions, the mind and the heart. Scripture contrasts the heart and the mere outward life. The heart is the inward, spiritual life of man. It is that which is within him. But it certainly is not the opposite of the thought and of the understanding.
We read in Proverbs 4:23, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” The heart, then, is the center of my spiritual life. It is my life as I live it knowingly before God, as I stand before God and as I consider myself and others. It is the source of my whole life. It is the fountain out of which life flows. Jesus said in Matthew 15, Out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts – murders, thefts, adulteries, fornication, false witness, and blasphemies. You see, the heart is not simply feelings. It is the center, it is the source of what I think, the attitude I assume, the determination of my will. That is the heart. And that heart by nature, fallen in Adam, is hard. Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” It takes up a stance over against God, a stance of rebellion. Who is the Lord that I should obey Him? That is the murmur of the natural heart.
These people who, of themselves, were hard of heart were pricked, pierced through as with a spear, struck to the very core of their being. Their consciences were smitten. They were crushed. Unbelief has been exposed to them and all of their sin. Their eyes have been opened to their wickedness toward Christ. They were pricked in the heart.
That means more than just a response of the heart. The Word of God will always produce a response from a man’s heart. In Acts 7:54 we read, “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.” That is a reference to Stephen who had been preaching before the Jews basically the same message that Peter preached. He had exposed the Jews’ hardness of heart. They were a stiffnecked people. The Word preached had been laid before them, pressed to their heart. They understood what Stephen was saying. But they stopped their ears, we read. And they ran upon him. The Word got to them and elicited a response of hatred.
Are you that way? You tolerate the Word of God just so long as it does not dig too deep. Just so long as it does not tell you that all is not OK with you. That is a hard heart. And a hard heart reveals itself in gnashing teeth.
But a pricked heart is a heart made soft. A pricked heart is a heart to which the Holy Spirit has brought the Word of God. It is a saving work of the Holy Spirit in the inmost being which begins in principle with a conviction of sin. All my good opinion of myself and confidence in myself fails me. Denial now of my sin is impossible. No possibility of continuing in self-denial. I admit my guilt before God. No word and no comfort will fend off the blow. No one will help me by simply saying, “You are being too morbid. You are all worked up. You have to rest your mind a bit.” No! A pricked heart is a heart that has been humbled to the dust before God in the knowledge that I have crucified the Son of God. My sin is that I have rejected the only good God. I am guilty before God. That is the broken and contrite heart that God will not despise (Ps. 51:17).
They were pricked in the heart. The grace of God had pierced through their hard hearts and brought the personal knowledge of guilt before God and the personal need of cleansing from sin.
How had that been done? The answer is, the Word of God which Peter preached. The Word is the sword of the Spirit.
Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost had been with boldness. The preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts was repeatedly, we read, with boldness. That means an unwillingness to compromise any of God’s truth. A boldness which came from the Lord. That boldness was not crudeness or rudeness. There was nothing crude or rude in Peter’s sermon. But it was straight forward. It was clear. It was explicit. It was hard hitting, faithful to God and His Word.
Most Christians today look aghast at such preaching, preaching with boldness. They say, “That preacher has a devil in him.” Peter was plain, frank, unencumbered with fear. He did not preach thinking, “What will they think of me if I say this?” But he preached this way: “What will God think of me if I don’t tell them and teach them His truth?” Peter once had been afraid of what a little damsel thought of him, who said to him, “You’re part of Christ’s flock, too, aren’t you?” Now he has no fear of men before him. For he is preaching in the Spirit. He is not rambling on. He is not simply trying to pull something out of his sleeve. But Peter has carefully studied the Word of God. And he is under conviction that it is God’s Word, the only truth, the only thing that must be said. And he is speaking that truth in boldness.
Three thousand, we read, were stung in their heart. Peter had preached. In his preaching, as you read it in Acts 2, he did not hesitate to contradict the expressed ideas of men. Some had said that the 120 disciples on the day of Pentecost were drunk. When Peter got up to preach, the first words out of his mouths were to contradict that foolishness. These men are not drunken, says Peter. Many experts would say to Peter, “Bad way to begin, Peter. Openly contradicting your audience. You should, perhaps, try a little humor at that point, or try to gain a little agreement, manipulate them. Let us teach you some selling techniques here, Peter.” Peter is not interested in that. And preaching is not interested in that. Peter is interested in the truth. He will speak the truth to his audience.
Secondly, Peter went on to tell them exactly what they had done. “Ye have taken by wicked hands and crucified the Lord of glory.” And he goes on to tell them what God had done, that God had pre-determined this, that God was the almighty and sovereign one, that God had given His Son to death, that God had raised this Christ from the dead and had exalted Him to all power in heaven and on earth. He ends by plainly telling them what they did, their sin, that they were exposed to the just wrath of the almighty God. He told them frankly and with conviction what God had done. By the preaching of that Word, the Holy Spirit pricked the hearts of His chosen. It was by one who knew that Word personally, who preached as one who had been molded by that Word, and who was faithful to that Word. By that preaching God still pricks the hearts of men and women today.
The apostle Peter had direct revelation from God. Today we have the Word of God written. That is the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God. Of that Word of God we read in Hebrews 4:12, “The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” The Word of God is the expression of God’s heart. Scripture tells all. Scripture lays bare the heart. Scripture reaches down into the soul. All that is necessary to be preached is to be found in the Word. The way to a person’s heart is not through psychology or whatever you may find in the world. The way to the heart is to preach the revealed Word of God.
How tragic that many men mount pulpits throughout the land and prattle about the ideas of men. They talk about the latest fads. They apply mass marketing techniques to the church. How sad, when food is provided by God in His Word, available, nourishing, life-giving. This is the calling of the church. This is your calling: to hear the Word of God preached to you in its truth. The organization of the worship services that you attend must not be according to the decisions of men. It must not be incidental, but it must be according to the Word of God. Central to worship that you must attend is the preaching of the Word of God – in its clarity, aimed at the heart.
The result: Those in whom God’s grace had worked by the preached Word wanted to know the way of peace and pardon. They said to Peter and to the rest of the disciples: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” They admit the charge. They do not argue against the charge that has been laid before them. They do not appeal to the Scribes and Pharisees saying, “Give us some ammunition to refute what Peter has said.” No, they go to the apostles and Peter, the very instruments who had wounded them so. They go to the apostle Peter to hear the Word of God from him. They look to that Word of God to tell them the way of pardon and peace. “What shall we do?” is their question.
Now they are not thinking of doing something themselves to remove their guilt. But they are saying, “We are at an utter loss as to what to do in this terrible situation.” Their question means, “We completely confess our guilt and our helplessness over against this guilt. We submit to the word that you have preached, the word that has produced the consciousness of our guilt. That Word we come to now, let that Word show us the way of deliverance from that guilt.” And that way was told them: “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” (v. 38). This is the way: faith and repentance! Also the work of the Holy Spirit. His irresistible work; His convicting work; His work of grace, bringing you to repentance and producing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and bringing the great benefit of the remission of sins.
What shall we do? The same instrument which pricked the hearts on that day is still among us. The Word preached from faithful lips. The church to which you belong must hold fast to this in a day when preaching is substituted for all other things, claiming to do the work of God.
You must be aware of this personally. You must go to church, to that church where the Word is proclaimed. You must allow nothing to get in your way from hearing that Word. There, under that Word preached, you are in God’s workshop. There you will be given to know your heart. It will be exposed to you. It will be painful. But there will be comfort, for where the wounds are inflicted, the balm of Jesus Christ is brought to bring healing and peace. Does the Word of God convict you? slay you? sting you? and comfort you? Does the gospel of Christ crucified pierce into your heart? Does it leave you with no place to turn, nothing will do except the cross of Christ? A change of heart, broken up in holy sorrow, brought to an amazing joy of Christ in the gospel. May that Word, spoken in boldness and truth, accomplish God’s purpose in you, prick your heart so that you may bleed in sorrow and be filled with Christ the Lord.
Let us pray.
Father, preserve Thy Word preached in truth. Amen.