For many professing Christians today, religion is just a few-hours-a-week thing. Many are passive, even apathetic. But the early Church was not so.
People-watching is a popular pastime. We humans are intrigued by the actions of other people. And sometimes our interest in and reflection upon the actions of others can lead us to some important observations.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ
What if we could people-watch during one of the most important events in history? Consider the variety of reactions by the principal characters involved in the crucifixion of Christ.
These stories, and the stories of those who witnessed what occurred in the following days, are recorded for us in the Bible.
Reactions of the Jewish leaders
First, there were the Jewish leaders who were pleased to see this man named Jesus, who was a threat to their power and prestige, put to death. Denying that Jesus was the prophesied Christ, the Son of God, and wanting to put an end to the growing respect and interest the common people had in His ministry, these religious leaders falsely accused Jesus. They used their influence to incite the people to demand His crucifixion (Luke 23:1-10).
In this incident, the Jewish religious leaders and those who assisted them could be called the unethically triumphant.
The actions of Pontius Pilate
Then there was Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. Appointed by the Roman Emperor Tiberius, Pilate had civil, military and criminal jurisdiction over the Judean province. While the Jews were allowed a degree of self-government, the official religious body of the Jews—the Sanhedrin—could not put anyone to death. If they desired to put someone to death, the procurator had to confirm the sentence.
What is intriguing to the story is that Pilate gave in to the demands of the religious leaders and the people. Secular history and the Bible record Pilate as being quite insensitive and even hostile to the Jews (Luke 13:1). He didn’t seem to care what the Jews thought or desired.
Amazingly, on this occasion he relented to the desires of the crowd. Even though he found no fault in Jesus (Luke 23:4), he allowed Jesus to be crucified.
In this matter, Pilate could be described as indifferent. He “washed his hands before the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it’” (Matthew 27:24).
The crowd at the crucifixion
Even though some of the people who assembled before Pilate may have wanted Jesus to be freed, others in the crowd, along with the chief priests, demanded “with loud voices that He be crucified.” It was this group that prevailed (Luke 23:23).
Some of the people who had been involved in the clamorous exchange were probably among those watching Jesus experience His final torturous hours. At Jesus’ death, a number of miraculous events occurred.
“Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:51-54).
“And the whole crowd who came together to that sight, seeing what had been done, beat their breasts” (Luke 23:48).
Adam Clarke in his commentary on the Bible wrote: “All were deeply affected except the priests, and those whom they had employed to serve their base purposes. The darkness, earthquake, etc., had brought terror and consternation into every heart.”
Those so affected could be described as people whose hearts had been reached, people whose consciences had been stirred. What should they do about these stirred emotions? Some of them would soon find out.
The people convicted at Pentecost
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, He appeared to His disciples during a period of 40 days, telling them that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3-8). Just a few days later, on the Day of Pentecost, when Jerusalem was filled with “devout men, from every nation” (Acts 2:5) observing this annual holy day, the promised gift was poured out upon Jesus’ followers.
The arrival of the Holy Spirit came with the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and it appeared as tongues of fire on each of them. The Spirit then inspired them to begin speaking; and as they did, people from various nations each heard them speaking his own native language. It was clearly a miraculous event, but the people witnessing it didn’t understand what it meant.
Peter, who had denied Christ three times but who was now empowered with the Holy Spirit, stood up with his fellow apostles and explained what had occurred (verse 14). Peter told the crowd that this was the fulfillment of a prophecy by Joel and that Jesus, the One whom “you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death” was resurrected from the grave. In fact, it was He who had poured out this miracle (verses 15-33).
Furthermore, Peter said: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (verse 36). Peter emphasized again that they all had responsibility for the unjust death of Christ.
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (verse 37).
Peter told those whose consciences had been pricked to repent of their sins and be baptized (verse 38). “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (verse 41).
This special day, on which the Holy Spirit was given and the New Testament Church was launched, provides a snapshot of what real Christians do. Times change, but the reaction of these early converts remains as a crystal-clear example of how convicted Christians respond to the gospel—the good news regarding Jesus Christ and the coming Kingdom of God.
The first Christians convicted of sin
Becoming a Christian begins when our consciences tell us that we have done something wrong—that we, like all other people, have sinned (Romans 3:23). Sin is the breaking of God’s 10 Commandments and His other instructions given to us because of His love for us. God the Father determines when to call people to His way of life (John 6:44, 65) and then issues this invitation to become His child.
Through this miraculous invitation from God, we become aware of our sinful condition, our inability to live as God desires and our need for a Savior. In the case of the people in the first century who were called by God to become Christians, the process began with their realization that they were guilty of the unjust death of Jesus, the Son of God.
Acknowledging our sins against God is difficult to do. We do not like to admit we are wrong, and the natural tendency is to justify ourselves. While we did not call for Christ’s crucifixion as those in the first century did, our sins also made His death necessary. We, too, need to have our sins forgiven. If we do not receive forgiveness of our sins, we have no hope to live forever as members of God’s eternal family.
Understanding this and becoming convicted of our sins is how our relationship with God begins.
First Christians convicted to repent and be baptized
After we understand our sinful condition, we can’t be indifferent to what we have been given to comprehend. When the earliest Christians understood and acknowledged their guilt, they followed through with Peter’s instruction to repent and be baptized. That very day about 3,000 people made this life-altering commitment through baptism and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41).
We must do the same.
First Christians convicted to live a life that pleases God
After we are baptized, we receive the Holy Spirit so we can develop righteous character as we prepare to reign on earth with Christ when He returns. We are called to be lights to the world; God expects us to be examples to others as we go through the various trials of life that test our faith.
Being a Christian is a full-time commitment. There are no days off. We’re on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is the hardest job we’ll ever have; but as Paul wrote, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).