Yesterday evening my usual after-Sabbath dinner companions, along with some people who show up from time to time, had a far more serious conversation than is usually the case. I suppose much depends on mood, and when one has a reflective sermon to ponder  and there is a recent death where someone’s body was not discovered for days, it is natural for a conversation to turn into more serious material. As it happens, I was asked a question relating to being cut to the heart, and my response was a lengthy and complicated enough one that I felt it merited a post, especially since it is not a subject that frequently is examined on its own terms. So, I would like to examine the parallel track of the biblical record of what happens when an audience is cut to the heart.
First, though, I would like to speak a bit on why it matters in the first place. In order for God, or for anyone else, to reach us, we must be cut to the heart and taken out of the complacency of normal existence. Sometimes, this is done in the world through attempts to shock and horrify, or through any kind of psychological ploys that serve to get beyond our usual barriers to people selling things to us. It is therefore not too surprising that we see in the Bible the same sort of bold and provocative appeals to shock the sensibilities of the audience that we see in our contemporary culture. The difference is one of aims and intents; God, and the people of God, wish to shock people out of their complacency to sin and corruption so that there is repentance and salvation. Most other provocateurs wish to encourage sin and corruption and guide others along to destruction. The distinction in purpose makes a great deal of difference in the legitimacy of the provocation, as does the obedience of the provocateur to God’s explicit commands as well as explicit warrant for his (or her) conduct.
The most notable time we see an audience cut to the heart in scripture is in Acts 2:36-39, which reads: ““Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and 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?” Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”” Here we see that Peter’s Pentecost sermon was given with the intent to show the reality and importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to his devout diaspora Jewish audience. The response of the audience was what anyone would hope for–they were provoked to repentance and asked the way out of being cut to the heart, the way to restoration and salvation. And that way was given, and that road was taken by thousands of new believers.
Shortly thereafter in the account of Acts, we read of another occasion of being cut to the heart that did not go so well, in Acts 7:51-60: ““You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Here we see the other response to being cut to the heart, and that is a violent response that seeks to respond to the pain of being cut with hurting those who cut even more in words and actions.
A comparison and contrast of these examples is instructive. In both cases the speaker makes the same fundamental accusation, in the same language, that the audience had responsibility in putting Jesus Christ to death. Both of the messages took a historical look at what had been said about the Holy Spirit and about Jesus Christ throughout biblical history. What was most strikingly different was the response. One group of people, when cut to the heart, responded with a desire for repentance and a restoration to a right relationship with God. The other group of people, when cut to the heart, responded by throwing stones in an attempt to silence the messenger who cut them. In one case, the response was the establishment of the initial core of the early New Testament church, which would spread back with the believers to their home areas, and in the other we have the first Christian martyr, a successor to the martyred prophets of old. The difference was not the content of the message so much as the response of the hearts that were cut.
What are we to take from this? First, we must know that in evangelism, cutting the hearts of our audience is a high risk/high reward proposition. That which inspires a passionate response will not always inspire a positive response. This is, it should be noted, useful in other areas of life as well. Additionally, we should remember that like surgery, cutting the heart is merely the first step in the process. The cut is only to allow the deeper wounds to be healed, the broken bones to be set in place, the failed systems of life to be restored again. To cut for the sake of cutting is cruel, and not worthy of the touch of a physician. In theology as in medicine, we hurt for a time so that the body and soul can be healed, and not be wounded forever. Oh, that we would keep this in mind better.