Treasures From the Original

'Cut to the Heart': Diametrically Different Responses to the Gospel

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Those who heard the preaching of Peter in Acts 2, and Stephen in Acts 7, were "cut to the heart" - but in very different ways.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase


Those who heard the preaching of Peter in Acts 2, and Stephen in Acts 7, were "cut to the heart" - but in very different ways.

In the book of Acts, we find two incidents that describe the essence of every human being's ultimate response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In chapter two, we find heartfelt acceptance when Peter preached to those gathered for the Feast of Pentecost. In chapter seven, we find vehement rejection when Stephen preached to the Jewish religious leaders, including the high priest and Saul who would become Paul. It is said of both those who received Christ and those who rejected Him that "they were cut to the heart." But the words that are translated "cut to the heart" in the records of both incidents are actually two very different phrases in the original Greek, with opposite meanings.

"Cut to the Heart": Willingly Receiving the Gospel

In Acts chapter two, we read that Peter preached to thousands who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. He spoke in response to a false accusation. Some said that the 120 Christians who had just received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the upper room were proclaiming "the wonderful works of God" in many languages because they were "full of new wine" (2:13). To answer this accusation, Peter preached the truth of Christ and the fulfillment of the prophesied coming of the Holy Spirit. His concluding statement called for a response: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).

Next, we read of the people's response: "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?'" (2:37)

Those who heard Peter's message were "cut to the heart" - in the Greek, katenugesan te kardia, literally, "severely troubled and made sorrowful." The Spirit of God used Peter's message to evoke a state of mind in which they were ready to respond to the Gospel in faith:

Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for [because of] the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise [of the Spirit] is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:38-42)

"Cut to the Heart": Willfully Rejecting the Gospel

In violent contrast to this, we have the record of Stephen's address to the council of the religious leaders of Israel, including the high priest, in Acts chapter 7. As in the case of Peter, Stephen's message was in response to a false accusation. Stephen was not accused of drunkenness but of blasphemy. In response, Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gave a tour de force exposition of the sad spiritual history of Israel, and demonstrated that it was its religious leaders, not Stephen and his fellow Christians, who were the actual blasphemers of God.

Stephen, like Peter, concluded by reminding the Jews that it was they who had rejected and killed their Messiah:

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. (Acts 7:51-53)

Here, in the English Bible, we read the same words of response that we find in Acts 2: "When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth" (7:54).

Those who heard Stephen's message were likewise "cut to the heart." But in the Greek the words are different from Acts 2. Stephen's hearers were dieprionto tais kardias, literally, "sawn asunder mentally and thus infuriated." Stephen's words evoked a state of mind in which, far from being ready to receive the Gospel, "they stopped their ears" and killed yet another of God's prophets:

But [Stephen], 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. (7:55-58)

These are the only two responses to the Gospel of Christ: ready acceptance, or stiff-necked rejection. There is no middle ground. Often it is not only the message that is rejected, but God's messenger as well. Often the rejection of the Gospel is emotionally or even physically violent. But even when the rejection is by an outward show of quiet indifference, within the heart of the Gospel-rejecter lies enmity against God.

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. (Romans 8:7)

And you...once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works... (Colossians 1:21-22)

Rejection of the Gospel Need Not Be Permanent

And yet, such rejection of the Gospel is not necessarily permanent. We read in the rest of Acts 7:58 that "the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul." In the opening verses of Acts 8, immediately following, we find that this Saul was a major figure in the persecution of the early church:

Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen's] death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. (Acts 8:1-3)

Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

He later testified to King Agrippa,

Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:9-11)

But God was not done with Saul. The one who had been "cut to the heart" - literally, "sawn asunder mentally and thus infuriated" so that he went about "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" - was, on the road to Damascus, brought to the place of being "cut to the heart" in the sense of Acts 2. Saul was "severely troubled and made sorrowful" by Jesus Christ Himself, who said to him, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 9:5).

And so Saul, in similar words to those of the Jews who responded to Peter, "trembling and astonished, said, 'Lord, what do You want me to do?'" (9:6). Thus Saul the stiff-necked religionist became Paul the submissive evangelist; Saul the persecutor of Christ and His people became Paul the persecuted for Jesus' sake; Saul the blasphemer of Jehovah became Paul the ambassador for Christ.

What May We Learn?

There are a multitude of lessons here, but let me name just a few.

First of all, no one is "too hard a case" or "too far gone" to be transformed by the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. Could there have been a harder case than Saul? The early believers, and even the apostles, had great difficulty believing that the change in the man was sincere (Acts 9:13-14, 21, 26-31), but they found out that it was, because God had regenerated him.

Secondly, it is never too late for such a change to take place by God's sovereign will. Do not stop praying for friends and loved ones, dear friend. Do not stop bearing testimony to them. God brought a thief, a deep sinner, to repentance and faith in the last moments of life as he hung on a cross next to Jesus. I knew a woman whose husband was deeply involved in organized crime. She prayed for his salvation through 24 years of rejection and abuse before God finally brought him to saving faith, and used him during the remainder of his life to witness to others mired in sin.

Thirdly, we may understand that we must often present the Gospel in the face of mild ridicule or even vehement rejection. Proclamation of the message by the power of the Holy Spirit is our responsibility. But the results, whether acceptance or rejection - either temporary or permanent - are according to the work of the Spirit who convicts the world "of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8).

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit...The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8).

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight (Colossians 1:21-22)

For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:10)

Fourthly, we must ask the question: Dear friend, how is it with you? How have you been "cut to the heart"? Is your response to the Gospel that of godly sorrow and repentance? Have you been saved from sin and the wrath to come by faith in the blood of Christ? If you have, we hope you will find the resources of this ministry helpful in your walk with the Lord.

But perhaps you are still among those who are "cut to the heart" in the sense of maintaining the strongest resistance you can muster against the message of the Gospel. Dear friend, you need to lay down your arms and surrender to Jesus, who is the Lord of All. If you would like to know more about the Gospel of Christ, and how to be saved from the bondage of sin and coming judgment, please contact us. We will be happy to help you.


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