So I’d finished up the series on Luke, and it seemed obvious that I should cover Acts next. It’s essentially Luke’s sequel to the Gospel of Luke. But, I thought, we’ve covered Acts so very many times. What would be a fresh approach? What in Acts best shows the Kingdom principles we’ve been talking about?
And then it occurred to me: we never cover the sermons and discourses in Acts. Well, we cover Paul’s address at Mars Hill, and that’s about it. For example, other than Acts 2:38, what did Peter preach at Pentecost that we ever talk about?
And does the fact that we endlessly debate Acts 2:38 while ignoring the rest of his sermon suggest our theology is blind to some issues? Why did Luke consider this sermon so important that it fills most of chapter 2, and yet we consider the sermon so unimportant that we ignore it? What’s going on?
And why do we ignore the other sermons and speeches? We’re big on the conversion stories but not on the speeches. Why?
Well, the only way to find out is to take a look at these passages. We start in Acts 2.
(This is an unusually long post, but I couldn’t think of a way to split it.)
The outpouring of the Spirit
(Act 2:14-21 ESV) 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; 20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. 21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
Peter is likely speaking in the Temple courts. Where else could he speak to such a loud crowd? The rest of Jerusalem will filled with narrow, winding streets. It would have been hard to have been heard by a crowd of so many nationalities in a narrow street.
Joel, of course, declared that the gift of prophecy would be a sign of the end of Exile and the coming of the Kingdom. Consider what Joel said in the immediate context of the quoted passage —
(Joe 2:24-27, 32b ESV) 24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.
26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. …
32 … For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
Even though God had sent an army — the Babylonians — to destroy the land (25), there will come a time when Israel will again enjoy prosperity (24). But it will not be all of Israel. A remnant will be called from among the survivors (32) — and it will happen in Jerusalem.
One sign that God has called a remnant to prosperity will be the signs Peter mentions: the outpouring of the Spirit on “all flesh” (not just Jews), both men and women, who shall have the gift of prophecy. And God’s salvation will come to all who call on his name (not just Jews).
Now, God had given his Spirit to women before, and the gift of prophecy was hardly a new thing to the Jews. But once the Exile had begun, the gift of prophecy had departed from Israel. The new thing — the sign — was the “outpouring” of the Spirit. The Spirit was not being sprinkled on an occasional few. God was pouring the Spirit out generously.
(Isa 32:14-18 ESV) 14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. 17 And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. 18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
(Isa 44:3-4 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.
“Pour” indicates not only the vast quantity of the Spirit but also suggests that the Spirit will render its recipients clean. You see, the Torah is filled with references to pourings as part of cleansing rituals. God himself will cleanse his people by the Spirit — and do so generously.
Thus, Peter is announcing the end of the Exile and the coming of the Kingdom. The promises are being fulfilled right now! The Spirit is being outpoured right here and now. It’s happening! And so, the rest of the promises are coming true, too.
(Act 2:22-24 ESV) 22 “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 — 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
Nazareth was a village settled by descendants of David. Ray Vander Laan teaches that the name of the village comes from —
(Isa 11:1 ESV) There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch [netser] from his roots shall bear fruit.
Nazareth was thus, according to its founders, “Branchtown” — the village from which the Messiah would come.
Peter declares that God himself attested to Jesus, and yet certain “lawless men” had him crucified and killed “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” It was God’s intent from the beginning that Jesus be killed!
God then raised him because “it was not possible for him to be held by” death. There was something about Jesus that made him more powerful than death itself!
(Act 2:25-28 ESV) 25 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; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
Peter then refers to Psalm 16:8-11. There David prophesies a resurrection. “Hades” refers to the dwelling place of the dead (“Sheol” in Hebrew).
(Act 2:29 ESV) 29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.
Obviously, Peter argues, the Psalm is not speaking of David, as he is in fact in Sheol. His body is still in the grave.
Now, Peter is clearly speaking of a bodily resurrection. David’s soul may be in heaven, but his body is the grave. Therefore, he has not yet experienced a resurrection. Hence, the Psalm is speaking of someone else. The “Holy One” is Jesus.
What the prophets said about Jesus
(Act 2:30-32 ESV) 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.
(Psa 132:11-12 ESV) 11 The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. 12 If your sons keep my covenant and my testimonies that I shall teach them, their sons also forever shall sit on your throne.”
(2Sa 7:12-13 ESV) 12 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. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
This brings us to —
(Act 2:33 ESV) 33 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.
Peter concludes that Jesus has not only been resurrected but is now at God’s right hand (due to his ascension). God gave the Spirit to Jesus, and Jesus poured out the Spirit. Thus, Jesus is not merely a good man, but a member of the Godhead. It is through Jesus that the Father fulfills his promises.
The “promise of the Spirit” is a mark of the Messiah —
(Isa 42:1-4 ESV) Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.
(Isa 61:1 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would possess the Spirit, which will be associated with the Messiah’s mission to bring justice and good news to the poor and the brokenhearted.
Jesus is Lord
(Act 2:34-36 ESV) 34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, 35 until I make your enemies your footstool.’ 36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Peter refers to Psalm 110 —
(Psa 110:1-4 ESV) “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! 3 Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. 4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
David did not sit at the right hand of God, but Jesus ascended and does in fact do so. Therefore, “God has made him both Lord and Christ.” Wow.
“Lord” is the word used by the Jews to refer to God himself. In the Septuagint, God is repeatedly referred to simply as “Lord,” which translates YHWH. To call Jesus “Lord” is to declare him a part of the God of the Old Testament.
“Christ” is the Greek word (Christos) for Messiah, which means “Anointed One,” which means king. Jesus is the king prophesied to sit on the throne of David, but he is more than a mere king. He is a king who sits on a heavenly throne who wears the name of God Almighty. It’s a truly audacious sermon!
It’s astonishing that the Jews listening didn’t pick up stones and kill Peter on the spot. Those without faith in Jesus would have heard blasphemy. How can a mere man — a man who’d been hung on tree! — be God?!
And Peter goes further, accusing his hearers of crucifying Jesus. Indeed, it’s likely that many in the crowd were in the same crowd that cried “Crucify him!” But the resurrection changed everything.
You see, Jesus hadn’t merely been raised from the dead. That had happened several times before. Jesus was not merely raised but resurrected. He was given a new, spiritual body. He was raised never to die again. All the others raised from the dead in the past died as do all men. Not Jesus. All the others arose with a physical body susceptible to the same weaknesses as all other bodies. Not Jesus. Indeed, Jesus was lifted into heaven to be with God.
The resurrection changes everything, because the resurrection proves that Jesus was more than a prophet or teacher. Jesus was those things, but he was also God Almighty in the flesh. And he was the Suffering Servant — God taking on himself the task given to Israel and God suffering the fate that Israel deserved.
And the resurrection of Jesus shows that those who are his can also be resurrected. God resurrects! The Sadducees are wrong. The Greeks are wrong. God can do what he promised.
“What shall we do?”
(Act 2:37-40 ESV) 37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
Verse 37 tells us that Peter’s sermon was effective. His listeners understood that the nation had crucified the Messiah. Surely, God would be angry! What is the solution? How do we escape the wrath of God?
Peter answers “repent.” Repentance is no new concept. The prophets had repeatedly spoken of repenting, but almost always in terms of God repenting!
(Jer 18:8 ESV) and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent [metanoeo = repent] of the disaster that I intended to do to it.
The “repent” or “relent” is to change your mind and the direction of your conduct. If you want God to relent/repent, you must do the same. It’s much more than a change of heart. It’s a change of intention and conduct.
Peter’s words “repent and be baptized” echo the John the Baptist —
(Luk 3:3 ESV) And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
It’s no accident that Luke begins both Luke and Acts with a lesson on baptism of repentance for [eis = into] the forgiveness of sins. The grammar is remarkably parallel. Indeed, both John and Peter were baptizing into forgiveness in response to repentance and baptism.
The difference is that only Peter offered —
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
Now, in context — both the immediate context and in light of the prophets — Peter is referring to the outpoured Spirit, not just forgiveness of sins. In other word, if you repent and submit to baptism, you’ll be admitted into the Kingdom through the forgiveness of your sins and the empowering gift of the promised, outpoured Spirit.
Of course, Peter also adds “in the name of Jesus Christ” — an element missing from the baptism of John. This baptism will accomplish something John’s cannot because it’s empowered by the work of Jesus the King. Baptism is much more the work of the Trinity than of the convert. The convert gets wet. Jesus saves. The Spirit empowers. God forgives.
Verse 39 repeats the promises of the prophets that the “promise” (a reference to the “promise of the Spirit” in v. 33) is not only for those present but for all future generations. This “gift of the Holy Spirit” would not be a single-century event!
“This crooked generation”
Finally, Peter urges them, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” “Crooked” doesn’t mean criminal. Rather, the translation is quite literal. The Greek word means twisted or bent. It’s used metaphorically of perverse or unreasonable — unwilling to be straight.
Peter’s point is often missed. This generation of Jews is so twisted that it will be damned. To find salvation, his hearers must escape into the true Kingdom, the Kingdom of God — a kingdom entered via repentance and forgiveness through the work of Jesus. There is no other path.
Peter didn’t urge them merely to a deeper understanding of their spirituality or to a better approach to Torah. He urged them to flee the wrath of God richly deserved by their contemporaries!
Now, what fresh insights do we gain from Peter’s sermon?
1. It sure doesn’t sound like a sermon likely to be preached today. Unlike most contemporary preachers, Peter emphasizes the end of the Exile, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the resurrection of Jesus as demonstrating his power and his divinity.
2. Peter uses the prophets, not to prove that God knows the future, but to prove that Jesus is the Messiah of prophecy. God’s foreknowledge is assumed. The question is whether Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.
3. Peter further emphasizes the damned condition of his listeners, but not so much their personal sins but their being a part of a generation so perverse that they denied God’s Messiah. You either share their collective guilt or you escape through repentance, faith, and baptism.
I don’t think Peter would for a moment deny their personal sinfulness as well. But the sermon’s emphasis is on collective guilt. You can either ratify the crowd’s and leaders’ decision to crucify him or escape from that decision. You can’t claim he wasn’t the Messiah without partaking in the guilt of those who acted as that conclusion would demand.
Some would take offense at this statement, as though this makes all Jews guilty of crucifying Jesus. But the assertion is more subtle and more pointed. Jesus plainly claimed to be the Messiah (no one there would have denied that premise). Either he was or he wasn’t. If he was, then repent and be baptized in his name. If not, then he was a blasphemer and a rebel against Roman authority — and deserved his fate. For those present, those were the choices.
The same dilemma exists today. If he Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, then your choices are to submit to him or to agree that the Jewish authorities were right to crucify him as a blasphemer.
4. Peter emphasizes that Jesus is not only Christ (= Messiah = king) but Lord (= God = the true ruler of the Empire). Submission to Jesus means not only acknowledging that he is a a divine being, a part of the Godhead, but that he is the true king and the only king to whom we should submit. Submission to Jesus means revoking allegiance to all other authorities of any kind.
5. The Spirit is nearly as emphasized as Jesus. The Spirit not only shows the ending of the Exile and coming of the Kingdom, but also a personal indwelling for each convert. Peter could not have imagined preaching the Kingdom without preaching both Jesus and the Spirit.
6. Conversion is not merely forgiveness. It’s fleeing a generation (a race or men sharing a common characteristic, such as perversity) to enter into a new, better generation. It’s a change of group, ethnic, and even racial loyalty. You are no longer a Jew or a Roman. You are a citizen of the Kingdom and you bow to Jesus as king. You are a sojourner in Jerusalem but have renounced all loyalty to the generation you have escaped.
You see, to the ancients, you were loyal to but one king at a time. There was no “two kingdoms” theology. In that world, you lived in one kingdom only and you honored the one king of that kingdom.
Now, for the Jews, this was easy. They hated the Romans and Herodians anyway. They’d prayed for centuries for God to send his Messiah! Pledging loyalty to the Messiah and only the Messiah wasn’t that hard for most. But for a Roman, such as Cornelius, the change would have been much more difficult. It’s easy enough to promise to go to church and do five acts. It’s not so easy to bow to Jesus as the only true Lord, Savior, and King.
The scriptures don’t necessarily require us to be in rebellion or to break the civil laws. But we serve the emperor only because he’s God’s agent of justice, and we consider God’s laws higher than those of any earthly authority. The Christians were good citizens, but they would not and could not participate in all governmental policies. And when conflict arose, most chose Jesus over Caesar — and Caesar did not take kindly to that.
7. Hence, we must “repent,” which means much, much more than “stop sinning.” It also includes a change of loyalty to a new king and lord. And a change of loyalty from one ethnic group to another and one nation to another. We don’t merely turn. We change directions totally. We change our minds. We change citizenship. The direction of our lives change radically. We serve God’s agenda and mission, whatever that may be.
8. The resurrection and ascension are far more important to Peter than it is most of our preaching. We tend to emphasize the sacrifice of Jesus as atonement — which is a very biblical teaching. But it’s the resurrection that gives us hope of an inheritance in the new heavens and new earth. You see, most Christians believe that when we die, our soul goes to heaven and that’s that. In their theology, there’s no resurrection — just a soul flying away into heaven. And under that theory, why does it matter that Jesus rose again?
You see, there’s the huge inconsistency in Christian thought. We teach (a) a general resurrection of dead at the end of time and (b) that our souls pass immediately into heaven and it’s all over. Or some teach that the souls are stored in Paradise until the end of time, then move to heaven. But that thought has never made it into our hymnody or speech. It’s not really how we think of the afterlife.
But Peter teaches (and Paul does, too) that Jesus’ resurrection shows that we’ll also be resurrected.
(Acts 2:24) God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
What is about the resurrection of Jesus loosed the pangs of death if we aren’t going to enjoy the same sort of resurrection?