Studies in the Book of Acts
Peter began his speech to the astonished Jews by insisting that the disciples weren’t drunk. It was 9:00 a.m., too early to be drinking, and much too early to be drunk. Those speaking in languages were not filled with wine, but with the Holy Spirit.
Peter’s speech (2:17-39)
Peter explained what the events really meant. His speech takes up much of the remainder of this chapter. He made a powerful and courageous witness to Christ as the promised Messiah. Just a few weeks earlier, this same Peter had denied his Savior with oaths and curses (Matthew 26:72, 74). “Woman, I don’t know him,” Peter had insisted to a servant girl who recognized him as a disciple (Luke 22:57). Yet now, Peter was the first to shout aloud that he not only knew this man, he was a witness to all that Jesus had said and done. The Holy Spirit had breathed new courage into a once disheartened and discouraged disciple (Luke 24:21).
Peter presents evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He includes references to the Hebrew prophet Joel and a “father” of the nation, King David. In this context, devout Jews would have carefully listened to what Peter had to say about them. Peter appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God. He insists that this Pentecost event is a fulfillment of prophecy. Peter also asserts that Jesus is referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of a coming Messiah.
Peter also appeals to the audience’s own experience. If these Jews had been in Jerusalem since before Passover — and especially if they lived in the city — they would have known of Jesus’ miraculous works, and especially the circumstances surrounding his death. Finally, Peter appeals to himself and the other apostles as being qualified to give eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. After this, Peter exhorted the Jews to repent, literally, to have a change of mind, by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.
This was the apostolic message in its most basic form. It was composed of six themes, which are found repeatedly in Peter’s sermons in the first chapters of Acts:
- The age of fulfillment prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures has come to pass. The kingdom of God is imminent, indeed, is here.
- The ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus has made all this possible, and is proved from the Scriptures.
- As a result of his exaltation, Christ is at God’s right hand, as the messianic head of a spiritual Israel.
- The sign of Christ’s power and guidance is the presence of the Holy Spirit in that new congregation or church of Israel.
- The consummation of the messianic age is imminent, and will be brought about by Christ’s return.
- The proper response to this information is repentance and baptism. God forgives sins, gives the Holy Spirit, and makes salvation possible.
Peter’s speeches in Acts were styled and shaped by Luke, who was writing in accordance with the standards of historical writing in his day. But Luke did not invent the speeches out of his own imagination — they reflect the basic elements of the gospel message that Peter and the other apostles and evangelists carried far and wide. What we have in Acts 2 is only a brief synopsis of what must have been said by Peter during this occasion. Even Luke tells us that Peter warned the crowd “with many other words,” words Luke has not given us (2:40).
The prophecy of Joel (2:16-18)
As we look carefully at Peter’s speech, we are surprised at what it says. The first thing we notice is that Luke has used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament in quoting Joel 2:28-32. The Septuagint was a Greek translation that Jewish scholars created in the 3rd century b.c. for the many Jews who could not understand Hebrew. This version (from the Latin, septuaginta, which means 70) is commonly referred to by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. The number derives from a story that 70 or 72 Jewish scholars did all the work.
The Septuagint is important for several reasons. Rather than any Hebrew version, it was the Bible of the early church.
It was not secondary to any other scripture; it was Scripture. When a New Testament writer allegedly urged his audience to consider that all scripture given by divine “inspiration” is also profitable for doctrine, it was to the LXX not the Hebrew that attention was being called. [Melvin K.H. Peters, “Septuagint,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 5 (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992; now published by Yale University Press), 1102.]
This is clear from Peter’s citation of the prophet Joel (2:17-21), which agrees in most details with the LXX. However, there are some alterations in the text, and these show us something important about how the church used and regarded the Old Testament. The LXX of Joel 2:28reads, “It shall come to pass afterward, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Greek of the LXX is meta tauta, or the indefinite “after these things.” However, in Acts the Greek expression has been changed to en tais eschatais hemerais, which means the very specific “in the last days.” Thus, Peter (and/or Luke) has grounded the event of Pentecost at a specific time in history — as part of the end times or last days of God’s redemptive program. The indefinite feel of the old has been made more specific in the new.
For the New Testament writers, the “last days” began with Christ’s appearance on earth and would end with the events of his reappearance and the consummation. Peter clearly regarded Joel’s prophecy as applying to the last days, and he claimed that his hearers were living in those days, when God’s final act of salvation had begun. He was saying to the Jews, in the words of William Barclay, “For generations you have dreamed of the Day of God, the Day when God would break into history. Now, in Jesus, that Day has come.” [Barclay, 25.]
When Peter spoke these words, he probably didn’t realize how many years would pass between Christ’s two appearances. Not until decades later did the passage of time force the apostles and the church to deal with the question of how long it would be (2 Peter 3:3-9; Revelation 6:9-11). When Luke wrote, the question of when Christ would return may have been a major issue. Even near the end of his life, Peter thought, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). The book of 2 Peter had to defend the promise of Jesus’ return because so many decades had elapsed since the resurrection without his reappearance (2 Peter 3:3-10).
The first part of Joel’s prophecy that Peter quoted bore directly on the events of Pentecost. Joel had spoken of a time when God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (2:17). This had happened at Pentecost. The Age of the Spirit had begun.
Wonders in heaven (2:19-20)
In verses 19 and 20 Peter quoted parts of Joel’s prophecy that spoke of the heavenly signs that would accompany the pouring out of God’s Spirit. These signs were to occur “before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20). In Peter’s mind all the events between Jesus’ earthly ministry and return were telescoped into a short time. We can infer from other information in the New Testament that he regarded the heavenly wonders to be just around the corner. The darkening of the sun (and perhaps a red moon) on the Passover of Jesus’ death may have reverberated in Peter’s mind (Luke 23:44). Perhaps he (and others) considered those events as harbingers of what Joel spoke about — the coming of the day of the Lord.
Jesus is the Messiah (2:21-24)
With a tone of urgency, Peter ended Joel’s prophecy by asserting that this is a time to recognize the Messiah, and put one’s faith in him. Everyone who would be willing to do so, said Joel, would be saved (2:21).
Up to this point, Peter has argued that the Jews should recognize the miraculous phenomena as manifestations of the Spirit, signaling an end-time age of the Spirit. Peter says that Joel’s prophecy applies to his day, but he has not yet offered an extended argument that Jesus is the Messiah. But now Peter begins to insist that the ministry of Jesus validated him as the Messiah. He addresses his listeners as people of Israel — as those who claim to be God’s people. If they are God’s people, Peter is saying, they will recognize the work of Jesus as having been described in their Scriptures.
We have arrived at Peter’s main theme, the chief focus of the church’s witness: the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. In the speeches of Acts, this is usually done by the witness (such as Peter) giving an account of the ministry and death of Jesus. There is usually an assertion that he was unjustly murdered, and he has been raised from the dead. The Old Testament is usually cited to show that what happened to Jesus was what the Scriptures said would happen to the Messiah.
Here Peter insists that Jesus “was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (2:22). These mighty works were evidence that God was working through Jesus among the people. This line of reasoning continues to be an important part of the witness to Jesus as the Messiah.
Peter maintains that what might have appeared to be the weakness of God — Jesus’ crucifixion — took place according to “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (2:23). In Paul’s words, what people might have regarded as weakness turned out to be “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Peter explains to his listeners that in putting Jesus to death, the Jews actually fulfilled God’s plan. The sufferings and resurrection of Jesus were foretold in the prophetic writings.
The Messiah in Psalm 16 (2:25-33)
Peter then quotes a psalm of David as a proof-text that the Messiah’s resurrection was foretold in Scripture. Peter is building his case on a number of widely shared beliefs. The Jews believed that the psalms were written by David. They saw David as God’s “anointed” king. They saw that God had promised what appeared to be an eternal kingship to David through his descendants. Thus, what was said in the Psalms by David could refer to him or to his descendants — and one descendant in particular, the Messiah. Peter’s citation of Psalm 16:8-11 was an exact quote from the LXX (where it is Psalm 15). But he read it messianically, referring to Christ rather than to David.
Psalm 16 speaks of one who will not “see decay” nor be abandoned to the grave (2:27). This person is always in the presence of God (2:25, 28). Peter asserts that these statements could not apply to David. He stresses what all his listeners knew — that David was dead and buried. His tomb, a landmark in the area, could be seen and touched (2:29). David died (was abandoned to the grave) and his body decomposed. Psalm 16:8-11 must therefore apply to the messianic successor of David, not David himself. But since David was a prophet, it should not be considered a strange thing that he could foresee the future (2:30). [Luke repeatedly notes that the author of the Psalms is a prophet. See Luke 20:41-42; 24:44; Acts 1:16, 20;4:25; 13:33-36.]
Peter argued that David’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Jesus, and the apostles were witnesses of that fact. The conclusion was obvious: Jesus is the expected Messiah of Scripture (2:32-33).