Studies in the Book of Acts
Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.
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). Peter then referred to what the listeners “now see and hear” — that is, the theophany of Pentecost exhibited in the wind, the fire, and the languages (2:33). What they saw and heard was “proof” that the Holy Spirit was available.
Messianic Psalm 110 (2:34-36)
Peter cited a second proof-text, Psalm 110:1, quoted from the Greek version, where it is Psalm 109. “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’” (2:34-35). This verse was difficult to understand. Its explanation depended on how one understood who “my Lord” was, the one to whom “the Lord” promised a place at his right hand. This scripture from Psalm 110 had figured in a controversy between Jesus and the Sadducees (Luke 20:41-44). The proper identification of the “Lords” was the key to the text.
Possibly this psalm originally referred to one of the kings of David’s line, perhaps at his enthronement. In that context, “the Lord” would be Yahweh, and “my lord” is the king. The promise to make this king’s enemies his footstool would be a promise of divine favor for a successful reign. But Jesus, as we know from all three Synoptic Gospels, interpreted Psalm 110:1 in a messianic sense, as applying to himself (Mark 12:35-37). Jesus probably used the Psalm to refute narrow views of the Messiah, that he would be only a human king of David’s line.
Following Jesus, Peter insisted that the “Lord” to whom the invitation was addressed (to sit at his right hand) was the Messiah. David did not figure in the account at all, in its messianic sense. After all, he did not ascend to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. Peter stressed that what was in view was the unique son of David, Jesus. The text spoke of a heavenly enthronement, not one on earth. Indeed, Jesus had predicted to the Jewish leaders, “The Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” (Luke 22:69).
Peter had already asserted that David could not have been speaking about himself, for he died, was buried and suffered decay. Nor was there any evidence that he had ascended to heaven (2:34). What David did know was that God had promised to put one of his descendants on the throne (2:30). The descendant about whom David must have been prophesying was the risen and resurrected Christ. Peter’s conclusion is: The Messiah is addressed by God as David’s Lord and invited to sit at God’s right hand.
The New Testament writers often used Psalm 110:1 to say that Jesus was exalted to “the right hand of God.” [Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; 16:19; Romans 8:34; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:22; 1 Peter 3:22.] The New Testament quotes this verse more often than any other Old Testament verse.
In his speech, Peter uses four points to argue that Jesus is the Messiah:
- His personal witness,
- The miraculous events of Pentecost,
- Information about Jesus that the audience had, and,
- Scriptural proof texts.
Peter concludes the body of his speech with the point he made throughout the speech: Jesus is Lord and Messiah (2:36). This became an oft-repeated apostolic creed. [Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11.]
The call to repent (2:37-38)
Many of Peter’s listeners had a deep emotional reaction. The responsive Jewish listeners were “cut to the heart” (2:37). The enormity of what had happened crashed into their consciousness. The man they had spit on and crucified was their Messiah, and he was now sitting in power at God’s right hand. Moved by the Holy Spirit and their own participation in the persecution and death of Jesus, they were humbled and teachable. It was natural for them to ask, in wonderment and trepidation: “What shall we do?” (2:37).
Peter’s reply is the point the entire account in Acts 2 moves toward: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38). His speech and stir-to-action conclusion fulfills Jesus’ prophecy in the last chapter of Luke. There, Jesus had promised: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Now, repentance had been taught in his name.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It appears frequently in the New Testament as a way to describe conversion. Repentance is a central focus in Acts. [Acts 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 13:24; 17:30; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20.] It literally means a change of mind, a change of heart, a spiritual about-face in one’s life that will be shown by a change in what one does. That change occurs in relationship to the true God. Repentance is not just a feeling of remorse, or a once-in-a-lifetime emotional experience. Nor is it simply a change in behavior. It is a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior. It is a turning away from a life lived in contradiction to God and a turning to him in faith. The aim of repentance is that we should accept what God has intended for us.
Repentance and conversion have a “from” and “to” movement. One goes from an old way of thinking in which God is denied, ignored, resented, or viewed as harsh. One goes to a new life based on loyalty to and faith in the Creator who wants to save us rather than punish us. To repent is to be “turned around,” remolded and transformed — converted. It involves a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of the New Testament church we find something unexpected being taught about repentance. In his first public sermon, Peter poses repentance and conversion — turning to God — in a surprising way. Peter does not tell these Jews that they had to change their lives in terms of obeying the Law or Torah. The people listening to Peter are described as “God-fearing Jews” who already worshiped and obeyed God (2:5; 5:9). They are presented as blameless in keeping the laws. These Jews did not need to repent of what we commonly think of as law-breaking. As devout Jews, they had been careful to keep the law.
Then to what is Peter referring when he tells these people to repent? Peter tells them to repent by asking them to enter a new relationship with Jesus as their resurrected Savior. The context makes Peter’s purpose clear. He begins by pointing the people to Jesus, whom they had rejected and their leaders had killed (2:22). Throughout the sermon, Peter hammers away at a single point: Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and people must put their faith in him. This turning to Jesus in faith is summarized as a simple charge: “Repent and be baptized” (2:38).
What are these Jews to repent of? It is their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior! In the context of Peter’s sermon, “to repent” means to change one’s mind about Jesus — to experience him — to accept him as Savior — to place total faith in him. For these Jews, repentance and conversion did not necessarily involve a change of worship practices. In fact, Jewish followers of Jesus continued to worship at synagogue and temple — and they maintained their ancestral traditions. But it did require a new faith toward God and his Messiah.
Repentance and faith are two aspects of the same change of orientation that occurs in converted humans. As we’re told in Acts 20:21, through the words of Paul, one “must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” While we are commanded by God to repent (17:30), to have our sins forgiven (2:38), and to have faith — humanly speaking, we are incapable of doing any of these things. These are all gifts of God that are bestowed on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Ultimately, faith and repentance and forgiveness are also gifts of God. [Ephesians 2:8; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25.]
The need for baptism (2:38)
Peter also speaks of an important act that is associated with receiving the empowering Holy Spirit. That was water baptism, which is an external token of belief in Jesus as Savior. Peter urges his audience to be baptized, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38). Throughout Acts, when people express faith in Jesus, they are then baptized.
Baptism in water continued to be the visible sign by which those who believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and acknowledged Jesus as Lord were publicly incorporated into the Spirit-baptized fellowship of the new people of God. [Bruce, 70.]
The Jews were already familiar with baptism as a ritual required for people who wanted to have their sins forgiven. John the Baptist baptized people who repented (Matthew 3:6, 11; Luke 3:7, 16). Even Jesus insisted on being baptized (Matthew 3:15). But, beginning at Pentecost, there are two new features about baptism. First, it is administered in Jesus’ name. It requires faith in Jesus as Savior. Second, it is associated with the Holy Spirit.
However, Acts does not demonstrate a clear-cut sequence of, 1. Water baptism, 2. Laying on of hands, 3. Spirit baptism — as if baptism itself (and laying on of hands) had some inherent spiritual power as actions with guaranteed results. Baptism is not magic, but a formal and symbolic statement of one’s intentions — an outward rite. Luke seems to go out of his way to show that there is no formula or fixed sequence of acts involved in receiving the Spirit. Cornelius and his family received the Spirit before they were baptized (10:44-48). Some disciples of John the Baptist who had been baptized still had not received the Holy Spirit, perhaps years later (19:1-7). Not until Paul laid his hands on these individuals, did they receive the Spirit. And in the baptism of 3,000 people described in Acts 2, Luke did not mention any “laying on of hands.”
Luke does not give us a clear-cut pattern of how and when the Spirit is given. However, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit are associated together. What we see is that water baptism is an important ritual in which the individual makes public a confession in Jesus. The laying on of hands signals the acceptance of that individual by the community of believers.
In the name of Jesus (2:38-39)
Believers should be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38). The “name” refers not to a special pronunciation of consonants and vowels, but to Jesus himself — his person, his power and his presence. This phrase “in the name of Jesus” recurs throughout Acts in many circumstances. It denotes the power and authority through which the church carries out its activities. [See Acts 3:6, 16; 4:10, 12, 17-18, 30: 5:28, 40-41; 8:12; 9:16, 21, 27, 28; 15:26; 16:18; 19:13, 17; 21:13; 22:16; 26:9.]
In baptism, it was customary to make an outward confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. [Acts 8:37; 11:17; 16:31; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11.] The phrase “in the name of Jesus” is an expression of faith, as well as a commitment to Jesus, in all that this might entail. The desire to repent and commit, along with willingness to make a public statement of both through baptism, is associated with a person experiencing the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We should distinguish the gift of the Spirit from the gifts of the Spirit. Gifts of the Spirit are various spiritual abilities given to people in the church, to be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). The gift of the Holy Spirit, however, is the Spirit himself, given to all who have faith in Jesus. This Spirit ministers all aspects of God’s salvation to all believers. By this gift, all are Spirit-baptized into one body, the church (verse 13).
In all cases, this baptism is dependent on God’s will — “all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). Luke indicates that any conversions that occur are not the result of human programs or energy. They depend on the calling of God, as Jesus had stated (John 6:44).
“Be saved” (2:40-41)
Peter’s speech ends with the wonderful promise that his listeners would receive God’s Spirit and become part of the people of God. Luke summarizes Peter’s plea with a sentence: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (2:40). Peter’s phrase is actually in the passive tense, “be saved,” but most English translations obscure this important fact. We cannot “save ourselves,” whether by repentance or any other action. Salvation is an act of God, not something we can do on our own. Grammarians call this “the divine passive,” with God understood to be the one doing the work. A better translation is, “Let God save you from this corrupt generation.” He does the work, if we do not reject his call.
The thought of verse 40 (“be saved”) picks up the sense of Joel’s prophecy mentioned in verse 21: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter is not telling his listeners to “do” something, except to respond to what God has already done. He is telling them to take advantage of the promise offered to them by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah. They were to “be saved” from a corrupt generation in Jerusalem and Judea by becoming part of a remnant people accepted by God.
Eternal salvation was the main issue, but those who accepted Peter’s call to repent could also be “saved” (if they lived long enough) from the nation’s terrible future. Jerusalem and Judea were heading toward the destructive Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 a.d. Those who had faith in Jesus could escape what was coming upon the nation (Luke 21:20-24, with Matthew 24:15-18; Mark 13:14-16).
About 3,000 people accepted Peter’s challenge to be baptized that Pentecost day. (We don’t know how many refused and mocked.) From this single apostolic sermon on one day, more people became disciples of Jesus than during the entire time of Jesus’ public ministry. The promise of Jesus, that his disciples would perform greater works than he had, was true (John 14:12).