In our journey through Acts, we arrive today at Peter’s speech in chapter 2. It’s Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit has come upon each believer, giving them the ability to speak the gospel in the language of all those visiting Jerusalem from around the empire. This amazes everyone (although some think they’re just drunk). Peter then gets up to explain to the crowd the significance of this miraculous sign – it’s not spirits, it’s the Spirit:
Acts 2:14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”
This prophecy in Joel is linked with Jewish expectation of the day of the Lord, when his people would truly return from exile. The spiritual phenomena the crowd is seeing is a sign that this was being fulfilled among them. Peter reminds them that (if they are faithful Jews) this is what they’ve been waiting for – the day God acts to save his people. He continues:Acts 2:22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
Peter accuses the crowd of being complicit in Jesus’ death. He points to the actions performed by Jesus, along with his resurrection, as evidence that God was on his side. He links this with David’s expectation that God’s “holy one” would not remain dead:Acts 2:25 David said about him: “‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, 27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’
This confidence David had is fulfilled in a far greater way in David’s descendant, Jesus:Acts 2:29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”‘ 36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
He brings it home, showing that Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates his identity as the Messiah (whom they killed, just in case they missed the point the first time). What’s their response to this powerful speech?Acts 2:37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “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 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Three thousand people in one day. (Up from one hundred and twenty, if you remember from last week. The mustard seed is sprouting.)
The content of this speech is significant for what’s going on at this point in the Acts narrative. Remember last week how the apostles had been given Jesus’ authority (he’s the one “accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” in today’s passage), and then the power of the Spirit to back them up? The next few chapters tell the story of how they make that a reality, slowly establishing themselves as the ones who speak for God. This speech, as recorded by Luke, lays the groundwork.
Firstly, it claims that the apostles are the authorised witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (v32).
Secondly, it shows how all of this is the fulfilment of Old Testament expectation. This wasn’t something new that should have caught everyone by surprise – it was what the should have expecting all along, if they were following along in their programmes. Which makes them culpable – and the Jewish leaders doubly culpable – for rejecting Jesus and having him crucified (v23, 36). Having rejected Jesus, the only right response is repentance – and to acknowledge that the apostles are now God’s spokespeople, not the religious leaders. (This theme will continue in chapters 3-5, as we see the power of the Temple establishment get challenged and slowly slip away.)
So what’s the significance for us?
Although we’re not inhabitants of first century Jerusalem, it reminds us of a couple of things:
Firstly, the apostles are the authorised witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection! Their testimony, collected in what we now call the New Testament, is the basis of our faith. This is a real, historical event with documentary evidence to support it. (One such document was written implicitly as history, if you remember our discussion of genre last Monday.) Luke here records one of the first speeches given in evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
Secondly, although “fulfilment of Jewish expectations” is a little less important for us, remember that the majority of Luke’s audience isn’t Jewish either. Theophilus may well have been a “God fearer” (Gentile synagogue adherent who hadn’t fully converted to Judaism), but many others in Luke’s Gentile readership would not have been. Yet the continuity of faith in Jesus with Judaism is still very important to such readers: in an age where newfangled religions were coming and going among the superstitious peasant classes, the educated classes tended only to respect religions with a long history. By establishing that faith in Jesus was the fulfilment of Judaism, Luke shows his readers (like Theophilus) that it isn’t just another mystery cult fashionable this year among the masses – it was something that’s been around for a long time. Even a polytheistic society like Rome gave a grudging respect to the antiquity of the Jewish monotheistic faith. The gospel isn’t just 2000-years-young. It’s been God’s plan right from the start, birthed from when he chose that hairy nomad called Abram to be the means through which he would bless all nations. Perhaps our pluralistic society might need reminding of that, too.