Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 2
The Day of Pentecost (2:1)
The day called “Pentecost” is named after the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fiftieth.” It was the only Old Testament festival determined by counting. On the day after the Sabbath after Passover, the ancient Israelites selected a sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring. This grain became an offering, and the priest waved it “before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:11-12). Pentecost was observed in ancient Israel on the 50th day after this (verse 15). Since seven weeks elapsed between the day of the first grain offering and the beginning of Pentecost, this holy day was sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. [Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15; Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16:9-12.]
The grain was harvested after the token of the first gleaning of the grain was given as an offering. Since the counting of Pentecost was tied to this event and it came at the end of the spring grain harvest, Pentecost was sometimes called the Feast of the Harvest and Day of First Fruits (Exodus 23:16; Numbers 28:26).
Judaism came to regard Pentecost as the anniversary of the giving of the old covenant and law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20–24). It is not surprising, then, that Pentecost would have a symbolic meaning for the church. It was the day when God once again manifested himself in a unique way, signaling a new relationship between God and his people. As William Neil summarizes it:
Pentecost had also come to signify for Jews the commemoration of the giving of the Law at Sinai fifty days after the Exodus Passover. For Luke this, too, would be seen as having a Christian fulfilment in the giving of the Spirit fifty days after the Christian Exodus Passover, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 72).]
The Spirit coming in human minds was a kind of “second giving of the law”; the Spirit replaced the law as the guide for God’s people. It was, in Paul’s expression, “the law of the Spirit who gives life,” which came through the new righteousness that is in Christ (Romans 8:1-2). The Spirit-filled church made possible by Pentecost existed in some continuity with Israel. But there was a distinction as well between the age of Torah (law) and the age of Spirit, between old and new Israel. The law had no power to bring anyone into true communion with God, because it could not be followed in faith, being “weakened by the flesh” (verse 3). A new covenant was required, in which “the Spirit of Christ” (verse 9) was made available to sinning humans.
In the Pentecost experience, the Spirit becomes, in Paul’s words, “the righteousness of God has been made known…apart from the law…to which the Law and Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21). The Holy Spirit is given by God as a gift of faith to those who believe in Jesus Christ (verse 22). This makes it possible for humans to experience oneness with God through the connecting link of spiritual love. As Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).
The old Jewish faith had been Torah- or law-centered, modeled after the requirements of the Mosaic covenant. The new faith was Christ-centered and Spirit-directed — with a new covenant of the Spirit. Pentecost, as the festival of first-fruits, would be an appropriate occasion for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. On this day, the “first-fruits” of disciples would be transformed by the Spirit as a token or representative offering, giving evidence that one day all the nations would seek God, and his truth would cover the earth (Isaiah 2:2-3, 11:9).
A sound like a violent wind (2:2)
On that extraordinary first New Testament Pentecost, the disciples were gathered in “one place” (2:2). Some think they were in the temple. The disciples were frequently at the temple during these days, praising God (Luke 24:53), and this would certainly be a good place to attract a large crowd. However, there is no other indication that the disciples were in the temple. The place may have been the same upper room where the disciples met together, or some other location (Acts 1:13). Wherever it was that the disciples were gathered, they began to experience powerful miracles.
First was the sound of a hurricane-like wind (Greek, pneuma) (2:3). Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek pneuma can mean either wind or spirit (the context determines this). The wind was a physical manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wind symbolized the Spirit of God, even as did the dove that alighted on Christ at his baptism (John 1:32; 3:8). The sound of a strong wind is also reminiscent of Old Testament theophanies in which God manifested himself (Ezekiel 13:13). The audience on Pentecost morning probably readily connected the sound of the wind to the thunder and trumpet sounds that accompanied God’s presence in the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:18). The loud sound of this wind also had a practical result: It attracted God-fearing Jews who were curious as to what was happening.
Tongues of fire (2:3)
The Jews were doubly awed by a second sign that reaffirmed the presence of the Holy Spirit. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3). They appeared to be individual “tongues,” not that each tongue was divided or forked. Fire was another symbol of the divine presence. Yahweh appeared to Moses in flames coming from a bush (Exodus 3:2-5). Fire was a frequent feature of Old Testament theophanies, especially those surrounding the Exodus and the giving of the law. [Exodus 13:21-22; 14:24; 19:18; 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:12, 24, 33; 5:4; 10:4.]
John the Baptist had spoken of the Messiah carrying out a baptism of the Holy Spirit (hence, “wind”) and fire (Luke 3:16). For the disciples as well, these signs were instructive. They understood that Jesus Christ was bringing to fruition something he had promised (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5, 8).
Filled with the Holy Spirit (2:4)
These two signs — the wind and fire — were the outward demonstration of what was happening inside the disciples. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The church — the Israel of the Spirit — was born through the Holy Spirit, and the disciples were spiritually transformed. All Christians continue to participate in the internal transformation that Pentecost symbolizes. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit upon conversion. [Acts 2:38; 9:17; 11:17; 19:2; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 6:4; 1 John 3:24.]
Speak in various languages (2:4, 6-12)
On that first Pentecost a third manifestation of the Spirit’s presence occurred. The disciples began to speak in other languages (“tongues”), “as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). Simple Galileans appeared to have sudden skill in most of the languages spoken in that region of the world. The supernatural aspect of this was not lost on the hearers, who were “utterly amazed” (2:7). More than this, each person in the crowd heard the disciples speaking in his own native language (2:8). The Greek literally means, “We are hearing in our own language in which we were born.” The various local languages of these Jews’ original homelands were being spoken.
But why speak in local languages? Many Jews spoke Aramaic, especially if they had settled in Judea. But even if they were from the Dispersion, they probably spoke the one language almost everyone could speak — Greek. Luke’s account makes it clear that the “tongues” were real languages, and they could be understood. What the listeners needed was not an interpretation of the words, but an explanation of the sound of wind, the fire, and why various languages were being spoken by ordinary Galileans.
The basic purpose of the miracle of languages was not simply to communicate. Greek would have been sufficient for that purpose. The miracles, including the speaking in languages, were meant to get the attention of the crowd and have them wonder what was happening. They certainly accomplished that. As the perplexed Jews themselves asked, “What does this mean?” (2:12).
Jews from every nation (2:5, 8-11)
Before Peter explains the events of the day, let us look at the international flavor of the crowd that had gathered. Luke tells us there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in Jerusalem (2:5). Among the crowd there were also converts or “proselytes” from paganism to Judaism (2:11). The multitude was made up of devout Jews and proselytes, who were in Jerusalem to worship God during the festival of Pentecost.
One authority estimated that over 100,000 people attended Passover in Jesus’ day. Josephus wrote of the large crowds in Jerusalem for this feast. [Josephus, Antiquities 14:337; 17:254; Wars 1:253; 2:42-43.] Jews would come to the city from throughout the Roman Empire, and from eastern kingdoms. The number of visitors at Pentecost was probably smaller, although still substantial. Philo (20 B.C.–A.D. 50), a Jewish philosopher from Egypt who lived at the same time as Jesus and Paul, said that there were “vast numbers of Jews scattered over every city of Asia and Syria.” [Philo, Embassy to Gaius 245.] He claimed that there were about a million Jews in Egypt, though historians think his figure is inflated. But no one doubts that the Jewish population of Alexandria was large. [Philo, Flaccus 43, 55.]
Luke’s list of countries from which Jews had come is interesting. Why only 15 countries, why those in particular, and why the order he listed them in? The answers are not clear. But some things about the list can be inferred. Luke’s list begins with three countries east of the Roman Empire — Parthia, Media and Elam, in the area of modern Iran. Luke then moves westward to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Judea. He then mentions various provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) — Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Next, Luke skips to North Africa — to Egypt, Libya and Cyrene.
Luke also mentions “visitors from Rome,” which included Jews and converts (2:11). This may have something to do with Luke’s desire to show the gospel message penetrating Rome, capital of the Empire. Some of these visitors who were in Jerusalem on Pentecost may have returned to form the nucleus of the church in Rome. As we shall see, the gospel message reached Rome years before Paul did. Rome had a large Jewish population. One scholar estimated it at about 40,000, though there is no way to be sure. The spread of Christian teaching in the synagogues of Rome by the “visitors” may have led to riots, perhaps about a.d. 50. This may be what caused the Roman emperor Claudius (a.d. 41-54) to issue an edict calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2).
After mentioning the Roman Jews, Luke ends his list with references to people from the Mediterranean island of Crete, and then Arabs. It has been called an odd list with a number of countries given in a strange order. We can infer that this list was meant to indicate that people from all over the Roman world, and parts east, were at Jerusalem. If these people were pilgrims and returned to their native lands, they would have told people about the Pentecost event far and wide.
The appearance of Judea — and its location in the list — is especially odd (2:9). As one commentator points out, this “involves the curious anomaly of inhabitants of Judea being amazed to hear the apostles speak in their own language.” [Longenecker, 273.] A number of solutions have been offered. One is that Judea as the land of the Jews was prophetically held to stretch from the Euphrates River to the Egyptian border. That is, it would represent the territory once controlled by Kings David and Solomon. This would explain Judea’s place in the list and why Syria is not mentioned. Such “Judeans” would have spoken a number of local dialects in a vast territory. However, it is unlikely that Luke’s readers would have this in mind.
There is also a question as to whether these Jews were pilgrims or had moved to live in Jerusalem. Some scholars see these Jews as pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. However, other scholars say they were permanent residents of Jerusalem. They had returned to the home country, much as Jews in modern times have returned to Israel. Longenecker writes,
Contrary to many who have assumed that the Jews mentioned here were pilgrims to Jerusalem coming for the Pentecost festival, it is more probable that they were residents of Jerusalem who had returned from the Diaspora lands…at some earlier time to settle down in the homeland. [Ibid., 272.]
The existence of a permanent mixed Jewish population in Jerusalem is supported by Acts 6:9. Also, the contrast between “visitors from Rome” (2:10) and those staying or “dwelling” in Jerusalem strengthens the point that most of those in the list had become permanent residents of Jerusalem. Whatever the situation, Luke’s point is clear. The miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit was witnessed in Jerusalem by Jews from all over the world. Many of these individuals from far-flung international areas believed the gospel and received the Spirit. They were later scattered because of persecution and “preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4).
They are not drunk (2:13-15)
As the disciples rose to speak, it was clear that not everyone in the crowd was impressed by the miracles and signs. Luke tells us, “Some…made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine’” (2:13). So 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 2:28 reads, “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).
Fellowship of believers (2:42-43)
Luke next describes the communal life of the first Jewish converts in Jerusalem: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, were in fellowship with each other, ate together, and prayed (2:42). Let’s examine briefly each of these characteristics.
The disciples devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching.” The apostles had no particular credentials as teachers in terms of being recognized religious authorities. None of the apostles had any formal religious training. They had been fishermen, tax collectors and ordinary citizens. Yet, it was clear to the believers that the apostles had come in the power and authority of Jesus. They had the experience of being with Jesus and being taught by him directly. For these reasons, the new converts were careful to listen to and put into practice the apostles’ teachings.
The believers devoted themselves to “fellowship.” The use of the definite article in Greek, “the fellowship,” implies that the account has reference to some type of specific gathering. While Jesus must have been the focus of these meetings, the Jerusalem disciples no doubt maintained something of the flavor of their Jewish roots.
The believers in Jerusalem were devoted to prayer (2:42). Once again, the definite article and the plural (“the prayers”) suggest that Luke is referring to specific prayers or times of prayer. The apostles attended Jewish prayer services in the temple (3:1) and the converts met in the temple (2:46). It wouldn’t be surprising if their prayers followed Jewish models, although the content would be different because such prayers would often concern Jesus and be offered in his name. Prayer is a regular feature of Luke’s narrative. [See the following examples: Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 4:24-31; 6:4, 6; 9:40; 10:2, 4, 9, 31; 11:5; 12:5; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 22:17; 28:8.]
Breaking of bread
The other activity the disciples devoted themselves to was “the breaking of bread” (2:42). There has been much controversy about what Luke had in mind here. Some commentators interpret the “breaking of bread” as nothing more than an ordinary meal. Others see the disciples as engaging in a Jewish fellowship meal. This is a reasonable deduction, since these believers were Jews and would have adapted customs natural to them. All meals had religious significance for Jews. Meals began with a prayer of thanksgiving and included a ceremonial breaking of bread. It’s reasonable to suppose that these Jews, now following Jesus, would have continued and extended the meaning of their communal meal.
The apostles would have taught these disciples that Jesus broke bread and gave thanks at meals. More specifically, Jesus’ breaking of the bread at the last supper would have taken on great significance (Luke 24:35). Some biblical scholars therefore see this as the first love or agape feast (Jude 12). Some call the reference to the breaking of bread the beginning of the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. They point to the use of the definite article in “the bread” as an indication that a particular meal was in view here.
When Luke uses the expression “the breaking of bread” he sometimes means the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). But on other occasions “the breaking of bread” seems to refer to an ordinary meal. [Luke 24:30, 35; Acts 20:11; 27:35.] There is logic in seeing this communal “breaking of bread” as a meal that had religious significance in terms of its connection to Jesus. Luke emphasized the association between meals and Jesus’ presence in his Gospel (Luke 24:41-42; Acts 1:4; 10:41).
William Willimon perhaps gives us the best way to view this controversial topic of “the breaking of the bread”:
The gathering of the fellowship at the table is another tangible, visible expression of the work of the Spirit among the new community. Go through the Gospel of Luke and note all occasions when “he was at table with them.” Each dinner-time episode in Luke is a time of fellowship, revelation, and controversy…. Eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity, and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers which once plagued these people have broken down. Whether this “breaking of bread” is a reference to our Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is a matter of debate. Probably, Peter’s church of Luke’s day would not know our distinction between the church merely breaking bread and the church breaking bread as a sacramental religious activity. In good Jewish fashion, when the blessing is said at the table, the table becomes a holy place and eating together a sacred activity…. Perhaps every meal for the church was experienced as an anticipation of the Messianic banquet, a foretaste of Jesus’ promise that his followers would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). [Willimon, 41.]
All things in common (2:44-45)
Luke next describes how the community of believers in Jerusalem “had everything in common” (2:44). He gives more details in 4:32-5:11, and it will be discussed more when we reach that section. Suffice it to say here that the statement has led to some misleading views of what Christian communities should be like. Luke was not telling us that the church should practice “Christian communism.” Luke was describing a voluntary sharing of some possessions, on an as-needed basis (2:45). This will become clear as we study this and other passages related to the issue. Having “everything in common” was an ideal practiced by this close-knit church in this one city, under extraordinary times. Acts is history, not law. It is not presenting us with a practice that should be normalized for the church as a whole.
We should not assume that all of the Jerusalem Christians were required to sell all of their goods and pool their resources. For one thing, the selling of goods is done voluntarily — otherwise the generous gift of Barnabas (4:36-37) would not be worthy of note. In addition, Luke depicts the selling of possessions to meet community needs an ongoing process rather than as a one-time total divestment. He envisions a community where everyone is concerned about everyone else and willing to part with their possessions on behalf of others when the need requires. The ideal is repeated in Acts, on an even grander scale. When a famine spreads throughout the world and [Judea] is hit especially hard, the church in Antioch of Syria makes provisions to help its suffering neighbors in Jerusalem (11:27-30). [Mark Allan Powell, What Are They Saying About Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1991), page 78.]
The Greek phrase Luke used here, apanta koina (“everything in common”) may allude to the Hellenistic idea that “friends hold all things in common.” The phrase was widely used as a feature of utopian or ideal societies. [Plato, Republic 449C.]
A Hellenistic reader would recognize in Luke’s description the sort of “foundation story” that was rather widespread in Hellenistic literature. An early example is Plato’s Critias, which pictures the early days of Athens as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 62.]
Luke wrote to Theophilus, who was probably a thoroughly Hellenized Roman. To such a person, Luke would have been saying that the Holy Spirit had made possible a reality that approached the highest and most ideal aspirations of the philosophers. At the same time, this group of Christians “who had everything in common” matched the idealism of Jewish communal groups. The Essenes, for example, practiced a form of communal ownership of property and goods. [Philo, Every Good Man is Free 12.75, 85-87.]
The Jerusalem disciples, living a quasi-communal lifestyle, also strove to fulfill the promise of Moses. Israel had been promised that if the nation obeyed God, there would be no poor, because he would bless them (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). As the “righteous remnant” in Christ, these Jewish disciples may have wanted to see this condition of life fulfilled within their group. What we have then is an idealistic group of Jewish Christians attempting to live an ideal life of sharing and giving. But it was not quite what it seemed, as we shall see later. Nor was it a lifestyle mandated for all Christians in all places at all times. Even as an ideal in this one place, it faltered and led to controversy (5:1-11; 6:1-6; 11:29), something we will take up in later chapters.
In the temple courts (2:46)
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
This group of enthusiastic Jerusalem Christians met in the temple courts every day (2:46; see also 3:11 and 5:12). By telling us about this, Luke is showing that they continued to follow their accustomed forms of Jewish worship. The part of the temple area they met in was Solomon’s colonnade, on the east side of the outer court.
As Jews who were Christians and also Christians who were Jews, they not only considered Jerusalem to be their city but continued to regard the temple as their sanctuary and the Law as their law. Evidently they thought of themselves as the faithful remnant within Israel for whose sake all the institutions and customs of the nation existed. [Longenecker, 291.]
At the same time, “they broke bread in their homes and ate together” (2:46). The converts seemed to spend a good deal of time each day in social interaction. Those who live frenetic lives in modern Western society can only wonder at how they found time to fellowship so frequently. The fact that they ate in each other’s homes indicates that these disciples did not sell everything they owned and give all the proceeds to a communal pool. They still owned their own homes.
The original group of 3,000 increased each day as “the Lord added to their number” those who were being saved (2:47). God’s calling is instrumental in bringing people to Christ, and Luke was careful to point this out. He maintained this viewpoint on conversion throughout Acts (2:39, 47; 5:14; 11:24). The church today, in all its evangelistic and discipling programs, should remember this.