Preaching in Acts: Peter on Pentecost
Momentous events had descended upon Jerusalem. Visitors who had come from all over the known world began to hear the mighty works of God told to them in their own language, and by ignorant men from Galilee at that! Some may have felt those speaking were drunk, but many wanted to know what these things meant. Peter from Galilee would explain these things, and the world would never be the same again.
These events took place in 30 or 33 of our era. This was around fifty days after Jesus died and rose again from the dead and ten days after Jesus ascended into the heavens (Acts 1:1-2:4). The occasion was the day of Pentecost: the Feast of Weeks, simultaneously celebrating the harvest and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and an event for which many Jewish people would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate (Exodus 19:1, 20:1-20, Leviticus 23:15-22, Numbers 28:26). The timing was perfect to proclaim an important message for Israel, as attested by the number and variety of Israelites present in Acts 2:8-11. The Holy Spirit had filled the Apostles so as to be able to proclaim the Gospel in a variety of different languages (Acts 2:4-12); the Apostles now had the attention of all the Israelites who heard these things.
Peter took full advantage of the situation. He summoned the men of Jerusalem and Judea to listen to him, and refuted the charge of drunkenness: it was only the third hour, or 9 A.M. (Acts 2:14-15). He then explained to the Israelites how what they were seeing fulfilled what God had promised them through the prophet Joel: God would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh, would show wonders in the heavens and on earth, and whoever would call on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:16-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32).
Yet Peter did not quote Joel’s entire message, and for good reason: Joel’s hope for salvation of Israel had found its fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and Peter then bore witness to what God had accomplished through Him. After appealing to the men of Israel to hear his words, Peter spoke of Jesus and how God had approved of Him based upon all the signs and wonders He accomplished and which those very Israelites had seen. Peter spoke of how Jesus died, not as an accident, but according to God’s determined counsel and foreknowledge and carried out at the hands of lawless men. Jesus had died, but it proved impossible for death to hold on to Him: God had raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:22-24). Peter then appealed to the witness of David in Psalm 16:8-11: David spoke of one whose soul would not be left in Sheol, or see corruption, and yet David’s tomb was in Jerusalem to that day. David, therefore, spoke of his Descendant, Jesus the Christ, who would rise from the dead (Acts 2:25-31)!
Peter then added apostolic witness to David’s prophecy, testifying of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as a witness, along with his fellow Apostles, and declared that Jesus poured out the Spirit upon the Apostles since He had been exalted at the right hand of God and had received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father (Acts 2:32-33). Peter would again appeal to David’s testimony: David had written Psalm 110:1, yet had not himself ascended into the heavens; therefore, he was speaking prophetically of Jesus’ ascension and exaltation to the right hand of power (Acts 2:34-35). Peter then reached the climax of his message to Israel: God had made him both Lord and Christ, the ruler and king, this Jesus, whom they had crucified (Acts 2:36).
The Israelites present were profoundly moved and shaken by what they had heard. They had thought Jesus was a pretender; He was not the Messiah for whom they hoped. Yet now they saw God’s powerful hand at work in these men who were testifying how God had made Jesus their ruler. They came to the terrible and awful realization: they had killed the King God had sent them! They wanted to know what they should do (Acts 2:37); Peter told them to repent, be immersed in water in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of their sins, and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Peter would go on to exhort them further, summarized by Luke as “save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). Three thousand heard and received this word from Peter and were baptized. Jesus’ Kingdom had been inaugurated; the church had begun.
In the first sermon on Pentecost we see the Gospel in all its fullness: the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship of Jesus. Peter spoke to Israelites who had traveled for Pentecost: he knew they fervently believed in the God of Israel and hoped in the promise of the Messiah to come. They even had heard of the things Jesus had accomplished; many were eyewitnesses of what God had accomplished through Him. Peter did not rely on sly rhetorical techniques, smoke and mirrors, or any kind of subterfuge: he answered the question of all of the Israelites who had seen what God had accomplished through them: the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Apostles based on the promise given to Joel, and it was only possible because Jesus lived, died, was raised, and ascended to the Father, and was given all authority. Peter put the emphasis on witness: he appealed to the witness of David in the Psalms, and paired it with the witness of the Apostles regarding Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Peter did not even appeal to the vanity of the Israelites in any way: his focus was thoroughly on Jesus as the Lord and Christ of Israel. Yes, Jesus died for the sins of the Israelites, but Peter did not mention it. It was enough to declare that God had made Jesus Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth; if the Israelites accepted this claim, they would know how they would need to submit to His rule and follow Him.
The day of Pentecost proved momentous in the history of the world: a small movement featuring one man who had worked with twelve disciples now numbered in the thousands. From this beginning the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return would spread further in Israel and would eventually sound forth throughout the known world. While people would have to explain certain aspects of the message in greater detail, or provide greater emphasis on some parts over others, the basic paradigm would continue: God accomplished all He had promised to Israel through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return, and the prophets and Apostles bore witness to these things, and now you ought to serve Jesus because He is Lord and Christ, and the promise of the Holy Spirit in His name is given to all in every generation who hear and receive the calling of God in Christ (cf. Acts 2:39). Peter’s message remains powerful and effective almost two thousand years after he first spoke it, for its substance remains true. May we all call on Jesus as Lord and Christ, submit to His purposes in obedient faith, and serve Him in His Kingdom to be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry