Thoughts on Peter’s Pentecost Sermon

Many decades ago, my youth group had one of those spirit-filled experiences at church camp that change the direction of your life. It was almost enough to make us wonder whether we knew anything at all about being a Christian before the spirit fell on us. We ran up and down the mountain in the rain singing songs that I’m much too sophisticated to sing today. We felt that we were just like the church given birth on Pentecost and I remember writing on the cabin wall, “The Holy Spirit was here” (because, obviously, the Holy Spirit wanted me to commit an act of vandalism).

Turning in my Bible to the story of Pentecost, the phrase that I most remember identifying with was, “They have had too much wine.” Even though I had not yet reached the legal drinking age, I had some familiarity with what the church’s critics were suggesting. What was happening to us in the mountains was far better.

When I reached the part of the Pentecost story with Peter’s sermon, however, I lost interest. It seemed rather flat and ordinary. Jesus performed miracles. He died. He rose again. Blah blah blah. That’s what I learned in Sunday School when I was a young child. Surely there was something more important for Peter to say. Pentecost deserved better.

In the past four decades, I have turned 180 degrees in my appreciation for Acts 2. I no longer care much about the experiential aspects of the Acts 2:1-13, except to give thanks that God poured out his spirit on the church. I don’t see Acts 2:1-13 as a general model for the Christian life. I am, however, in love with Peter’s speech.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon is not primarily about the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s mostly about Jesus. In contrast to the raw power demonstrated in the Pentecostal winds, tongues of fire and miraculous glossolalia, Peter’s speech is quite ordinary. It’s heavy on rational propositions and arguments and fairly light on emotion (if accusing someone of murder can be considered “light”). It’s not a speech that one might mistake for the utterances of a drunken reveler. How does a matter-of-fact speech like this lead 3000 people to completely reorient their lives, align themselves with the crucified and risen messiah and “be added to their number that day” through Christian baptism?

The Life Changing Story of Salvation

Here’s what Peter said that changed so many lives.

God accredited Jesus to the descendants of Israel by miracles, wonders and signs. With God’s foreknowledge and in accordance with God’s plan, however, Jesus was handed over (passive voice) to the Jews of Jerusalem who then put Jesus to death with the assistance of wicked men who crucified him. God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby freeing him from the suffering and permanency of the grave. Peter and his assembly are witnesses of these divine acts.

God exalted Jesus to his right hand, making him both Lord and Messiah. From this exalted position, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit, the evidence of which Peter’s audience has just witnessed. The giving of the spirit to all God’s people anticipates the coming great and glorious day of the Lord, and making it possible for all who call on the name of the Lord to be saved.

Peter’s story of salvation sounds remarkably like aspects of the Apostles’ Creed, complete with the reference to Hades (v. 31). More significantly, this is the same framework we see in Luke’s gospel: Jesus performed wonders “by the finger of God” as a sign of the kingdom’s presence (Luke 11:20). He was crucified. God raised him from the dead. After rising from the dead, Jesus announced that he would send the “promise of the Father” (Luke 24:49). Then he ascended into the heavens. Peter’s speech, then, briefly recapitulates what Luke has just told his readers in the first volume of Luke-Acts. As I have slowly learned, the story of Jesus in the gospels IS the Gospel. It is the good news of God’s saving acts in Jesus.

According to the Scriptures

Peter’s speech appeals to two prophetic authorities to undergird his argument: David and Joel.

In the Psalms, Peter saw David as a prophet looking forward to the resurrection of the messiah.

You will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
(Psalm16:9-11)

Since David is dead (and everyone knows where his tomb is located), Peter reasoned that David must have been prophesying about someone else – one of David’s descendants – that is, Jesus.

Neither did David ascend into heaven, Peter noted, yet David said.

The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” (Psalm 110:1)

In Peter’s thinking, this is a suggestion of Jesus’ ascension and exaltation to the right hand of God.

And in Joel 2:28-32, Peter saw a prediction of the Pentecost event set within an eschatological framework.

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. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

In Joel’s mind, those who would call on the name of the Lord were the faithful survivors of a national disaster wrought by the hand of Judah’s covenant God. Peter sees something significantly different, something more universal in scope and more cosmic in character.

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

Luke records that John the Baptist prophesied about a mighty one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). On Pentecost, Luke tells us that tongues of fire alighted over every believer as a mighty wind (spirit) blew through the place where the disciples were gathered. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter promised that those who are baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah will also receive the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s speech, then, portrays the coming of the Holy Spirit in this schema:

  • The prophet Joel prophesied its outpouring in the last days.
  • Jesus, risen and exalted, received it from the Father and poured it out.
  • All who repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus will receive it.

As a “last days” gift (according to the prophet Joel), Luke interprets the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as empowering the church between Jesus’ resurrection (or in Luke, his ascension) and the coming of what Joel described as the “great and glorious day of the Lord.” For Luke, this “day of the Lord” is the day when the Son of Man will come “come in a cloud with great power and glory.” (Luke 21:27) Luke’s outlook is ultimately apocalyptic.

Luke associates the coming of the Holy Spirit with the church’s witness. The final words of Jesus which the Gospel of Luke records are these:

This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46-49)

And as Acts begins, Jesus makes the same point:

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:4-8)

In his sermon, Peter announced that “we are all witnesses” of Jesus’ resurrection. Peter’s plain-vanilla witness testimony gets results because it has the power of God’s Holy Spirit behind it, just as Jesus promised.

Without the Holy Spirit, no amount of eloquence, emotion or charismatic appeal will achieve God’s results. With the Holy Spirit, even a simple word of testimony will work wonders.

If the primary result of the Holy Spirit’s presence relates to the effectual proclamation of Jesus’ story, the bestowing of the Holy Spirit on all baptized believers creates a chain reaction of church growth. Every new believer becomes a part of the church’s empowered witness.

This is the sense in which in which Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled. With Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit now makes categories such as priest and prophet, sage and scribe, irrelevant. Although it’s true that the outpouring of God’s spirit on “all people” has created a radically non-hierarchical state of affairs in Christ’s church, Luke is not particularly interested in individual religious experiences or egalitarian social structures. For Luke, it’s not just that both men and women make ecstatic utterances or that both young and old have mystical visions. Rather, all believers are a part of the church’s spirit-empowered witness, enabling others to call on the life-saving name of the Lord.

Murder in the Family

Although Peter’s words appear to be a dispassionate recitation of the gospel story, in context they are also very personal and immediately relevant to the audience’s experience. Three times Peter addresses the crowd with a two-word phrase in the vocative case that begins with the word “men”: ἀνδρες. These “Men, Judeans” and “Men, Israelites” whom Peter addresses are not just Judeans or Israelites in the abstract. Peter is not talking about somebody else, a race or a religion. He’s talking to the family of which he is a part. These Judeans and Israeliates are also ἀνδρες ἀδελφοί: “Men, brothers.”

Specifically, they are people who dwell in Jerusalem. It has been a scant seven weeks since Jesus’ crucifixion. When Peter says that Jesus “was handed over to you” and “you put him to death with the help of wicked men by nailing him to a cross,” again he is not speaking in the abstract about the Jewish religion or Jewish ethnicity. He is speaking to people who were direct participants in the divine drama of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem.

Salvation

Peter virtually accuses the members of his audience of murder, but that’s as far as he goes down the road to damnation. There are no explicit threats of judgment in his speech at all. Nevertheless, the threat of God’s coming justice is implied. How could a people steeped in the story of Israel hear Peter’s words any other way?

Still, at least beginning with death of Jesus, Peter affirms that the divine drama unfolded under “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge,” and not for the purpose of condemnation or judgment. It happened so that ultimately “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Peter’s speech begins and ends with salvation. Peter begins by promising that with the Holy Spirit’s outpouring, all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. He concludes by imploring the members of his audience to save themselves from this wicked generation (and presumably, from its fate on the great and glorious day of the Lord).

So what do we have here in Peter’s sermon? We see Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. We see the promised eschatological outpouring of the spirit which empowers the church for its witness, and which is a sign that all who call upon the Lord will be saved – even those most intimately connected with Jesus’ crucifixion. Salvation comes as people repent, are baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (and are added to the membership of the church, as Luke says in verses 41 and 47).

As Luke continues the story in Acts 2:42-47, we see what salvation looks like in this age: devotion to the apostles’ teaching, to communion, to breaking of bread and prayer (all images of the Eucharistic assembly). It feels like a “sense of awe,” gladness, sincerity and praise. It is visible in signs and wonders, in the unity of believers and in the sacrificial love demonstrated in the assembly’s common life. That’s what we see.

What we don’t find is a theory of “how” the cross and the empty tomb save those who call on the name of the Lord. Peter simply states a fact. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection ultimately resulted in his exaltation to the right hand of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. Those who are baptized in Jesus’ name are promised both forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand accepted Peter’s message that day and turned their lives over to Israel’s Lord and Messiah. And that’s the Pentecost story I love.

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