The followers of Jesus preach to the multitudes in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Filled with the Holy Spirit they miraculously proclaim the wonders of God in the many languages represented by the international gathering of Jews present. Those listening are amazed – how can common Galileans without formal education know multiple languages and preach fluently in the native tongues of so many? While most are amazed, some are cynical. They speculate aloud that the people preaching are not wondrous as much as drunk. Perhaps the miracle of language is really just the influence of cheap wine.
In the midst of this incredible scene (note that the miracle of tongues is not simply a sign for the sake of a sign but a means to bring people to Christ – as all true miracles are), Peter lifts up his voice and asks for the people’s attention. He also is full of the Holy Spirit and so is compelled to speak. He stands up to preach for the first time in the power of his risen Lord and Savior. He will explain what the people now see and hear and will tell them about Jesus and what His life and death mean to them. In so doing he will give the first sermon of the church age, and the first public proclamation of the gospel. As Peter stands to speak, everything his listeners believe about themselves and their status before God is about to change – forever.
Before investigating the text it is helpful to note something about speeches in Acts. Most commentators believe the speeches Luke transcribes in the book – and there are many – are likely summaries of longer presentations. The speech studied here in verses 14-36 takes only minutes to read aloud and so is almost certainly not the entire text of what Peter spoke. Luke even says in 2:40 that with many other words Peter testified to the people and exhorted them to be saved. Thus what Luke does in his record is to capture the essence of the message and ultimately communicate what the Holy Spirit wants the reader to understand. That the speeches are likely summaries does not take away from their message or inspired status. God uses His word to express His will to His followers – and Acts is entirely consistent with that purpose.
Peter stands in the midst of the amazing scene of people speaking, people marveling, and people mocking. He addresses the mockers first by pointing out that it is only 9:00 AM (it is only the third hour of the day) and thus the men speaking are not drunk. He says what causes the apostles and other followers of Jesus to speak as they do is the Spirit of God – as foretold by Joel the prophet.
He quotes Joel 2:28-32 where God says through the prophet that in the last days God will pour out His Spirit upon all mankind (meaning on all types of men). The Spirit will cause sons, daughters, young men, old men, and male and female slaves all to prophesy – proclaim the words and works of God (this is what is occurring now and what the people witness). As well, God will cause wondrous signs both on earth and in heaven before the great and glorious day of the Lord. However, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Several things to observe in Peter’s quotation of Joel:
- He clearly says they are in the last days. Joel’s prophecy has an apocalyptic feel to it which Peter adds to by changing the first sentence from “And it will come about after this” (Joel’s original words) to “And it shall be in the last days.” By doing this Peter says that the time between Jesus’ ascension and His return is the period of the last days. It does not mean that Christ’s return is necessarily imminent, but it means that redemption has occurred and therefore nothing else need happen before God can end history.
- He equates the proclamations of the apostles and other followers to prophecy. Prophecy is not only predicting the future – it is also simply proclaiming God’s message. The Old Testament prophets did more than just predict the future – they also proclaimed God’s words to the people. That is what Joel says will happen when God pours out His Spirit and it is what Peter says is happening here on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit compels those He fills to proclaim God’s message.
- Peter does not omit the part of the prophecy that discusses supernatural signs that precede the day of the Lord (And I will grant wonders in the sky above, and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood). This is difficult to understand. Some commentators think this refers to what happened while Jesus was on the cross – the sky became dark and an earthquake opened tombs and the dead arose (Matt 27:45-56). This is possible but it does not seem to fully correspond to the text (moon into blood?). Another possibility is that Peter simply states these as additional signs of the last days that the coming of the Spirit commences, but the signs themselves have not occurred yet. This seems reasonable – the supernatural occurrences will happen before the great and glorious day of the Lord, but that time is in future.
- Joel’s final sentence – everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved – meant that those who call on Yahweh will be saved from the coming judgment referred to in the prophecy. The day of the Lord is coming when the sun will go dark and the moon will turn to blood – but everyone who calls on Yahweh (Lord) will be saved. Peter, however, changes it to mean Jesus. Everyone who calls on Jesus will be saved in these last days. Peter says the real meaning of Joel’s apocalyptic prophecy is to direct people to the Lord and savior – Jesus.
- The word everyone is instructive. Salvation is not limited to the Jews. EVERYONE who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This goes back to the first half of Joel’s quote – sons, daughters, men, women, slaves, young, old – all who call will be saved. No one is excluded from the Spirit’s power if they are willing to believe in and call upon the Messiah – Jesus.
Peter uses the last sentence of the Joel text as a transition. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved – and here is why:
Jesus was a man from Nazareth who God attested to the people through miracles and wonders that those now listening to Peter witnessed themselves (Jesus was a man but He was also divine – as His miracles showed). God delivered this man up to the people gathered here – according to His own plan – and they nailed Him to a cross by the hands of the godless Romans (people not under the Law). God then raised Him from the dead and ended the agony of death because it was impossible for death to hold Him in its power.
This is really a summary of Peter’s whole message. The people are guilty of killing the Messiah (Peter does not exactly try to warm up the crowd, does he?). They saw Jesus’ miracles and signs and therefore should have known who Jesus was. Instead they decided to kill Him. Thankfully, however, His death was according to God’s predetermined plan (note the dissonance in verse 23 – God predestined Jesus’ death but the people are still guilty of it – God’s sovereignty never lessens man’s guilt – yes, Jesus had to die but He didn’t have to die by your hands) and God raised Him from it. Therefore they are guilty, but there is a way out of the guilt because Jesus rose again.
Since this is the first public proclamation of the gospel it pays to note what Peter does. He establishes the sin and guilt of the people and then gives them hope for deliverance from them. This is what the gospel is – there is no hope of the gospel without first establishing that hope is necessary. No one comes to God who does not first see his need for God. The people must realize what they have done – killed the Messiah (either by directly participating in His sham trial and the call for Barabbas’ release or by not believing He really was the Messiah and so not worrying about what happened to Him). Only then can they understand the incredible gift of Jesus’ life and what that means for them – that they have a way out from the guilt of His death.
Peter now turns to another Old Testament text (it pays again to note the new Peter – “Sure, I’ll proclaim the gospel in front of thousands of people even though before I was scared to even admit I knew Jesus” – and the effect on his life of both the Holy Spirit and of Jesus opening the apostles’ minds so they understand the Old Testament and what it says about Him – Lk 24:45) to make the point that Jesus truly was the Messiah and rose from the dead. He quotes Psalm 16:8-11 to show that David foretold the death and resurrection of the Messiah. David says the Messiah is at the right hand of God – fully equal to God – and that He will die but God will not abandon My soul to Hades nor allow Your Holy One to suffer decay.
Peter tells the people that even though David wrote in the first person – you will not abandon my soul to Hades – he did not write about himself. David clearly died and the people even know where he is buried. David wrote prophetically about the Messiah – He will be the one who will die but not decay because God will raise Him.
Even more, David knew that God promised him that one of his descendants would rule on the throne of Israel forever (Ps 132:11, II Sam 7:12-17) and that this could only be fulfilled by the Messiah. Thus he prophesied about this Messianic descendant and His death and resurrection. David’s words in Psalm 16 show that the Messiah will be the divine King of the Jews and the heir to David’s throne who will die and rise again.
Verse 32 brings Peter’s arguments together. He says the men now proclaiming to the people witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. This Jesus rose from the dead and the apostles saw Him alive (interesting that Peter asks his listeners to believe what he and the other apostles originally did not when they first heard it – Lk 24:11 – he now speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit and counts on the Spirit to illumine his words to the people – it is the Spirit who enables the people to believe what is otherwise unbelievable). Therefore – Jesus died just like David prophesied and He rose again just like David prophesied – that means He must be the Messiah David prophesied about. Jesus is the divine King of the Jews and the one who establishes the throne of David for all time.
If that is true, then when He ascended back to the Father – which the apostles also witnessed – He took His place at the right hand of God just as David also prophesied about in Psalm 16. And when He went back to the Father He poured out the Spirit as God promised and the effect of that pouring out is what the people witness now.
Peter finishes his exegesis of David’s prophecies by quoting one more passage – Psalm 110 – to prove even more conclusively that Jesus is equal to God and seated at His right hand. The Lord said to my Lord, sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet. Since David cannot mean that he is his own Lord he must again be speaking about the Messiah (Jesus makes this same point about Himself in Matt 22:41-46). And that means that the Messiah is at God’s right hand – coequal to Him – and the Messiah is Jesus as we have already proved.
Peter has used a logical progression of thoughts to show that Jesus was not just an extraordinary man but the Messiah Israel waited for through countless generations. That leads to Peter’s conclusion in verse 36. Therefore – since we have made the case that Jesus clearly was the Messiah – let all the house of Israel know for certain – let everyone listening to me now and every other Jew alive now or in the future be fully assured – that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – Jesus has been exalted to the Father’s right hand and officially enthroned as Messiah – this Jesus whom you crucified – THIS is the man you killed.
What an ending! What an incredible way to close the sermon! Jesus was the Messiah based on the words of David and the eyewitness accounts of both the apostles and the people. He is seated at the right hand of God as the eternal King on David’s throne. God raised Him from the dead so He could be enthroned above in glory forever. AND YOU NAILED HIM TO A CROSS BY THE HANDS OF GODLESS GENTILES.
Can you imagine standing there and listening to Peter’s words and realizing what they mean? Can you imagine the gut-wrenching reaction you would have as you realize what you were a part of? The execution you and everyone around you witnessed seven weeks ago was of the Messiah that you have been taught from the time you were born to pray about and look for. You were a collaborator in the death of the Messiah. You have to say that again just to comprehend it – you were a collaborator in the death of the Messiah.
How precious then does that make the other part of Peter’s sermon? Peter did not just say that you killed the Messiah and so He is dead. He said the Messiah died but then rose again. The Messiah is alive! That means there is hope. You killed Him but He is not dead – he came back from the dead and did not suffer decay. He is the promised One and so could not be held by the agony of death.
This is the gospel. You are guilty before God – completely guilty. You cannot even begin to appeal to God based on your works because your works include killing the Messiah. Therefore you need help from somewhere else. And that help comes from only one place – the Messiah is alive. And if the Messiah is alive that means He defeated death which then means that you can too. His death and resurrection mean that those who believe in Him – who depend on Him alone for their status before God – can live and do not have to suffer the eternal consequences of their actions.
Does this mean the gospel is different for those of us reading Peter’s words versus those who listen to him and actually played a part in Jesus’ death? Since we are not residents of Jerusalem in the first century, is Peter’s conclusion less significant for us? Think about something – does Peter bother mentioning that perhaps some of his thousands of listeners did NOT participate in Jesus’ death? What about those who are just in town for Pentecost and were not in Jerusalem when Jesus’ trial and execution took place? Are they different from those who were? Peter does not seem to think it important to make a distinction. They apparently are as guilty of Jesus’ death as the ones who screamed for Barabbas to be released. Why? Because it was their sins that ultimately put Jesus on the cross. He died because they sinned. So that means that we also are as guilty as any of the Jews listening to Peter. We killed the Son of God and stand before God hopeless apart from His saving work. We come to God with the execution of Jesus on our record.
That Peter speaks to us is why we must rehearse the gospel to ourselves daily. We must continually live on it because of what it says about our status apart from it. We are hopelessly condemned before God without the gospel. And if that is true – how can we be proud? How can we feel ever superior to anyone? How can we condemn anyone? How can we judge? How can we trust ourselves apart from prayer? How can we determine our lives and then fit God in when we can? How can we live without praising Him and thanking Him and glorifying Him?
The good news of the gospel is that we are hopeless without it but we are not without it. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Rom 5:8-11).
Peter’s Model for Presenting the Gospel
- Establish who Jesus is – Son of God and Messiah.
- Show that all are guilty of His death and so stand condemned before God without hope.
- Proclaim that there is hope for the condemned in the blood and life of Jesus.