Studies in the Book of Acts
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).