In this season of Easter, we are following passages from the book of Acts, the second volume in the orderly account which, by tradition, is attributed to Luke. The passage set for this Sunday (the third Sunday in the season of Easter) focusses on the end of the speech that Peter made to the crowd which had gathered in Jerusalem on the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). This speech comes to a climax in his description of Jesus: both Lord and Messiah, God has made him, this Jesus (my literal translation of Acts 2:36).
The claim that Jesus is Messiah will play a central role in the ensuing narrative, as this is argued — often strenuously — by Peter in Jerusalem (3:20; 5:42); by Paul in Damascus (9:22), Thessalonika (17:3) and Corinth (18:5); by Apollos in Ephesus (18:28) and — it is inferred — by Philip in Samaria (8:5). (I am translating the word Christos as Messiah to emphasise how it would have been understood in a first century Jewish context.)
Throughout Acts, Jesus is typically known by the title Jesus, Messiah (2:38; 3:6; 4:10; 8:12; 9:34; 10:36;48; 16:18; 28:31; Messiah Jesus at 24:24; Lord Jesus, Messiah at 11:17; 15:26). Those who believe this about Jesus form communities that are messianic; eventually, they come to be known as messianists, usually translated as “Christians” (11:26; 26:28).
From this climactic description, Peter is prompted to prescribe the desired response from his listeners in Jerusalem (2:37-41). There are two elements in what Peter calls for.
First, Peter instructs his listeners to repent (2:38). By urging this on his listeners, Peter seeks a response of complete and total transformation—for that is what is meant by the Greek word that is usually translated “repent”. To repent is not simply to say “I am sorry, I will try harder”; rather, it means to “change my mind”, to replace it with something entirely new (that is the literal sense of the word). Accepting the message of good news concerning Jesus means turning our lives upside-down (see Acts 17:6).
Such a call to repentance is a standard element in prophetic discourse (see Deut 30:1-3; 1 Kgs 8:46-53; Isa 1:16-20,27-29; and many times; Jer 3:11-14; 4:1-2; 18:11; 22:1-7; 50:4-5; Dan 9:3-19; Hosea 5:14-15; 6:1-3; Joel 1:13-14; 2:12-13; Amos 4:6-11; 5:4,6; Jonah 1:1-2; 3:1-5; Micah 6:6-8; Zech 1:1-6; Mal 3:6-7). Peter’s use of this typical prophetic style establishes a pattern which will recur often at the end of his speeches (3:19; 5:31-32; 8:22; 10:43; cf. 11:18), as well as in some by Paul (17:30; 20:21; 26:20).
Peter also calls for his listeners to be baptised (2:38), signalling an action which occurs immediately (2:41) as well as at key moments later in the narrative — notably during the ‘turn to the Gentiles’ (8:12,16,37-38; 9:18; 10:48) and the journeys of Paul (16:15,33; 18:8; 19:5). Baptism (being dunked in water), along with forgiveness and being filled with the Spirit, are three ways of signifying the complete transformation that is required by repentance.
The large number of people who responded to this call (v.41) may well be a typical exaggeration, found often in Luke’s writings—notice, for example, how many times “all” the people say or do something (Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). Luke, of course, is writing five or six decades later, looking back through rose-coloured glasses, to the “golden days” of the church. But the basic message is clear: encountering Jesus leads to a transformed life.
The people’s response, as described in 2:41, is both favourable (they received his word) and abundant (about three thousand souls). This, too, is a pattern which will be repeated — but also significantly modified — in later incidents in Acts, when many will accept the apostolic message, but others will reject it (see 13:4-12).
So the end of Peter’s speech sets up a pattern that will be repeated in various places, by various groups of people, as the story continues in this second volume of the orderly account—a pattern that has provided the foundation, across the centuries, for how people might respond, in faith, to the message about Jesus.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003).
The illustration is by Donald Jackson, from the Gospel and Acts volume of The Saint John’s Bible (Order of Saint Benedict, 2005)
See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/16/what-god-did-through-him-peters-testimony-to-jesus-acts-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/14/what-god-did-through-him-proclaiming-faith-in-the-public-square-acts-2/