< March 30, 2008 >

Commentary on Acts 2:14a, 22-32

 

Peter tells an audience in Jerusalem that the resurrected Jesus reigns at God's right hand, and that Jesus' ministry continues through his followers, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

He delivers the sermon on the day of Pentecost, immediately after the Holy Spirit arrives. Why, then, does the lectionary assign this passage during Easter? It is because here Peter speaks the first public proclamation of the gospel offered in Acts, and he announces (among other things) Jesus' resurrection. Also, in a theological sense, the resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit are integrally related (thus Christians celebrate Pentecost as the final day of the Easter season, not yet a new season). The close connection between Jesus and Spirit seen in John 20:19-23, where Jesus bestows the Spirit during his first post-resurrection appearance to a group of his followers, is presented differently but no less significantly in Acts, where almost fifty days separate Easter from Jesus' giving of the Spirit.

The lectionary carves Acts 2 into pieces. For today's reading it designates the second part of Peter's sermon (in several weeks, when Christians celebrate Pentecost, the lectionary will return to this scene and assign the verses that relate the sermon's occasion and first part [2:1-21]). Over the next two Sundays it offers the audience's response to the sermon (2:36-41) and a description of the community that forms as a result (2:42-47). The three consecutive readings urge preachers to work with Acts 2 for several Sundays, helping congregations gain a deeper understanding of this important chapter.

The impetus for Peter's sermon is significant, for he speaks specifically to explain why the Holy Spirit has been given to Jesus' followers. In the sermon's first part he refers to Joel 2:28-32a (in Acts 2:16-21) to identify the presence of the Spirit, to underscore its role in empowering people to interpret God's deeds (prophecy), and to announce the time of God's salvation. Then comes the second part, which is this Sunday's reading (as explained below, preachers must extend today's reading through v. 36). Here, Peter explains that it was Jesus' dying, rising, and ascending that resulted in the sending of the Spirit. Through those things God established Jesus as Lord and Messiah (Christ).

Peter's explanation is not easy to follow; it proceeds as an exegetical argument that is saturated with weighty theological assertions. The argument appeals to at least three psalms and depicts Jesus as superior to his forerunner David. Peter refers to David as the author of these psalms and interprets their words as prophetic testimony concerning the expected Messiah. Through his exegesis and dramatic assertion that Jesus' death unfolded "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (v. 23), Peter characterizes God's work through Jesus Christ as certain, reliable, and effective. I will return to the significance of this characterization after providing a brief overview of the sermon.

Peter's statement in vv. 22-24 comprises a single sentence in Greek, one that makes a significant impact. It begins, as in the NRSV, by stating its focus: Jesus of Nazareth. The sermon recounts the story of Jesus, but Jesus functions--both grammatically and theologically--as the direct object. Grammatically, Jesus is the direct object throughout the long sentence. He was the one who was "handed over you" and the one whom "you crucified and killed" through the agency of the Roman government. But Jesus was also God's own object in the story: the one who was "attested to you by God," the one through whom God worked, and the one whom "God raised." Note the contrast in what was done with Jesus, and the dramatic reversal: you killed him, but God raised him.

Why did God raise him? Peter does not suggest that something had gone wrong, as if God had to correct a mistake. He says it was impossible for Jesus to be held in death's power. Why was that impossible? Jesus was no ordinary man but God's designated Messiah. Peter appeals in vv. 25-28 to Ps 16:8-11, which speaks of one who will not be abandoned to Hades or experience corruption. Since David, the speaker in the psalm, certainly died and his body decayed (thus the statement, in v. 29, indicating that his tomb remains occupied), the "Holy One" mentioned in the psalm must refer to someone other than the speaker. This, Peter concludes, is the Messiah, who then must be spared bodily corruption through the resurrection of his body.

After contrasting the incorrupt Messiah with the decayed prophet, Peter continues by asserting that the Messiah's resurrection had a purpose. It was not merely deliverance from corruption for the sake of preserving a body or gratuitously exercising power. The resurrection established the Messiah's right to rule over all. As Messiah, Jesus is the descendant of David whom God enthroned (v. 30; see Ps 132:11).

The rule of the Messiah is superior to King David's former reign, as impressive as that was. This is because the Messiah sits at God's right hand, meaning that he possesses full authority from God. Verses 32-36 do more than reiterate the Easter claim that God raised Jesus from the dead; they also describe an integral connection between Jesus' resurrection and his exaltation, confirming his identity as "Lord and Messiah." There is no excuse for the lectionary's omitting vv. 33-36 from this Sunday's reading (and from next Sunday's, which begins at v. 36). The Greek syntax supports reading vv. 32-33 as a single sentence, and these verses form a climax of Peter's speech, which originally set out to answer the question posed by those who were astounded by the Spirit-inspired speech (2:12). The main point of Peter's sermon is to construe the execution, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as the basis for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The resurrected and ascended Jesus himself pours out the Spirit (v. 33), precisely because he now is enthroned at God's right hand. To offer a final piece of support from the prophetic voice of David, and to underscore the notion that God has vindicated Jesus, Peter appeals in vv. 34-35 to Ps 110:1, which suggests a close association between the Lord God and David's Lord (the Messiah). Even more powerful, Peter's final words in v. 36 declare that God has made Jesus "Lord," implying that Jesus is indeed equal to God (the kyrios--Lord--of the Jewish scriptures).

Peter's declarations provide us with much to consider, and it quickly becomes overwhelming if we try to shoehorn an explanation of every detail of his sermon into one of ours. Yet, several aspects of Peter's big picture are vital to note. We cannot separate the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. Each of these events gives meaning to the others, and each is a crucial piece of how God establishes and confirms Jesus' messiahship and lordship, which results in the sending of the Holy Spirit. During Easter, then, we remember that the resurrection is not "death moving backwards" or God's "Plan B," it is part of the mysterious means by which God makes Jesus of Nazareth ruler over all creation, even over death itself.

Earlier I mentioned that Peter's sermon characterizes God's work through Jesus Christ as certain, reliable, and effective. It is a message about God and what God accomplishes through Jesus. These accomplishments show that God's ultimate purposes cannot be deterred by human ignorance or humanity's conflict with God. What Jesus announced and embodied in his earthly ministry about the reign of God continues and is assured through Jesus' reign as Lord. The Spirit he sends to his followers means that the work and promises of that reign continue today in them.